When the Philadelphia Union’s press conference to announce the hiring of Rene Meulensteen as a consultant ended Friday, Jay Sugarman stood up, smiled and said, “See you in five years.”
The quip was in reference to how infrequently the Union’s chairman and majority owner addresses the media. But after he eloquently laid out the franchise’s plans for the future, which included hiring a new sporting director and developing one of the “top academy systems in the United States,” Philly fans might want to hear more from the well-spoken businessman in the future.
“Five years is kind of a natural cutting off point to look back and say, ‘What have we done right?’ and ‘What can we do better?’” Sugarman said. “The next five years need to be great. They need to be exciting. They need to put us on the path to success that we all want.”
To reach that success, Sugarman said the franchise plans to continue to devote many resources to their youth academy, which he believes can be a “pipeline of great talent for the Union.” And through the academy, under the direction of Tommy Wilson, the Union’s “strategy is to rely on developing and building talent internally, more than buying it on the market.”
In other words, the Union will not be competing with the Sounders, Galaxy, Red Bulls and Toronto and the other big-market clubs in the league for the priciest players, as had been the case for the club’s first five years.
“There are certainly going to be teams with greater resources than the ones we have,” Sugarman said. “That’s not a surprise. I think that’s true in all leagues. But there’s no question we can win this league. … There are a lot of businesses that succeed using a strategy where we don’t spend the most money and maybe don’t have the biggest footprint but, boy, that gives us the freedom to try some things that maybe others won’t. What I really want our team to do now is to adopt a sense of that it’s not a war of money, it’s a war of talent.”
Sugarman, the CEO of the real-estate finance and investment company iStar Financial in New York, admits that he may not have as much experience in soccer as other people involved with the Union. But he’s studied the league and has shared some of his ideas with the team’s coaches to “really challenge some of the conventional wisdom.”
For instance, the Union owner said that he “hates ties” and thinks teams should do more to avoid them, rather than bunkering down near the end of games.
“We’ve done analytics studies using OPTA that suggest teams that go into the last 15 minutes of the game tied back off and actually score less and give up more goals than teams that go in down by a goal,” he said. “What does that tell you? It tells you we need to instill a thought process from our junior kids all the way up to our first team – guys, we don’t want to tie. I don’t mind if you lose.”
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Sugarman added that he wants to take a more active role in instilling those kinds of philosophies while continuing to find local investors and pump money into all aspects of the franchise.
He may even decide to talk to the media more, too.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Sugarman said. “You’re kind of stuck with me. I will keep committing resources to the plans I really believe in. That’s part of this exercise – to look back, figure out what we can do better, commit the resources there and not be in the position where the teams that spend more, win. This is an interesting league; if you can outcoach, outsmart, and outdraft, the difference is very small.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.