For Pete's Sake / Season Reviews / Union

The Sugarman question

Photo: Earl Gardner

Sometimes Jay Sugarman seems like a sports owner straight out of central casting.

The long grey hair and the above-it-all demeanor. The helicopter that sometimes lands on unsuspecting practice fields. The name — “Sugar Man” — that implies benevolent wealth used to make the team better.

Only that’s the thing with Sugarman. He doesn’t have that much sugar.

By the standards of sports owners, Sugarman isn’t a particularly wealthy man, even if, by all objective standards, he is an obscenely wealthy man.

That may have been fine in an earlier iteration of MLS.

But in a league where Arthur Blank is starting teams, Sugarman is being left behind.

PSP editor Dan Walsh asked me to write a column about this question:

Can the Union ever become a top MLS team with Jay Sugarman as their owner?

Now Union fans, watching the horrors that vampiric Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt is inflicting on the city of Columbus right now, have expressed fatalistic concern about a different question:

What if Sugarman moves or sells the team?

Let’s tackle each in turn.

Smart investments can win in MLS

The Union can become a top team under Jay Sugarman. There’s a narrower margin of error than other teams in the league, sure. But Sugarman has shown that he’s willing to invest in the team and commit to a solid long-term plan.

The devil, of course, will be in the details.

For starters, the idea that Jay Sugarman isn’t spending money on the Union is a misconception. It’s just not all going to players right now.

When the Union started — and Sugarman really had no money — the franchise outside the first team and the stadium was a joke.

They practiced in a public park. They had no academy. They had no affiliate.

Over the last eight years, investment has gone toward filling those gaps. There’s now an outstanding training facility, complete with two practice fields. There’s an academy which began to produce professional and collegiate soccer players this year. There’s the Bethlehem Steel experiment in the Lehigh Valley.

All of these things took investment — millions of dollars worth. Sugarman and his co-investors rightfully saw these as a priority and took action to correct it, even if at a frustratingly slow pace.

During that time, the Union’s payroll has been in the middle to bottom half of Major League Soccer. Not great, not terrible. But the Union have had precious few designated players in their history — the players that require ownership to pony up the big bucks to reel in.

That’s why fans greeted the signing of Alejandro Bedoya with such excitement last summer. With the “development pipeline” and facilities largely paid for, Sugarman for the first time significantly invested his capital directly onto the field.

So the model for the Union to become a top team under Sugarman is this:

  1. Play “Moneyball” to build a solid core of young players, Academy products, MLS veterans, and smart foreign imports — using Earnie Stewart’s experience at AZ Alkmaar as a template,
  2. Then, as necessary, splash the cash to bring in a game-changing player.

The caveat is obvious: This hasn’t worked out so far.

For one thing, there are real questions about whether the Union’s “developmental pipeline” works at all right now, given the inability of younger players to flourish in the first team.

You wonder too whether Bedoya is really the right kind of player to be splashing the cash on — a jack-of-all-trades midfielder who’s better as a complementary piece than as a team’s focal point.

But you can see the concept, and that’s what matters. Not that much time has passed since the era when the club had minimal facilities or infrastructure and was led by a soccer incompetent.

I’m not saying it’s certain. I’m not even saying it’s likely. The margin for error is very narrow.

But the Union certainly can become a top team through this model.

This team isn’t going anywhere, but the owner might

First things first: The Union aren’t moving to Austin, Texas.

Nor are they likely to move anywhere, for that matter.

To move, Sugarman and the league would have to be lured by the promise of riches elsewhere. Located in one of the 10 largest cities in the country — and with a gorgeous soccer-specific stadium already constructed — it would make absolutely no sense for this team to move away from Philadelphia.

Now, would Sugarman sell the team? This seems a more likely outcome.

Sugarman is fundamentally an investor, and at some point it will be clear that he can get more by selling the team than he ever put into it. The growth of soccer in America is raising franchise values, and sports teams are always a tempting asset for the super-rich.

