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

Friday, October 14, 2016

Between the purse strings: Jay Sugarman on the Alejandro Bedoya transfer

The Union brass gathered Thursday for the unveiling of the Power Training Complex,
an expensive asset that isn't unlike their expenditure on Alejandro Bedoya.
Alejandro Bedoya sat about 20 feet from the man who signs his checks Thursday afternoon, as Jay Sugarman stepped to the clear Plexiglass podium.

The Philadelphia Union Chairman proceeded to discuss the rationale surrounding the building that brought the Union front office, ownership, players and a few hundred others to Chester, extolling the virtues of the Power Home Remodeling Training Complex.

The terms that Sugarman selected so carefully could’ve applied as much to the new multi-million-dollar facility as it did to the newly-minted million-dollar midfielder, the first in club history.

Both were sizeable investments, massive on the scale of the Union’s history and substantial even by an MLS-wide lens. Both present risks. But both only made sense within a framework, the “well-articulated, cogently put together” strategy that new sporting director Earnie Stewart has assembled, to use Sugarman’s words.

After the presentation with Power Home Remodeling execs and members of the Union ownership, Sugarman elaborated on the process that landed Bedoya in Philadelphia, an ordeal that dragged from last summer when it appeared imminent prior to French club FC Nantes wanting to hang on to the midfielder, and was resuscitated successfully this season.

Instrumental to the process is the evolving relationship between Sugarman and Stewart, hired as the point person for soccer matters last December.

“I think with Earnie, we have a great, open relationship,” Sugarman told reporters. “I said, ‘look, are you telling me this is going to lead to a championship? Is this the player you’re going to build around?’ And he said, ‘yes,’ and I said, ‘go do it.’”

The Bedoya transfer saga was protracted over multiple transfer windows. By this summer, at the risk of losing the opportunity a second time, Sugarman pulled the trigger. The increased gravitas of Stewart helped swing the pendulum.

“I think last year, we were at this point and there was seller’s remorse,” Sugarman said. “It just didn’t happen. I think given how clear the plan is this year going forward of what we want and what we need, the pieces just seem to fall into place. It was expensive, there’s no question. We had a lot of conversations about, how do you manage the MLS budget, and I think the conclusion continued to be, is this going to lead us to the place we want to get to? If this is the right player, then go get it done. We stopped quibbling about $50,000, $100,000, $200,000 and said, ‘this is the right player, go get it done.’”
Sugarman has taken his lumps in the court of Union public opinion. He’s not a dyed in the wool soccer guy, and he’s not a Philadelphia native, two traits unconducive to leading a Philadelphia soccer club. That led to aspersions of absenteeism cast in years past, as his former steward of the club, Nick Sakiewicz, left much to be desired in the management department.

The appointment of Stewart, whom Sugarman had a significant role in vetting, signaled a chance for Sugarman to pivot, as well. The New York businessman has become much more visible around Talen Energy Stadium. He’s more vocal about his team, and while he doesn’t often seek out the spotlight, he’s gracious in discussing matters surrounding his team with the media.

“I have lots of views,” he said with an amiable tone. “You guys have never heard them, but I have lots of views on what you can do in MLS to really outpace your competition in other ways than money. But you have to build around that championship character. You have to have somebody you can say, look they know how to win. And I think Earnie really believes that. He looks at our team and he likes guys on our team that he thinks are winners, that have been there. He brings in a Tranquillo (Barnetta), he brings in an Ilsinho, he brings in an Alejandro. …

“I understand that. You need to build around character first, and (Earnie’s) got a very clear vision of how Alejandro’s going to help lead us over the next few years, along with the other guys we have, to the place we want to get to. I don’t know if that’s his left foot or his right foot or his jumping ability or his heading or his technical skills; I just have one-note questions. Is he going to make us a better team? Are we going to win a championship around the player? And I trust Earnie’s judgement on that.”

From the outside, signing a million-dollar player seems a monumental step in the growth of a team with a short track record of MLS success. Sugarman didn’t see it in quite such black-and-white terms.

But he does see a clear delineation between the structure that exists now and what used to be in place.

“I don’t think there was ever a ceiling on what we were willing to spend,” Sugarman said. “It was, how does this fit into the strategy? Why does this make sense? Is this player going to make all the players around him better? It was hard for me to want to do that when nobody could articulate what that strategy was.

“With Earnie, I feel much more comfortable. I know what he’s trying to achieve. I know where the pieces seem to make sense. I’m going to ask him the three of four things that I need to ask, and if it’s the right things to do, we’re going to find the money.

“Money follows strategies that are well-articulated, cogently put together, that I can understand as a person who now actually knows a lot about soccer. Why is this going to make it better – better now, better tomorrow, better in the long-term? As I said, I’m going to trust Earnie’s judgement, but I’m going to verify. I want to understand why this is going to help; I’m not just going to turn the keys over as I did in the first couple of years.”

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