CHESTER, Pa. — The Union unveiled Rene Meulensteen as the club’s newest front-office addition on Friday at PPL Park. But it wasn’t in the capacity many expected.
Believed to be a permanent addition above technical director Chris Albright and manager Jim Curtin, the former Manchester United assistant and Fulham coach was instead introduced as a limited time “consultant” in charge of getting the Union, from top to bottom, moving in a sustainable winning direction.
“We don’t want to spend our way to the top, we want to build our way to the top,” Meulensteen said. “What I’ve seen from the academy level over there is very, very good. The foundations are firmly in place and it can grow very quickly.”
Part of Meulensteen’s job is to help the Union find a sporting director — the position many expected the 50-year-old to take. Said to be the Union’s top priority this offseason, the sporting director will sit above the technical staff but work with the goals of ownership.
“We want a sporting director for the structure in place to help with both our youth development and first-team side to bring us a global perspective, as well as a way to really elevate the entire soccer operations at the Union,” Union CEO and chairman Jay Sugarman said. “We’re fortunate that despite his other commitments, Rene is available to us right now as a consultant to help analyze, advise and to look at everything we’re doing and help us really set a path for the next five years.”
The next five years starts with a complex offseason for the Union, who are eying the Chivas USA dispersal draft, expansion draft and 2015 MLS SuperDraft. That’s not to mention the expiring contracts of Amobi Okugo, Maurice Edu and others.
Meulensteen will be on hand to guide the Union through difficult roster choices.
“It’s challenging for me and it’s given me great insight and the complexity of how the MLS is run with all the rules, regulations, setting up the rosters,” Meulensteen said. “You have to be very clever in which players you want to protect. And gamble in other areas. I think the expertise is here in the room. My main assistance is where to look for new targets, players maybe we want to bring in for me to evaluate and to say, 'That’s a good player, go for him.' Or 'I wouldn’t do that.' It’s a great opportunity to learn so much more and to help the Union make the next steps.”
Meulensteen became a household name as an assistant to Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson from 2007 to 2013. But his most notable work came after working with Manchester United youth and reserve teams from 2001 to 2006. Along with his connections and experience at the top level of soccer, it’s Meulensteen's expertise in player development that has the Union bubbling.
“Rene’s time at Manchester United has given him real insight into where’s the top, how can you really do things great?” Sugarman said. “I think their youth academy has generated first- or second-most players that are playing in the top five leagues in Europe. So they were doing something right. We want to learn from that. We want to benefit from that. Adding resources will make us better, I don’t think it takes away anything from the skills and talents that we already have in place.”
And it’s the Union’s unique and dedicated academy system that not only separates them from other MLS clubs, but also attracted Meulensteen in the first place.
“This academy — I'm not going to blow the trumpet here because I’m now with Philadelphia as a consultant,” Meulensteen said. “This will be become the envy of America. It’s not just the academy but the school that’s attached with it. Because they’ve got the right vision and philosophy. This is the strategy that I strongly believe in because when you get it right and you got that timing belt right, it just keeps growing, growing and growing. The most important thing is that you develop players that now have Philadelphia Union blood running through their veins.”