There was a lot of talk about culture change at Friday's official opening of the Union's new training facility in Chester.
You don't have to be from Philadelphia to know that the phrase has become quite popular in this town. The Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and 76ers have all seen major overhauls in recent years (some more than once), and it's gotten to the point where the idea has almost been over-used.
But before my colleague and good friend Mike Sielski gets wind of the Union's evolution, this needs to be said with a straight face: The culture change with the Union is real, and it has happened.
Time and again this year, I've been asked what has caused the Union's dramatic improvement this season. I've almost always answered that it's been Earnie Stewart's influence as sporting director.
In some ways, the influence has been tangible. There are new and better players, and new and better training methods. In other ways, though, the influence has been intangible, and sometimes hard to put into words.
There's no doubt about what the new training facility is. It's the ultimate physical manifestation of Stewart's influence and vision, and the Union's improvement as a result. The architects and designers did a great job of renovating the 16,500-square foot space, and the team spent $15 million to fill it with smart, modern amenities.
I got a behind the scenes-tour of the place after the ceremonies wrapped up. The Union had Keegan Rosenberry show me around, and when I asked if I could shoot a video of the tour, Keegan graciously agreed to host it.
Before I went inside, Union chairman Jay Sugarman met with reporters. I also chatted one-on-one with Stewart and manager Jim Curtin. You can read the transcripts of the interviews below.
Knowing the amount of time that this took, and the amount of investment it took, how much of a milestone is this for you?
It's a big milestone, but we're only halfway there. We know we have a lot more to do. But really, the pillars that guide me in every decision - when I sat down and thought about what it's going to take to build a great franchise, deliver on that great environment for fans, deliver on a great environment for players, deliver on a great environment for employees, it really made it very easy to start making decisions.
The leadership of Earnie, the fields, the annex [where the training facility was built], really have delivered that environment for the players. The stadium, with the sight lines and the setting, it's really a great environment for fans. And then really on the employee side, having the leadership of Tim [McDermott, the Union's chief business officer] - he's trying to build a culture where people collaborate and take risks and innovate.
It's a hard thing to do. It was really hard to get here, and we're only halfway home. We've got a lot more work to do. But now I really feel like I've spent the time, understood the league, understood the team, understood all the pieces of the puzzle we need to be great. And it's really simple. Those are the three things we need to focus on. And every decision has to be measured by if they add to one of those three pillars.
At least now I'm spending most of my time on strategic things that really add to the Union. Whereas in the first five years there were a lot of, just, issues that needed to be taken care of. I think you're seeing a new Union, where the decisions that are being made fit into a larger strategy, and I'm really excited about it and confident about it.
Back when the plans for the stadium were first unveiled, there was talk of commercial development on the surrounding land. Was there a point at which it made more sense to build facilities for the team, such as the practice fields, instead? Is there still commercial development on the table?
One of the things we've talked about with the local municipality is, we want to think long-term, but to think long-term we need the jigsaw puzzle of land ownership to be solved. It's impossible to think long-term when you have to figure out what can be built, where can it be built, and how does it impact where people park and where our players go.
So we're trying to come up with a long term master vision that allows us to think about where things can be developed, where do we need space for appropriate parking, ingress, egress. How do we give our fans a great experience, not just in the stadium but when they're getting here and getting out of here. So there's lots more pieces that we need to put together.
We need to have a controlled process where we understand what the rules are and where we're going. Then I think you'll see things like the annex happen, where once we bought the land between the stadium and the wharf, we started to see how we could put the pieces in place. We own the land behind the wharf, we own the land next to the wharf. Those are all things that we didn't have in 2008, 2009, 2010.
Even today, we don't have the jigsaw puzzle put together. But with a little bit of help, I think you can see a very vibrant community form here, not just around soccer but around the youth facilities [and] Bethlehem Steel. That's going to lead to the kind of development that I think we all envisioned back in 2008.
What do you think this building can do for the Union's ability to acquire talent from overseas and domestically?
I'll leave it to Earnie to really tell you where we stack up in terms of other facilities. I think he's been very encouraging by saying, look, this is as good as it gets. This is unique, it's unusual, it has history and modernity... If we're going to attract the highest quality talent who wants to play here, we need to have facilities that stand up to that level.
You guys know the story. In the first couple of years, we were practicing on a public park field. Our players were not being taken care of the way they needed to be. This facility, I think, puts us in the upper echelon of MLS in terms of you come here, you know you're going to have an ability to be the best you can be.
That's really what Earnie has brought: a very big focus, and one I can trust, of, "I'm telling you, Jay, what we need. This is what we need." And we're going to go deliver it for him.
The training facility brings with it a major new corporate sponsor for the club, Power Home Remodeling. Are you also looking to bring in new investment to the ownership group?
