This is the second installment of Business of Soccer’s August feature on Leaders in Sport: Nick Rogers. The first installment can be found here.
The phone in front of Minnesota United FC President Nick Rogers rings. Again. And again. Apologetic to me, Rogers answers each call in turn, attentive to the those matters pressing and not-so-pressing. From team owner Dr. Bill McGuire to head coach Manny Lagos, Rogers’s lack of experience in the front office belies his tactful approach to each caller. Turning from his boss to Lagos, who has professional playing and coaching experience of over 20 years, Rogers is direct and articulate, and yet deferential where appropriate. Rogers is, quite literally, the man in the middle: “It’s been an interesting transition, being people’s boss. That’s been different . . . [to] make decisions that affect a lot of people.”
Among the most public of Rogers’s decisions has been Minnesota United FC’s player-acquisition strategy, which included entering the market last winter and acquiring the NASL’s MVPs for 2011 and 2012, Etienne Barbara (from Vancouver Whitecaps FC) and Pablo Campos (from NASL team San Antonio Scorpions). Compared to most NASL teams, Minnesota United was aggressive in attempting to stockpile proven talent. The new strategy, however, was as much the result of a clear budget from team owner McGuire as it was direction from head coach Manny Lagos. Rogers notes: “I do not hold myself out as an expert judge of soccer talent. That is not my strength. I have opinions, but we really rely pretty heavily on our coaching staff to figure out what direction to move in and what the opportunities were. The team had the lowest payroll in the league for the last two years running, and we obviously wanted to put a competitive team on the field. . . . I worked with Manny to come up with what we thought would be a reasonable player budget, but I, for the most part, relied on him and his staff to figure out what direction we needed to go in.”
But the challenges in assembling a competitive team have persisted, particularly in light of Minnesota United’s initial performances on the field. Rogers acknowledges a learning curve: “Frankly, we still need to get better at figuring out where we’re getting our players from, because we don’t have draft. We’re not the most famous league in the country. Having league combines in Fort Lauderdale once a year is not doing it, so it’s still an area that’s going to be a challenge for us. Moving forward, we’re going to have to get better at it. We’ll have to build out this scouting system.”
The scouting and development system appear to be a priority for Minnesota United, but Rogers declined to discuss steps being taken to address identification and development of new talent. But Rogers was clear about the general team building strategy: “Going forward, we’re certainly going to look at what the other teams in our league are doing. . . . There are a lot of talented players in the MLS who aren’t getting on the field. To be completely honest, it’s been a challenge to try to work with MLS. That’s not always the easiest thing to do in our position. Just the way they’re structured, it can be a challenge [to work with MLS].” Rogers notes that the team and Lagos have a wealth of connections to other teams in the NASL and USL, but appeared more cautious about players coming right out of college: “College players are interesting. I don’t know that college is always the best route to go. If a guy is talented and wants to play professional soccer, I’m not sure that’s the best developmental track for them to follow, but we certainly look at schools in our region.”
The fluidity of Rogers’s team building strategy has been evident over the past few weeks, with Minnesota United trading 2011 NASL MVP Etienne Barbara to the Tampa Bay Rowdies for Mike Ambersley, and acquiring on loan midfielders Siniša Ubiparipović and Calum Mallace from the Montreal Impact. The player moves came in the wake of a 6th place finish in the Spring 2013 half of the NASL season for Minnesota United, and have yielded a 1-1 record in the Fall 2013 half of the season, including a loss at home in the second-half opener to the Atlanta Silverbacks. Rogers was again candid in his evaluation of the front office’s performance: “[W]e’re making player moves [and] some of them are working, and some maybe aren’t working as well, and we’re going to learn. We’re going to adjust that going forward, but sort of the core of what we want our club’s identity to be has to remain intact, and we can’t let one bad apple ruin the barrel.”
Rogers was not shy in offering his opinion on the team’s performance: “We’re trying to be a leader [in the NASL] on and off the field. Obviously, we struggle a little bit on the table. We’ve had some injuries that have been unfortunate, and we would’ve liked to do a little bit better competitively. . . . I wish we were doing better. We should be at the top of the table. We dropped a bunch of points that we shouldn’t have dropped this year.”
