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MLS Players Take Power
by Ridge Mahoney, February 29th, 2008 2:03PM

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TAGS:  mls, soccer business


Their titles range from president to technical director to general manager, and their duties and responsibilities differ greatly, but former players are rapidly filling MLS front-office positions.

It hasn't been that long since Alexi Lalas ascended from player to team executive, but during those intervening years very few of his peers found jobs other than blowing whistles or moving cones. Coaches, as it were.

Now the president and general manager of the Galaxy bumps into former teammates and foes at every match and function, and that's fine with him.

"It's about time," he says with the usual mix of jest and jab. "I was getting mighty lonely the past few years trying to bring the players' perspective to a lot of corporate types who would just look at me funny.

"I haven't coached. I made a decision. I knew I was one of those types of players who, if I went right into coaching, would be useless. I really needed to get away from the actual playing of the game and have a distance from it. But the more players we can get into the league as something other than coaches, the better. Playing the game gives you a unique perspective on the game and that can be used in so many ways."

Teams are doing just that. A league decree that all teams must initiate youth development programs has triggered a string of hirings, and there are directors of soccer and technical directors sprinkled on staff lists around the league. Yet Toronto, Real Salt Lake and Houston have opted for different structures, and FC Dallas has interviewed candidates but as of mid-February had not made a hiring.

"We've made a point of sitting down in this offseason and really doing some soul-searching for lack of a better word in an attempt to understand exactly what we want to be and the philosophy that we want to take with us during that adventure," says Lalas of the Galaxy's decision to hire head coach Ruud Gullit and ex-U.S. international Cobi Jones to assist him. "As the league grows and matures, each team will do things a little differently, but the bottom line will be not how things are set up, but how successful are you. And in pro sports, that's what matters most."

RANKS FILLING UP. In February, the ranks swelled with the hirings of Brian Bliss in Columbus and Jurgen Sommer by Colorado, joining Paul Bravo (Los Angeles), Mike Burns (New England), Jeff Agoos (New York), Peter Vermes (Kansas City), and John Doyle (San Jose) as former MLS players with at least some responsibility for the first team as well as player development.

Last summer, Lalas moved Bravo, who played for Colorado and San Jose, upstairs to director of soccer. That not only cleared out a space for Jones on the coaching staff, it added L.A. to the list of teams tacking on additional playing expertise.

How quickly are the ranks filling up? Seattle, which won't kick a ball in earnest until spring 2009, has already signed up former U.S. midfielder Chris Henderson as its technical director.

D.C. United, as it has in many areas, got the jump on most MLS teams when it hired Dave Kasper as technical director in 2002. Kasper played collegiately at Maryland, professionally with two indoor teams, and coached in the A-League (now USL) prior to joining United's staff. The promotion to GM came last September.

President and CEO Kevin Payne, who had occupied the GM chair in the franchise's early days, said of Kasper, "Not only has Dave become a master of the unique rules and regulations of Major League Soccer, but he has developed a true understanding of the international market.

"Dave has nurtured great working relationships with our coaches and, together, they have developed tremendous contacts that have helped United identify outstanding players both domestically and internationally."

The titles may be similar but just what the job entails depends on the organization's philosophies and structure, as well as, frankly, how much power is granted to the TD/DOS by the higher-ups and the head coach. Some are mostly in charge of youth programs, a few spend most of their time dealing with the first team.

But the greater complexity of the job, and increased competition among teams for players, is driving the increased importance on finding, and nurturing talent. Youth programs and academies fall somewhere between player development and public relations, yet teams have greater incentive to find local talent since youth products can be signed by the club without being subject to the MLS SuperDraft.

Teams also have incentive, and latitude, to get players who can help immediately with eight international slots available and a Designated Player option, in addition to the traditional, not to mention unique, mechanisms of MLS. The value of having another experienced pro to find and evaluate talent, and plan out short-term needs as well as long-range plans, can't be underestimated.

Shortly after head coach Curt Onalfo was hired by the Wizards in November 2006, he and Vermes - a member of the search committee - headed to South America to scout players. Both were somewhat astonished by the results; not only did they get a bead on some promising players, they found connections to set up a preseason visit to Buenos Aires.

"I think we see the game in the same way and have a lot of the same ideas of how it should be played," says Vermes "That translates into finding the kind of players we want to put on the field. Curt and I just got together and decided to go and our ownership was all for it. I can't see that happening in the first few years of the league, no way."

