MLS Executives: There Is “No One Specific Way” To The Front Office

As The League Has Developed, The Range of Jobs Has Expanded And Continues To Provide New Career Opportunities.

MIAMI, Fla. (October 11, 2019) —

Today’s Major League Soccer clubs are a far cry from what they were in the beginning days of the league.

Teams are now managing full academies and some have USL squads (Inter Miami and New England are the two latest to announce USL teams for next season). With all of these additional components to an MLS team, millions of dollars in investment is required to run operations. Scouting has gone global as well. In addition to the financial undertaking, a full soccer operations staff is needed in order to do the job effectively.

The rapid expansion of Major League Soccer has increased the demand for employees to fill the various roles. With each new team, there is a full slate of front office jobs to fill, and that demand for talent has increased exponentially.

So who is going to fill this demand? As a starting point, it goes without saying (but I’ll mention it again) that no one is ever hired to work in the sports business because he or she is a ‘fan.’ If course you are a fan, that is the very minimum benchmark, but what matters is what do you bring to the organisation? In this sense, working in soccer, or any sports team, is not really that different from working for any company, law firm, PR firm, ad agency and so on.

The list of positions in front offices across MLS includes work in team administration, salary cap management, analytics, scouting, team operations, stadium operations, ticketing and sales, marketing, legal, sponsorships, communications, digital and media, community engagement, and more. The staff includes many different titles, for example, president, chief commercial officer, sporting director (or general manager) (usually charged with running scouting, player selection and other soccer operations) and team administrator (who handles things like travel and players’ adjustment to teams and cities, including housing, banking and other life needs). Generally speaking, job functions within a front office can be divided into two sides: Soccer Operations and Commercial.

“It’s a natural evolution,” said Dave Kasper, who is the general manager (since 2004) of D.C. United. “You’re expanding where there’s multiple departments on the soccer side, and we’re starting to see that because our league is growing so fast and there is more money being pumped in.”

Dave Kasper, General Manager, D.C. United

“When you think about everything a front office entails, it’s player development, it’s scouting, domestic and international, and it’s team administration,” said Will Kuntz, Vice-President of Soccer Operations at LAFC, “There is so much you have to touch and it’s so global in a way that few other sports are. You look at front offices in other sports, pick your sport, they have a whole number of people in a number of roles. It underscores the importance of myriad people in the job.”

The ability to scout and identify international talent is absolutely essential in today’s MLS, which has only increased since the introduction of targeted allocation money (TAM). This year’s example of how not to build a club was provided by FC Cincinnati. The team used a large portion of its TAM on trades to build its roster instead of bringing in more talented players and using the TAM to buy down their salaries. This was due to Cincinnati’s lack of having someone, a general manager or sporting director, in the office during the roster-building stages. They eventually added Gerard Nijkamp, who formerly led PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands, as GM.

The Cincinnati example should be a lesson for all future MLS teams; a properly staffed soccer operations staff will likely include one or more people with expertise on the league’s intricacies. MLS’s centralised, single-entity status and league-controlled salary cap mechanisms essentially have created a niche skill set that is vital to success.

Knowledge of the international market is very important. MLS front offices need to have an active presence internationally as MLS becomes both a buyer and a seller in the global football market.

As the dollar amount goes up, acquisitions become even more critical,” said U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter, who was considered one of the top chief soccer officers in the league when he worked as coach/technical director with the Columbus Crew. “And as we realize that we can’t always be a buying league, we also need to be a selling league, the way we structure our clubs and the way we work to both bring players in and sell players is extremely important. Clubs are realizing that. So they’re putting more resources into scouting, which they should. They are putting more resources into player personnel; once you get the player here how do we integrate them into the team and how do we integrate them into the society? And then I think teams are now also putting more resources into…how do we export these players? What do the contacts look like?”

What Kind of Backgrounds Fit In?

“I do think as the league grows we all need to grow in the support staff. There is going to be a combination in every front office and it comes down to the individuals and their skill sets and where they can add value.

It may be a former player, it may not. It may be someone who has (a) law background or was an agent. It comes down to relationships, being able to work with the coaching staff and different people in the club and being able to manage up. Some is specific to personalities and some is understanding MLS and the landscape of U.S. Soccer, and that can be learned. I don’t think there is one specific way.”

Chris Henderson, Sporting Director, Seattle Sounders FC

Some of those hired by clubs have experience in the MLS office itself. Take Chicago Fire Senior Vice-President of Communications Sean Dennison, as one example. A graduate of prestigious McGill University in Montreal, he worked for fourteen years at MLS headquarters, the last two of which he served as Vice-President of Communications for the league, before joining Chicago in 2018. Other examples include general managers Ali Curtis of Toronto Football Club, Nelson Rodriguez of the Chicago Fire SC, the aforementioned Will Kuntz and Sporting Kansas City’s Assistant Director Of Player Personnel, Meghan Cameron, all of whom had previous experience in the league office.

Others have worked for other leagues or confederations. Inter Miami CF’s Chief Business Officer Jurgen Mainka, for example, served as the director of marketing and communications, and later the Deputy General Secretary and Chief Commercial Officer at Concacaf prior to being hired by the Inter Miami ownership group. Looking at the personnel across MLS teams also shows that not all front office employees even have prior experience in soccer, or even in sports in general.