There are folks in Philadelphia — like Joshua Harris, owner of the Sixers (and Crystal Palace) — who could afford to buy the Union out from under Sugarman. There are even folks who aren’t from Philadelphia who would love to buy a team like the Union and keep it here.

The economics will make it very tempting for Sugarman to pass the ball to a new ownership group, especially if Sugarman’s revenue streams are so tight that he cannot afford to put money into the Union.

Far from perfect, but not impossible

Jay Sugarman is not a perfect owner. In fact, he’s not even a good owner. None of what I’ve written in this piece should be construed to mean that I like Jay Sugarman in this role or that I think he’s doing a good job. It is unbelievably tedious to watch the Union scrape and claw around in the franchise’s eighth season while Atlanta United blossoms forth fully formed.

The question isn’t whether the Union will win with Sugarman as their owner. There are lots of reasons they may not win. Maybe Sugarman will end up unable to invest any more into the Union. Maybe Stewart will find himself unable to replicate the formula that brought him success in the Dutch league. Maybe Jim Curtin will continue to be, at best, a sub-replacement-level MLS manager.

No, the question is whether the Union can win with Sugarman as their owner.

As unpleasant as the path may be to get there, based on the available evidence the answer is yes.


  1. So much to unpack…
    Start with Bedoya. He is absolutely worth the money he is being paid…if he is the 3rd DP on the roster. He is the Andre Iguodala of the Union – if you are relying on him to carry your team, brace for disappointment. If you are relying on him to be a fantastic complementary piece to your stars, then you will get exactly what you pay for. Now, about those stars…
    As for Sugarman selling (agreed that there’s no way in hell the move, especially with the ties to Chester and everything else locally invested), you have to look at it from an Investor Standpoint: If he put in another $5M this year, but the franchise value is increasing by $10M each year, why would he leave that ROI? I don’t know the exact ratio, but this is the Donald Sterling nightmare that frightens me.
    We can all grind our teeth about Curtin and whether he is up for the job, or whether Earnie has the resources to do the job he wants to do, but this all comes down to ownership. Without a greater willingness to keep up with the pack, we’re screwed and praying to catch lightning in a bottle.

    • Prag, as usual I agree with everything you say. The one thing I will add is my concern for how the Union fill out rosters and where they spend their DP money. Why is so much money spent on D-mids? In MLS this is pretty much the one place you don’t need to spend DP money, and the Union have, twice over. Why? The blueprint for wining in this league has been there for years. Spend DP money on a striker, #10, and then maybe d-mid, or really anywhere else. What is so hard to understand about that? The blame for this absolutely rests at Stewart’s and the FO’s feet. As much as I think Sugarman should carry the heft of the blame, there’s plenty to go around, from Stewart to Curtin and crew. I can understand why the Union want to be seen as a developmental club, because everyone in the organization is learning on the job. From the owner on down. Come to the Union to make your mistakes and learn what not to do. Brilliant.

      • I think there is one area that people are really overlooking: replacing Barnetta. I truly believe the FO was counting on him to be a vital cog on this team, and when he left, they failed in their ability to replace him.
        If you have a central midfield of Barnetta, Bedoya, and Medujanin, this team immediately improves and coasts to the playoffs (IMO).
        But they whiffed horribly, assuming existing personnel could replicate his production, and the miscalculated badly.
        This is a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you that the FO screwed up. Let’s see if they can avoid those mistakes with an entire offseason to accurately plan, and a new war chest of money, considering the salaries that will be shed.

      • Again I totally agree with you about not replacing Barnetta and believing that Alberg would be their #10 going into this past season. I was absolutely dumbfounded when I heard Curtin drop that nugget. I think most of us were sure Alberg was not a #10. Somehow the Union thought differently. There’s just something entirely wrong with how they believe this team should be constructed. Will they learn from their mistakes? I haven’t seen anything to believe they will.

      • I think you are both right, but I think you miss an unfortunate but likely reason: they were simply ok with this being a rebuilding year. They were Sixer-ing it.

