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Union owner Jay Sugarman responds to criticism over lack of charter flights

Sugarman said the front office has “an open door to say this is important." But he prefers to be asked to buy charter flights by the team's technical staff, instead of stepping up without being asked.

Union principal owner Jay Sugarman.
Union principal owner Jay Sugarman.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Jay Sugarman’s desk is ultimately the one where the buck stops, but he tries to stay out of the Union’s day-to-day operations. The team’s principal owner would rather leave the soccer decisions to Ernst Tanner and the business decisions to Tim McDermott, and given the track record of meddling owners in all sports, Sugarman has a point.

But that doesn’t mean he ignores what’s going on, especially when criticism is aimed at him. And even though the Union enjoyed the most successful season in team history this year, Sugarman still took a lot of heat on one big subject: charter flights. The Union were one of a few teams leaguewide that didn’t use any this year, not even approaching the low limit of four one-way trips per season.

Union captain Alejandro Bedoya publicly rebuked Sugarman last month, asking the owner to listen to his players and coaching staff’s calls to step up. Sugarman didn’t directly respond at the time, and was quiet since the season ended. Wednesday, he spoke up in an interview with The Inquirer.

“That decision sits with our technical staff,” Sugarman said, referring chiefly to Tanner, the sporting director, and manager Jim Curtin. “I trust them when they need something they come to me and ask, and I’ve rarely said no.”

Sugarman also opened the door to a meeting with Bedoya over the issue, though he didn’t say whether one has already happened.

“Ale and I will have to compare notes,” Sugarman said. “I think taking red-eyes back from California is pretty tough on the body and the mind. But he’s a player and our captain, and it’s important for me to understand what he’s feeling and what his ideas are.”

The front office, Sugarman continued, has “an open door to say this is important, and if the players are communicating to them that this is really important to them, then they will convey it to me and to ownership.”

That prompted an inevitable follow-up question: Why wait for Tanner and Curtin to come to you? Why not step up and buy a charter flight when warranted, without having to be asked?

“I’m not close enough to the travel schedules and the regen [fitness training] schedules and the nutrition schedules,” Sugarman said. “That’s something that Ernst and Jimmy and the technical staff have to take care of. Is it better to sleep in a bed and wake up and do regen and then fly, or is it better to fly through the middle of the night? I don’t know. I think that’s something that different players might have different opinions on.”

There is indeed no lack of opinions on the subject in the Union’s locker room. Most players and staff don’t want to go on the record about it, but as The Inquirer has previously reported, plenty of them would like the team — no matter who’s ultimately responsible — to step up.

Sugarman has clearly heard that.

“Our players are the most important piece of the puzzle at the end of the day, so we want them to be happy,” he said, citing a range of other off-field investments he’s made in recent years. “If there’s a way to win that’s a little better, I’m always interested in hearing that, but again, I don’t want to insert myself into that thought process. That is something I trust implicitly that Ernst and Jimmy are in complete control of. When they say something’s important, they’ve had the support of ownership.”

Sugarman declined to say whether the subject came up in the MLS Board of Governors meeting he attended last week in New York. MLS commissioner Don Garber also didn’t address the matter in a news conference after the meeting, citing the league’s current CBA negotiations with the MLS Players Association. But Garber previously acknowledged this year that the charter-flight rule will be improved in the new CBA, and it is on Sugarman’s radar.

“I think scheduling and transportation, and how do we make this league continually grow in terms of quality of play and rivalries, all those good things work together,” Sugarman said. “None of them are in isolation."