Union majority owner Jay Sugarman doesn’t speak publicly all that often. So when he does, it gets noticed.
And when he says some specific words that Union fans have been waiting for some time to hear, it gets noticed even more.
“The reality is, we need quality and talent at almost every position to win,” he told the Inquirer and Daily News in a recent interview. “We do need to spend more, and we’ll be doing that.”
Sugarman said he has given sporting director Earnie Stewart “significantly more resources” to work with this winter “than he’s ever had, and we want him to spend it.”
But there is some fine print.
“It is not enough that he [Stewart] can go outspend other teams,” Sugarman said. “We want him to spend it really wisely and on strategy.”
The strategy, Sugarman said, emphasizes chemistry and youth development. It does not emphasize chasing big names.
That is a difficult course to chart at a time when MLS teams are splashing ever more cash on creative talent from around the world. The top four teams in the Eastern Conference this year — Toronto, New York City, Chicago, and Atlanta — also had the East’s top four payrolls.
But Sugarman is resolute.
“We don’t think trying to spend with the folks who, frankly, have deeper resources than I do is a good long-term strategy,” Sugarman said. “If we spend five, they’ll spend 10. If we spend 10, they’ll spend 20. I’ve been around some of the largest sports owners in the country, sitting around a table, and I look in the whites of their eyes and I just don’t think that’s our place in the league — to consider to ourselves that we can outspend them.”
It’s Stewart’s job to build a winner within Sugarman’s limits. Sugarman appreciates Stewart’s “belief that the collective talent of the team is not just the sum of its individual talents.”
“He’s not the guy who wants to just go get one player and thinks that fixes everything,” Sugarman said. “He is very much about building chemistry and confidence in a collective way. … That does, in some respects, change the way he thinks about using money and where he wants to spend it.”
Given their financial constraints, where can the Union find some kind of competitive advantage? Sugarman believes the academy can deliver it. He has focused his mind and his money in that direction.
This past March, Sports Illustrated reported that the team has spent an average of $4 million per season on its academy over the last few years. That was equal to the vaunted academy of the Los Angeles Galaxy, and greater than the even more-vaunted academy of FC Dallas.
So when Sugarman asserted that “we probably have the most expensive combination of youth development and USL team [spending] in the league,” he wasn’t just boasting.
“We’ve asked ourselves many, many times: should we re-direct some of that money over to the first team right now?” he said. “I think the consensus is we want a sustainable winning strategy, and we think youth development as a long-term strategy is the right way to go.”
Sugarman also acknowledged that such a focus cannot excuse “the need for talent” and “the need to raise the quality of play” in the present. He is ready to open his checkbook for “that kind of player who’s going to make four or five other players even better.”
What if someone wants to help him put more money on the table by joining the team’s ownership group?
“Fantastic,” he said. “Come join the Union.”
Sugarman understands that it isn’t easy to ask for patience from fans of a team that has made the playoffs just twice in its eight-year history.
“I have to preach it to myself every day, and inside our investor group and ownership group, because look, we all want to win,” he said. “It’s painful not winning. It’s painful when you root for a team you don’t own, but when you have a team you do own, winning ultimately is the scorecard.”
Sugarman knows what the scorecard says. He has helped build the team’s infrastructure — the stadium, the training center next to it, and the academy in Wayne — but buildings don’t win games.
“The big pieces are in place now, [and] that lets us turn our attention more to player strategy,” he said “That’s what most people are interested in, but I always felt like we needed this long term foundation to build upon, this foundation of excellence. And you know, now we’ve really got to do the same with our players.”