More than seven years ago, New York businessman Jay Sugarman and longtime soccer executive Nick Sakiewicz formed a partnership to launch Keystone Sports and Entertainment, LLC, to try to bring Major League Soccer to Philadelphia.
In simplest terms, Sugarman provided the money and Sakiewicz the business savvy to drive the development of a new team and stadium – and both were equally instrumental in Philadelphia being awarded an expansion club for the 2010 season.
But around this time last year, Sugarman, the franchise’s chairman and majority owner, said he began to think about dissolving that long-standing partnership and forging a new direction without Sakiewicz as CEO.
And on Friday, he made the decision to officially let him go, just two days after the Union dropped their second straight US Open Cup final at home.
“I’m really appreciative of everything Nick put into this,” Sugarman said in a conference call with reporters. “I think he gave this team his heart and soul. And I guess when his employment agreement ended last year, we really needed to take a step back and decide how we were going to move the ball forward and really build on all the good stuff that has taken place. I think the conclusion is that what we need now is perhaps different than what we needed then. There were some issues that just didn’t seem to be getting resolved. This is not a decision that was made lightly, but I think it’s the right decision for the team to move forward.”
Sugarman added that there were philosophical things that he and Sakiewicz did not see eye to eye on, but he didn’t offer much detail about any specific clashes. Still, some of the major on-field problems are clear as the Union have only made the playoffs once in their six years of existence and have gone through three different head coaches while dealing with constant roster turnover.
Despite Sakiewicz’s insistence that he never signed any players, Sugarman noted that Sakiewicz “had the reins” of both the “sporting side and the operations side” during the club’s first five years of existence until the decision was made last year to bring on a sporting director. And while that hasn’t happened yet, Sugarman said the plan is to make that hire before the January transfer window, when the Union will try to avoid some of their past mistakes with big signings.
Sugarman also plans on hiring a “leader on the business side to really make the organization hum” but says the team is “in good hands” with chief revenue officer Dave Rowan handling Sakiewicz’s day-to-day business operations in the interim.
For now, the sporting director search appears to be the club’s top priority.
“We have gotten close with a number of candidates,” Sugarman said. “It’s not a financial issue. We’re willing to consider anyone we think is good for the team and will make us a better team.”
Sugarman laid out a six-point plan as to what the club is looking for in a new sporting director: a viewpoint of how to win in MLS; scouting and player acquisition savvy; a focus on player development; insight into youth academies; a commitment to Philadelphia; and a good work ethic.
He also said that he feels very confident that whoever gets hired in the role will retain head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright, though he said that decision will ultimately rest in that person’s hands.
“Almost all of the candidates that I have talked to are definitely going to keep Jim in place,” said Sugarman, who also raved about what kind of person Curtin is. “They like what he stands for. They like what he brings – the passion, the connection to the players, the connection to the community. I have almost no doubt, and I think Jim should have no doubt, that he should be preparing to be our coach for next season.”
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According to Sugarman, the new sporting director will evaluate the Union’s entire setup – from their growing youth academy to their new USL team in Bethlehem to the current roster makeup – but insisted they won’t come in and “blow everything up.”
He said that most of the candidates being interviewed see a promising future for the franchise.
And so does he.
“There are a lot of great things going on here that have been clouded because we’re not winning and because we’ve handled some things really poorly,” Sugarman said. “But that doesn’t stop me from believing that this will be something we’re all going to be proud of.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.