You’re an owner and you simply could’ve sat back and hired someone. Why did you want to try your hand as the general manager?
To begin with, I love it. I love being involved in the day-to-day operations on the business side, but more so on the football side. I think I’ve been decent at it the over the last 6-7 years, so I felt I could add value in that area. I felt I could probably help set-up a foundation infrastructure that prepares the club for success long term. This team, Sounders FC, is so important to me, and I bleed Sounder green. So I think that passion and caring for the club and the players will pay dividends. That said, I am absolutely enthusiastic and thrilled about this structure that allows for me to be removed after a number of years. I’m not going to hang on by my fingernails. I would gladly let someone else who’s better at this part of the business do it.
When forming the partnership with Joe Roth, how was the topic of GM discussed?
It was sort of an assumed scenario. It was assumed I would oversee the soccer side of the business but it was not certain how active I would be involved, day to day. Certainly at the time we decided to buy a franchise, I was the best person available. Over time, we will hire people and they may establish themselves and take over more and more and more of the business. Honestly, I’m happy to allow people to grow. Maybe I’ll be a little less in the weeds on the details of the process. Maybe I’ll become more involved in the strategic direction and less so on the carpet color in training room. But I also believe that now the details matter enormously. Nailing the details early on in this organization will pay dividends for decades to come. I wanted to make sure there I was there involved in the details of building the organization.
Let’s go back a few years. What were those first few months and years like as a GM for the USLSounders?
The first few months were pure hell for me. I sort of fell into the position; it wasn’t something I searched out. Luckily for me, Bart Wiley started at about the same time. We hit it off and sort of became partners in crime. Bart is great at having a list of projects and checking them off and getting them done. But there were a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of phone calls to my peers in USL, asking how they make sure a referee shows up, what are we supposed to do after the game to report the score and statistics, asking how other teams were promoting games, what other stadium deals looked like. I didn’t know anything about it. Luckily I had a good background in business and this is a business. It’s about hiring good people, giving them good tools, creating good direction and goals and trying to guide the ship toward that. That’s the same as any other business. At the team level it’s about hiring a good leader and giving them the tools and goals and letting them do their jobs.
What’s the biggest difference between running a USL and an MLS club?
The biggest difference is that MLS is truly major league and USL, although a good a league is—let’s be honest—a minor league. Here in Seattle, it was minor league in a major league city. The biggest change and challenge for me is to think about Sounders FC as someone else thinks about the Seahawks or the Mariners, and to not think about it in terms of a small club that is super-focused on managing expenses and surviving. So I have to think about it differently than the USL Sounders. The MLS Sounders will be here for generations, and we need to invest emotionally and financially in the fact it will be here for generations.
You have been tremendously accessible as the USL Sounders boss. Now what?
I want to be as accessible as possible, but I can’t be everywhere at all times and answer every single E-mail that comes my way. I do my best to answer as many as possible, to do as many interviews as possible and to listen to as many fans as possible. But going from 500 season tickets holders to 17,000—there a lot more passionate people out there who have an opinion. Hopefully through some of the membership groups and the advisory board which will have representation, I will be able to be accessible through those mechanisms, albeit not to every single individual person.
Until this point, you have been your own boss. Now you have 17,000. Does that weigh on you?
I think I am my own worst critic. I like that pressure and knowing that I’m beholden to a community and a city. It keeps me and it keeps us honest, doing the rights things for the right reasons. For me, it comes naturally because this is my city, this is the place I was born, this is the place I’ll die, this is the place I was first introduced to the Sounders and this is the place where hopefully the Sounders FC will be for generations to come. Whether I execute or not, that’s clearly the million dollar question. But I sleep better at night knowing my motives are pure and I am doing this for the right reasons, and I want the same goals as every other person in this community. In the end, I am a fan as well.
In cases such as signing Kasey Keller or Freddie Ljungberg, do you pinch yourself?
Ultimately, they’re just people, like you and me. Certainly the fan in me takes a moment to appreciate the magnitude. But I’m entrusted to run a business and build a team with a capital ‘T.’ Although I will acknowledge the spectacle of a Kasey Keller or a Freddie Ljungberg, they are pieces to a puzzle that hopefully wins us games and championships for years to come. Also, I’m very sensitive to the fact there are players who attract the spotlight and make lots of money, but there are equally good people who will be coming in, making very little money and busting their asses to prove themselves. Or there may be guys who’ve been busting their asses for 10 years at a low salary, and who are as important to the team as the superstars. As general manager and owner, I will work just as hard for them, to make sure they’re happy and taken care of in the ways that we can. Obviously certain guys are going to make more money than others, but I think it’s super important to treat all of those people and support staff equally. I would take that a step further, and demand of the superstar and the rookie on minimum salary, that they do the same with the support staff that works for them, be it the usher, the bus driver, the photographer, and certainly the fans. This team will treat all others with the respect that they deserve because they allow these players to do what they do.
We’re approaching the 1-year anniversary of the team’s announcement. How much have you learned during this time?
I have learned quite a bit. Luckily for me, I knew a lot of the MLS business people, the MLS system relatively well. I know a lot of the players, the coaches and the general managers. It helps in that I can call anyone at any team in the league and pick their brain without them being threatened and resistant. Information-gathering is relatively easy. Having existing relationships with league officials makes it super helpful, I know who to call to get something done or get information. I spent enough time with MLS teams to know how they’re structured to a large degree on the team and business side.
When you envisioned what would happen in these first 12 months, is there anything that really surprised you, one way or another?
The thing that has surprised me the most is how great the relationship has been between the Seahawks and Vulcan Sports & Entertainment and this franchise. Yes, they’re owners of Sounders FC, but the people who work for Vulcan Sports & Entertainment and who now have more responsibility, they have embraced this team. Even the coaching staff with the Seahawks have been engaged and interested. It’s become the beginning of a fantastic partnership, where the soccer guys are interested and passionate about football, and the football guys are interested and passionate about soccer. It’s really been more of a family atmosphere than I anticipated.
What makes you proudest at this point of the team’s formation?
Just the fact that we have are thinking big, that we’re making good and big long term decisions on the formation and the foundation of this franchise. If we win and play in front of full stadiums, we will know that some of the tactical decisions we’ve made have been dead-on. For now, we know that philosophically we’ve done the right things and strategically we’re heading the right direction. Ultimately it comes down to winning games and filling the stadium, having happy corporate partners and having a lot of people watching on television. But I’m very proud of the high road that we’ve taken in everything we’ve done and every decision we’ve made for the foundation of this franchise. From the corporate partners we’ve chosen, to the broadcast partner to our broadcaster, to the people we’ve hired into the organization, to the facilities we will inhabit. I’m proud of the organization, people on the business and team side. This is the beginning of a rock-solid organization that the whole city can be proud of.