After a disappointing season, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz faces winter full of questions
For as much as Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz has said publicly that he can brush off the heat aimed at him from fans, there's no doubt that he understands both the quantity and sharpness of the criticism that has come his way in recent weeks.
He would not be human if it wasn't affecting him at some level. And I freely admit that I am one of those critics, as I have been for some time.
But while I have questioned many of Sakiewicz's decisions over the years - and also his honesty in defending some of those decisions - I haven't ever questioned his desire to win. I have no doubt about how much he cares about the Union, and about how much of a personal investment he made in building the organization from scratch.
Sakiewicz has made the rounds of the local media lately, offering interviews to John Smallwood of the Daily News and Dave Zeitlin of CSNPhilly.com and MLSSoccer.com. This past Friday, Sakiewicz paid a visit to Philly.com to sit down with me for an exclusive one-on-one chat.
The timing of our conversation allowed me to challenge him on his assertion to Zeitlin that he has "not signed or traded a single player in the history of our club," and that he is "not a general manager."
You don't have to look too far to find evidence that would, at face value, potentially contradict Sakiewicz's claim. And you don't have to look to far to find people who will tell you on and off the record that Sakiewicz does indeed have a role in player personnel matters.
Just what that role is, though, remains a question.
Take the last offseason as an example, when the Union brought in midfielders Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira. Many published reports cited Sakieiwicz as being publicly involved in the Edu and Nogueira transactions in particular.
With regard to Edu, Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney reported in January that "Sakiewicz attended the Chelsea-Stoke City FA Cup match at Stamford Bridge" on January 26 and "texted he was meeting with Stoke officials to 'cement' the deal."
With regard to Nogueira, the Philly Soccer Page's Dan Walsh reported in January that "Sakiewicz and assistant coach Brendan Burke traveled to Lyon, France, where they met with Nogueira and watched him play" for Sochaux at Lyon on January 11.
At the press conference introducing Edu to Philadelphia in late January, Sakiewicz further acknowledged that he had "been to Europe twice in recent weeks" and that he had assisted the coaching staff in working on transactions "when called in to help."
I asked Sakiewicz to clarify just what his role was in those trips abroad. He cited personal friendships with Stoke CEO Tony Scholes and Lyon director of business development Olivier Bernardeau as reasons to travel beyond the Union's interest in players.
"The coaches came to me and said, 'We really want Maurice Edu, but we can't get the deal done,' " Sakiewicz told me. "I went to England to meet with my friend Tony Scholes to see how I could help get this player for my coaches."
Sakiewicz said has known Bernardeau since his time as a developmental player with French club Nantes in the 1980s, and that the two were roomates.
"I wanted to go visit my friend Olivier, and also meet Vincent Nogueira eyeball to eyeball for my coaches, who desperately wanted this player," Sakiewicz said. "So I went along with Brendan Burke."
Sakiewicz then turned unprompted to the Union's most controversial foreign signing of the year, Algerian goalkeeper Raïs Mbolhi. There have been reports, most notably from KYW's Kevin Kinkead and Goal.com's Ives Galarcep, that Sakiewicz had a direct role in bringing Mbolhi to PPL Park, and there have been constant rumors ever since that the move was made over some level of objection from Union manager Jim Curtin.
Sakiewicz disputed all of that. Here is his side of the story:
People, for some reason, think there is some nefarious thing against Zac MacMath, that I'm the guy who went and got Rais Mbolhi. I'm not the guy. [His] agent came to Chris and Jim, an agent who I've known for a long time, who's very credible and very good, and said, "I've got to get this guy out of CSKA Sofia - he's not getting paid, he's in a horrible situation, are you guys interested?"
It was a very attractive financial deal. Jim and Chris wanted him, and I said I'll support that. We don't need a goalkeeper right now, but I'll support that. And actually, when I look at Zac MacMath's record over 100 games, we need better goalkeeping.
So we have one of the best goalkeepers that played in the World Cup. Did he make a gaffe in the wrong time at the wrong place? Yeah. But so did the other three players in front of him - Vincent Nogueira, Carlos Valdés, Maurice Edu. Two of the four guys who screwed up on that goal played in the World Cup. That's another one that goes under the topic of you can't make this [stuff] up.
Now that the season is over - with MacMath playing a role in both Columbus goals Saturday, offside or not - Sakiewicz and the Union turn to a future that will present unprecedented challenges and opportunities.
For much of Don Garber's 15-year tenure as commissioner of Major League Soccer, the league has followed a successful path of slow and sustainable growth. The pace of that growth has picked up in the last few years, though, and this coming offseason has the potential to raise that pace to unprecedented levels.
The reasons why are well known: Major League Soccer's new eight-year, $720 million TV deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision; the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations between MLS and the players' union; and the arrival of expansion teams Orlando City and New York City FC, both big-spending competitors with the Union in the playoff race and U.S. Open Cup.
Sakiewicz has been a part of MLS since its very first days, and is well aware that the league stands at a potentially historic point of inflection. But he preaches caution about just how much change can happen at once.
"Obviously it's a great TV deal and a major step forward for the league, but we need to keep our heads about ourselves," he said. "It in the grand scheme of the things takes the league to another level. But we're still investing in this league, and all that money that is going to come in from the new TV deal is getting re-invested into the league."