And what of the loss to the Des Moines Menace in May in the opening rounds of the U.S. Open Cup? I have struck a nerve. Rogers grimaces: “US Open Cup this year was a big missed opportunity for us, no question. Last year, [under] league ownership, [the team had] the lowest payroll in the league. We went down to Real Salt Lake and we beat them, 3‑1. . . .The guys felt terrible. . . . If you follow me on Twitter, . . . . I apologized to our fans and I apologized for the performance on the field. It was embarrassing. It was an embarrassing night for us, and all credit to Des Moines. That’s a quality PDL [side], but again, we didn’t put our first team out there, but the guys that were out there were good enough to win. We should have won with the team we put out there and there’s no excuse.”
For all of the moves the team is making to improve its immediate future on the field, Rogers is also working on providing for the long-term future of the club. Minnesota United played the first half of its Spring season in downtown Minneapolis at the aging Metrodome (home of the Minnesota Vikings and former home of the Minnesota Twins). Minnesota United then returned to NSC Stadium in the suburb of Blaine, which is about 15 miles from downtown Minneapolis and 20 miles from St. Paul. What seems clear is that NSC Stadium will not remain the long-term home of Minnesota United FC. According to Rogers, “All options are on the table at this point. I think a year from now, we’re most likely playing in the NSC [Stadium]. . . . I think five years from now, we want to have our own facility. We want to be playing in a soccer‑specific stadium in this market.”
And while many MLS teams are now playing in soccer-specific stadiums, the movement toward soccer-specific stadiums for NASL teams is more recent, with the San Antonio Scorpions completing construction on the brand new 8,000 seat Toyota Field and the recently revived New York Cosmos announcing its intention to build a soccer-specific stadium in New York City. But can the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area support such a stadium? Rogers did not hesitate: “I absolutely think so, and from some preliminary conversations we’re having, there’s interest in having that here. It’s kind of a tough nut to crack. There’s only so much real estate out there and you need to have the right partners. . . . That’s something that we’re working on at the highest level for our organization right now.”
For the credibility that a soccer-specific stadium would lend to a franchise like Minnesota United, it remains an NASL team. And presumably for American soccer teams, the ultimate credential is to become an MLS team. However, in an interview with Business of Soccer, current NASL president Bill Peterson suggested that NASL teams were not emphasizing efforts to become MLS expansion teams, stating “If you ask me today, I don’t believe there’s an owner at our table who is looking to have an MLS team.”
I think Rogers knows this question is coming. Does Rogers agree with Peterson’s statement? The short answer is yes. Rogers explains: “I agree with that. I’ve talked to all the owners in our league. . . Look, I think all of us want to be exhibiting the highest level of professional soccer possible. I think we all believe that our league gives us a platform to do that. We’re a Division 2 league, and MLS is a Division 1 league, but unlike the rest of the world, these leagues are not interlinked. Nobody can actually explain to me what ‘Division 2’ means. I don’t have a salary cap, and I want to win the US Open Cup. This market, we can do whatever the market allows us to do. I think every owner in our league would want to have the visibility of MLS, but I’m not sure that anybody is clamoring to play [the expansion fee] to get into [MLS].”
Our conversation nears an end, but I have gained better insight into Rogers’s approach to and plan for professional soccer in Minnesota. Rogers comes off as humble, and yet his aspirational objectives and direct delivery evidence a confident and driven front office manager. And it’s no surprise that just such a person is in charge of a club that was nearing extinction only months ago. Effectively, Rogers took over a team that was nearing rock bottom.
But in Rogers’s opinion, that is not necessarily a bad thing: “I think rock bottom is a good place to start. From rock bottom, everything is opportunity. It’s all positive from there. . . . I think it starts by being relevant in the Minneapolis‑St. Paul metro area sports market. . . . We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us on that front. Success is going to be forming the corporate relationships, the community relationships, that signify to the general public that this is something that’s important to the community, aligning ourselves with brands that are consistent with the club we’re trying to be. . . .We want to be the fifth major sport in this market. That’s what it comes down to.”