Philadelphia Union owner Jay Sugarman has come under fire on countless occasions in the club’s history for not spending enough money to keep up with the rising costs of player acquisition across Major League Soccer.
A year ago, the Union signed Marco Fabian on a club-record deal, but there was no transfer fee involved and he earned a $2 million base salary.
For the Union, Fabian and Alejandro Bedoya were the only players over $1 million in base salary for 2019. Six clubs had three or more players make that amount and eight others had at least two $1 million players, according to the MLS Players Association’s salary database. The New England Revolution, Portland Timbers and Toronto FC had three players make more than $2 million.
With Fabian’s contract option not picked up, Haris Medunjanin off to FC Cincinnati, Fafa Picault traded to FC Dallas and Auston Trusty shipped off to the Colorado Rapids, the Union have plenty of allocation money and open salary space to work with for 2020.
“Based off some of the moves we’ve made, we do have resources now to fill the pieces that Ernst, Jim and Chris think we need,” Sugarman told Pro Soccer USA on Wednesday, referring to sporting director Ernst Tanner, head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright.
The Union cleared around $4 million in salary cap space and brought in $1 million of Targeted and General Allocation Money for the front office to work with ahead of the 2020 campaign.
Sugarman’s trust in Tanner to find the right roster pieces paid off last offseason, and he is relying on the sporting director to do the same with the limited budget. The Union did not provide specific budget numbers when asked.
“The transfer market is always unknowable, so it’s a constant dialogue of who we’re looking at, who can we get,” Sugarman said. “They have multiple targets for each of the needs that the team has. We’ll see if we can knock some of those down during the offseason so that when we start, we have a pretty good sense of what the profile of the team is and how to get the most out of them.
“I can only say we start every year with the best of intentions to pick up the players as early as possible.”
One of the biggest questions about the Union’s offseason plans is whether they keep Jamiro Monteiro, who was acquired on loan from French side Metz in 2019.
Monteiro’s acquisition marked the second year in a row in which the Union relied on a season-long loan to fill a midfield playmaking role. After the 2018 season, former loaner Borek Dockal decided to go back home to the Czech Republic.
“I don’t think our goal is to just use loans year by year, but I think it’s been the right thing to do over the last couple years,” Sugarman said. “Now with Ernst in charge and Jim with a clear view of what the style requires, I think they will start to put some real pieces in place for the longer term.”
The one way the Union could conceivably expand their transfer budget is through the sale of its academy products, but that process appears to be at least a year away with Brenden Aaronson the most promising prospect of the bunch at the moment.
The goal of the academy-first approach is to eventually make profit off the players, and Sugarman believes Tanner is the perfect man for that job given his experience in Europe at Hoffenheim and RB Salzburg.
“We spend by far the most in the league on our academy, USL [and] supplemental roster strategy,” Sugarman said. “We view that as an investment. It’s a sizable one. It’s in the last three years somewhere upward of $20 million. That’s an enormous investment that the players coming through the system will have to justify, and we believe will justify that.
“If a player is good enough to play at very high levels and we can financially benefit and continue to build within and bring in players and help them develop, that is the model we started out on four to five years ago, and we knew it would take time, but that’s the ultimate goal.”
For the 2020 season, Sugarman believes finding roster pieces will be easier now that Tanner’s style of play has had a year to manifest itself within the club.
However, there is no guarantee all of the pieces will be in place for the start of preseason Jan. 18 due to a number of factors.
“I just think it’s probably not realistic to think we’re going to be able to dictate the timeframe. The market does that sometimes, but the plans are clear, the goals are clear and I know they’ll start trying to knock those things down as quickly as possible,” Sugarman said. “It is tough when the season starts earlier, the windows are closer to when the season starts, but I know our guys have been working nonstop since the end of last season. It’s not for a lack of trying.”