We have pretty big aspirations. I'm happy to continue funding, but I would love to have local partners. And when I say local, here's a group [in Power] that has 500 people working in our home every day*, who want this environment to be something special. That's the kind of owner I would embrace wholeheartedly.
So this is just the first step, I hope, in a much bigger relationship. This is not about money right now. This is about finding partners who are passionate and are building an organization that I think shares a lot of similar qualities to the Union. And they're young. They're going to be here a long time.
It may take us a while to get to where we want to be, but all of us have the same vision, which is to build something really special. To have their employees and our fans and our players come to a place and go, "This is special."
[* - Power's corporate headquarters is in the same building as the Union's front office, the big old power plant on Seaport Drive.]
You make it sound like the team wants to be in Chester for a long time.
We're committed. If we can put the pieces together, this is a great place for us to build a long-term presence. We do need some help. This has been a tough road to hoe.
Is the sponsorship deal with Power a long-term thing?
It's a multi-year relationship. I hope it's the first step in a larger relationship.
When you think about [the land] from Highland Avenue to Lot E [under the Commodore Barry Bridge at Seaport Drive], we have about a mile of riverfront. You can see some of the things we've done are great and beautiful, and there's some things that still need to be done.
I hope they're going to be part of that process with us. Because it's their home, and it's our home, and together, I think we can really build it into something that people are going to be blown away by.
Is one of the steps in the plan bridging the gap with fans in the city who would come to games more often if Talen Energy Stadium was more easily accessible by public transportation?
We think about that a lot. I think you guys know we started an Uber service this year to make sure that if people want to get to and from the city, they're not just reliant on either public transportation or private vehicles - that there's a third choice. That has worked really well.
We think the Union, with the kind of soccer they're playing, Earnie instituting [his] kind of discipline and focus, I think people are going to want to come out, and we're going to make it easy for them to come and we're going to make them have a great time.
Can you go into the process of getting Alejandro Bedoya? He was a big investment, but seems to fit into the larger plan that Earnie and the staff has put in place. And it was a long process.
With Earnie, we have a great, open, relationship. I said, "Look - are you telling me that this is going to lead us to a championship? Is this the player you want to build around?" And he said yes. I said, "Then go do it."
I have lots of views. You guys have never heard them, but I have lots of views on what you can do in MLS to really out-pace your competition in other ways than money. But you have to build around that championship character. You have to have somebody [of whom] you can say, look, they really know how to win.
And I think Earnie really believes that. He looks at our team, and he likes guys on our team because he thinks they're winners. They've been there. He brings in a Tranquillo [Barnetta, though he was here before Stewart arrived], he brings in Ilsinho, he brings in Alejandro [Bedoya], building on Mo [Edu] and Brian Carroll. These guys have all won. Lots of places they've gone, they've been winners.
I understand that. You need to build around character first, and he's got a very clear vision of how Alejandro is going to help lead us over the next couple of years, along with all the great guys we have, to the place we want to get to. I don't know if that's his [Bedoya's] left foot or his right foot or his jumping ability or his heading or his technical skills. I just want to know [the answer to these] questions: Is he going to make us a better team? Are we going to win a championship around the player? And I'll trust Earnie's judgment on that.
What changed between last year and this year with Bedoya that got the signing over the line? Was it his interest, the Union's interest, Earnie's involvement, or simple persistence?
I think last year, we were at this point and there was seller's remorse. It just didn't happen. I think given how clear the plan is this year going forward, what we want and what we need, the pieces just seemed to fall in place.
It was expensive. There's no question. We had a lot of conversations about how 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." And we stopped quibbling about $50,000, $100,000, or $200,000. We just said, "If this is the right player, go get it done."
Does the increased money from MLS' television deal help?
It's probably not the factor. Our biggest issue is we want to win. If we win, the fans come. If the fans come, the sponsors come. If the sponsors come, we build an environment here that people will be blown away by. So it all feeds on itself. We want to be part of a wonderful virtuous circle where winning leads to excitement, excitement leads to more winning, and it just keeps going.
We're making the long term investments right now - Bethlehem Steel, the training facilities, some upgrades to the stadium. I don't know that it's going to lead to a championship tomorrow, but I know these are the steps we must take if we're going to get there.
From the outside, we look at the expenditure on Bedoya as crossing a threshold of a $1 million annual salary. Do you see it as an evolution in this team's approach toward the players that you target and are able to bring in?
I don't think there was ever a ceiling on what we were willing to spend. 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? And 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 or four things I need to ask, and if it's the right thing to do, we're going to find the money.
I think 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 us better now, better tomorrow, better in the long term?
As I said, I'm going to trust Earnie's judgment, but I'm going to verify. I want to understand why this is going to happen. I'm not just turning the keys over as we did the first couple of years.
