Doubting the process

Editor’s note: Philadelphia Union has responded to this column. You can read the response here.

“Trust the process.”

It’s a phrase embedded in Philadelphia sports culture at this point. It has replaced “E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES!” as the go-to sports chant in Philadelphia. It’s a phrase that has been uttered by the Philadelphia Union front office.

But trust is earned.

Philadelphia 76ers fans trusted the process because the man in charge publicly laid out the process, explained why it made sense, and while he didn’t speak publicly often, when he did, he often spoke for a long time and answered many questions, easy and difficult alike. He took over a basketball team that had been mired in mediocrity for 10 years, a team that had won one playoff series (and even that only due to injury), and promised that, through a very specific set of moves, the team would no longer “compete for the playoffs” but join the ranks of legitimate championship contenders.

Every move the Sixers made clearly fit the process without any rationalization. They may have been difficult or unpalatable moves, but they were explainable. They had a clear, unifying logic behind them. NBA titles are won by superstars. Superstars in the NBA are typically acquired in the draft. Therefore, the team would need to tank for high draft picks so the team could acquire the types of superstars that win championships in the NBA. The only thing revolutionary about The Process was Sam Hinkie‘s refusal to mask how blatant the tanking was.

A marketing pitch masquerading as a town hall

The Union held a town hall meeting Wednesday with season ticket holders. The meeting was private, and reportedly there were many employees keeping watch to ensure it wasn’t recorded.


If there’s some sort of super secret plan, just be quiet about it.

But there’s not.

This was not a town hall.

This was a closed-door marketing session to convince current season ticket holders to renew.

The most important part of any long-term process is being open and honest with fans. A town hall meeting is supposed to be a public session to talk about issues. The fact that the Union felt the need to ban recording of a town hall is at best an ugly look and at worst a massive red flag.

The Union have been extremely tight-lipped since Stewart took over, but it increasingly appears to be nothing more than an insulating shell to protect themselves from criticism. After all, if you publicly declare something, you have to live up to it.

Luckily, at least two people there summarized it online, and gave us these great tidbits:

“Earnie stressed he did not sign a 3yr contract but a 5yr one. After 18 months he is on track and wants this team after 5 years to be a consistent playoff team with making occasional deep playoff runs.

“He also mentioned that he realizes that the most successful teams stay together for more than 4 years so he puts a lot of effort in keeping the core of the team as is.

“One thing he stressed is that when an Academy player makes the first team and starts, then that gives him extra $’s to use on improving another position. But the Academy is still a mess: they lost a good goalkeeper to Benfica and received zero Dollars.

“If this Academy experiment fails then Earnie & Team will be a failure.

“Earnie was quite modest, and didn’t want to come out and say it, but the impression I took was that they feel this team is going to be positioned to make a leap in 2018.

“They did say that it is frustrating that MLS limits the number of roster spots at the far end of the roster. This hampers their ability to develop players somewhat. They specifically mentioned the goalkeeper who left and signed with Benfica. They wanted to sign this player so that he could train everyday under Oka’s tutelage and alongside Blake and McCarthy but couldn’t due to roster restrictions.”

Do you see the problem here?

Investments, returns, and profit limits

MLS does not allow enough roster spots to retain all the bright academy products, according to second-hand tellings of Stewart’s admissions. This has already resulted in the loss of talent for nothing. So there’s a defined limit to the number of academy products to be developed.

Furthermore, the Union’s goal is for academy products to progress beyond MLS, according to Union head coach Jim Curtin. Young American players want to play for top European clubs. This makes it difficult to retain young impact talent.

However, if you develop and sell those players, your return on investment has a cap.

Currently, MLS caps the amount of allocation money teams receive from a transfer at $650,000, even if the transfer price is more than that. The league typically keeps at least one-third of all international transfer fees, but anything a team would keep beyond $650,000 can’t be used for players. Unless that changes, the Union could not infuse the team with significant cash by selling a few high-priced youngsters.

Put simply, building through the academy in MLS is a limited proposition on multiple levels.

The academy is a necessary supplement for a team, but every top MLS club (with the possible exception of Dallas) are also building their academies, so building a roster through the academy is going to provide little advantage down the line. It is not a plan to combat these teams’ economic advantage. It is a plan to keep up with their low-end talent, not their high-priced talent.

The way ahead

The Union must pay more heed to their own words this offseason and avoid the mistakes of offseasons past. They must resist the temptation to bring back end-of-bench veterans making more than the minimum so they have more flexibility in signing and retaining their own young talent. They must trim the club’s overpriced veterans and older mid-level talent and concentrate on bringing in a few young, high-quality attacking talents. While concentrating more money in fewer players increases the risk posed by injuries and poor form, this year’s Union has shown that more depth just means more money on the bench not helping the team get results.

