- AS Roma is on the cusp of building a new stadium while competing to join Europe's top tier, and its owner gives his thoughts on its direction, new coach and sporting director and the future.
AS Roma is on a roll lately. It’s in good shape to advance from a Champions League group that includes Chelsea and Atlético Madrid, and it will be right near the top of Serie A if it can win its game in hand. After speaking to Roma’s Boston-based owner James Pallotta on Tuesday, it's clear he is very confident about the future of his club.
Pallotta, now in his seventh year as Roma owner, said he’s expecting an announcement this Friday of regional approvals for a new Roma stadium that would break ground next spring. It would be a 54,000-seat stadium alongside an entertainment complex. Privately funded at the cost of nearly $1 billion, the new complex would more than double Roma’s revenue models, Pallotta said. He wants Roma to be one of the top five to 10 clubs in Europe every year and be in contention regularly to win the Champions League.
The Roma owner spoke about a lot of things, in fact, which are part of our conversation below (lightly edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: Roma is doing well in the Italian league and in Champions League, despite having a first-year manager (Eusebio Di Francesco) and director of football (Monchi). Is this happening a bit sooner than you expected? Or is this according to plan?
Pallotta: No, I think our goal going back to the beginning was to consistently try to get into Champions League. Which clearly wasn’t easy the first few years or so. But we did it three times out of the four and one Europa [League]. We’re still trying to get a team for the Scudetto. It took a little time to learn some things and a bit more of a philosophical change too in how we’re managing the football operations side of it.
I think Monchi is making that change, and that stuff takes a little time. But we had some things we had to work through. I think we did some very good things in the last three or four years, and we did some things that weren’t great. You just try and improve. We had a lot to learn. I had a lot to learn. But I think we’re getting there. And I think [on Friday] we should have the approvals and announcements on the stadium from the region. So it could be a good Christmas present. A lot changes when people know that we’re definitely getting a stadium.
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SI.com: From a soccer perspective, you mentioned a philosophical change. Is it possible to elaborate on that?
Pallotta: I think we’ve made some changes in the last couple years on our scouting. We’ve built up some incredible analytics. We’re actually going to the next level on analytics that we don’t think has been done before with a couple machine-learning projects on it. I think our academy system has changed for the better, both whatever we can do to improve it in Italy and the U.S. and some other places. We feel like we’ve given up many times on our youth. I’m not sure if I’m right, but I’m pretty sure we’re No. 6 in terms of supplying talent to other teams around Europe.
You take a look at someone like [Lorenzo] Pellegrini, who we had loaned out before, and I’m not sure with Monchi there we would have done the same thing. We might have, to give him more playing time. But to me he’s an extremely important piece of Roma for the next decade. And we want to make sure that players like that, young players, that they stay with Roma and understand that Roma wants them. So how we go about doing that I think is a little different from probably before.
We have a whole bunch of others in our youth programs that we’re pretty high on, all the way down to some 15- and 16-year-olds. Obviously they’re young, but we’ve identified a lot of talent. We really think at some point with the kind of talent we’ve been putting through there and the programs we have and the changes, that we might have five or six kids per year that can be first-team players coming up. And then a couple other things we’re doing in terms of relationships with other teams in other countries, they take time to put into place. But we’re happy with where we’re getting.
SI.com: In terms of Monchi and Di Francesco, it’s still sort of early, but you have to be pleased with where you are now, right?
Pallotta: Well, in the case of Monchi, he had 15 or 16 years of experience with one team [Sevilla] and a well-deserved reputation. What he did in finding young players and having a much smaller budget than most teams and competing how he did in not just the league but throughout Europe, winning five Europas, you have to feel really good when I started having conversations with him that he liked what we were thinking about at Roma. And we got him. When there were plenty of other big teams that I know wanted him for more money. He liked what we were talking about, and there were a bunch of things he’s had to do and clean up.
