Commentary / Union

The false dilemma: To spend or not to spend

Photo: 215 pix

With the sea calming, we can all take a clearer view at the horizon.

The Philadelphia Union may have lost against Salt Lake, but this team just won four straight, the franchise’s best run of play in their eight-year history. Before defeating New York Red Bulls 3-0 on May 6, however, the Union had gone 252 days without a win. To put it politely, it was a tumultuous period.

And it jumpstarted a conversation about what path is best for Philadelphia Union going forward in terms of how much majority owner Jay Sugarman and sporting director Earnie Stewart must spend on players.

Argument A: “Money can’t buy happiness…”

Philadelphia sit right in the middle of the pack financially, with $7,117,010.10 spent on payroll. That is more than enough to build a winner. Need an example? Look to the western conference.

Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, and San Jose Earthquakes occupy the top four places in the conference with the 16th, 22nd, 17th, and 13th highest team salaries, respectively. Beyond this year, Kansas City and Dallas have been models of consistent, continuous success. Even more impressive, none of these teams pay more than $1 million on any player on their roster.

How do these teams do it? It’s through a combination of smart acquisitions and youth development.

This is the model Stewart preaches. Invest money into the academy and infuse reasonably priced outside talent. As far as youth goes, Philadelphia’s organization is building a wonderful foundation under the leadership of their sporting director. Take a look at the notable draft picks and academy prospects.

  • 2016 SuperDraft: Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers
  • 2017 SuperDraft: Marcus Epps, Aaron Jones, Chris Nanco, Jack Elliott, Santi Moar
  • Academy: Derrick Jones, Austin Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Anthony Fontana

Already, some of these names are paying dividends for the Union. Derrick Jones is among the best central midfielders the Union have. Yaro and Rosenberry look to be the immediate future of the backline. Herbers is a serviceable tool at Jim Curtin’s disposal. It is the value at the later portions of the draft that is most impressive. A 4th round rookie, Elliott, is performing at a veteran’s level, helping to lead Philadelphia’s resurgence. Bethlehem Steel are getting key contributions from the rest of the names.

Despite the success in development, Stewart’s acquisitions have been spotty. The money is there, but it has been spent poorly. Early season performances raised questions about Haris Medunjanin, Fafa Picault, and Oguchi Onyewu. Recent play has eased those concerns.

Last season saw the reward of Chris Pontius equaled by the failure of Anderson Conceição.

When crying poor, it’s easy to look at money wasted. The salaries of Roland Alberg, Maurice Edu, Charlie Davies, Jay Simpson, and Brian Carroll equal $1,976,017. Not all were Stewart signings, but it is his burden nonetheless. That total, if spent on one player, would be the 15th highest individual salary in the league.

Jay Sugarman has given all he needs to give. The building blocks are in place. All the Union need is patience for the young talent and wise spending.

Argument B: “…but it can buy a jet ski.”

If the Western Conference shows that a team doesn’t need to buy to win, the Eastern Conference is the inverse.

The four teams with the highest payroll in all of MLS are Toronto FC, New York City FC, Orlando City SC, and Chicago Fire. Guess which four teams stand 1-4 in the conference. The best team in the league, Toronto, pay their players an astonishing $22.5 million.

Saying Philadelphia is “middle of the pack” rings hollow. Only $2.1 million separates the Union from Houston, who spend the least in the league. If Sugarman spent that same amount, it would only make Philadelphia the 8th highest payroll. Outside of the aforementioned four teams, the other three in the top seven are the LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, and Seattle Sounders. You may recognize them as the last three winners of the MLS Cup.

The emotional factor can’t be dismissed. While Earnie Stewart may only have been here two years, fans have seen seven seasons come and go without a playoff victory or silverware. It’s time to buy a contender.

Playing “Moneyball” is a risky proposition at best. It requires organizational success at all levels. If one aspect fails, the whole thing crumbles. A structure composed of balsa wood can only withstand as much pressure as its weakest piece allows.

Isn’t investing in high priced players just as risky? In reality, no.

