Jay Sugarman on player development

Feature photo from PSP Archives

Dedicated, passionate, intelligent, articulate, perseverant readers of Philly Soccer Page have focused, are focusing, and will continue to focus on ownership spending big money on big name stars like D.C.’s Wayne Rooney, the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco.

Such players and their predecessors, have brought championships, or at least championship-like competitiveness, to their teams. Their successes suggest big spending on big stars can work, and it is easy to conclude that that may be the way to succeed in MLS. Certainly, it is the conventional wisdom.

Mr. Sugarman

In remarks made while introducing Ernst Tanner recently, Philadelphia Union principal owner Jay Sugarman made an historical reference to the muskets of the battle of Waterloo. He suggested it is a waste of valuable resources to lineup musket battalion against musket battalion and blast away until the last few soldiers are left standing to claim victory with everybody else dead around them.

He implied that big spending on big stars was the strategy of the past, that it might achieve a success or two in the short-term but could not sustain it over time. He buttressed his contention by stating baldly that the Union’s revenue model could not compete with those of other clubs that were two or three times larger in resources, with stadiums double or triple the size of the Union’s own.

Two things flow from his wasting battalions remark.

  • He firmly expects his soccer teams to generate their own means of support at some point in the future. Or put another way, he and Richie Graham do not intend to lose money indefinitely, no surprise coming from successful businessmen.
  • He does not want to compete directly against the resources of which his opponents will always have more. He wants to build a different “mousetrap,” in other words.

He made one other remark, purely qualitative with no numbers, that probably the Union spend the most money on player development in the league. The claim goes up against FC Dallas, L.A. Galaxy, and New York Red Bulls, to name three that have been in the player development game a long time and have lengthy track records of comparative success.

Sugarman sent a clear message that the Union are not going to sign a Wayne Rooney, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or a Bastian Schweinsteiger for a year or two of fleeting success, as sweet as such success might be in the moment.

As good as Greg Vanney’s Toronto was last season in MLS and has been in this season’s CONCACAF Champions League, or as good as Tata Martino’s Atlanta has been in MLS both last year and this, Sugarman indirectly suggests both are  short-term approaches unsustainable as longer-term business strategies.

Toronto had to convince its fan base it was no longer a laughing stock and a punching bag. It bought credibility, and needed to add TAM players to the three DPs to do it.

Atlanta had to grab the attention of a sports-mad city thoroughly focused on the American triumvirate: football, basketball and baseball.

Red Bulls stopped

Evidence from within MLS itself– let alone overseas — indicates Sugarman is right, that big splash big spending is unsustainable.

The evidence will cause every self-respecting Union soccer fan to gag, puke, and clothespin his nose because it comes from North Jersey. But no matter how smelly and noxious digestively, it is evidence, and it is strong.

Immediately after rebranding, the former Metro Stars followed the big-name big-money short-term strategy. Like Toronto they had to change the fan base’s perception. They paid Rafa Marquez, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill. But they follow that approach no more.

Even before those aged big names were playing, they have been practicing player development.

They will still add one or two key imports like a Kaku, or, as with Bradley Wright-Phillips, develop a foreign talent into the star he never was at home. But the team that now competes for the playoffs, with the ability on any given day to beat the Toronto’s and Atlanta’s, is built primarily on home grown talent.

Eleven years ago, a senior at the high school where I coached stopped playing for us to drive two hours each way three or more days a week to play on the best team he’d ever been on, as he put it, his Red Bulls Academy side.

A decade of Academy growth now bears ripened Red Bulls’ fruits. Among them are Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, Alex Myul, Derrick Etienne, Jr., Vince Bezacourt, Florian Valot, and others.

The pipeline

Sugarman and Graham are comparative “Johnnies-come-lately” to the player development game. But they are playing it with a boldness that reflects Earnie Stewart’s and now Ernst Tanner’s European youth development experience.

The general idea is the same as Red Bulls but some key details are different.

  • Bethlehem Steel’s average squad age is 21.5 years and inching lower. Red Bulls 2’s is older, 22.
  • More significantly, Red Bulls have only played two of its academy members with the USL side this year. Bethlehem has had five see minutes, with two others sharing goalkeeper reserve duty.
  • Only one of the Bethlehem five was a high school senior, all the rest were juniors. They have another full season to grow into the demands of the professional environment. Red Bulls start later and seem to give less time for growth.

Other sides have been as brave and as young this year, but none of them are still competing for the 2018 USL playoffs. Only Red Bulls 2 are also competing. But they should be, given greater age, institutional experience, and the richest talent catchment area east of the Sierra Nevada and north of the Rio Grande.


Sugarman and Graham are gambling their money on creating something new to the United States, a soccer academy that funnels a few teenagers towards the first team, while giving their academy mates a quality college preparatory high school education and placement with appropriate college soccer programs. (That should turn out to be its own saleable commodity to families able to pay, and there will be plenty of scholarships for others.)

