For Pete's Sake / Season Reviews / Union

The Sugarman question

Photo: Earl Gardner

Sometimes Jay Sugarman seems like a sports owner straight out of central casting.

The long grey hair and the above-it-all demeanor. The helicopter that sometimes lands on unsuspecting practice fields. The name — “Sugar Man” — that implies benevolent wealth used to make the team better.

Only that’s the thing with Sugarman. He doesn’t have that much sugar.

By the standards of sports owners, Sugarman isn’t a particularly wealthy man, even if, by all objective standards, he is an obscenely wealthy man.

That may have been fine in an earlier iteration of MLS.

But in a league where Arthur Blank is starting teams, Sugarman is being left behind.

PSP editor Dan Walsh asked me to write a column about this question:

Can the Union ever become a top MLS team with Jay Sugarman as their owner?

Now Union fans, watching the horrors that vampiric Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt is inflicting on the city of Columbus right now, have expressed fatalistic concern about a different question:

What if Sugarman moves or sells the team?

Let’s tackle each in turn.

Smart investments can win in MLS

The Union can become a top team under Jay Sugarman. There’s a narrower margin of error than other teams in the league, sure. But Sugarman has shown that he’s willing to invest in the team and commit to a solid long-term plan.

The devil, of course, will be in the details.

For starters, the idea that Jay Sugarman isn’t spending money on the Union is a misconception. It’s just not all going to players right now.

When the Union started — and Sugarman really had no money — the franchise outside the first team and the stadium was a joke.

They practiced in a public park. They had no academy. They had no affiliate.

Over the last eight years, investment has gone toward filling those gaps. There’s now an outstanding training facility, complete with two practice fields. There’s an academy which began to produce professional and collegiate soccer players this year. There’s the Bethlehem Steel experiment in the Lehigh Valley.

All of these things took investment — millions of dollars worth. Sugarman and his co-investors rightfully saw these as a priority and took action to correct it, even if at a frustratingly slow pace.

During that time, the Union’s payroll has been in the middle to bottom half of Major League Soccer. Not great, not terrible. But the Union have had precious few designated players in their history — the players that require ownership to pony up the big bucks to reel in.

That’s why fans greeted the signing of Alejandro Bedoya with such excitement last summer. With the “development pipeline” and facilities largely paid for, Sugarman for the first time significantly invested his capital directly onto the field.

So the model for the Union to become a top team under Sugarman is this:

  1. Play “Moneyball” to build a solid core of young players, Academy products, MLS veterans, and smart foreign imports — using Earnie Stewart’s experience at AZ Alkmaar as a template,
  2. Then, as necessary, splash the cash to bring in a game-changing player.

The caveat is obvious: This hasn’t worked out so far.

For one thing, there are real questions about whether the Union’s “developmental pipeline” works at all right now, given the inability of younger players to flourish in the first team.

You wonder too whether Bedoya is really the right kind of player to be splashing the cash on — a jack-of-all-trades midfielder who’s better as a complementary piece than as a team’s focal point.

But you can see the concept, and that’s what matters. Not that much time has passed since the era when the club had minimal facilities or infrastructure and was led by a soccer incompetent.

I’m not saying it’s certain. I’m not even saying it’s likely. The margin for error is very narrow.

But the Union certainly can become a top team through this model.

This team isn’t going anywhere, but the owner might

First things first: The Union aren’t moving to Austin, Texas.

Nor are they likely to move anywhere, for that matter.

To move, Sugarman and the league would have to be lured by the promise of riches elsewhere. Located in one of the 10 largest cities in the country — and with a gorgeous soccer-specific stadium already constructed — it would make absolutely no sense for this team to move away from Philadelphia.

Now, would Sugarman sell the team? This seems a more likely outcome.

Sugarman is fundamentally an investor, and at some point it will be clear that he can get more by selling the team than he ever put into it. The growth of soccer in America is raising franchise values, and sports teams are always a tempting asset for the super-rich.

There are folks in Philadelphia — like Joshua Harris, owner of the Sixers (and Crystal Palace) — who could afford to buy the Union out from under Sugarman. There are even folks who aren’t from Philadelphia who would love to buy a team like the Union and keep it here.

The economics will make it very tempting for Sugarman to pass the ball to a new ownership group, especially if Sugarman’s revenue streams are so tight that he cannot afford to put money into the Union.

Far from perfect, but not impossible

Jay Sugarman is not a perfect owner. In fact, he’s not even a good owner. None of what I’ve written in this piece should be construed to mean that I like Jay Sugarman in this role or that I think he’s doing a good job. It is unbelievably tedious to watch the Union scrape and claw around in the franchise’s eighth season while Atlanta United blossoms forth fully formed.

The question isn’t whether the Union will win with Sugarman as their owner. There are lots of reasons they may not win. Maybe Sugarman will end up unable to invest any more into the Union. Maybe Stewart will find himself unable to replicate the formula that brought him success in the Dutch league. Maybe Jim Curtin will continue to be, at best, a sub-replacement-level MLS manager.

No, the question is whether the Union can win with Sugarman as their owner.

As unpleasant as the path may be to get there, based on the available evidence the answer is yes.

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