Say the Union were to spend anywhere from $1.7-2.6 million on one player. It’s not a small number, but it covers the 10th to 20th highest-paid players in the league. Look at some of these names and salaries, and tell me if any have been poor decisions.

  • Diego Valeri ($2.6 mil)
  • Tim Howard ($2.5 mil)
  • Miguel Almiron ($2.3 mil)
  • Maximiliano Moralez ($2.0 mil)
  • Romain Alessandrini ($2.0 mil)
  • Yura Movsisyan ($2.0 mil)
  • Nemanja Nikolic ($1.9 mil)
  • Freddy Montero ($1.8 mil)
  • Nicolás Lodeiro ($1.7 mil)
  • Fanendo Adi ($1.7 mil)
  • Shkëlzen Gashi ($1.7 mil)
  • Bradley Wright-Phillips ($1.6 mil)

Nobody is asking Sugarman to triple his payroll and rival Toronto. Just spend some money and bring in a solid player. Become a marquee franchise.

Last season, Chicago had the lowest salary in MLS. They signed Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger for this season. If any team proves what effect players of this echelon can have, it’s the Fire.

The resolution

To spend or not to spend.

It’s a false dilemma.

The fallacy is thinking there is a correct answer. Both choices can lead to success or failure. For every Chicago there is a Colorado. For every Dallas there is a D.C.

MLS is a grueling league. The Union will play six midweek games this season, including a stretch of four games in eleven days at the end of July. That doesn’t even include the U.S. Open Cup fixtures starting mid-June. To be successful, the Union may look to summer additions. They will also need production from their youngsters and Stewart’s recent signees. Giliano Wijnaldum will see more time and Jay Simpson will get chances to show his skill.

Few teams can play Moneyball and spend. The Union have built one of the best academies in the league. Philadelphia is also the 4th largest market in North America, capable of hosting a papal visit, the Democratic National Convention, and the NFL Draft.

Whichever path Philadelphia Union choose, they should be judged on execution rather than intent. If they falter, they will be held accountable. If they succeed, praised.


  1. I think the impact of Edu and his money has been really understated.

    It sucks about his injuries, but we’ve probably blown 2 million + on a player who hasn’t played in two years.

    He basically pays for one of those players you listed.

    Once he is off our books, I wonder if we will look to make our next big splash.

  2. The key is to have a great coach and spend wisely.

  3. Let’s be clear: Sugarman does not pay all $7 Million. In fact, he pays a small portion. League pays the majority and kicks in TAM/GAM. And yes, they haven’t spent wisely either… I’m guessing a real scouting department (something the league doesn’t pay for) might help with that… I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he actually filled all three DP spots.


    The ownership isn’t willing or able to compete in MLS 3.0. Jay is holding out to flip this team once its value hits his magic number. Buy low and sell high. That’s the real Moneyball.

  4. The Truth says:

    …But it’s Philadelphia and we’re destined for eternal frustration.

  5. philthy defense says:

    The concept of money ball is to create a system and leverage overlooked or undervalued players into that system for maximum benefit.
    I do not see the front office capitalizing on this. They have admitted their intended #10 threw a stick in the spokes when he showed up over weight and out of shape. He’s not even a #10, let alone overlooked or undervalued. They dumped a crowd favorite for a guy who can’t even sniff the game day 18. If Edu is healthy, where does he fit in the system? fighting with Bedoya and Medunjanin for an 8 or 6 spot? So many questions this front office makes me scratch my head about.
    The question I ask myself is, do I want to support that type of system with my time and money?
    I’ve determined the answer on money, which is NO! As for time, I’m still questioning that. The PSP community has been my main factor for following this team. I love reading and following the content here. But the front office is making me question if I am wasting that precious commodity.

    • Which #10 was dumped?

      Edu was a year + before Bedoya or Medunjanin and hell if he wasn’t perpetually hurt who knows what this team would look like now. But bottom line Edu is out of here and I think his departure will be when we splash for that second DP.

