Backline: Rodriguez turns attention to MLS's long-range planning

In nearly a decade of employment with Major League Soccer, Nelson Rodriguez is well regarded within the ranks but nearly unknown outside of them.

Since leaving the MetroStars to join MLS in early 2000, Rodriguez has worked closely with the majordomos of MLS: Commissioner Don Garber, former deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, and President Mark Abbott on projects and properties involving both the league and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing.

As his fellow employees often point out, he's worn many hats, and after devoting serious hours as senior vice president of SUM International - which he describes as "five years of 24/7, 365 days a year" - he's left that post to Will Wilson, and taken a new role working out of the commissioner's office on special projects and day-to-day operations.

Still, the SuperLiga semifinals at Gillette Stadium July 15 found him serving as match commissioner, who is in charge of the game and responsible for smoothing out whatever bumps may arise. After intensive work with Abbott regarding the next phase of expansion, he's turning to some long-range planning.

"I think that last phase worked very well," he says. "We built soccer-specific stadiums, we added to our ownership group both in terms of numbers of teams and diversity of our owners. It was a very exciting and busy time and I think this next phase will also be very exciting.

"Of course, we look all the smarter because the people running those teams have done such a great job. Seattle is new standard-bearer of excellence for the league and if any of the teams fall even a little bit short, they'll look to Seattle for how management has made the team successful and relevant in that market."

Rodriguez grew up in Manalapan, N.J., the son of a coach and referee who started out with a youth club of perhaps 40 children.

"I think now that club has about 4,000 players," says Rodriguez. "That shows how much the game has grown."

At Rutgers University he assisted head coach Bob Reasso during some of the Scarlet Knights' best years, which included the 1989 NCAA Division I semifinals that Rutgers hosted. (The Knights featured a gangly defender named Alexi Lalas.)

Rodriguez assisted Charlie Stillitano with the Giants Stadium venue during the 1994 World Cup, then coached three seasons at Lafayette College before rejoining Stillitano as director of youth projects for the MetroStars.

Once MLS formed SUM and started acquiring properties, the need for soccer-savvy people steeped in many facets of the game - competitive, business, operations, etc. - grew exponentially. Rodriguez's knowledge of the international game and command of Spanish sent him in many directions.

"Under Ivan, I was responsible for all the day-to-day activities of SUM International and most of the properties we had at that time, which included the Mexican federation, Interliga, the creation of SuperLiga, the creation of Pan-Pacific, the initial FC Barcelona business and the initial 2006 tour, the acquisiting of Guadalajara. That was incredible five-year journey, an incredible five-year experience, and I'm grateful to Ivan for the latitude that he gave me.

"It's amazing the amount of work and detail that's required for a single international game. When you start to think about the numbers that we started to accumulate, 50 games, 60 games, and this year even more, it took a lot. I hope I contributed in a positive way and wouldn't trade that experience for anything."

Rodriguez mentions details like securing not only a training field, but a training field that resembles the size and the cut of the grass to that Barcelona will be playing on. Not every team makes that kind of request, but in a year such as 2009, when 13 venues and 12 teams play in the Concacaf Gold Cup, the magnitude of staging international games comes into focus.

But those tasks are for others. At 44, he has the task now of looking into the future and planning for it. "It's also highlighted the fact that we are just at the endpoint of our last strategic plan," says Rodrigues. "I think that plan worked and met its objectives and goals and it's time now to create a new plan that will take the league from where it is to the next level."

(This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)   


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