You've been talking about steps in a process. How big a step would it be if your stadium hosts a home playoff game this year?
It's a big step for what I'll call Union 2.0. Because you like to see results follow. What's really important to me is what the fans see. I believe deep down we all want to support a winner. So if we're in the playoffs, I want to see that place packed, I want to see it loud, and then I'll know we're on the right path.
In your remarks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony, you gave Jim Curtin and his staff a big vote of confidence, saying: "The steps they've already made in a short period of time this year have been amazing, have been excellent. I truly believe that they don't get enough credit for that." That was important.
I think he deserves it. I try at some points to get away from emotions that there are, and look at what we've done, and how our team and these players - Auston Trusty, Derrick Jones, Josh Yaro, Fabian Herbers - what kinds of steps they've made. Keegan Rosenberry, Andre Blake.
A coaching staff is responsible for that, and Jim is the head of that coaching staff, and I believe he's a very good coach. A young coach, still learning certain parts, and I hope to help in that. But at the same time, I think he's also made tremendous strides. He sees the game well, he manages his people well, he manages his players well, players enjoy playing for him.
The training facility includes a big and well-appointed players' lounge. How important is having that alongside the fitness facilities and the film room and the places where players work?
I think it's really important. Like you say, if you only come to a place where you work, and not actually sit down and relax after you have a meal, I don't think you've created something where you have the total package. That total package is very important.
Yes, you have to work hard, and you have to have the facilities and amenities to do that. But at the same time, also, in developing a player, rest is an important part. Because if you rest the right amount and you get the right nutrition, you're building your muscles. And yes, those things help enormously.
So we have guys that come in early and they leave late, and what else do you want? Because when they're talking about soccer, that's good.
A theme that I have heard today and throughout the year from a lot of people associated with this team is that there is a sense of definition around everything. Jay asks you a question and you give him a straight answer. Players' days are defined - they might be training more than they have elsewhere, but they know what they're getting into. How important is that for you?
That was the first thing that we did here when we got here: make sure everyone is clear on everything that they need to do. Defining their roles on the field, but also defining how we go about our business here, and how we treat this building, and how we treat each other, and making sure everybody keeps to that. We try to focus on that, because those small things lead up to things that happen in games.
There has been a little bit of fruit borne already, not only with the Union's place in the standings but also with Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty getting called up to the U.S. under-20 national team. How nice was that?
Fantastic. That's what we all do it about: to have these kids getting ready for the next step in their career. And the next step, we hope, obviously is the Philadelphia Union [senior team] and playing minutes there. Having these players go through that professional pathway that we're trying to create - academy, Bethlehem Steel minutes, signing a contract with the first team, and then participating with our U.S. national team under-20's.
How big of a step would it be to make the playoffs, and if you can sweep these last two games and get a home playoff game?
I try not to focus on that, because if I focus on that, it means our players are focused on it. What Jim and myself and the coaching staff try to do is only focus on what we need to do during the game, and not so much on winning [multiple games].
Yes, it is a fact that - first of all, we just want to get in. That's it. We want to become MLS champs, and you have to get in [the playoffs], and the first game is the first one that comes around. Doing everything that we've done this season, making tremendous steps going forward, to solidify a place in the playoffs actually says that we're going the right way.
And I think it's more than that, because I believe no matter if we make the playoffs, we're still on the right way.
Earnie Stewart gave you a very nice vote of confidence today.
We have a good relationship. We get along well. We see things very similarly. We both have an idea for where we want this club to go. Today's a special day for the club. Moving forward, when you talk about a one-system approach - from our academy to Bethlehem Steel to our first team - we're on the same page.
How important is it for you as the coach that this place is more than just an "office" where the players work, then leave?
It's critical. You want the guys to enjoy each others' company, to hang out, to play XBox [games] against each other, to have pool games, to eat a meal together. This space provides that. When you talk about building a culture, and we're training two times a day, and we have a lot of weightlifting sessions, they're going to be around each other a lot. The space they're in needs to be one they enjoy being in. You can see by the smiles on all the players faces that they really enjoy coming to work each and every day.
- As for matters on the field, a segment of your fan base is panicking right now about the notion that the team might collapse at the end of the season and not make the playoffs. But the odds of that happening are slim. and you clearly aren't worried.
Earnie and I have talked about it all week. We just need to do what we've done all year and get back to the basics, and do the little things right - at home, which is what we've done. We'll have our fans behind us. In our building, we've been pretty tough to play against.
Even in the tough road trip that we've been on, we've had some good moments. We just haven't put together a complete 90 minutes. At home, we're extremely confident in our guys. Our guys are confident when they step on Talen Energy Stadium's field. The past is the past. This is a new year, a new group of guys, a new group of players. We're really looking forward to Sunday.