He had a very hard-working summer, and we still have some ways to go on some stuff. But I have a good relationship with him. I think he’s been great for the team, and he’s a players’ guy. He can have conversations with the players and the coach and the staff. So from that point of view, having complete faith in that, it’s been great. He’s at least what I thought and expected, if not more.
And in Di Francesco’s case, the last couple years we liked the way he played and thought [coaching Sassuolo]. But coming into Rome, the good thing is he played at Roma, so he understands the difficulties in Rome from the derby to just being in Rome sometimes with all the media looking at you and all the radio and TV stations. And he understands it. He handles it.
I think he’s turned out to be incredibly more flexible. When we had conversations with him in the summer, he said this is the style I play, and this is what I play. Within a game or two, you saw the adjustments that he makes. And while he does have his basic style, you have to really like what he’s been doing. When we can go to Chelsea and play the way we did [in a 3-3 tie], sometimes in the past you’d look at it and go, ‘Here we go again.’
And his rotations are great. We realized we had to get deeper this year, and we got substantially deeper. He’s utilizing players a lot. You look at somebody like Gerson, who people think is just a midfielder, and he comes in and plays right forward and scores two goals. And you go, maybe he’s better as a forward! You look at [Alessandro] Florenzi, he can play right back and right forward, and he might be best suited as a midfielder.
Unfortunately we’ve had some injuries, like with some guys like [Rick] Karsdorp. [Patrik] Schick should be coming back soon, and we’re very high on him. [Grégoire] Defrel can play right forward or on the left behind [Edin] Dzeko. Schick can play right or he can play with Dzeko or in place of Dzeko. [Stephan] El Shaarawy comes in, and people think he’s just a left forward, and then he plays right forward and makes different types of cuts and scores two goals against Chelsea on the right side. You just see that interchange, and that’s nice, and he’s utilizing that.
SI.com: Is this Roma team good enough to win the Italian league?
Pallotta: In terms of the Italian league, I think the last couple years we were good enough, too. When [Luciano] Spalletti came in and went undefeated the last 17 games, we weren’t that far behind. And if we had played in the first half of the year before I made the change, there was a period where we had 11 games without a win. You take someone like Spalletti, and I can look at those games and I did, and there’s no reason why three or four or five of those shouldn’t have been wins. There’s 10 points right there. And last year we finished four points behind. So you’re right there. There were some games against teams that we should have won, and we tied. We’re getting tougher as a team. So do I think so? Yeah.
By the way, I think the style and the play that’s going on in the Italian league right now is as good as anything that’s going on in any league in Europe. Napoli, Juventus, Inter, Roma, Sampdoria, Lazio. You can have at some point AC Milan and maybe Fiorentina, but certainly those first six or so. Atalanta, you go there and play them at home. You know, that’s not an easy game. Which we won at the beginning of the year. We’re looking forward to some other teams going into Atalanta and having to play them there. It’s a very difficult league, frankly.
So I do think we can win it. We have a game in hand. We’re right there. We’ve had a tough schedule, I think. And we just have to take care of our own business like we did on Saturday [against Lazio]. I think the team feels more and more comfortable with themselves. There’s a togetherness. You could see it after the Lazio game, where they all went out. There were no factions, no smaller groups, no Eastern Europeans versus others. They’re together.
SI.com: How do you spend your time between Boston and Rome?
Pallotta: Right now I’m spending substantially more time in Boston. Because there’s the Roma stuff, but I have a bunch of other businesses. But at this time with Roma the last six to nine months, there’s just a lot going on in Boston in terms of stadium stuff. So for instance, [on Tuesday] we’ve had our construction company in again. We’ve had in the project manager. It’s almost like on a daily basis we have stuff going on.
Yesterday I spent half the day for the architectural firm of our entertainment complex. It’s not like I wouldn’t mind hanging out in Rome and hanging with the team, and I know sometimes people or the media say 'He’s not in Rome, he’s not in Rome, he’s an absentee owner.' That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m working on a lot of stuff. Our commercial operation is run out of London. So I do spend a bunch of time when I’m in Rome going to London too because of the commercial activity. I just do what I have to do.