Chris Henderson’s Insights On Front Offices

Seattle Sounders FC sporting director Chris Henderson Photo: (Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Chris Henderson is currently the sporting director of the Seattle Sounders. A former midfielder, he gave coaching a try post-career but thereafter transitioned into being a technical director. Henderson was hired by the Sounders as technical director in 2008. He has spent the last decade learning “on-the-job” and also interacting with foreign clubs when he travels the globe scouting for players.

“The ownership groups have their own companies and are used to running businesses and used to having people with a certain profile to run their business,” Henderson said. “Somebody with extensive soccer knowledge (can help) because in the position you are going to be in you have to have an understanding with the head coach and the coaching staff.”

While the hires around the league follow different strategies and come from different backgrounds, a common theme is also there: the investment teams are willing to make in order to be competitive. This is only going to increase, and the teams that do it best will continue to have the most success.

“Nobody knows if (a hire) is right or wrong until you look at it later,” Henderson said. “I do think as the league grows we all need to grow in the support staff. There is going to be a combination in every front office and it comes down to the individuals and their skillsets and where they can add value. It may be a former player, it may not. It may be someone who has (a) law background or was an agent. It comes down to relationships, being able to work with the coaching staff and different people in the club and being able to manage up. Some is specific to personalities and some is understanding MLS and the landscape of U.S. Soccer, and that can be learned. I don’t think there is one specific way.”

With regard to those with legal backgrounds, they have found places both within the league office and with its clubs. When asked about the changing roles of the legal department at Major League Soccer, for example, Dimitrios Efstathiou, Vice-President, Legal, said that the legal team today is being considered as more than just ‘scribes’ and ‘drafters.’ “We’re at the table, with our counterparts within the media department or the corporate partnerships department or the licensed products department. We are sitting down and helping drafting a strategy to approach a deal and issue spot early on so we’re viewed as, again, a business affairs member as opposed to the lawyer.”

Another example is Darren Eales, President of Atlanta United, who had played soccer while attending West Virginia University and Brown University, later returning to his native England and earning a law degree from Cambridge. After working as in-house counsel at West Bromwich Albion, he moved on to Tottenham in 2010, where his work touched on all major aspects of soccer operations. He helped to negotiate and execute player transfers, including playing a key role in the 2013 world record transfer fee sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. Eales was the first person hired for the Atlanta team by owner Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

Darren Eales and Atlanta United Owner Arthur Blank. Photo: Atlanta United FC

Lawyers are thus particularly good candidates for MLS front offices. Beyond the ‘obvious’ role of serving as an in-house counsel, someone with a legal background has a skill set that can be valuable in any business agenda. For example, most lawyers are very skilled at written and oral communications. Even with all the advances in technology, business is still won and lost based on personal relationships. People do business with whom they trust, with whom they find commonality and with whom they like. And these relationships are built on clear communication, exchanges of ideas and getting to know each other, skills that most lawyers have. Additionally, given the extensive use of contracts, from sponsorship agreements to media rights distribution to player contracts, having legal skills can assist with issue spotting and avoiding vagueness that often leads to disputes. Finally, despite the stories that make the news, most lawyers adhere to a high degree of ethical standards and can bring added professionalism to a business setting.

With new MLS teams beginning in Miami, Nashville, Austin, Saint Louis and at least one other city in the near future, there will be a need for many competent candidates to carry out the myriad of job functions in the front office. Some of these people may have a soccer background, while others may have other useful skills like foreign languages or an aptitude to work in an international environment. Whatever their skills and talent, they will also need passion and energy. Teams that have an open-minded approach to hiring and can assemble a front office with the right combination of talent, experience and dedication will be the winners.


Related:

MLS also has annual awards for front offices. Here’s a list of who and which teams won awards following the 2018 season:

2018 MLS Club and Executive Award Winners:

  • Doug Hamilton Executive of the Year – Darren Eales
  • Ticket Sales Team of the Year – Atlanta United
  • Public Relations Team of the Year – Atlanta United
  • Club Retailer of the Year – Atlanta United
  • Digital Team of the Year – Atlanta United
  • Operations Staff of the Year – Atlanta United
  • Supporter Management Team of the Year – Atlanta United

Additional award winners

  • Sporting Executive of the Year – Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City
  • Corporate Partnerships Team of the Year – Los Angeles Football Club
  • Corporate Partnerships Executive of the Year – Justin Compton (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Ticket Sales Executive of the Year – Sean Sittnick (Minnesota United FC)
  • Marketing Executive of the Year – Rich Orosco (Los Angeles Football Club)
  • Expansion Club Recognition Award – Los Angeles Football Club
  • Ticketing Sales Impact Award presented by the National Sales Center powered by SeatGeek – Colorado Rapids (Sales Combine)
  • Marketing Team of the Year – New York City FC (24-hour game)
  • Marisa Colaiano Community Relations Department of the Year presented by MLS WORKS – Chicago Fire
  • Business Analytics Team of the Year – Los Angeles Football Club
  • Social Media Activation of the Year – LA Galaxy (#Galaxy Social / Malea Emma)
  • Digital Content Experience of the Year – Portland Timbers (The Rivalry)
  • Equipment Manager of the Year – Chris Maxwell (Houston Dynamo)
  • Security Staff of the Year – Seattle Sounders FC
  • eMLS Team of the Year – Philadelphia Union
  • Team Administrator of the Year – Spencer Childs (Portland Timbers)
  • Athletic Training Staff of the Year – Sporting Kansas City
  • Academy of the Year – Sporting Kansas City
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