It is a different mousetrap than the others, particularly in the boldness of its reliance on youth while maintaining some degree of immediate competitive success. It eschews the conventional thinking that the ways of the past are the only ways that can succeed in the future.


  1. There should be balance between youth and some excellent older players. They hit the jackpot with Bedoya but they seem to try to deflect attention from the dead wood they bought.

    • Yes. You can’t win anything on the cheap. Especially in a sport with a world market for players. You need academy talent but must be prepared to reinforce your squad every transfer window. Playoffs and salary caps blunt that reality to a degree, but don’t make it disappear completely.

      Developing an academy that can feed the first team AND bring in funds through sales should be the goal of every club in the country. The Alphonso Davies sale to Bayern Munich should have been enough to encourage every owner and sporting director in the US.

  2. I’ve always been confused about Sugarman’s relationship to the Academy. I was under the impression that it was a product of Graham. Regardless, I worry Sugarman will use the Academy as a means to buy more time until he can cash out – perpetually telling the fan base to remain patient and give the young kids more time to develop. We’re 10 years in and still being told to wait longer…


    The Academy is great, but it alone will not make this team successful. The deep pocket organizations (LAFC, ATL, NYCFC) will be able to produce their own talent AND spend to bring in the necessary talent to compete for trophies. Any edge the Union can produce through their Academy can be eliminated by teams with cash.

  3. this reads like a press release

  4. The biggest downside of this model is the risk that the players you develop payoff for a year or three and then decide to go overseas. That will bring in money to the club but will also potentially set them back on the field.

  5. Good article. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis

  6. Atomic Spartan says:

    If you cannot afford to create a systematic approach that both develops youth and brings in more quality vets that will add wins and fill the seats, then…
    SELL THIS TEAM to someone who can..
    Have you noticed they have stopped announcing attendance during the games?

    • Well said. There needs to be a balance. Keep saying that so and so strategy is true – extreme reliance on internal development – does not make it so.

  7. I don’t know that I hate this identity if it can happen. Consider that Borussia Dortmund are better able to recruit world class talent than many more famous clubs because those 14 year-olds see the commitment the club has to getting them first team minutes. THis year the Union leads in being a club giving youngsters first team and second team minutes.

  8. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    I think you’re missing one key piece to the strategy that is already starting to make its mark and that is Bethlehem Steel signing foreign players to develop and further development of draft picks. Five players from Africa have been added ages 18-20 to the Steel. Plus Nanco, Apodaca & Moar late picks who could develop into depth for the team. Cory Burke seems to be the first player that has paid off from this strategy and Herbers looks to have benefited as a late pick by getting minutes with the Steel. Granted he wasn’t a late pick but he did seem to find his game in his last stay with the Steel.

    The Union are clearly copying Red Bull in my opinion. Right now FC Dallas doesn’t have a USL team and the Galaxy academy hasn’t really produced that much. But in the end they have more money to have less patients and it’s why Jack McBean is in Colorado now.

  9. % of Min. played by Academy Players in 2018
    36% RSL
    30% NYRB
    27% Union
    (22% TFC)
    20% FCD
    10% MLS avg
    These are the top 5 teams that play their kids.
    3 have a smaller roster salary than us.
    All 3 of those teams have more points than us.
    2 of those teams are competing for Supporter’s Shield.
    So what are we still doing wrong.
    It’s not lack of spending. We come in above more than 1/3 of the league. Sugarman is clear that we will never be Atlanta. Neither are those teams.
    We need better people in charge. We need a better coach. We need better scouts. Maybe Tanner changes some of that?
    The problem isn’t knives/muskets on the field – it’s the tissue between the ears of our generals.

    • The only thing they are doing different than us is that they have had their academies longer. This is the first year we have legit homegrown players on the team. Also, Rosenberry should be a homegrown player if it wasn’t for MLS nonsense and that would greatly effect the numbers.

      • Exactly.
        Our problem is a lack of knowledge and patience in the seats. This club’s organizational direction has only been FULLY in place for about two full seasons.
        And no, I don’t give a damn about any of the years before that because it’s completely idiotic to think those seasons have anything to do with this club after the day ES was hired.

  10. Big name foreign stars are absolutely not necessary to succeed in MLS. And the evidence there is Sporting KC and FC Dallas, who are perenially at the top of their divisional standings without any such marquee signings.

    So it’s not that this strategy can’t work. I think the issues are:

    1. The Union fanbase, like the Toronto fanbase 4 years ago, was so fed up with failure that they had lost all patience. And this is a strategy that requires patience, as Earnie was forever telling us.

    2. The organization’s ineptitude for so many years made us all skeptical that they could actually pull off this strategy. The hiring of Stewart, which seemed to be a turning point, was quickly tempered by a number of questionable player moves and player non-moves.

