The Philadelphia Union have had a bit of a turn-around in recent weeks after needing six matches in the MLS season to find their first win. From late June to mid-July, they went through a stretch of three games where they got seven points and they are now in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Currently outside of the playoff picture, the team lost 3-2 at D.C. United on Sunday afternoon against the top team in the Eastern conference.
Metro had the chance to interview Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz about the team, recent protests from the 'Sons of Ben' supporters club and the outlook for the rest of the year.
In a recent interview, you talked about the role and responsibility of technical director Chris Albright and head coach Jim Curtin in terms of personnel. Can you expound on how the Union builds their roster?
There are different ways to manage football clubs. Some believe that there should be a person other than the head coach (i.e. a general manager or technical director) who recruits and builds the roster and others believe the head coach should have that authority. I’ve had the good fortune of being in this business for over 20 years and spent a lot of time visiting all types of clubs around the world over that time. Having the good fortune to be with Major League Soccer from the very beginning back in 1995 during the start-up phase, it has been an amazing journey of learning and exploring for me.
As a result I’ve learned a lot being around some great coaches and top executives that have run very successful clubs. I’ve developed the thinking and belief that, the head coach should have final authority over choosing the players he wants to build his roster and others such as the GM, technical director, president, board of directors, etc. should support his efforts and guide him with the overall vision for the club.
That philosophy has never changed and it has certainly existed here at the Union since day one. I strongly believe that if a head coach is going to be fully accountable for his team then he must have final authority over building that team.
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We as an ownership group have an overall vision for the team, how it plays and most importantly, that it must reflect the passion and culture of the soccer fans in the greater Philadelphia region. Ultimately, Jim Curtin is tasked with making the final decision on players as our head coach and Chris Albright is responsible for identifying and recruiting players that fit the vision we have for our Team. Chris leads all player identification, scouting and recruitment efforts for players that fit the profile of the club and with the players Jim wants to build the roster. Jim and Chris work with all of us in ownership as a team to form the best environment and to make the best decisions we can for the club with winning as our top priority.
What were you trying to say in the interview when you said the recent protests – which included a coffin with your likeness inside - on were ill-thought of?
I regret in that interview not specifying my answer was aimed at a small group of fans that built a coffin for me with my name on it. I would have preferred to be more clear that I was referring to a very small group of people who built a mock coffin with my name on it and were throwing fireworks in it that night. I love our fans and believe they are the best and most passionate supporters in the world.
I used the words “ill-advised’ and “ill-informed” aimed at the coffin builders because I don’t think those people know how much that affected my family. You see, I’m a survivor of Leukemia and I actually stepped out of a real coffin once in my life. I battled for nine months in 2009 all while building the stadium and getting the organization ready to launch the team from a hospital bed. My family as well as I were deeply affected by that experience and when my youngest son saw a picture of a coffin with my name it really struck home.
There's a lot of speculation right now that the team doesn't have money to spend on marquee players coming in. Can the Union afford to bring in the big-name talent to the area?
We as an ownership group have invested well over $100 million to date of our own capital in building the Union over the last eight years and we did much of it through the worst recession in U.S. history. Over the last 24 months we have invested millions into a youth academy that already has a number of youth internationals and, in this our second year, made it to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy National Quarterfinals with our Under 16 year-old team.
We are spending millions more building a practice campus for the first team that includes two top class grass pitches and a custom built building exclusively for our first team currently under construction and will be ready at the end of the year.
Last year we were prepared to spend millions and were very active in the bids to get Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan. Unfortunately, those efforts did not result in their acquisitions however, we did make some good acquisitions in signing our captain from Stoke City, Maurice Edu and Vincent Noguiera and making a good loan deal on Fernando Aristeguieta from France’s Ligue 1. We are prepared to make other key acquisitions to improve our roster with the single aim of winning.
Over the next 12 months we will invest millions more into our USL strategy whether it is in partnership with Harrisburg City Islanders or other options we are currently exploring. To be clear, we are not going to be a club that spends recklessly on so called big name, aging players whose market values are bloated. We are focused on building the Union in a way we believe will be in the best long term interests of the club, the community and the Supporters. If there is a big player that can help us win and can also bring other unique qualities to our club we will look at him seriously and there is no doubt we have the financial resources to execute an acquisition if we truly believe in that player and the plan to use that player.
How goes the search for the 'Head of Soccer Operations'?
The search continues and we remain very focused on bringing in the right person that shares our philosophies, vision and will embrace our Philly culture. It is really important that we bring the right person capable of supporting Jim Curtin and the first team as well as Tmmy Wilson and our academy and USL strategy in the right way. We have no time frame. We only have the goal of finding the absolute right person that can help us win at every level and move our technical soccer operations forward.
