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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sugarman, Meulensteen and more: Takeaways from a busy day at PPL Park

Rene Meulensteen, seen here with Fulham last year,
is happy to be working with the Union. (AP)
It’s possible that Friday could be looked at as a seminal moment for the Philadelphia Union, a watershed day in which their structures and hierarchy begins to take the shape required by the rigors of the new MLS (2.0 or 3.0 or whatever.0).

Announcements of such gravity –the contracting of Rene Meulensteen as a consultant, the formal declaration that a sporting director will be sought and the first public comments made by majority owner Jay Sugarman – provided plenty of food for thought and a lot of information to sift through.

So let’s distill it into a few important points from today’s press conference.

1. Jay Sugarman is not a silent owner.

It’s easy to have thought differently given his muted public presence, which fostered the notion among some fans that Sugarman was just the money and little else. There’s no doubt the enormity of investment that he’s put into this club, but his involvement (which I’m going to explore in a little more detail later) doesn’t entail writing checks and then ignoring how the funds are spent. Through co-owner Richie Graham, he’s had a hand in the creation of the Union Academy. Sugarman is an enormously successful businessman, and he got that way by identifying talent and allowing those people to do their jobs. And now, being less than satisfied by how those jobs have been done, he’s stepping in to put into practice his time learning about the team, the league and the American sports market.

2. Nick Sakiewicz is no longer involved in football operations.

In the assignment of duties Friday, one of the first was that Sakiewicz “and his team will focus on building the business and have the resources to compete as our league gets stronger and stronger,” according to Sugarman. Implicit in that statement, which Sugarman repeated later in the press conference, is that Sakiewicz will have limited to no hand in soccer operational decisions moving forward. That follows with Sakiewicz’s public statements of late (and depending on your perspective, has been the paradigm all along), and it dispels any misinformation to the contrary in concrete terms.

3. Rene Meulensteen is a temporary remedy.

Sugarman made it clear that the club’s engagement with Meulensteen will be measured in months, not weeks or years. After the press conference, Meulensteen admitted that “March or April” would seem a logical time for the club to evaluate his performance based on the standards he and Sugarman have discussed. Meulensteen will be an advisor in the Union’s process of finding a sporting director (who it appears the club would want to have selected by the time Meulensteen departs), and his lasting impact will be made in the improvements the club hopes he’ll institute to the management structure, the academy and through his aid in player acquisition. What wasn’t made clear is if Meulensteen is a candidate to become the sporting director, which remains to be seen. (My hunch, based on how he spoke of the challenges of managing the time commitment to his full-time coaching gigs of the past with his consultancy, is that he’d rather have the freedom to consult, but that is always subject to change.)

4. The academy is the path the Union are going to follow.

OK, we’ve heard this time and again. But bringing in someone who had a hand in Manchester United’s vaunted youth program sends the message that they are committing to improving the Union Academy, which has already been touted as a major success and blueprint to follow. Meulensteen was certainly bullish about it, saying, “this will become the envy of America.” It takes time to measure an asset like the Academy, but I’d venture that refining the academy will occupy a significant chunk of Meulensteen’s efforts.

5. This is not about one person.

When the Union formed as an organization, they handed the keys to whole thing to Peter Nowak. It could’ve been a great success or a disaster. There were elements of both, but ultimately much more of the latter. John Hackworth and his staff were not capable of following the authoritarian, do-everything model that Nowak advocated, likely out of prudent restraint. Likewise, Jim Curtin knows better than to turn the Union into a one-man band. In three, five, 10 years, Curtin may or may not be with the Union. Sakiewicz may or may not. Meulensteen or whoever is hired as the inaugural sporting director may not. But Sugarman likely will be. And the structures put in place, ones that the club are vowing to undertake with foresight and great deliberation, will be. That’s the kind of consistency and structure the club has been lacking.

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