No one would expect an owner to call for increasing player salaries on the eve of a CBA expiring, of course, but Sakiewicz is certainly aware that certain areas matter more than others when it comes to how the influx of new money is spent.
"This has been a slow burn for 15, some great movement the last five, but the next 10 are really what it's all about in order to take this league from a top 10 league to a top 5 league," Sakiewicz said. "It's going to require a lot more investment. So people need to keep their heads about it when they think about grabbing that TV money, because how we deploy that TV money in the next eight years is going to be critical."
In addition to spending on first-team players, there will also likely be opportunities for the Union and the other clubs in MLS to boost investment in their youth development structure. That investment can take a long time to pay off, but it can also be quite influential in the pace of MLS' growth.
As Sakiewicz and I discussed the topic, he recalled a recent conversation he had with U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati:
When can we be in the final four [of the World Cup]? 2026? Pick a date. If you just did the math, today is 2014. That's 12 years from now. What are the ages of the players that are going to be playing in that group of four? [Around] 26. Twenty-six minus 12 is 14 now.
So here's the question, Sunil: What are we doing as a federation and as a league with 14-year-olds? And by the way, there's millions of them in this country playing soccer. The answer is, MLS is doing a lot with its academies, but [they are] very new. So we need help to get traction.
What's U.S. Soccer doing with 14s? Nothing. So how can you expect to be in a final four if there's 11 14-year-olds in this country [we haven't found] who can potentially be in that Final four? We had better find them and we had better develop them, and it's millions of them that we've got to look at. Where are the regional camps, where is the coach development?
[Union academy director] Tommy Wilson will tell you we're not developing players in this country, we're identifying them. We need to be developing them, not identifying them.
There is, of course, a bit of extra context to any discussion about American soccer player development these days: U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann's recent criticisms of the standards in MLS, and Garber's blistering riposte.
Not surprisingly, Sakiewicz is in Garber's corner, advocating strongly for "the alignment of Major League Soccer with the U.S. Soccer Federation as it relates to player development."
Sakiewicz cited links between leagues and federations in France, Spain and Germany. At least one of those nations has appeared in each of the last five World Cup finals, and each has added a Jules Rimet Trophy to its cabinet. France and Spain also won the European Championship, in 2000 and 2008 respectively.
"You can't have that when the national team coach doesn't respect, or doesn't say supportive things of, the domestic league," Sakiewicz said. "So for Jurgen to pop off like that is really counter-productive."
Our discussion of player development opened an opportunity for me to ask Sakiewicz to assess the progress of the Union's high school at YSC Sports in Wayne. Sakiewicz's investment in the institution extends well beyond his professional role, as his 16-year-old son Max is a sophomore there.
In particular, I wanted to know what outside observers should expect of the school, and what expectations should be for when we'll see it produce players for the Union's first team. On that count, Sakiewicz counseled patience, but he acknowledged that it's a tough ask.
"It's a 10-year slog of refining and developing and identifying, and developing, and developing, and developing," he said. "Unfortunately, the downside of youth player development is the time necessary to do it, and the problem, especially in this country, is we have no patience. We want it now. That's just not how it works."
While we wait for the high school bear fruit, the spotlight has become brighter on the Union's USL PRO affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders. Many observers of both MLS and USL PRO have lauded the partnership as one of the best in the country, with Union reserves regularly traveling up the Turnpike to get more playing time.
The increase in exposure has brought the City Islanders increases in ticket sales and sponsorship - as well as a Cinderella run to the USL PRO title game. It has also raised questions about the club's future. As more MLS teams launch their own USL PRO teams, will the Union eventually do the same?
Sakiewicz said he expects the partnership with Harrisburg to continue, and to see "more investment by us in them." But he also warned that the organization "has challenges, principally their stadium - their stadium is awful."
The Skyline Sports Complex is in an ideal location, just across the Susquehanna River from downtown, but if you've been there, you know it isn't much of a facility. It seats around 4,000 fans, mostly on bleachers, and there isn't much more to the place than the stands.
Conversations have taken place in Harrisburg about building a new stadium, but they remain in the early stages. Sakiewicz is paying close attention.
"If they don't get a stadium built soon, we're going to have to make a decision to either stop the relationship or maybe partner with them and move them, because they can't compete in USL with that building," he said. "I don't know that we have to buy them out - if anything we'll grow our relationship with Eric [Pettis, the team's president]... I could envision us becoming more of a presence in their ownership, absolutely, but the linchpin of that is the stadium. We are not going to invest in a team that has that kind of a stadium with no hope of getting out."
There will always be more questions to ask, more rumors to chase, more accountability to seek for a fourth season in five all-time without a playoff berth. But in the course of our conversation, one thing about Nick Sakiewicz's role with the Union became more clear to me than ever: this is his team, and his personal investment in it surpasses his previous work with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
Sakiewicz has many allies and advocates across the Major League Soccer community, and he has many enemies and critics. They all have offered many judgments of him over the years, and they continue doing so to this day.
He hears those judgments, and they matter to him. He might not always admit it, but as I said above, the cacophony is impossible to ignore. At the end of the day, the judgment rendered by the fans at PPL Park is ultimately the one that is most likely to cause any further judgment by the rest of the Union's ownership.