        They knew we had no one that could replace Barnetta (or hell, Bogs for that matter). But they were committed to starting from scratch, so why panic, overcommit and bring in a big name failure?

        So they realized that had Ilson and Alberg for one more year, they figured they could rotate them and see how it goes, while consolidating resources for this off season and building through the academy. Now we have young depth in Najem and Fontana, and an offseason where we have so much (atleast for us) to spend on a clear need.

      • James, I don’t think you’re wrong, but what bothers me is they did think that. Neither Alberg or Ilson Jr. is/was a number ten. If they truly believed they could get away with it, they were severely mistaken. The fact they believe Stewart should or would be given 5 years of leeway by the fans is absurdly outrageous. This goes to my point about how they believe this team should be run. They count on the good will of fans, in order to take advantage of them. I’ve got about another season of half interest in me before I give up.

      • Let’s not forget that Barnetta wasn’t a #10 either. The Union have a long history of fitting square pegs into round holes.

    • We have the players to at the least make playoffs.. problem is we have a coach who is absolutely clueless. Needs to play two up top with Alberg, one of the top 3 strikers of the ball in the league, playing up top behind the holding striker sapong…we do not possess on the midfield and teams currently run through us in that area of the field with 5 players there. Yaro and Elliot in the middle back line. Yaro’s defensive positioning is exceptional and if you follow the game closely you know what I’m talking about ….fabhino out left and Gaddis our right . Derek jones should sit cam and creavelle should sit cdm. Yes bedoya out sell him and sell Blake for money for a decent DP. McCarthy is well good enough. Players who should never touch the field again::….Epps…Simpson…wynaldem
      You do that curtin and we at least make playoffs

  2. All you gotta do is look at those lists of spending by team and realize some very good, successful teams spend less than the union.

    One thing that’ easy to overlook is that we had 800-1 million in the trashcan the past two years (with Edu). So that skews the numbers a lot.

    Imagine replacing that with two TAM level players – all of a sudden we look like a much better team with the same or slightly more investment.

  3. Club was doomed when Chester was chosen.

    • Oh yeah, because the teams that play in South Philly have won so many championships. Do the years 1983, 1975, and 1960 mean anything to you?

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      The Truth: That is the easy way out and to me, total BS. Sugarman is the true issue. His willingness to just “do what is required” (ex: academy, affiliate, training grounds) and not go above and beyond is where the Union will always be just not good enough. Could we catch lightning in a bottle, yes. Can the roster be constructed better, yes. But without additional investment at key positions, you are always going to have to hope the Moneyball guys over perform, or have the best season of their careers.
      I’ve said before, in MLS, you can be as good as you want to be. The Union can be great next year. Or they can be average. If they are great, fans will come and support the team and no one will care where the stadium is.

    • I have no idea why on earth people keep saying stuff like this. It would be fantastic to have a stadium in the city with better public transportation access, but the LAST thing on the list of our problems is our beautiful, scenic stadium. People are absolutely willing to come to Chester, and if they ever manage to build a real damn squad, they’ll sell the place out every match.

    • Definitely not the issue. 99% of Eagles and Phillies fans live in the ‘burbs and drive to the stadium. Driving to Chester is no worse.

  4. Anything is POSSIBLE. There is a chance that ALL of the lucky breaks that have to happen for the Union to win in face of the lack of investment, do actually happen. It is most certainly not PROBABLE, however.

  5. I understand why the piece is written, as it’s very frustrating that we have this ownership. However, he’s not going anywhere. The focus must be on things can can happen and create change. Better player signings and better managing ARE realistic. Earnie spent tons of money on the likes of alberg/Simpson/etc. imagine if that went to a real winger or left back, or even partially to pay a DP #10. I think there hasn’t been enough focus on Earnie. The other part is Curtin, which has been talked about ad naseum. He needs to go. Bring in somehow more experienced and flexible. In my opinion, it’s not necessarily a good thing that all the players are so comfortable. Everyone should always be uncomfortable and worried they will Be surpassed.

