A View from Afar / Commentary

Union 2.0 begins in Earnest

Photo: Earl Gardner

Years from now, we may find that you can divide Philadelphia Union’s history into two eras. “BS” will reference the time before Nick Sakiewicz was fired as chief executive. “Post-Sakiewicz” will reference what comes later.

Less than four weeks after Sakiewicz was fired, the Union have hired a new sporting director in Earnie Stewart who wasn’t even on the three-person short list of finalists that Sakiewicz had winnowed down during the first 10 months of that search.

“This came together really in the last two weeks,” Union principal owner Jay Sugarman said Monday.

Stewart stands out as an ideal fill for the position, a former MLS and U.S. national team player who has found success as sporting director for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands by employing exactly the Moneyball approach that Sugarman wants deployed in Philadelphia. Stewart will oversee all soccer operation, from the Union first team on down to their USL affiliate in Bethlehem and the youth academy. (For more on why Stewart looks like a perfect hire, see my column from last Thursday.)

His hire demonstrates the direction this club will now head in post-Sakiewicz.

The power struggle is over. Sakiewicz lost. Richie Graham won.

The ascendance of Richie Graham

For those who don’t know Graham, he is a minority owner of the Union. He and his family own and run YSC Sports, the facility in Wayne, Pa. that has been used as a training facility by the Union for years, and he was the biggest champion of the full-time high school associated with the Union’s youth academy. He is a former college soccer player, having been an all-conference player for Dartmouth.

He generally keeps a low profile with the Union, but he is well-regarded in local soccer circles. When people want to hear about the YSC Academy, that’s when you hear from him. Otherwise, not much.

But after Sakiewicz’s firing, Graham played a key role in identifying and reaching out to Stewart, something Sugarman confirmed during his teleconference with media on Monday. He also, I’m told, played a role in delaying any hire until a post-Sakiewicz alternative had been identified.

What kind of role will Graham play going forward? Probably the same. Sugarman is generally open with the fact that he does not consider himself a soccer expert. That was the role that Sakiewicz theoretically filled for him from the beginning. Now, among the ownership group, it’s probably Graham, albeit in a much more advisory role than Sakiewicz’s commanding front-and-center deployment.

Union 2.0

Don’t expect this sort of tension and realpolitik to continue with the Union in the post-Sakiewicz era.

Sakiewicz saw himself as the man who created the Union, from telling me how he started the franchise on his credit card to talking about “the stadium that I built.”

“I was the guy who started it initially,” Sakiewicz told me last year. “Jay was the one who put in the primary investment.”

This concept, that Sakiewicz ran the club and Sugarman was just the money man, is now gone.

“I just think, you know, standing back and watching and not really being comfortable with what was going on finally got to be too much,” Sugarman said Monday.

While Sugarman may never be a vocal front man, he now plans to take a more involved role, at least to a degree. We may not see a replacement chief executive of the sort that Sakiewicz was.

What we will see, however, is a proven soccer executive in Stewart overseeing all soccer operations for the Union.

We’ll see head coach Jim Curtin back to lead the team in 2016, albeit with some pressure on him. “Jim is the coach for the 2016 season,” Sugarman said. “I can make that clear. But I can also make clear that Ernie is going to set a high bar. And I know Jim is looking forward to the challenge. But, throughout the organization, you know, we’re expecting people to raise their game. I don’t think anybody’s satisfied [with] where we’ve been. And I have no doubt that Ernie’s going to set a high bar, and people are going to have to reach it.”

If all goes as planned, we should also see a non-dysfunctional soccer franchise. Finally.

