The Philadelphia Union are making changes after the ouster of CEO Nick Sakiewicz, writes Brian Straus.
Two days after losing out on a U.S. Open Cup title that his club hoped might help establish a winning tradition and lighten the mood in the stands, Philadelphia Union majority owner and chairman Jay Sugarman took matters into his own hands on Friday and dismissed CEO Nick Sakiewicz.
The long-time MLS executive was instrumental in the Union’s 2010 launch and the construction of PPL Park, which opened later that year. But as the club churned through coaches and players and failed to make much of an impact on the field, Sakiewicz came to symbolize its stagnation. In May, fans staged a protest outside the stadium and Sakiewicz responded with an open letter claiming that the Union “remain committed” to hiring a director of soccer operations.
It was a common perception that Sakiewicz was too involved on the technical side and saddled coach Jim Curtin and his staff with players who didn’t necessarily fit.
A six-month consultancy with former Fulham manager René Meulensteen led to nothing and this week, as the Union are on the verge of missing the MLS playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, no hire was imminent.
Sugarman said during a Friday conference call he did not think Sakiewicz was opposed to the addition of a sporting director. But the chairman lamented the delay in hiring one and added, more generally, “There are things that are important to me that maybe aren’t as important to Nick … It was clear we weren’t necessarily on the same page.”
Sugarman added, “We have to make [Philadelphia] an attractive place for a player to want to come to play and we needed pieces that we have not yet put in place. You see a focus on those kinds of foundational elements so we can let [technical director] Chris [Albright] and Jim and the [incoming] sporting director really tell a compelling story about who we are … That’s been missing for a while.”
Ideally, a sporting director will be on the job by the end of 2015, Sugarman said. He confirmed that former LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls coach Octavio Zambrano is among the candidates. While the new hire will have the final say on Curtin’s future, the chairman emphasized, “Almost all the candidates I’ve talked to are definitely going to keep Jim in place … If we get the right person, they’ll make Jim better, Chris better and the players better.”
Curtin, 36, has taken the Union to consecutive Open Cup finals and seems well-liked by players and well-respected around the league.
Sakiewicz did a good job getting the Union off the ground and into PPL park shortly after its inaugural season began in 2010. The club made the playoffs in year two. But it’s been a steep slide since then. Coach Peter Nowak’s tenure ended amid acrimony and lawsuits, and his former assistant, John Hackworth, couldn’t turn things around and was fired last year. The Union developed a reputation as an organization that kept things on the cheap, and the promised development along the Chester waterfront failed to materialize.
Sugarman said Friday that he and his partners have spent millions on club infrastructure such as the youth academy, a new USL team and the training fields adjacent to the stadium. It’s planning a training center in Chester as well. But he acknowledged that spending hasn’t yet translated to the MLS standings and that a change in direction, as well as additional investment, was required to link the two. He did not shy away from spending more on a “difference maker” or two if “they are the right player and they fit the team’s needs.”
He added, “We don’t have unlimited money. Some of those other teams do. They can make a mistake and buy their way out of it. That’s not something we can or should be doing.”
The Union currently have the 14th-highest payroll in MLS, according to MLS Players Union figures.
“What we needed back then maybe isn’t what we need right now,” Sugarman said regarding the timeline of Sakiewicz’s tenure. “We look at the body of work and the judgments and decision making. There have been some really good things and some things that just aren’t up to the standards we like.”
Regarding fan discontent, Sugarman said he respected “thoughtful” feedback and that, “It’s never good when your fans are unhappy and I do take that as one of the signals that we have to be better … We need to win.”
Attendance has held steady. It’s down only 3% from 2011, the club’s first full season at PPL Park.
Sakiewicz was a winner, but his teams weren’t. He was MLS executive of the year in 1999 for his efforts to turn around the Tampa Bay Mutiny following an embezzlement scandal involving his predecessor. He then moved on to the MetroStars (now the Red Bulls), won the league award again and oversaw the club’s 2005 sale. That, combined with his role in building the Union, makes for a decent resume. But on-field results remained the glaring hole. Sakiewicz ran three MLS clubs for a combined 15 seasons without winning a single significant trophy.