CHESTER, Pa. -- On Sunday night, the Philadelphia Union unveiled a starting lineup that, for the first time in the franchise’s five-year history, included three former World Cup players, with Rais Mbolhi making his MLS debut alongside fellow summer signing Carlos Valdes.
They looked like a well-oiled machine on offense with Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger fueling the team to an important 4-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, marking the ninth straight home game in which the Union have scored multiple goals.
And just outside the stadium, on what used to be Lot B, a new practice facility was being built -- construction that began around the same time the team renewed their jersey partnership with Bimbo Bakeries USA.
Considering where the franchise was earlier in the year, when the losses piled up and manager John Hackworth was fired, you can certainly say the state of the Union is much stronger than what it was.
And team CEO Nick Sakiewicz, the architect of the team’s business deals, is excited about it.
“We’ve had a pretty good month actually,” Sakiewicz said. “Good games, good performances by our team, some great news on the sponsorship side, and the practice facility is finally underway. So it’s all good. We just have to keep the momentum going.”
Of course, because of the hole they dug for themselves, the Union (7-9-9) still have a lot of work to do to make the MLS playoffs.
But Sakiewicz is thrilled with interim manager Jim Curtin, who boasts an 8-2-3 record in all competitions since taking over to guide the club into both the postseason picture and the U.S. Open Cup final.
And the on-field rejuvenation has come in conjunction with some promising developments off the field, with Sakiewicz saying the team is in the top third of the league in, “ every metric except win-loss record” -- which includes attendance, merchandise, TV ratings and sponsorships.
“I’m very proud of the job Jim Curtin’s doing, along with the rest of the guys in the front office that really crushed it through the summer,” Sakiewicz said. “We had some of our best attendances and best metrics on the business side through the summer, which is typically very difficult.
“Having said that, we’re not satisfied. We want more. We’re an ambitious club and we want more at every level, whether it’s on the field or off the field.”
One thing that will certainly help with their ambitions is the new practice facility, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of October. As it currently stands, the Union either practice on their PPL Park field, which Curtin thinks takes away from the special atmosphere of their home stadium, or pack into vans to drive 10 minutes away to Chester Park.
But with two, high-quality grass fields set to be built right next door to PPL Park, the players will soon no longer have those issues.
“It’s going to be a nice environment,” Sakiewicz said. “It’s the equivalent of an office for a player. If you have a nice office and you have a nice place to go to work every day, you feel good about it. So in that regard, it’s going to have the biggest impact with the players.
“It’s also going to clean up the area and it’s going to clean up the neighborhood a little bit next to the stadium. It’s going to look very nice, so that’s going to be a benefit.”
Sakiewicz had hoped to break ground on the project sooner, but there were some complications. First, the team’s execs had to determine where they should build the practice fields, with some people initially thinking that YSC Sports -- home to the Union’s youth academy -- would be the best bet. And then, after deciding YSC wouldn’t work well, the team had to deal with some issues with the Chester government to build at PPL Park.
In the end, though, it was all worth it.
“We took a lot of time with this one because once you build it, you can’t move it,” Sakiewicz said. “And we were for a long time deliberating whether we could build everything in one place, meaning the youth academy and the first-team training grounds in one place. As soon as we figured out it was going to be really problematic to build everything in one place and we really couldn’t pull it off, we then began to zero in on building it next to the stadium. Then, of course, we had some challenges with the city last year.
“We were able to get past those challenges. It’s all good now and we’re finally in the ground.”
Sakiewicz has never had those kind of challenges working with Bimbo, making it an easy choice to renew that sponsorship for five more years, following the initial deal that ran from 2011 to 2014.
“The Bimbo partnership was, from the very beginning, a very special one -- and over the last four years, it’s really just gotten better,” Sakiewicz said. “It wasn’t a matter of if we were going to renew the deal; it was a matter of working out what the next iteration of the deal looked like. And we put together some really exciting grassroots and youth soccer initiatives with them that are going to start to get deployed next year.
“It’s a really exciting partnership.”
These days, Sakiewicz has a lot to be excited about.