In his office on the top floor of the old Delaware County Electric power plant along the river in Chester, Philadelphia Union chief executive officer and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz points to a photo of the December 2008 groundbreaking at PPL Park just down the block.
"I was in such pain right there," Sakiewicz said as he glanced at the photo of himself with another Union partner. "I hugged him and whispered in his ear, 'I've got to get out of here.' "
Sakiewicz assumed his acute lower-back pain was familiar, from his days as a goalkeeper. Blood tests taken a few days later proved otherwise.
He had leukemia.
Within the week, Sakiewicz received his first dose of chemotherapy.
"We're under construction," Sakiewicz said. "We're trying to close bank loans. Wall Street was burning in 2009, if you remember, so the bond market was freezing up. Delaware County couldn't sell the bonds. I'll never forget, it was Jan. 14th, I was in my hospital bed, getting a dose of chemo. I'm on the phone with our CFO and the bank, negotiating a loan deal. The nurse is looking at me like, 'You're out of your mind, dude.' "
The experiences of Sakiewicz's life might better be understood as hurdles. The 50-year-old former goalie has a self-belief that is hard-earned and helps explain how he was the one who brought professional soccer back to the area and got PPL Park built.
Before coming to Philly, Sakiewicz had dealt with a stream of New Jersey politicians of all stripes, been vilified by the home fans when he ran the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, had felt hamstrung by his own ownership, and learned lessons on how the locker room should be run.
He believes the Union represent his best shot at fulfilling his big soccer dreams.
Now that he is cancer-free.
Soccer ball at his feet
Why didn't his father get on the boat to Buenos Aires? Growing up in Passaic, N.J., Sakiewicz used to joke about that. If the family had caught the other ship, he'd have grown up in one of the great soccer countries.
A missed boat was only part of his family's lore. Nick heard the stories growing up about how his father, of Ukrainian ancestry, was a teenager living in Poland when the Germans invaded.
"They were actually kind of on the way to the labor camps," Sakiewicz said. "The Germans had come into the towns, they were gathering up people to put on the trains. . . . My grandmother, my father, and my uncle were rounded up because they didn't have their papers. My grandfather was a schoolteacher. He got word of this. He had the papers. He came running across town, showed the SS they were not Jewish. They got pulled out of the line. My father was 14 years old at the time."
The family fled to Austria, Sakiewicz said, then moved on to Italy.
"They decided to try to catch the next boat to Buenos Aires," Sakiewicz said. "They missed the boat. They decided they didn't want to wait a couple of weeks till the next boat to Buenos Aires, so they caught the next boat to Ellis Island."
His mother also was from Poland, Sakiewicz said. His maternal grandfather, a sailor, had gotten the family out before the Germans invaded, he said. His parents met in New Jersey. Nick grew up with a soccer ball at his feet. His father had played semi-pro. Nick was an all-American goalie at the University of New Haven, and eventually had short stints in France and Portugal, a season with the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League, and a year with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the American Professional Soccer League.
He was in the banking business in San Francisco before signing on to be one of the first employees of Major League Soccer, working on sponsorships. Then the league sent him to Tampa as general manager of the league-owned franchise.
"The first day on the job, I had to deal with a CFO who made off with about $200,000 in ticket receipts. Welcome to the new job, boss," Sakiewicz said. "Morale was really bad. My first week on the job, Thomas Rongen, who was coach of the year, told me he was resigning to go to New England."
After three years, he moved back to his home state as general manager of the MetroStars (now the Red Bulls). "It made Tampa seem like kindergarten," Sakiewicz said.
His primary mission was to get the MetroStars into a soccer-specific stadium. The league had enough proof that sharing football stadiums with NFL teams wasn't the way to go. Sakiewicz's first meeting was with the former mayor of Newark.
"He said, 'So you want to build a stadium in my city. You know, it would be great to have the MetroStars, but you know in this town we take care of people who take care of us.'
"Now I'm a Jersey boy, born and bred, didn't fall off the pineapple wagon yesterday. I knew exactly what that meant, and what I was dealing with. So I said, 'Thank you for the meeting. I don't think this is the place for us.' And I walked out."
His next call that same day, he said, was to the mayor of Harrison, N.J., another potential site.
"He says, 'I want nothing to do with the MetroStars. You can take your stadium and shove it.' He hung up on me."
It took six years to get that stadium built, but it happened, in Harrison. Sakiewicz made some missteps along the way, like misleading fans about how close the franchise was to a deal. That hurt his image with the fans, a move he seems determined not to repeat. (He also suggests he had little choice at times in choosing some of his words, because he was trying to keep the deal together).
"I took a beating up there by the fans. But you know what? I got it done," Sakiewicz said. "They will never take that away from me."
'We've done a lot right'
Asked what the difference has been in Philly, Sakiewicz immediately said, "Control. I didn't have control of my environment there. . . . Here, I was lucky enough to meet partners who had faith in me to allow me to do that. I met a guy who believed in me, Jay Sugarman. I'm not saying we've done everything right here, but we've done a lot right, and that's because I really have never had anyone in my soup here, so to speak. In New York, I had owners, I had the league, I had fans, I had politicians, fighting the whole thing."
Walking around PPL Park, Sakiewicz pointed to the Delaware River end, explaining how some staffers decided over a bottle of wine one night that the Sons of Ben fan club should have their own section, with their own entrance. He was able to slightly redesign the stadium, getting a little more room in that section where everyone would be standing anyway, an example of the complete freedom in the design.
The Union haven't brought in any huge international stars just to sell tickets. They were relieved early on when they realized they didn't have to, that they could start young and build from there because ticket sales would be robust.
Sakiewicz hired coach Peter Nowak, who is confident in his own technical expertise. He also believes Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson has it right, that no player can be bigger than the club. Even if that seems to be a positive, it ultimately hurts the team, Sakiewicz said.
He knows this is a business.
"Nick loves to get business done," said Randy Bernstein, who first hired Sakiewicz at MLS and now is president of Premier Partnerships, which brought PPL to the Union. "He's the kind of guy, in doing deals, he's not out to beat anybody, he's out to create relationships. If one side wins over the other, it's a short-term relationship."
Sakiewicz said his health problems changed him, no question.
"It's weird to say, but I'm glad I went through that, because I'm a better businessman, I'm a better father, I'm a better husband," Sakiewicz said. "I'm better at a lot of things than I was."
He was lucky, he said, that the leukemia was detected short of the first stage. He was shocked to find he was pain-free after the first chemo, and felt luckier that his own brother was a perfect match for a stem-cell transplant, which greatly reduced the odds of recurrence. The first nine months of 2009 were brutal. He often conducted business from bed as other Union employees filled in, he said.
"He sets his mind to something and is very forceful in getting there," said Mark Abbott, president of Major League Soccer. "But I also find him to be a very optimistic guy. He doesn't get down. Even in the face of obstacles, he doesn't get down."
See Union CEO
Nick Sakiewicz talking about his playing days, the strings attached
to building a soccer stadium in New Jersey, and PPL Park's perfect location.