On Tuesday afternoon, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney briefly stopped what he was doing to sit down with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and three Philadelphia Union executives: owner Jay Sugarman, sporting director Earnie Stewart and chief business officer Tim McDermott.
With the Union preparing for their eighth home opener Saturday vs. Toronto FC (4:30 p.m., CSN), Garber was in town to tour the Union's new training complex and visit for the first time YSC Academy, the Union-affiliated private high school for youth academy players. He then paid a visit to City Hall to meet with Kenney, who proclaimed March 7 as "Philadelphia Union March to Soccer Day," and take questions from broadcaster Tommy Smyth and fans, along with other members of the panel.
Afterward, Sugarman said he was thrilled for the opportunity to participate in an event like that with the mayor, who was presented with a Union jersey and touted the Philadelphia International Unity Cup, a World Cup-style tournament featuring teams of different immigrants that debuted last year. (Kenney also touted his relationship with Union goalkeeper John McCarthy's father -- his college roommate.) And it is Sugarman's hope that, even though the Union play 20 miles away in Chester, the franchise's relationship with the city only grows stronger.
"We continue to try to bring this whole region together," Sugarman said after the panel ended. “Last year you saw us put an Uber lot together for people who needed to get to the game in other ways. We tried to get some public transportation to really make it a lot easier for someone in Center City to get down there. We still have a lot of work to do.
"But Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country and [soccer] is the world's biggest sport. The opportunity and potential here is enormous. To hear [Mayor Kenney] is a fan, to hear he's committed through the Unity Cup to the sport in Philadelphia, that can only help. All those roads lead to the same place, which is Philadelphia will be a great soccer city."
Sugarman seems to understand there may be an uncovered sector of Philadelphia residents who would like to become more invested in the Union but prefer not to make the I-95 commute to Talen Energy Stadium and deal with the hassle of traffic getting in and out of the complex.
That's why the club began a partnership with Uber last year and hopes, in the future, to possibly create a new train station by the stadium, as well as a waterfront "campus" to better serve tailgaters.
"We're trying to work on some train alternatives that will get you dropped off right at the stadium," Sugarman said. "That would be my dream -- to march to the match from a station that's literally right next to the stadium. We have the train tracks. We just need the will.
"We're trying to build a campus, so you can come before the game, be at this incredible place and then actually stay after the game. So that's on us. We've continued to acquire properties around there to really start building a sense of, 'Hey, you can spend an entire day with your friends, with your family.' We're not fully done there but that's the vision."
When the Union were first awarded an MLS franchise and laid out their stadium plans in 2008, it came with waterfront development along the Delaware River. To the dismay of many, those plans were then tabled, in large part because of the economic crisis at the time. But speaking with reporters from City Hall, Garber sounded optimistic that Sugarman and company will be able to revive them in some form, citing D.C. United's recent long-awaited stadium groundbreaking as proof that patience is vital.
"One thing I've learned over time is that it's really difficult to develop large projects in major metropolitan cities," the MLS commissioner said. "But if you're focused and you have a good plan and you're patient while being diligent, eventually it all gets done. You saw last week we broke ground in D.C. and that took us 20 years. I spent some time with the group today and got a sense of what the development is going to be like on the waterfront. Jay referenced it. I'm very confident that it will get done and that area will look very different five years from now than it does today."
Despite the waterfront development setbacks, Garber praised Sugarman and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell for the initial plans to create the Philadelphia Union and a stadium in Chester. And Sugarman, for his part, believes the franchise has taken the necessary steps to since evolve with the development of a new training complex, training fields and YSC Academy, which Garber said compared to some of the top European academies.
"I think some people don't really know how much progress we've made," the Union owner said. “To have [Garber] come down here and see the field, see the training complex, see the school, see the youth facilities, and to really understand the commitment we've made to be a long-term success in the league is great.
"It's important for the league to understand we're going to be a top-tier team for a long time."