Miscellaneous notes
  • For more on why Stewart looks like a perfect hire, see my column from last Thursday. I didn’t want to write the same column twice.
  • Stewart is now the fourth executive hired by an MLS club in the last year to be a full head of soccer operations without coaching the club, following Garth Lagerwey of Seattle, Ali Curtis of New York and Nelson Rodriguez in Chicago. It looks like the American sports management model — a general manager in charge of all sports operations, a head coach who reports to him — is finally taking hold in MLS. That’s a very good sign for the league, because the model works.
  • Sugarman often uses the words “company” and “firm” to refer to the Union. It’s very unusual to hear in professional sports and may reveal something about how he thinks about the club.
  • Word has it that Curtin is genuinely excited — no lip service, no public relations nonsense — about Stewart’s hire. Sugarman confirmed that Curtin played a role in identifying Stewart and bringing him into the fold. That’s a good sign. You want your sporting director and head coach on the same page.
  • Will Stewart remake the club in the traditional Dutch image? Will he build a fluid, attacking team that is fun to watch? One can hope.
  • Who will coach the Union’s USL affiliate in Bethlehem? Is former Union assistant Brendan Burke in the mix? If so, he would mark another ideal hire: Young and smart, with experience, potential, knowledge of the market, and a very successful track record of identifying and retaining talented amateur players while at Reading United AC.

42 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    You know how there are those sunny days, glint of heat off the road when you are steaming down the highway and the Spencer Davis Band comes on the radio out of nowhere ~ Steve Winwood working the keys the driving bass… bum bum bum.bum bum bum… And you just want to fucking scream because it is so good and more than your cortex can handle ~ so you do scream… you primal scream and let it out and revel in feeling really good in a moment.
    .
    That is me today … electric fucking mayhem…bum bum bum… I’m a man yes I am and I can’t help but let you know…bumbumbum AAAAhhhhhhhhhh-who-ah.
    .
    It’s a great great day. The possibilities are all I can think about.

  2. I don’t know how to process this much optimism…

  3. Still not sold on Curtin.

    For all his talk about defense and grinding things out, we played a lot of dumb soccer and looked aimless most of the time.

    Sure, we had a mediocre roster.

    But that doesn’t excuse in entirety how overmatched and unprepared we looked.

    • Understood, and you won’t get much argument. But the most likely scenario is that they determined there were elements out of his control this season, combined with a need for continuity going into next season.
      That said…expect a quick hook if things don’t go well early next season.

      • I like that he is staying as we are going to find out very very quickly what his adaptability and learning curve is…
        .
        There is no question he will be expected to adapt improvise and overcome his own coaching shortcomings all while maintaing and strengthening the many strong coaching qualities I am certain he possesses…. truth be told… I’m actually rooting for him, even though I call for his ouster on a regular basis.

    • James, I share your concerns about maintaining Jim Curtin as head coach. However, I think we can take comfort in the fact that: a) Earnie Stewart has proven he is not afraid to make changes in the head coach position if needed; and b) Jay Sugarman has clearly stated that Curtin will have to raise his game next season in order to keep the job.

    • I expect an experienced assistant coach (like Savic in KC) would help Curtin raise his game.

  4. Oh – – I thought you meant ‘BS’ as in bullshit.
    Just a bunch of total bullshit…
    Amen to 2.0 and brighter days!
    Grab your shades kids.

  5. I would think that Earnie Stewart would want the Union from Academy to USL to First Team playing an attacking, high-press, possession Dutch-style of play with our default formation being a 4-3-3. If that is a correct assumption, does that sound like the type of coach Curtin is? Can he manage a 4-3-3 attacking team? I have not seen any evidence of that in the past year-and-a-half.

    • Has Curtin had the roster in the last year and a half to play that way? I don’t think so. This team hasn’t given us much evidence of any kind other than it was stuck without a plan, without a competitive roster, without a sporting director. Stewart with the club should solve all three of those problems.
      .
      I don’t see what harm their is in giving him another year. If this roster improves, the team will improve, with Curtin here or not.

      • +1 you need the ball to play that way, and for the majority of the season, you had Edu, Nogueira, and possibly Sapong who can contribute to a possession based style of play. That’s about it. I’m all for keeping Curtin, and believe that the style he tried to play was more a function of his roster than a deep rooted desire to defend 60% of the game and hope for the best.

