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Is 'Moneyball' The Model For The Philadelphia Union?

By Kevin Kinkead

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- When Jay Sugarman appeared at PPL Park two weeks ago, it was the first time he had spoken to the media in a group setting in five whole years.

The message was mostly straightforward, as the Philadelphia Union Chairman and Majority Owner outlined a path forward that focuses on youth development and smart decision making.

Throwing money at high-priced foreign players was not part of the plan.

But Sugarman's most interesting comments probably came after the press conference, when reporters got a chance to ask him a few questions off to the side.

He was asked for his thoughts on the team missing the playoffs again, which prompted an answer that was both thoughtful and meandering.

"It's a 2 hour drive for me from (New York City). And when we lose games, it's a miserable ride. And I think, how can we be better? I've spent really the first five years studying, watching, listening. I've shared some of my ideas with our coaches and I think they are amused by my ideas. But I'll tell ya, there are things about this league that an outsider can see that maybe people inside can't see. I want to take a more active role and really start to say, 'we are David versus Goliath'. There are lots of businesses that succeed using a strategy where we don't spend the most money and maybe don't have the biggest footprint but boy, that gives us the freedom to try some things that maybe others won't, or can't."

"What I really want our team to do now is really adopt this sense of, this is not a war of money, it's a war of talent. How do we do this better? I've seen things that suggest to me that we can pick up three or four possessions a game just using simple ideas on throw-ins. We've looked very hard at ties. I hate ties. Ties are two-thirds a loss. It's not a two, one, zero point system in soccer it's a three, one, zero, so ties are two-thirds of a loss. We've done analytical studies using OPTA that suggest teams that go into the last 15 minutes of the game tied back off and actually score less and give up more goals than teams that go in down by a goal. What does that tell you? It tells you we need to instill a thought process from our junior kids all the way up to our first team -- 'guys, we don't want to tie'. I don't mind if you lose. I'll take that drive home if I see time and time again if we really go for the win at the end, as opposed to potentially going into a shell and give up. That's what the numbers say, so I'm just sitting here testing ideas and theories and trying to look for data that suggests is there a way to win and is there a way to change the game and tilt it a little in our favor."

"I don't know soccer like these guys, they know the sport far better than I do. But sometimes an outsider perspective is helpful and that's what I hope to bring a little more of in the next five years -- really challenge some of the conventional wisdom. As the league changes, can we have an impact in a different way than can we buy the best players? We just can't."

The more I read that quote, the more I think that Jay Sugarman is Billy Beane of "Moneyball" fame.

If you aren't familiar with the story, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" was a 2003 book written by Michael Lewis about the Oakland Athletics. Beane was the A's General Manager, who, with a lack of financial resources, used a data driven and analytical approach to build his baseball team.

With a 40 million dollar budget that ranked third-lowest in Major League Baseball, the A's found players undervalued by the market and avoided assets that were overvalued. The club favored statistics like on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Traditional methodology contrasted with the burgeoning principals of sabermetrics. The club found ways to win without coming close to the $120 million payroll of the New York Yankees.

The approach was mostly successful, and the team went to the playoffs four straight years from 2000 to 2003.

Everything that I see in that quote above screams "Moneyball".

Sugarman refers to this task as "David versus Goliath", and it's true. Philadelphia is not throwing bloated offers at players like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. The Union has never had a seven-figure Designated Player on the books.

Sugarman's talk about OPTA statistics, throw-ins, and draws gives you a look at how much he values data and analytics. He admits to not knowing the game like his technical and front office staff but his perspective as a successful businessman is significant.

The quote ends with a blunt admission – the Union cannot simply buy the best players. It's an honest take from the guy at the very top.

So here's how the Union can play the Major League Soccer version of "Moneyball", beginning with this offseason:

1. Build through the academy

Sugarman said as much during the public part of his press conference. The club has invested a lot of money into the project, which is still too new to produce a regular first team player. The team also has three homegrown players on the books that have not played significant senior team minutes.

2. Call everyone you know

Jim Curtin should get on the phone with every former teammate, coach, acquaintance, and contact. Call former Chivas USA teammates Sacha Kljestan and Jonathan Bornstein to see if they'd like to come back to the league. Call your Chicago Fire people and see if they have anything brewing. John Hackworth's U17 connections got Zac MacMath to Philadelphia. Diego Gutierrez was the main man in the Carlos Valdes deal.

Like most things in life, it's about who you know.

3. Find the next Nogueira

Vincent Nogueira was the ultimate 'Moneyball' signing. When Ligue 1's Sochaux was threatened with relegation and financial issues, the Union successfully signed the club's captain. He was brought in below the DP threshold and played at a high level for the entirety of 2014. Nogueira was also looking for a change of scenery and was intrigued at the thought of experiencing American culture.

4. Use internal connections

Get Nogueira to talk to his buddies in France. Get Cristian Maidana to call up a few of his countrymen from Argentina. Foreign players can establish pipelines to your club when they are settled and happy. Portland now has a contingent of players from Argentina that mirrors what the Union had in Colombians Valdes, Roger Torres, and Faryd Mondragon.

5. Win the re-entry draft

You saw what Ben Olsen and D.C. United did this season. The club added two starting defenders in re-entry. The front office followed up with shrewd trades for Chris Rolfe and Davy Arnaud and D.C. no doubt mopped up in Moneyball acquisitions last winter. I have a feeling the Union will be active in re-entry next month.

6. Take players on loan

Maurice Edu played the entire year on loan. Kleberson was here on loan (he should have played more). Roger Torres spent most of his Union career on loan. The roster turnover in MLS is so drastic each season that short-term loan deals are not something to worry about. Plus, the right price can always be paid to retain a player's services.

7. Play a style that matches your financial strengths

It's a 4-2-3-1.

Philadelphia isn't going to have a strike partnership like Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, so you look for a DP quality solo striker and build a strong spine in the middle. You've already got a good defensive core in Valdes, Edu, Ethan White, Rais Mbolhi, and Ray Gaddis. Next season will be more about grinding out results, as opposed to flair and glamour.

That's how the A's got into the playoffs.

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