Union majority owner Jay Sugarman spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about sporting director Earnie Stewart’s departure to become the U.S. men’s national team’s first general manager. Here’s a transcript of the conversation, edited a bit for clarity and brevity.
When did you find out this might happen, and how much work have you been able to do so far in finding a replacement?
We only found out recently that Earnie was their top choice. You obviously can’t start a search and have that kind of confusion out there in the marketplace. So we’ve only recently begun. But we’ve made so much progress in the 2 1/2 years that Earnie’s been here that I think the process will be a lot more focused and directed this time. We’re building on such a stronger foundation that the things we are going to be able to show a potential candidate are miles ahead of where we were 2 1/2 years ago.
We’ve had people that in the past we’ve been quite interested in, but this will be a search. We have until August 1, so we’re not rushing it. We want to find the right person. But we’ve over the years talked to people who we thought had an interesting mindset, just to talk to people in that world to understand what else is out there. We’ll reach out to them. Some of them will not be available, for sure. But we know what we’re looking for, generically.
We’ve agreed August 1 is the least painful time frame that made sense for us. … If we’re fortunate enough and somebody can start earlier, we’ll deal with that if it happens. … If it takes longer than that, it takes longer than that.
Who’s involved in the hiring decision? You, academy chief Richie Graham, and who else?
Ultimately, it’s my decision, but I’m asking for input. Richie’s got tremendous insights around the world that I want to take advantage of. We’re a very collaborative club. I like to hear other people’s opinions. I have strong views myself. But I really feel like this is a moment that we have to get right. So I’m going to lean on everybody in our organization to bring to the table our best ideas, and then we’re going to go execute.
What are you looking for in Earnie’s successor? And specifically, should that person be American, and should that person have experience in MLS?
I don’t think that’s one of our top criteria. We have a pretty good set of principles laid down at the club. We have a pretty strong vision about how we’re going to compete long-term. We need someone who can elevate everything one more notch.
Talent identification is going to be critical. How do we play in the broader universe of talent acquisition? It’s not just putting kids through our system — it’s how do you get the best kids into that system. And on the open market, it’s not just how much money do we spend, but do we spend it wisely? Are we getting big bang for our buck?
We need someone who’s very disciplined, who’s going to take a long-term view. And candidly, is not going to flip-flop based on short-term results, but has a very clear vision.
How does South America play into that? It’s an area of the world that the Union haven’t focused on for a few years when it comes to international signings — granting, of course, that Earnie Stewart’s connections are in Europe.
I think one of the things that we’ve developed is a very clear view on what each position’s characteristics are that we need. We’ve talked about one of the main pillars of the club being this ability to play in a very cohesive [style] — strong chemistry, real confidence. And one of the ways we’re going to get there is to not only have our youth and development teams play in the same manner, but when we do target outside players to bring into the system, those characteristics should be relatively consistent for your left back and your left wing. That shouldn’t change.
Now, where you go find those characteristics can change. I can’t really speak to why we have settled more often into Europe — clearly, that’s Earnie’s strength, so I’m not really surprised that he had the best contacts there. If our next director has insights into South America, I’m sure that we’ll be focused there as well. But I don’t think it really drives our decision.
Does the sporting director have the right to pick his own coach at the time of his own choosing?
Yeah. The way we’re set up, the sporting director governs the technical side of the club. Ultimately, that is their choice. But I believe anybody we hire will be thoughtful and very judicious, and weigh the evidence of Jim’s successes recently and the progress we’ve made.
I don’t see any reason to make a change just for change’s sake right now, but that’s not ownership’s call. We’ve said to ourselves that a sporting director who is good enough to be our sporting director should be making that call, not us.
A candidate is likely come in and say: In addition to what I can do with the youth academy, here are the kinds of players I want to sign, and here’s how much they are going to cost. How do you think you’ll react to that?
When we started with Earnie, we had a set pool of money, and we said: You tell us. Do you want to spend it all on the first team? Is that the way to win in this league? Or do you want to spend it part on the first team, part on youth development?
Earnie’s was, I have to spend it on youth development. I want the best youth development system. I want the best USL team. He didn’t want to cut any corners. … And as those foundational elements got firmed up; as, frankly, the physical infrastructure got to the place it needed to be, then we said, OK, now we can start spending money on the first team.
We could have done that from Day 1, but we’d be two or three years behind in our development process. Now we’ve got a development process that, as you can see, is starting to put players on the field. And as those players come through, we will have more money available to really focus on that first team. … I don’t think you can win in this league with significantly fewer impact players than anybody else.