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Philadelphia Union owner Jay Sugarman outlines Bethlehem Steel priorities

“The number one priority is it has to be the finishing school for up-and-coming players that we’re trying to develop”

May 12, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Forbes CEO and chairman Jay Sugarman poses for a photo during the MLS Autism Speaks gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

Philadelphia Union owner Jay Sugarman did not hold back when discussing the intentions of his team’s USL Championship affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC. 

In a wide-ranging interview with Pro Soccer USA on Wednesday, Sugarman made it clear what the second-division side have to be. 

“It’s development first and commercial considerations second,” Sugarman said. “We need this team to be developing top-tier players. Full stop.” 

In 2019, the Steel moved from Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium to the Union’s Talen Energy Stadium and experienced a dip in attendance amid criticism from moving the club out of the Lehigh Valley. 

“The number one priority is it has to be the finishing school for up-and-coming players that we’re trying to develop,” Sugarman said. “To me, that is the most important thing there.” 

“Where they play, we’d like them to play against high-quality talent,” Sugarman said. “We’d like to minimize the amount of time they’re traveling and recovering. We’d like to maximize the amount of time they train.” 

Sugarman explained the club is still trying to figure out the perfect revenue model for the USL Championship club and that Union sporting director Ernst Tanner has a clear vision of what the squad should look like. 

“I think we’re still looking at how best to get the maximum value out of something that is becoming increasingly expensive,” Sugarman said. “There’s no real revenue model around a second-division team so it’s all expensive and we want to give the players high-caliber coaches, high-caliber training, high-caliber environment. We need to see them develop around the year and become the players that [Union coach] Jim [Curtin] and Ernst want to see coming into the first team.” 

“We’re spending a lot more on scouting, development,” Sugarman said. “We’re really trying to refine that model so that it delivers what it’s supposed to. Right now I think minimizing the number of moving parts, in terms of where they play and practice, we’re trying to lock that all down so it’s really a focus on helping those players become, as fast as possible, first-team candidates and that would be our goal for 2020.” 

For the 2020 season, the Union will add Homegrowns Cole Turner and Jack De Vries, who spent time with Steel in 2019, like other Homegrowns have in previous seasons.

The 2019 Steel roster was primarily a mix of on-loan players from the Caribbean and Central American and academy members working their way up the development ladder. A handful of the Union’s first-team fringe players also participated to recover from injuries and maintain match fitness.

In November, the Steel announced seven players were under contract for the 2020 campaign and three others were set to re-join pending work status and approvals from the league and their respective federations. 

Where the club plays in 2020 is also up in the air, but Sugarman is not concerned with the location, as long as the developmental squad reaps rewards for the first team. 

“I don’t care where they play,” Sugarman said. “I don’t care what league they’re in. That’s the mandate.

“It’s up to Ernst to say how do we best do that and then the commercial side will step in and figure out a way to make it great for the fans, where we can give the best environment for the players, but right now, this is Ernst’s first full chance to put his imprint on that second team. And he’s got very strong views on how to make it a top development component for the whole club.”

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