Union

Union owner sets bar for final playoff push: 'We need to win two games'

CHESTER, Pa. — After the ribbon was cut and the people applauded and the music stopped, Union owner Jay Sugarman remained by the stage outside the Union’s newly named training facility.

And when the conversation turned from what the state-of-the-art Power Training Complex can do for the franchise’s future to the team’s more immediate future this weekend and next, his words suddenly took on a more urgent tone.

“We need to win two games,” Sugarman said. “We have the talent. We have the ability. So I’m hoping the guys come very hungry. It would be a great thing to have a home playoff game here after a long five years.”

Things certainly were a lot different back in 2011 when, in just their second year of existence, the fledgling Union made the playoffs and hosted the Houston Dynamo in the first game of a two-game Eastern Conference semifinals series.

But the Union lost that game and the next one too to get bounced early from the postseason. And they haven’t returned since — a streak they hope to break this year if they can just snap out of their current five-game winless slide and beat already-eliminated Orlando City SC on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium (3 p.m., The Comcast Network).

Another win the following week vs. the rival Red Bulls at Talen Energy might then prove to be enough to give them a home game in the first round of the playoffs — and, perhaps, wipe away some of the bitter memories of the past few years that saw two coaches fired and several more gut-wrenching setbacks.

“I know the difference between winning and losing can be very, very small,” Sugarman said. “It can be confidence, it can be one piece of the puzzle isn’t the same as it used to be. So I know how fragile it is to be on that emotional high where you think you’re going to win every game. I played a lot of sports — not very good at soccer unfortunately — and I know what that feeling is. And when you lose it, it’s hard to get back.  

“Our guys haven’t changed. Their talent isn’t different. Their abilities aren’t different. So it’s really about [sporting director Earnie Stewart] and the coaching staff getting them back to where they believe they should be. And I think the leadership on this team should be able to do it for two games that are going to lead to a playoff spot. I want to see that on the field.”

Off the field, Sugarman has done a lot of important things over the past year to bolster the club’s standing, removing controversial CEO Nick Sakiewicz and hiring the well-respected Stewart, launching a new minor-league affiliate in Bethlehem Steel FC, and providing significant resources for this summer’s marquee signing of Alejandro Bedoya.

Perhaps nothing’s been as valuable, though, as the investment that ownership made into their new indoor training facility — which celebrated its official opening Thursday after signing a naming-rights deal with Power Home Remodeling last week (the team had been using it for most of the year before that, however). The 16,500 square foot building, which is a stone’s throw from the two outdoor training fields inside the stadium complex, includes a weight training area, physical therapy and sports science development area, nutrition center, locker rooms, a video theater and players’ lounge. 

And Sugarman, Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin agree that it rivals any facility in MLS — and even globally.

“I’ve been to a lot of places in England, a lot of places in Germany, in top leagues,” Curtin said. “You’d be surprised where this one would stack up against them. It’s special. It’s a unique building. They kept the old aesthetic, which is really cool; I think it fits the city and the blue-collar elements to it. But also everything in there is state of the art and well thought-out.”

Curtin knows the facility has already been a great thing for his players, who he says have “smiles on their faces” when they walk in before practice. And he and Stewart also know it will continue to be an important recruiting tool for top talent, both foreign and domestic.

But even if Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony marked another big step in the Union’s quest to become a more sought-after franchise for years to come, they know they still need to make the playoffs this year or risk taking a step backwards.

“We’re in the sports business,” Sugarman said. “We need to win. I don’t define winning as you have to win a championship every year but you want to show you’re a team capable of winning it all. And we have that ability. They know it, Earnie knows it, Jim knows it. So now it’s about performance. And I’m not a coach but we’re going to give them every opportunity — there should be no excuses. 

“The team has proved it’s good enough to not only get in the playoffs but go deep in the playoffs. We just need to show it.”