What exactly does this job entail?
The Sporting Director or Director of Soccer position will be responsible for all technical aspects of our Academy, USL strategy and the Union first team. The position will be responsible for planning and execution of our club vision which includes winning games and developing players to play in a way our fans and City wants to see our soccer played. Other areas of responsibility are player ID/recruiting, sports science, leveraging technology, nutrition, strength/conditioning and performance psychology to increase our chances of winning games and ultimately trophies.
On a day-to-day basis, what is your role with the organization Nick? How much of a hand do you have in player personnel decisions such as scouting and signing players?
I am a member of our ownership group and the CEO & Operating Partner of the Club. As such, my role is to oversee, manage and support all day to day activity of the Club. I have one of the best groups of co-workers in the business and the best group I’ve ever had in my 21 plus years in soccer. That group leads the technical side (Jim Curtin/first team and Tommy Wilson/Academy); the commercial business side (Dave Rowan), finance and operations (Dave Debusschere); marketing and communications (Ashley Dabb); club development, community and government relations (Rick Jacobs); PPL Park (Mike Scanlon) and others on our senior management team.
My role is to lead, motivate and support the entire organization in developing our short, medium and long range plans. It is also to motivate and support each of our senior staff members listed above the best way I can to help them execute the plans and strategies we have in our plan each year.
Specific to your question about my involvement in player personnel decisions such as scouting and signing players, as I have said many times and in the previous question all final first team player personnel decisions are made by Jim Curtin. All final academy player personnel decisions are made by Tommy Wilson and his staff of coaches. I am first and foremost a soccer person that was fortunate to have played on the professional level and now I’ve been an executive in professional soccer for over 20 years so I have an opinion about the game but I do not scout, identify players or make final decisions on whether or not to acquire them. That is Jim Curtin and Chris Albright’s duties and responsibilities. As part of my role in the Club and within ownership I make myself available to Jim, Chris, Tommy and all the technical staff to assist and provide input into their decisions. It is no different with other areas of the club. From time to time Jim, Chris Albright or Tommy Wilson have asked me to help in a first team player acquisitions or with something related to the Academy because of my long term relationships internationally, within MLS, at US Soccer or with the many people I know across the soccer community.
I am committed to helping them any way I can and glad to assist in their efforts to be successful. That is the role and responsibility of any strong leader, CEO or owner. In a way, I see my role as working for them and with them to drive the club forward to win and be success on and off the pitch.
Late last year under then interim head coach Jim Curtin, this team looked like a playoff contender. Is this the year that the Union make the postseason for the second time in franchise history?
I certainly hope so! I firmly believe Jim has put together a good team capable of achieving that goal. Injuries decimated us in the early part of the year and over the last 10-12 games we have been getting healthy and finding some good form. So, I’m very excited seeing a healthy group of great guys getting some good results lately.
The injuries and misfortune have created a big points hole for us but we are all so proud of the guys and the leadership in the locker room that has weathered the worst part, stuck together and is now continuing to fight every game to make the playoffs. It would have been so easy to give up and point fingers at each other in that locker room or within the organization. But, that has not happened because of the great character throughout our entire group. They didn’t point fingers at each other but instead took great leadership from our captain Maurice Edu as well as our senior players and stayed positive working hard to get back in the race for the playoffs. Our young players have the maturity to listen to the senior guys and that is a great credit to them for sticking together and fighting through this season. I always say the true measure of a person is not in time of prosperity but in time of desperation and I am so proud of each and every one on that team.
Players and coaches are fighting for each other every game and that is what it takes to be successful. Our team truly has a “never give up” attitude and that will reward our Club someday I am sure.
Will the new 'Core Player' rule be something that the Union can implement this year or will that come next year?
I know the guys are working their tails off on some very exciting possibilities and if we can use the new guidelines for targeted money and key players we certainly will.
What is the status of Rais Mbolhi and his future with the team?
He is targeted to be transferred in this window and again, we are working very hard to make the right deal for both our club and the player. If we are unable to make the right deal then he will remain a Union player until such time we can make a deal to find him a good club.
Will the Union be active in the transfer window and what are the areas you want to address on this team?
We are always in the mode of continuously looking to improve in every area of our club and that includes our first team. We will not be satisfied until we bring this city home a championship. Our work ethic, club culture and philosophy is such that when we do win our first trophy, as we almost did last September in the US Open Cup final, we will celebrate that night and wake up the next day looking to win our second trophy. One of the words that describes the Union and is written on the side of PPL Park is “Relentless” and everyone in the club doesn’t just look at the word every day. We live it and act on it.
As far as specific areas on the team that is for Jim to address. But, I will say as an ownership group and as club management we are always looking at every area and every position both within the technical area and, business operations each and every day to improve our club.