If the Union want to do more than just keep pace with the middle of the MLS pack, they must do more than build through the academy. They must trust their own process.

And the Union need to be transparent and honest with their fans. There’s nothing to gain by hiding.


  1. I’ve been to a few of these town halls before, and never before did they say don’t mention anything that we spoke about tonight. When you haven’t won in eight seasons, to hear the sporting director and coach constantly preaching how they want their academy players to succeed and make it to the USMNT and big clubs in Europe, I can’t help but think their focus is not on the league they are actually playing in. They are greatly over-estimating the patience and under-estimating the vitriol of the fans.

    • Wrong. If our academy players are good enough to be going to the NT and going to Europe, then chances are they are also good enough to contribute to a winning team in MLS.

      • I know that. But it’s a reason they’re reluctant to sign a big name. It’s all about academy reputation.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        If our academy players are good enough to be going to the NT and going to Europe, then chances are they are *not going to be around long enough* to contribute to a winning team in MLS.
        That’s really the problem.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    “The league typically keeps at least one-third of all international transfer fees, but anything a team would keep beyond $650,000 also goes to the league.”
    With full respect to Adam Schorr, who has forgotten more about the NBA than I will ever know, I think I have read that anything a team keeps beyond the $650,000 can be used by the team for purposes other than player acquisition. That was what the Columbus Crew said they were going to do with the windfall they got from selling the Costa Rican international defender into Serie A. His initials were GG.
    There was a daily news roundup link to an article that discussed the issue in detail a few days ago, something to the effect that the MLS needed to start breaking its own rules is in the title, by my memory.

    • That section has been clarified. The additional money simply can’t be used for player acquisition. That’s the distinction.

      In Adam’s defense, this was an editor’s slip-up, not his.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    The reason cited for the suppressing of the spread of information was that there had been a discussion of Felipe the last time that had gone out immediately, and they played the Red Bulls the next day.
    Given their secrecy, that they held a town hall; in the last moments of the transfer window was a bit of a surprise.
    From hindsight, it is clear that the Sporting Director knew the deal for the international roster spot had been done, and was giving us a veiled heads up. Why he did that is open to interpretation.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Responding to Adam’s conclusions, he is correct in the here and now that there is — at best — limited protection under the restrictions from FIFA, U. S. Soccer, and MLS for a club’s investment in in its academy players.
    Both Earnie Stewart and Tommy Wilson addressed the issue at the meeting, and they currently agree with Adam’s concluding observations, judging from what they said.
    Tommy Wilson said he was on a committee looking into the matter and opined that in a few years time — his phrase — the situation would improve.

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Sam Hinkie’s comparative transparency created sufficient controversy for the Sixers at the ownership level that perhaps Mr. Sugarman does not want to travel a similar route.
    Certainly Mr. Sugarman’s organization has never been forthcoming with detail in anticipation of initial announcements, in comparison to the other Philly pro sports franchises. I initially attributed it to Nowak being raised behind the iron curtain, but it has continued, so I doubt that was it.

  6. 1) I don’t understand the outrage about the closed nature of a town hall. It’s for (season ticket level) paying customers. I don’t know if we should feel entitled to town halls as non-paying customers.

    2) For the limited return on investment of focusing on the academy due to MLS rules, ES also said they are “working with” the MLS to change things, and it sounded positive.

    If ES is the driving force that gets the MLS to enter the real world of soccer, his influence will be more important than simply fixing the Philadelphia Union. That is the type of thing that can put the MLS on a better path for the rest of time, all thanks to ES pushing.

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    I have been to one “town hall” in the past and there was no restrictions as far as I knew. No questions needed to be submitted in advance… in fact ES offered some good conversation with fans – including myself. Just giving my two cents on that.
    The way I look at all this is as follows: ES is trying to make the Union a feeder club. Problem is MLS is not conducive to having clubs like this… as is clearly evidenced by the single-entity structure (taking 1/3 of transfer fees, etc.) and limiting roster spots. Couple this with the CLEAR and OBVIOUS fact that Sugarman does not want to spend money on higher end talent… and you get what we have now. ES must convince himself that it is ok to fully develop, believe in, and build your academy – while at the same time convince Sugarman to spend more to make the first team better. For F’s sake – DC United just spent quite a few million to get better and they are last in the league.
    What is just amazingly frustrating to me as a Day One Founding Member season ticket holder is the way this FO seems to be taking their fans for granted. For me personally, I am really starting to get the feeling like they just know I’ll renew and they don’t have to do anything on the field to prove to me they want to be better. You’ll be back because you love soccer and want to support your club… not because you’re excited about challenging for a title or the players we’ve brought in. Plus almost a decade in and the Union are still an after thought in the Philly sports scene… despite the fact that the other four teams have pretty much been garbage. Just wait until the Eagles are decent, or the Phillies sign Mike Trout, or the Flyers kids develop and they start making deep playoff runs into June… NO ONE WILL CARE ABOUT THIS TEAM THEN. What a missed opportunity the last 8 years have been for this team.
    Building the academy and developing players for profit does not have to come at the expense of the first team. Period.