    If the U. continue in their current form straight into the playoffs, that will definitely go some way toward both alleviating our patience and restoring SOME faith in the organization. (Which they could quickly blow if, say, they don’t secure Dockal for next season, or don’t sign us another striker by January…)

  11. The other problem with selling the talent as it matures, using the funds for operating expenses and replacing it with academy talent is that the selling team doesn’t get all the money. Others know much more than I about how this works, but it is my impression that the league gets a big cut, leaving less for the club. Anyone know more details about how this works?

    • Selling homegrowns gives the selling team all the money now. But they can only use some (I think $750,000 and goes up 5% yeah year) on the roster. Although this will undoubtedly go up more or go away as the league grows.

  12. OneManWolfpack says:

    This is all well and good. But fact is, Jay doesn’t have the money to compete with the big boys, so he is doing the cheaper thing, which is sell the academy model to the fans and make it seem like we will actually build that better mouse trap. (SPOILER: we probably won’t)
    We have an owner who got in when it was cheap and will sell when it is high… so let me re-phrase… we have an investor, not an owner. Which is all well and good. We can write all the articles in the world to try to convince ourselves and others that this is the real path to greatness, but we are stuck until he sells. Period.
    The academy and development stuff is great and I am not opposed to it in any way. But basically every other team worth a damn is doing the same freakin’ thing, ALL WHILE they also fund their first team and put a better product on the field. To act like we are going to somehow field 8-10 homegrowns and then sell them all, make millions, and the rinse and repeat… is a pipe dream. We aren’t Barca or Real. Having a productive academy is a necessity now and something that should be going into it’s 8th-9th year. Can we on the top half or top 3 of all academies… sure… let’s do it. It will only help the squad. But never, ever spending serious money to fill a need on your first team will never win you a championship, or help you be competitive in Champions League (should you get there).
    Sell the team soon Jay, please. We deserve a better squad after what we’ve been through these first (almost) 10 years

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Sorry editing stopped and I wanted to add one more thing: I think this year’s team is a solid squad and one the best we’ve had. But if serious money had been used to address the need at striker or LB, we would be a real threat to win something. Without this, we are what we are… which is – AT BEST: a mid-table, maybe playoff bound, no way we get past the 2nd round – team. And at this stage of this organization, we deserve better

      • Spot on. Just a little bit of creativity at the striker position would make this team really dangerous.

      • Or we run with Burke and maybe a little bit of goalscoring from our wingers (cough.Accam.cough) makes us really dangerous. This team is already dangerous as is. We just beat down the 3rd place team and have beaten the 2nd place team as well. At this point I’d be surprised if we don’t make the playoffs.
        I agree our market location should lead itself to having a higher salary team but we are solidly in the middle, including having a bunch of cheap homegrown players on the roster. We do have 3 pretty high paid players on our team now (even if we bought down Accam’s salary).

  13. santo bevacqua says:

    So many spot on comments on this article. I will add that if we do not win I will not renew and the stadium small as it is will not sell out and max revenues. I dont care if we win with a mix of proven players and youth, winning is the only thing. I second the sentiments of others here that Sugarman is an investor not an owner. The only way to get rid of these kind of investors is for MLS institute relegation.

  14. There is a third strategy not discussed.

    Josef Martinez- $920,000
    Hector Villalba- $663,000
    Miguel Almiron – $1,912,000

    Creating a better scouting network has seemingly been a longstanding gap in the vision. It doesn’t take a ton of resources, but is vital if we want to keep pace with MLS 3.0.

  15. What Sugarman said is nothing new. We get some new version of it every year, this year being no different. No one should be surprised by his comments. So what do we do? It’s the same choice as always, go or don’t go. Support the team or don’t. There’s that clause in Sugarman’s stadium deal saying he can get out after ten years if they attendance drops below certain levels, so there’s a risk he could possibly move the team. I’m pretty sure the Union are close to triggering that clause to become active. He’s seen the attendance numbers and he hasn’t blinked or batted an eye. He’s even tripled down on not paying for big named players. So where does that leave us? Pretty much the same place. Stuck.
    When it comes down to it, I find it hard to believe Sugarman will move the team. It’s possible, sure, but there really is a lot invested in the area, and especially with Graham. I think he leveraged himself so far in the direction of player development he can’t even think of getting out at this point. I think he’s kind of stuck as well.
    Basically we are stuck with each other. It’s a sour pudding to swallow, but there it is.

  16. santo bevacqua says:

    ZLATAN comes to mind. Galaxy sold out Talen , on a rainy nite and it was worth it. You spend one dollar and you make two………Someone should in the Union ownership note that this is very pertinent for the fan base. It helps the academy and young players improve.

  17. santo bevacqua says:

    ZLATAN comes to mind. Galaxy sold out Talen , on a rainy nite and it was worth it. You spend one dollar and you make two………Someone should in the Union ownership note that this is very pertinent for the fan base. It helps the academy and young players improve.

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