State of the Union is looking up, says team's CEO

ASSOCIATED PRESS Michael Bradley is an American star who just signed to play for Toronto, of Major League Soccer.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Michael Bradley is an American star who just signed to play for Toronto, of Major League Soccer.
Posted: January 15, 2014

THE CURRENT perception of the Union is something CEO Nick Sakiewicz is well aware of.

He knows about the narrative floating on Twitter and other social-media sites regarding his franchise - that the organization does not want to spend the money necessary to take it to the next level of competition in Major League Soccer.

Never one to hold back his feelings, Sakiewicz bristles at the suggestions.

"I kind of chuckle at the idea," Sakiewicz said the other day as he was about to board a flight to Europe. "It's inconceivable that we wouldn't do anything, given all of the moves that we've made since the season has ended.

"I've been pretty public that we've got a pretty good chunk of money from the moves we've made throughout the year and that we've allocated as ownership to player acquisition. It's surprising to me that there is chatter out there from people questioning if we are going to do anything."

It's a tough situation for the Union, which is talking the talk at a time when only walking the walk will convince critics that it is sincere.

With the 2014 MLS SuperDraft coming up on Thursday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, talk would normally be about what young players the Union - which has eight picks, including the second overall - will consider. But there has been a gradual change in the culture of MLS, as it has continued to grow in popularity, strength and venue.

The SuperDraft is important, but it is becoming more like the Major League Baseball and NHL drafts, more about future stars. You don't necessarily get impact players who help immediately.

MLS is still rooted in the notion of being a place for American talent to develop and play, but, over the past 5 years, there has been a clear influx of noted international talent.

And it's not like the old North American Soccer League, in which former stars long out of their prime came to pick up a final paycheck.

The star-quality players who now come over from Europe and other parts of the world do so with some tread on their tires.

Call it the "Beckham Effect." Once the Los Angeles Galaxy signed David Beckham, who in 2007 was still the world's most popular player, as the league's first "designated player," the door began to swing open for MLS as a destination spot that international talent would have never considered before.

With the designated-player rule allowing clubs to sign certain players outside the salary cap, MLS teams have been able to bid competitively for bigger-ticket talent. Some amounts are in the hundreds of thousands, and some are in the millions.

U.S. national team star Clint Dempsey joined Seattle from Tottenham Hotspur, of the English Premier League, for a guaranteed $5 million in 2013 compensation, so, clearly, the only hindrance is an ownership's willingness to open the purse.

It has been only natural that when Union fans saw players such as Dempsey, Robbie Keane in Los Angeles, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill in New York, and Marco Di Vaio with 2012 expansion club Montreal, they wondered why they had to settle for Freddy Adu.

And now with MLS bottom-feeder Toronto, which finished with the third-fewest points, pulling off a stunning month in which it signed 24-year-old rising Brazilian striker Gilberto, 26-year-old U.S. star midfielder Michael Bradley from Roma of Serie A in Italy, and England National Team striker Jermain DeFoe from Tottenham, the pressure is on the Union, whose fan base has been extremely supportive during 4 years of growing pains.

The Union, which made a play for Bradley, will take a huge credibility hit if it comes up with nothing impressive.

"It's a testament to the quality of the league that players the quality of Michael Bradley and Gilberto want to come play here," Sakiewicz said, acknowledging the changes in MLS. "We were on the forefront of trying to get [Bradley to come to Philadelphia].

"But the money got so crazy that, for our organization, it would have been very irresponsible to spend that kind of money on one player when we need to spend our money on probably three or four players."

The novelty of simply having an MLS team has worn off. Union fans want a contender and are sophisticated enough to recognize that the team needs some star-level talent if it is going to return to the playoffs after missing the last two seasons.

They know that the strong support they've shown over the first four seasons has provided the Union with a solid revenue stream. They believe that the foundation is strong enough and that it is now time to spend some cash on the bells and whistles that can elevate things to the next level.

Sakiewicz sounds like he agrees.

"We've had some ups and downs, but more ups than downs," he said. "We've built a great core roster of young, ambitious and quality players. Now, going into Year 5, we've acquired and allocated a lot of money.

"It's in the millions of dollars to reinvest in the team and go out and sign some important players that will start, give us leadership qualities and veteran experience.

"We marry those players up with our core group of players, and we're expecting to move to the next level. The next couple of weeks, there will be a lot of activity. We have a lot of draft picks and that, along with a lot of money, will give us a lot of assets to try and pick up those important pieces that we need.

"We have a very robust pipeline of opportunity that is going to come to fruition in the next month or 2."


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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