Construction of new Union practice facility has begun

Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. (Clem Murray/Staff file photo)

In an interview on the Philadelphia Union website on Jan. 3, Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said building a practice facility was "a top priority" for the team.

That priority is about to be realized.

Asked on Thursday for an update on the teams construction plans for the training facility, Sakiewicz told PSP, "Actually, today we're beginning the set up, getting ready and preparing the site for the equipment to roll on. There are some precautions and things we need to take for water drainage and supporting it properly, but, yeah, construction is going to start today."

Sakiewicz said that the expectation is that the fields will be ready by the end of October.

"My construction group tells me it's a six to eight weeks project to get the fields put in," Sakiewicz said. "All the sod is ordered, everything's all teed up and ready to go. We're hoping to have fields by the middle to end of October."

The Delaware County Times reported in February that the practice facility would be constructed in Lot B and would consist of "two grass-surface, professional-grade soccer pitches."

A Union spokesperson told PSP on Thursday that additional land has been purchased by the team to relocate those parking spots in Lot B that will be replaced by the practice facility (see image above). The spokesperson said an email will be sent to all season ticket holders next week describing the changes and how season ticket holders will be affected by them going forward.

Sakiewicz also said the team is currently "in some pretty high level discussions with a potential naming rights partner for the facility."

After construction of the practice facility is finished, the team will begin renovation of the two-story annex building next to the Wharf at Rivertown, the former PECO power generating plant where the Union's offices are currently located.

When the renovation of the now vacant building is complete, the Union offices will move there, although Sakiewicz said this project is on "a much longer timeline" than the construction of the new training facility.

Chester's been fine

If you research reporting on the Union's plans to build a practice facility in the shadow of PPL Park, it is easy to come away with the impression that the facility has often been in the middle of the Union's sometimes contentious relationship with the City of Chester (click here for an in-depth recap of previous press reports on the facility).

A month after describing the practice facility as a top priority on the Union website, Sakiewicz told Philadelphia Business Journal that the team hoped to break ground "in the spring." In a conference call with reporters on Feb. 5, the Union CEO reiterated that building the facility was a top priority and said that the construction plans were "fully developed and vetted."

However, "new parking taxes" and "special purpose taxes," as well as the city of Chester's decision to allow independent parking lot operators to open lots near PPL Park, had created what Sakiewicz described as a "generally unfriendly business environment."

As a result, the team was looking at other locations in Delaware County to build the facility. Instead of beginning construction in the spring, now there was no specific timeline for construction, although Sakiewicz expressed his hope in the conference call that construction would start sometime in 2014.

Sakiewicz's comments clearly caught the attention of local politicians and, less than two weeks later, the Delaware County Times reported that the city and the team were working to build the facility in Chester. Sakiewicz said in the report the plan to build the facility in Lot B was "off the shelf and back on the drawing board."

While Sakiewicz's hopes at the time that the facility could now be completed "by the middle of July" proved to be too ambitious, he downplayed in his interview with PSP the effect the sometimes rocky relationship between the city and the team had in delaying construction.

"Actually," Sakiewicz said on Thursday, "the city's been fine because the delays mostly - I wouldn't even call them delays, it's more that we've been sorting through exactly what our strategy could be on our practice facility."

Pointing to YSC Academy, home of the Philadelphia Union Academy, Sakiewicz explained, "Over the last few years, we were trying to sort out a strategy where we were trying to figure out whether it was smart to have everything all in one place as a singular training facility or have multiple locations, and what was the long-term future of the property that we control down by the stadium.

"So we were all weighing different options, and that takes a little bit of time," Sakiewicz said. "The city's been fine with it, we're all permitted and ready to go."

For the long-term

In talking about the construction of the training facility, Sakiewicz emphasized it's place in the team's long-term planning and vision.

"It's not just a matter of making a decision," Sakiewicz told PSP. "Once you build this thing it's a long-term proposition. So we were, in addition to developing the project - getting permits and getting funding, and fundraising, and all that stuff - we were also developing our strategy on what would be the absolute best for the long-term thinking for the Philadelphia Union. What we landed on was to build the first team training grounds right next to the stadium. We have more plans down the line to build additional buildings there in addition to the Wharf annex, and there's a multi-phase plan. It took a little while to get there but the team was in fine condition practicing at the stadium almost every day, and then we had some nice fields that we practiced on, so it was a long-term strategy that we're finally getting in the ground on."

Sakiewicz explained, "Everything that we do, we think about it in a very thoughtful and strategic way about how we go about it. The practice facility in relation to your youth academy, in relation to the high school which we have, in relation to our minor league system - Harrisburg, Reading - all the moving parts of youth development that's at our core.

"So, it's not as simple as just waking up one day, plotting a piece of land, and saying, 'Let's build a training facility here, and, you know, stop messing about.' We don't mess about here, we think about it very strategically, very carefully, because, once you build it, you can't move it."

Ambition in an era of expansion

While bolstering the team's roster with better quality players is a never ending project, infrastructure improvements such as the practice facility are for many fans a symbol of the team's seriousness off the field, particularly in a period of dramatic expansion in MLS.

Simply put, the stakes are higher than ever and the Union needs to compete both on the field and off it in the realm of public perception. Beginning construction of the practice facility improves the team on both counts.

"I've been in this thing since absolutely Day One when we came off of the World Cup in '94 to start it, and I've never seen such dramatic and dynamic change in the quality of the on-field product, to the stadiums, to the expansion of more teams, to the knowledge of the fanbase, as I've seen in the last five years," Sakiewicz told PSP. "I gotta tell you, the dramatic changes every year in the quality and relevance of the league has been extraordinary."

Sakiewicz described how, in some respects, the Union has been at a competitive disadvantage in the area of public perception because, unlike the other teams that have begun play in the league, the team "literally was started from scratch five years ago."

He explained, "Many of the other teams came from big organizations or existing clubs. Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps are brands that are 40 years old and played in the league below us, and had infrastructure and fans. Montreal and Toronto, those clubs were part of bigger organizations that were in market for quite some time. Philadelphia Union, we truly are only five seasons in and started from a blank sheet of paper, so, I'm very proud of the progress that we've made, and we're now competing for our first national championship trophy coming up here in September, and making good progress in all of this stuff."

While he is pleased with the team's progress on and off the field, Sakiewicz stressed that the team's ambitions are far from satisfied.

"We still have a long way to go," he said. "We want to win in Philly, we want to win championships. We're a very ambitious club that expects excellence and continue to work at it every day to make sure that we achieve that. We want to be, some day in our future, we want to be known as one of America's most admired soccer brands, and that doesn't just sit on one thing, that sits on multiple things: great academy, great stadium, great fanbase, win some trophies along the way. There's all sorts of pillars that hold up that mantra, and we're an ambitious club and our fans are ambitious. We want big things."

Get complete coverage of the Union and the rest of the Philadelphia soccer scene at The Philly Soccer Page.