      • Curtin has had some time to bring in his own players and implement whatever style of play that he wanted to do. My concern is that pragmatic bunker ball and counterattacking IS his preferred style of play.

      • He brought in Sapong and Barnetta. I’m not sure they had the ability to do much else this past season until they shed some bad contracts.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Remember Curtin tried to develop a second way of playing at the beginning of the season that died a death of injuries, and suspensions as well as slow foot speed.
        .
        The essense of a 4-3-3 when considered defensively is a single, repeat single, defensive center midfielder. Makele for the French Zizou teams; the Frenchman who did that for Arsenal; Roy Keane for SAF at MU.
        .
        Vincent Nogueira buys space to create from the DCM by going wide, although less so recently. That means a second DCM to cover the hole in front of the CBs.
        .
        And if you are serious about winning cups, do you want to face combinations like Martins and Dempsey with only one DCM?

      • Right, OSC…. If memory serves me correctly (and that’s a 50/50 shot at best), wasn’t Curtin’s first lineup a 4-4-2 that resulted in Sapong busting his face? I remember thinking “I don’t want to see that 4-4-2 rolled out again” after the game To Curtin’s credit, in that match, he switched up and returned to a 4-2-3-1. Perhaps it was a pre-season game. I can’t remember specifically.

      • We did it preseason and the first game of the season. I like the idea of having another formation to be able to go to, although I’m not sure a 4-4-2 fits well with a lot of our midfield players. A 2 striker set with Le Toux – Sapong could be interesting though but I would prefer a 5-3-2/3-5-2 with that.

    • What is JC’s soccer IQ? In a league where so few points separate the top half of the table, it’s the season-long head scratching sub patterns and the “XI pick themselves” approach on a team with big gaps in thin talent that can make a difference often enough to concern me. Also the embarrassment in Harrison after his public proclamation of playing for pride really undercuts his record of motivating players. I have a sinking feeling that Jim will coach himself out of a job with another slow start out of the blocks, but I don’t wish for it.

      • I find it difficult to blame Curtin’s motivation for that red bulls disaster. I mean why is that your data point. He wasn’t able to will his players up for a completely meaningless road game, who even cares about that?
        .
        I think for the majority of the season we came out with a pretty good plan to start the game and weren’t able to make adjustments as the game went on. That sounds to me like a manager who can read the game when he has time but needs to work on his on the fly adjustments.

      • Part of his job is to prepare the team. Part of a 4-0 hole at halftime is being unprepared and part is just not giving a professional level effort. Neither reflects well on the coach. From the first game he chose to sit Chaco for his training & fitness than to find some way to play the only playmaker he had. Regardless, he’ll have a chance and I hope he succeeds, but he’ll have to change and to improve.

    • While I wouldn’t mind seeing a 4-3-3 attacking Dutch style of play I don’t see it happening with this roster. I also feel very few players and managers can get on the same page to make this style work. Curtin to me is certainly not a 4-3-3 coach and the player personel does not lend itself to this style of play. Even if you revamp this lineup lets say you get Bedoya and a few other players this team still can’t play a 4-3-3 until it has a solid backline that can play on its own and 3 very athletic midfielders. You have one maybe two who can play this formation in Nogs and Barnetta. But you need 2 more and no lahoud and/or carroll can not play in a 4-3-3 especially for a full season. This style I think leaves more gaps then it is worth right now. Personally and I’ve been saying this for awhile the Union should switch to a 4-4-2 especially since this can work in MLS and it is a more conservative style lending to better defensive shape. However if Stewart gets 3 burners one left full back and two wingers and 1 athletic possession oriented CDM then maybe I will change my thoughts on the formation.

  6. Giddy with excitement. For once it’s real hope. Not some fake, maybe they can pick up a guy here or there, hope for hope’s sake , hope. No. This time there’s a plan. This time they seem to be doing it right. This time, there’s no one holding the Sak.

