If you’re a Union fan who has waited all 10 years of their existence for a player such as Marco Fabián, you aren’t alone.
Union owner Jay Sugarman has also been patient.
“I think this is the kind of signing that’s going to show that all the work we’ve done to get here is going to pay off," he said after welcoming the Mexican star to town. “I’ve had 10 years to watch the development, the mistakes. We’re starting to get this thing figured out really well about what we need to do, and the pieces are all here.”
The difference between Sugarman and his paying customers, of course, is that while they sat in the stands and watched (or stayed home), he could have made a move like this at any time.
“When you’re an owner, you see a player of that caliber [and] you get excited right away, and you kind of — all the rules that you set up, and the disciplines you set up, you go, ‘Forget them, let’s get him,’ " he said. "And then you kind of go, 'Wait, wait, wait — that’s how you get in trouble in this sport.”
Sugarman’s makeshift press conference Friday lasted for a little less than 20 minutes. Six of them were taken up by a soliloquy about his analytical mindset and long-term vision.
That was countered by a much shorter question: Isn’t it OK to just say this is your biggest-ever signing?
“Sure,” he answered. “It won’t be the biggest player we ever sign.”
He wasn’t being snarky, but he wasn’t quite celebrating, either. He certainly could have been. Not only did Sugarman get a star, but he also got him without getting in trouble. Union sporting director Ernst Tanner struck a great deal by not having to pay a transfer fee. The 5 percent cut that Eintracht Frankfurt will get from any future sale isn’t even that much.
Sugarman was correct to assert that “if we spend a lot of money and we’re no better, you’re going to come back to me and go, ‘What happened?’ " But there’s a difference between being smart and being cheap. When Sugarman started talking about the Union’s annual budget, he said something that came a little too close to the latter.
“When Chris [Albright] and Ernst and Jim [Curtin] all say this is a player who is going to elevate our team, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing," Sugarman said. “It has to work financially. We have a set amount — $10 million we spend a year on players, either development or first team. How they [the front office] want to mix and match that is their choice.”
In MLS, $10 million isn’t a large sum anymore. Last year, 10 of the league’s 23 teams spent more than that on first-team payroll alone. The Union spent a little more than $8.9 million, ranking 14th in the league and seventh in the Eastern Conference.
That doesn’t include transfer fees, which count toward Designated Player status but not the payroll standings. The Union’s record is $1 million for Alejandro Bedoya. This winter, Atlanta United spent $14 million on Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez and New York City FC spent $8.5 million on Alexandru Mitrita.
“Right now, we overcommit to development and we haven’t been on the high end on DPs," Sugarman said. He noted that the Union spend $6 million a year on their development system — and chided other MLS clubs that have reduced their investments in academies and USL teams.
He wasn’t wrong to do that. But if the Union are to become, as Sugarman said, “a top-tier, regular, successful competitor at the highest parts of the league,” they — and therefore he — must spend still more on first-team players.
The Union also need to start selling players, and they know it. Sugarman addressed the subject head-on, and in doing so, acknowledged that there’s some real pressure to get moving.
“When we sell players for a lot of money, then you guys can say the academy strategy worked,” he said. "Until then, I love the fact that we’ve got young players coming up. … We need more of those, and we need their profile to reach a point where the international market says [the] Philadelphia Union academy is one of the top in America.”
A moment later, Sugarman put it more bluntly: “Sales will increase the pie. They will give us the flexibility to go further.”
Perhaps those words will encourage the front office to let Mark McKenzie go to the Under-20 World Cup. He will increase his transfer value with big performances on the big stage.
Toward the end of the conversation, Sugarman called the Fabián signing “somewhat unexpected." It was another moment of letting his guard down, which was unexpected in its own right.
“We did not say we need to go get a Mexican international with a pedigree of a Marco,” he said. “We said we needed to fill this spot on the field. And when you hear that the player we can potentially have has all these attributes, and can connect us to a community [the local Hispanic population] that should be Union fans … that’s like, ‘OK, whatever it takes, go get the deal done.’ “