CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union owner Jay Sugarman addressed the media Friday night at the club’s kit launch party after the signing of Mexican international Marco Fabian.
Sugarman addressed a number of topics, including how much the team spends on a yearly basis on personnel, the impact of the Fabian signing and the direction of the club heading into the 2019 Major League Soccer season.
Below is a full transcript of Sugarman’s 17-minute press availability from Friday night.
Question: What went into the Marco Fabian deal?
Sugarman: “As I’ve said all along, we’ve been trying to build piece by piece to get ready for these kind of moments. I’ve been really impressed with (sporting director) Ernst (Tanner) all the way back to our interview process. I asked him what would it take to get us to the next level. He’ll tell you he said three things that he has put into motion already. Those are the things that give me the comfort when he says “This is the player I need” to say then we’re going to get him.”
“The thing that gives me confidence when somebody comes in with a very specific idea of what we need. He said you don’t run enough, you’re not fast enough and you don’t run fast often enough.”
“We’ve gotten faster. You’re going to see the guys in incredible shape this year. When you look at the metrics of the players he’s been using and evaluating in training, and you look at MLS standards, there’s a difference and he’s going to close that difference for us and he’s picked players for us that he thinks have the capability to do that.”
“He said you must control the center of the pitch. We played some really beautiful football last year, but the games we lost you could see we lost them because we were open in the middle. And so he’s brought in a formation and a type of player he thinks can really close down that vulnerability while still keeping some of the offensive firepower.”
“The third thing he said, which is still a work in progress, you guys are investing $10 million a year, you’re investing 6-7 of that in development, you have to get more out of that. If you’re going to overspend on development, the academy, the USL team, you must make sure you’re getting a payoff from that. You need players you believe can either play for the Union or be sold in the international market.”
“Other teams have decided to spend a lot more on the first team and a lot less on development. There’s a lot of teams shutting down their USL affiliates. There’s a lot of teams skimping on their academies. We’ve gone in the other direction. We’ve overcommitted to development and we’re obviously under committed on DPs.”
“I think Ernst believes, and I’ve always believed, if we get the development part right, that balance will start to shift in our favor. We have to be really focused on this development, producing players who are going to play for the Union and you’ve seen the beginning of that. He’s going to push that even harder.”
“When I think about lining up against some of the teams that candidly have a lot more money to spend because they have a different business, we don’t have to go head-to-head the way they want to play. We want to play the way we want to play.”
“When you see Ernst’s footprints, you see it’s going to be about controlling the center of the pitch. It’s going to be about players who meet these metrics that he’s set out in terms of how much you run, how fast you run and how often you run fast. We’re trying to think of a name for it and there’s no real easy translation for it, but it’s kind of this power press, or I was calling it a hunter-killer.”
“When those moments of transition happen, we want our guys to the ball first. How do you instill that kind of ethos and he’s done that his entire career in Germany. That’s what I think you’ll see on the field.”
“He showed me some videos from his teams over there and it’s really striking how fast they move collectively to the ball and off the ball how they move together to squeeze out the space. It creates vulnerability. I watched the tapes from our training sessions and I see that. I see what he’s trying to achieve, so Marco fits in perfectly to that.”
“(Fabian)’s talented offensively, but he’s also talented defensively. I think you guys have seen he has an unbelievable character. He’s going to help elevate all of the other players around him and we’ve got a really great collection of talent that now needs to absorb where we’re going and execute on it. I’m super excited because I see the vision Ernst is laying out and I see the pieces he said he needed.”
“(Tanner) said he needed a left back, he went and got a left back. We needed that speed, he’s gone and got speed. He needed the center of the park to have a leader who could command the press when we don’t have the ball, but also be a little bit of magician when we do have the ball, he went out and got that.”
“(Tanner)’s checked all the boxes he set up when the season began and our goal is to give him the resources to succeed. But we haven’t varied from our view, and I’ll tell you Ernst fundamentally believes that our development emphasis is the right path. Now it’s early in its payoff, but we’re going to try and balance the two in the interim until that development process really does start to support.”
Q: Did you need any convincing to put everything on the table to make this happen?
Sugarman: “We ask hard questions of all kinds of players. We really want them to be impactful. We want to make sure it makes sense. The salary cap in MLS means you can’t afford to make mistakes very often. So we go through a pretty substantial process and (technical director) Chris (Albright), Ernst and (head coach) Jim (Curtin) all say this is a player who is going to elevate our team, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing.”
“It was to work financially. We have a set amount of $10 million we spend on players, either development or first team. How they want to mix and match that is their choice. Right now, we overcommit to development and we haven’t been on the high end of DPs. But they know how much they have and they go figure out how much they want to spend to solve the problems we need to solve to get better.”
“We’re going to be better this year. We were better last year. I think (former sporting director) Earnie (Stewart) made us better each year, but we want to be a top-tier team. We built all the infrastructure. You guys see it. It’s happening year by year. I look at the 10th year and remember where we were. Each year we’re adding pieces to this story. This is a year I want to break through.”
“It’s the 10th year. It’s important for us, having someone of Marco’s caliber, bringing in a Sergio (Santos), having the young talent we have, having the veterans come back with a hunger in their belly. And having Jim, frankly, come with a hunger are all great things and I think having Ernst really come from an environment where you can tell us these are the things you need to be better and then execute on that.”
“That’s when I get excited. It’s not about this or that or the money, it’s about will we be better at the end of the day. Because if we spend a lot of money and we’re no better, you’re going to come back to me and ask what happened. I think this is the kind of signing that’s going to show all of the work we’ve done to get here is going to pay off.”