      • My read is that the dumped crowd favorite is LeToux for Charlie “can’t sniff the gameday 18” Davies.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        My read is the dumped crowd favorite was Okugo in favor of Edu. The beauty of adding our own meaning.

    • Really great point about where Edu fits. With this formation that we all know they wont change, if they thought Edu was going to play this year at #6 or #8, then Bedoya & Medunjanin is one player too many.
      They brought Mendunjanin in to a position that was supposed to already be filled, so they must have suspected Edu was probably done.
      If that is the case, then the payroll of the active (fit) players available each week looks a lot more like Houston’s payroll number.

    • John Harris says:

      Moneyball depends on two things. First a team takes advantage of the league salary structure to take advantage of undervalued youth players, such as MLB players in years 1 through 6 of their careers. Second a team finds the undervalued stat. In baseball it was on-base percentage. Perhaps Earnie has the secret stat. Dunno. I don’t know if the Union are doing either. Maybe??? Doesn’t seem like it yet but it would take some time.

  6. I still don’t know why they parted with Le Toux. What did they see in Davies that made him such a priority?

    • LeToux was moved because he was a free agent. If he wasn’t traded when he was, team would have gotten nothing for him. TBH, I’d have kept him.

      • True. And if his replacement can’t make the eighteen, then we technically got nothing for him.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        There’s no way Le Toux was leaving. They’d have gotten the hometown discount for him. His wife’s from the area, he loved the area, he was staying. He zeroed in on D.C. United because it’s closest to Philly.

      • For a player who has given everything for this franchise and honestly is still the franchise they sure treated him poorly 2 times. And it’s not like he had nothing left in the tank either. He looked like a stud super-sub at the beginning of last year.

      • trading him away (again) proved Earnie didn’t appreciate the time before his arrival. this fanbase had little to hold on to insofar as an identity and as A. says “is still the franchise” is a big miss. add it to the mounting frustration of questionable acquisitions and a weak midfield.

      • Ernie made it clear at the recent town hall that moves are not personal, but shipping Le Toux out again was personal to the fan base.

  7. I think to spend or not to spend is a false dilemma because spending money may not guarantee success but it almost always improves a team’s chances of success (A notable exception being money spent on a certain goalkeeper who played in a a little tournament in Brazil circa 2014 before laying waste to the Union locker room in 2015). Stewart and company would have to try extraordinarily hard to sign to DPs that would harm the Union’s chances of winning games at this point. I hope they have plans for a summer addition, because this team is going to need it. A DP #10 could really boost this team’s win percentage for the second half of the season.

  8. Outside the Box says:

    When is MO’s contract up?

  9. John Harris says:

    Largely apologetics. Sugarman is cheap.

  10. scottymac says:

    You’re really conflating the payroll of the players on the team and Jay Sugarman. If you want to discuss ambition or spending beyond the salary budget (it’s not a cap, not in any sense of the word) or investment in more FO staff (hellooo scouting department), that is on Jay Sugarman. Couple hundred K of missed players here and there is filling out a roster.
    Is Alberg a miss? Wasn’t he second on the team in goals last year in like the least minutes played? By that metric you may be inclined to say it was a hit.
    Is Ilsinho a miss? The team didn’t start winning until he was shifted into the 10, resulting in a MOTM performance and a 4 game win streak. Miss or Curtin getting out of his own way?
    Jay Simpson? Not sure how he’s a miss when he started twice, scored a goal, took a bruised lung to keep him out and then can’t get a sniff. Let’s revisit in August during CJ’s inevitable slump and he’s forced into the XI again.

    • some wisdom here. good points

    • Nick Fishman says:

      I don’t believe Simpson is a miss, yet. It’s why I mentioned him when discussing depth at the bottom of the article.

      Alberg is definitely debatable. I lean more toward “miss” based on salary and role. He doesn’t fit a formation the organization prefers.

      Personally, I lean more toward, “go buy a stud no.10,” but I wanted to show both styles can work.

      • scottymac says:

        I lean toward “go buy a team a of studs at each position and win” vs “look at these awesome beans I traded the cow for!!!”.

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