    • Ernie is going to make or break the 2018 season in the next few months. We have the roster room, we have the $$, we must be a playoff contender next year and he has the means to bring in the players we need to do that.
      MLS doesn’t care about 5 year plans. The way it is set up, anyone can turn their team around in 1 year. It doesn’t take boat loads of money to turn a team around, many small markets have proven that. We absolutely should start by getting a new coach, though.

    • John Harris says:

      Great One, even Earnie’s problems go back to Sugarman. The poor signings are in part because the ownership is too cheap to spend on scouting. Come on man. The ownership is the seminal and fundamental problem.

  6. C’mon man. Yeah. It CAN snow in October, but will it? Not very likely. I CAN reach 80 degrees in January, blah, blah blah. The investor-in-chief needs to cash out, move on and ride off into the sunset, knowing he did a damn good thing: got Philly a team, an infrastructure, etc., WHILE getting a darn good ROI over 8 yrs. Thank you Mr. Sugarman, seriously from the bottom of my heart. But it’s time to recognize that you are a 2nd or 3rd tier ‘rich guy’. THAT’S the MOST LIKELY scenario for the Union to move up in the standings. If Union don’t get MUCH better in their 9th season, I’m out. And I’ve been in from well before the get-go (2007 SOB).

  7. I agree with all of this except to play moneyball you have to be doing something different than everyone else in order to get an edge with less resources. My hope was that Earnie’s knowledge and leadership would be the difference, but so far it’s not. Not even close. So we aren’t playing moneyball, we are just cheap.

    • That’s where investment in scouting and analytics come in.

      • Year 8
        Scouts 0

      • Actually, I believe they have one full-time scout — Kyle McCarthy — and one other scout/analyst, whose name escapes me right now.

      • I agree, but scouting isn’t moneyball unless you are asking them to do something different. Now analytics could play into it and those are always (rightfully) black boxes to the public. I have yet to see them do anything off the wall that they would need to do to really have an advantage. I’m just saying moneyball has become an excuse to being cheap, especially when there is no reason that a team in a city our size should ever be cheap.

      • The Union has to have one of the smallest if not the smallest FO’s in the league. How many other teams only have 1 scout? No wonder 1/2 the players we bring in each year are duds.

      • @Dan

        McCarthy is listed as “Technical Coordinator” and Terry McFadden is a “Scouting Analyst”, which sounds like a combo role poring over FIFA18 players.

  8. I agree with the premise of this piece. Clubs like KC and Dallas (the latter’s recent freefall notwithstanding) have shown that you can have a consistent, excellent, competitive club without breaking the bank. It just has to be executed carefully. Sugarman doesn’t seem to be helping matters that much (so far), but the investment in the franchise in the non-player department is definitely something, and it is POSSIBLE that we can have a winning club with this strategy, as Peter says.

  9. One small but not insignificant positive for Jay Sugarman – he played in the River Cup against the SoB’s twice. Not every owner would do this and no one would have criticized him for not being there.

    • How many know that? 30?40? Statistically that’s about as insignificant as you get. Nice gesture but not what I need from an owner. Didn’t Sak play in those too? Still sucked at his job.

      • I just meant that at least at one point he made an effort to show support for the fan base. I realize I’m grasping for straws here, but you gotta hope sometimes. Also – the owners spent the 12th most in the league this past year, so it’s not as bad as it could be.

  10. Thanks for writing the article. The possibilities are really interesting – particularly the Joshua Harris angle as a local owner with deeper pockets. I did not realize that Joshua Harris owned Crystal Palace.
    So here’s another idea: Jay could sell 60% of the Union to Joshua Harris for 40% of Crystal Palace by means of a stock swap and combine it in a larger company that owns both teams. Crystal Palace gets an MLS affiliate in one of the biggest sports markets in America, the Union get more cash to play with, and the holding company can combine assets, development and move players around like NYC FC and Man City.

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