Q: When did Ernst first approach you about Marco Fabian? When you initially hear about a player of Marco’s stature, from your perspective, how excited did you get and how much did you say let’s make sure we get this done?
Sugarman: “It’s funny when you’re an owner, you see a player of that caliber and get excited right away and forget all of the rules and disciplines you set up, you go, “Forget ‘em, let’s get him”. And then you go wait and realize that’s how you get in trouble in this sport. So these guys were really thorough. They had a list of each of the requirements that Ernst and Jim and Chris set out. Marco was at the top of the list for what we wanted at the center of the field. A No. 10, creative, the bonuses are personality, character, his presence in the global marketplace as a Mexican national team player. Those are all bonuses, but he had to meet the first criteria, which is is he going to make our team better?”
— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) February 8, 2019
“I went online when I learned we first had a chance to pursue him and looked at his body of work that I could find and it’s really impressive. It’s hard as an owner not to get excited when you see that caliber of player being available to you. I said to Ernst “Will he work with the other players?, will he work in your system?, can he actually do the physical things that you told me we need to do in the middle of the pitch? When he said this is a special player, that’s when I get excited.”
“We’ve had a bunch of new guys come in, each one I think he has got me excited by saying this is why they’re going to make this team better. Kai (Wagner) as a left back is going to help us. Sergio up front is going to help us. Kacper (Przybylko) is going to help us. (Tanner)’s had a very clear plan from the day he came here. The whole interview with Ernst was about how we get to the next level. And so he’s checking those boxes one by one.”
“We’re not there yet. There’s more to do, but you can see, again I’ve had 10 years to watch the development, the mistakes, we’re starting to get this thing figured out really well about what we need to do and the pieces are all here.”
Q: From the academy spending perspective, it’s reaping rewards already with (Auston) Trusty and (Mark) McKenzie in senior national team camp, is that what you hope is the scratching of the surface for the academy production?
Sugarman: “It’s exciting to me, and it’s going to sound weird, but I was excited when Ernst said it can be better. He told us we have a great academy and the things you are doing are great, but I can make it even better. We’re going to make the Bethlehem Steel a proving ground for players I believe can make it at the Union, or players I think I can sell on the international market.”
“He’s got a very high bar. He’s going to raise the bar of each of those elements. He’s going to make sure Tommy (Wilson) at the academy has a higher bar. We’re not doing this to train players who can’t play in this league, or can’t train players who can’t play internationally. That bar just got raised. I know Tommy knows that and (Bethlehem Steel head coach) Brendan (Burke) knows that because (Ernst) knows how much we’re spending and he goes if I’m not going to spend that on first-team players, I want top talent coming out of that system and if I’m not going to get it, he’s going to make changes because he’s going to spend that much money every year.”
“Ernst comes from an environment where he’s been successful finding that talent, putting it through a system and having it come out either for the benefit of his club, or to sell on the international market and that’s when you know we’re successful. I can sit here and tell you I have an incredible academy and we can get a lot of accolades. When we sell players for a lot of money, then you guys can say the academy strategy worked. Until then, I love the fact that we have young players coming up.”
“I love the fact that Auston’s come through our system, Mark’s come through our system. We need more of those and we need their profile to reach a point where the international market says Philadelphia Union academy is one of the top in America.”
Q: Is a sale required to alter the balance of the $10 million and increase the pie, including what it would take to get a third designated player on the team?
Sugarman: “Sales will increase the pie. They will give us the flexibility to go further. We said five years, $6 million a year, $30 million we’re going to spend to build an academy system that can create top-tier talent. We brought in top coaches. We’ve got an incredible physio staff, sports science staff, sports psychology staff. You don’t just start an academy and the players start coming out.”
“Mark’s been here nine years. You want to mold, create and craft these talents that we have in the Philadelphia area and elsewhere in the U.S. You can’t do it in one year or two years. It’s a process. So we’re good three years in, I think we’ve done really well.”
“But Ernst as an outsider coming from absolute excellence has told us we can do even better and that gets me excited because I know we’re doing something special and it’s different than a lot of other teams. I see other teams dropping out of USL. I see other teams skimping and pulling back from academies. If we do it well, we’re going to be special. We’re going to be different than others.”
“On the international stage, I think this is the right strategy. You can’t just buy from the international stage. You want to feed it as well. We’ve got maybe a little different philosophy in the near team, but long term we want to win. The ultimate test for whether this has all been successful is this team a top-tier, regular successful competitor at the highest parts of the league.”
Q: Bringing in someone like Marco Fabian, who is able to connect to possible new fan groups that you guys haven’t had access to in the past, how important is it not only bringing in a recognizable superstar, but as you said, a recognizable Mexican international that can maybe connect with some different opportunities?
Sugarman: “I would defer to my top business person as to how to create that environment where our fan base grows as we grow as a club. But I would tell you this is a great 10th year development and somewhat unexpected. We did not say we need to go and get a Mexican international with a pedigree like Marco. We said we needed to fill this spot on the field and when you hear that the player we can potentially have has all these attributes and can connect us to a community that should be Union fans, they should be coming out, that was like “Whatever it takes, go get the deal done.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s the business element, I would say it’s the fan element. We want our fans to be excited, We want them to be excited and be that’s my player, that’s my club and I think Marco, you can just see it in his personality, the fans are going to love him.”
“We’ve got a lot of young players I think the fans are really going to gravitate to and we’re starting to build that critical mass out. We have to win on the field. If we do all these things and we end up not playing well, then it’s all for naught.”
“Are we a better team? Are we getting better? And if we’re doing that and we can bring in somebody of this stature, and not only in the Mexican community, but the global soccer community, these are important steps for a young club that’s still trying to change the narrative from what we were to what we want to be now. We want to be a top-tier club.”