  7. agree with erik; curtin has shown little that would fit an attacking system. stop blaming roster. when opportunity arose
    to put attacking xi on pitch, curtin didn’t. he put maidana, nando,
    pfeffer on bench.in match with nothing to gain or lose,curtin played to do neither. hate to be negative, when all else is great, but
    petrified he’ll negate the positives.

    • Who were the better attacking players that didn’t play? Answer: there were none.
      .
      I’m not trying to blindly defend Curtin. But I think roster is very much the reason why this team did so poorly. The players — and I like a lot of them — allowed too many goals and didn’t finish enough chances.

  8. Fascinating contrast of two men whom I don’t know but whose styles seem to be opposite. If Richie Graham has been biding his time, his choice to play matchmaker with Big Ern and Jay may portend even greater things for “the firm.” If he is more confident to invest additional family capital, it could give Stewart room for error in Moneyball or to go all in when a pricey key piece (e.g., a top-shelf striker) comes along. And goodbye to the BS era.

  9. This is so glorious. I have just a couple concerns (as all proper Negadelphians should).
    .
    1) Is he going to be able to involve himself enough before Jan 1st? There’s A LOT of work to be done, and it has to start NOW.
    .
    2) I’d like to hear more clearly defined roles. Will Stewart oversee the Academy system as well?
    .
    3) What specific changes is Stewart looking to make? Are we going tohire more FO staff again? Analytics? Scouting? Help for Kevin Miller and more sport science?
    .
    Nah…never mind.. I’m too excited to care!

    • AZ hired Billy Beane as an advisor in March. It is possible that since Billy and Earnie have a pre-existing relationship, we could see the originator of Moneyball popping into PPL (sorry, Talen) even now and then.

    • Don’t we have to believe that Earnie has so much riding on this – plus the advantage of knowing what it took at AZ – that he surely is requiring the club to make the minimum investments (FO, scouting network, analytics, payroll, etc.) now and over time for it to work as part of his deal? This is where Jay proves that he’ll find the money to win, but he wasn’t writing a blank check to a guy who – when he stepped back and watched and . . . you know the rest.

  10. James Lockerbie says:

    If it means anything to you guys today at the USL Pro Team announcement Jim Curtin said the team will play an aggressive attack minded soccer. I think Stewart and Curtin may have had a mtg already.

    • To me, it’s pretty obvious that the Union couldn’t play an attacking brand of soccer last year re: personnel, especially when Mo had to solidify the back line. Before obtaining Barnetta, who were the outside MFs? Wenger, LeToux, Pfeffer, Ayuk, and McLaughlin? Who were the goal scorers up front? CJ – decent enough and a good contributor, but not a 15+ goal per season player. Nando? No 1st touch, bull in a china shop. Casey? Too old. I mean, even their #10 (Chaco) is a terrible athlete. Collectively, the roster is bottom of the barrel in the league, specifically from a depth, athleticism, and goal-scoring perspective. Nah, I don’t blame Jim one bit for the formation and overall philosophy…it was the hand he was dealt. Now, if we go and get Bedoya and a big-time scorer up front and the same stuff happens next year, then there’s an obvious problem.

  11. OK, just to be clear:
    If nobody is jumping off the “Cliff” anymore,
    do we still get to eat the cookies…?
    Just askin’.

  12. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Dan Walsh, thanks for the Richie Graham insights, and for developing access to the inside even from Italy. Modern communications are revolutionary. Whether you start from Sputnik or Telstar, satellites and computers are a potent combination for change.
    .
    Always remember that the victory that made Andy Jackson President, the Battle of New Orleans in early January, 1815, occurred five or six weeks AFTER the peace treaty ending the war had been signed at Ghent in modern-day Belgium.

  13. Next year’s new Union 2.0 marketing tag line

    Reboot…..

    Also, who Is out of contract for 2016?

  14. 700 chopper says:

    I am so stoked about current developments I feel like jumping for joy and screaming

  15. Phil in Wlmington says:

    Dump Curtain if Kreis becomes available…

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