Four years ago, one of the trendiest fashion items among U.S. soccer fans was the jersey of a team in Italy’s third division.
Under the direction of American CEO Ted Philipakos and American owners led by Joe Tacopina, Venezia FC rocketed to chic hipster status in a matter of months. The club also succeeded on the field, gaining promotion from the fourth tier to Serie B and hiring Italian legend Filippo Inzaghi as manager.
At one point, you could buy a Venezia jersey in soccer gear shops in Manhattan, such was the team’s renown.
But Venezia’s stature over here fell as quickly as it rose. Philipakos moved on at the end of the season when it reached Serie B, and before too long, the club was back to relative anonymity.
At the start of this year, there was a financial restructuring of the club, and Tacopina was removed by the other owners. Majority shareholder Duncan Niederauer, a former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, became the club’s president.
A few months after that, Philipakos returned to Venice with his agency to lead the club on branding, marketing, and business development matters. And he wasn’t the only American to come on board. Alex Menta, a 29-year-old West Chester native, was hired as the team’s director of analytics — after cold-emailing Niederauer to see if he’d be interested in such a role for the team’s scouting department.
Menta was a hockey player growing up, and even had a professional stint in Finland at one point. He fell in love with soccer while attending the 2006 men’s World Cup in Germany. He was also a math type, and used that skill set to make his way through the professional world when he returned to the U.S. nine years ago.
Coincidentally, Menta’s family has roots in Venice. So when he started following Italian soccer, he started following Venezia. He met Philipakos at the start of this year, and off things went from there.
Menta wasn’t Venezia’s only hire with ties to Philadelphia. The club also brought on former Union player Ethan White as its first artist-in-residence. White was known during his days on the field for having a side passion for photography, and it has blossomed since he hung up his cleats three years ago.
“I’ve always appreciated his eye and his aesthetic sensibility,” Philipakos said. “His transformation from footballer to photographer is not only a unique story with added value, but demonstrates a capacity to adapt and evolve, and I think that’s key to the project.”
While Venice can rival Rome and Milan’s history, architecture, food, and so on, it can’t in soccer. Venezia has spent just 12 of its 113 seasons in Serie A, and the most recent was 2001-02. The club’s 107-year-old stadium seats just 7,450 people, and it’s shoehorned against a canal and a marina at the city’s eastern edge. The training facility is across the water in Mestre, which is part of the city of Venice but part of Italy’s mainland.
The hope is that with a bolstered front office, the club will be able to find stability.
“Obviously, promotion is always on our mind, but we’re not trying to just buy it,” Menta said. “We’ll build it slow and we’ll get there on our own terms, but I think it’s doable within the next two to three years.”
Every club in Serie B obviously wants to go up, but they don’t all say how they plan to do it — beyond the traditional way of spending as much money as they can.
But as even some of Italy’s biggest clubs can prove, money alone doesn’t win games. Traditional giants Fiorentina and Parma spent way above their means in the past, and have only recently regained their old statures.
Enter Menta’s analytics background. He isn’t trying to be Sam Hinkie or Billy Beane — as he put it, analytics are “33% of our pie" — but that’s a lot more pie than most Italian clubs value. They usually buy from clubs elsewhere in Europe who have developed young players, instead of doing the work themselves.
“I know of two Italian football teams that actually have incorporated analytics into their thinking and process,” he said."Even though we’re backed by some very wealthy individuals, the name of the game isn’t to spend stupid, it’s to spend smart. Between finding players, match analysis, I mean, really, any direction you want to go with it when it comes to strategy or evaluating players, I feel like we have an immediate advantage over everybody right off the top."
He didn’t say which teams the two are, but considering that there are 40 teams combined in Serie A and Serie B, he didn’t have to.
“We need to go against the system, and not be a traditional Italian club,” Menta said. “We’re going to break that trend, I can guarantee you that, if I have anything to do with it.”
The effort has already started. The average age of Venezia’s roster is 25.6 years, and it includes players from Italy, Iceland, and Norway’s under-21 national teams.
“Our sporting director, our technical director, we all believe so heavily and so much in these young kids that we have on our team,” Menta said. “We have to put our money where our mouth is though, and take the risk. And we have a coach who’s willing to back us on that as well.”
The mentality goes all the way to the top of the hierarchy. Niederauer understands as well as anyone the value of analytics in the sports and business worlds. He also has an interest in strengthening the club’s youth academy, which some of his predecessors in the owner’s suite did not.
“He doesn’t try to be an expert on something he’s not,” Menta said. “He understands how valuable it is, and he understands how it’s evolving every industry in the world. Not just football, not just in our youth academies — to buying players, to even game-day strategy.”
That all said, it has not been easy to execute the strategy. One of the biggest roadblocks is that Serie B teams can only sign foreign players who hold European passports. So teams are limited in their ability to scout the rest of the world — including a country that Menta and his colleagues know especially well.
Asked whether he’s scouting the United States, Menta promptly gave an enthusiastic yes.
“Any American dual citizen will be taken into consideration greatly, because that’s the market we’re trying to obviously get into,” he said.
Menta didn’t want to specify who he’s looking at, of course, but he knows what an increasing number of European clubs do: American players cost far less than players of equal talents from other countries.
Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson’s $6 million move to Red Bull Salzburg is the sixth-biggest transfer fee for any sale out of MLS, and the third-biggest among American players from the league. But that amount of money doesn’t get you nearly as far in South America or Africa as it does in the United States.
Menta knows there is opportunity here. And once he makes his sales pitch, he can let the city of Venice do the rest.
“This is the first year we’ve ever bought international players for this club, in the history of the club,” Menta said, referring to full-blown purchases as opposed to loans. “We were starting to buy kids from Ajax, and you name the place, and they walk into Venice and they fall in love. We took people away from Serie A contracts to come to Venice. It’s an extremely attractive place to at least try to get this off the ground.”