  8. graded only one team with an “F” for the transfer window. Guess who? I don’t think Ernie realizes if the Union are eliminated before those last few October home matches, you’ll be able to see the back of over half the seats in Talen Energy.

  9. I’m calling BS on this a little bit (maybe a LOT a bit):
    No one was ‘hiding’ anything. That’s a COMPLETE misrepresentation. The event was set up as a way to connect with SEASON TICKET HOLDERS and give them the ‘benefit’ (STAs want benefits, well there’s a nice one) chance to have an exclusive Q&A with Union staff. People can ask ANYTHING they want and I think these guys would be happy to try to answer it.
    It’s not meant to be a ‘press event’, that’s what the WEEKLY press conferences are for. (Also, does anyone in the press really have THAT tough a time getting a hold of these guys to ask their own questions any other time?)
    As far as the general public goes, you want to be in on that, buy a season ticket package. It’s pretty simple.
    As far as ‘no information’ coming out of the meeting, in the last TWO meetings I didn’t hear a single tough or probing question asked by anyone (including you Adam). So if the questions are soft and ambiguous, what do you expect the answers to be?
    Some of you folks are making this all sound sinister somehow, it’s pathetic.

    • If I could I would rep this a million times. The level of outrage, hyperbole, and overall taking things out of context is beyond ridiculous.
      And when did a message board become a reliable source for an article or constitute news?

      • When your town hall is closed.

      • OK, so it’s the ‘label’ that bothers you?
        Even though THOUSANDS of fans are eligible to attend (but don’t) call it something other than a ‘town hall’, big deal.
        NOW what’s you problem?

      • I am unhappy that the plans seems to be “just hang in there for another 3(?) years until the academy produces the players we need.”
        I understand the math involved with the salaries. I understand that it can work and may put us in a good position then. I also understand that most other teams are developing academies and that we get relatively low value when we sell players. So, maybe it won’t work so well.
        Regardless, the team is asking me to pay full price for what appears to be a half-hearted effort from the team for these next few years. Are they going to give STHs 50% refunds?
        The academy development is great. Just like the new training center and fields. But it in no way takes the place of doing everything possible to try to win games. We are not buying tickets to build a training center, just like we are not buying tickets to build an academy.
        Why doesn’t this bother you?

    • Section 114 (Former) says:

      I was a season ticket holder for four seats for the first four seasons. The cheap-skated nature of the club convinced me that they were not going to put a competitive product on the field that made it sufficiently important for me to come out when the weather was lousy, or I had another commitment. OK.
      Buying season tickets is a money losing proposition as more than some portion of the games are inconveniently scheduled, have bad weather, or whatever. But I was happy to support the team as I thought we were building for something.
      When it became clear that ownership was not investing, while expecting me to do so, I stopped.
      I still watch on TV, most of the time (thereby putting dollars in their pockets). And show up occasionally when the weather makes for a perfect evening. But, unlike those first years, I’m no longer investing my dollars when the game isn’t worth it.
      I would simply say this: taking customers like me for granted is a really dumb business idea. We’re the folks who make the difference between profit and loss, and who might one day become (again) a season ticket holder. We aren’t the folks who dominate this board or who show up in any marketing survey, but those are your marginal dollars.
      But that’s OK. It’s far from the dumbest business move from the crowd of losers in ownership.

  10. This article and another I saw a few days ago implied that the Union feel that they are doing the “right” thing by not signing anyone now so they can move some big non-performing salaries and have the money to make a DP level attacking acquisition in the off season.
    IF that is really the case, then the next “right thing” they should do is holdover all the largest STH renewing discounts until said acquisition is done.
    They ARE abusing STH loyalty if they continue to put a sub-par product on the field week in and week out, then ask us to dutifully renew immediately with no demonstration that the future will be any different than the past, then charge us more for ST if we wait to verify them “putting their money where their mouth is” in the off season.

    • Just refuse to renew your tickets until you see what they do in January/February. I’m pretty sure they won’t be sold by the time you make your final decision.

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