Lagging behind most of the MLS teams in instituting youth teams and player development programs is New England, which is somewhat ironic because: a) the Revs have reached the last three MLS Cups, only to lose all three, and; b) in somewhat perverse fashion, have lost starters Clint Dempsey, Pat Noonan and Avery John - and nearly lost Taylor Twellman - to foreign pursuits in the past 18 months.

"Clearly, we're behind a little bit right now, but we feel good we'll be able to get something going here shortly," says Burns. "We some catching up to do but we feel progress is being made. We want to make sure we're doing this right. We've talked all over the place, trying to find out what's right for the Revs. We've gone down a lot of different paths and we're almost there.

"It's been interesting since day one of year one of this league, the number of technical directors or directors of soccer that have come into the league. It seems like a lot more teams are employing a person in this position. This is going into my fourth year of this role and I've done a little bit of everything, from team ops to getting more involved in the player personnel side of things and the reserve team."

Houston has yet to hire a technical director but with two titles in two years, head coach Dominic Kinnear and his assistants, who include ex-Scottish international and MLS veteran John Spencer, may not need much help on their side.

Kinnear's mentor in San Jose, Frank Yallop, has returned as head coach of the reborn Quakes, who have yet another melding of titles in support: Doyle, a Bay Area native and U.S. and MLS veteran, is general manager and director of soccer. Doyle, though, won't monitor season-ticket sales or drive sponsorships, except through his local soccer connections that include the post of Director of Coaching for Mustang Soccer Club.

"What I look at is a vision of what I want it to be 10 years from now, [rather] than the day-to-day, winning or losing a game," says Doyle of leaving the coaching to those best suited for it. "I've done it on the youth side and on the pro side, so I understand those parts of it."

Toronto has tweaked the traditional European model somewhat. Mo Johnston has moved upstairs from his head coaching position to a role he defines as manager, leaving the day-to-day jobs of devising tactics, selecting players and winning matches to head coach John Carver, who is steeped in the English game but is new to MLS.

Johnston will evaluate and acquire players in conjunction with Carver's wishes, effectively bypassing the need for a technical director that interacts closely with the coaching staff. As TFC launches its youth development teams and programs a slot to handle those duties will open up.

WORLD ACCORDING TO GARTH. Real Salt Lake operator-investor Dave Checketts hasn't flown under the radar since joining MLS four years ago. Whether stomping on political toes to build a stadium or rankling the league's broadcast partners by trying, through his SCP Worldwide agency, to buy up GolTV, he's plunged forth in unorthodox ways.

So hiring the non-experienced Jason Kreis as his head coach and Garth Lagerwey as general manager didn't at all deviate from Checketts' standard operating procedure. RSL's mold doesn't fit that of any other MLS team but does follow closely the flowcharts used by many pro organizations in other sports.

And Lagerwey, a graduate of both Duke University and Georgetown Law School who worked at the prestigious Latham & Watkins firm while doing TV commentary on D.C. United games before coming back to MLS, doesn't fit any mold, anyway.

"I think the most accurate description is that Jason and I split the technical director spot," says Lagerwey, who by his own count was cut or waived five times during his MLS career. "Inevitably, you're going to be involved in business stuff with this general manager role, whether it's securing a practice facility for the club, or working with the salary cap or contract negotiations.

"That role may change and evolve as we grow. My formal title is general manager and that essentially means I run the soccer side of our business. It's similar to an NFL or NBA setup in that sense. We have a business manager, and a general manager, and then a president, Alan Pace, who sits over the top of both of us, and then ownership above that."

Kreis and Lagerwey are both Dukies and they played together in Dallas. Lagerwey, though, came back to MLS in a roundabout way; his law firm asked him to work on a project by which SCP sold a piece of the St. Louis Blues to a client, and as discussions extended over months, his soccer background emerged.

Working for one of the top law firms in the country isn't quite the wilderness walkabout some perceived Lagerwey's last seven years to be, but he takes that in stride. Out of sight, out of mind, maybe, but far from out of the loop. He's excited about the job, the responsibilities, the potential, and the market.

"I know people perceive that I went into the law and left the game and was away wandering in the desert for my 40 days, but I did TV from the day I left and as a result was talking to coaches and players," he says. "Maybe I wasn't involved in the day-to-day stuff, I was real current on the league and felt real comfortable with my knowledge of players."

(This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

 

 

 



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