On the record: City Football Group's Ferran Soriano at BlazerCon
It was quite a coincidence that City Football Group head honcho Ferran Soriano took the stage at BlazerCon just under two weeks after his company's New York operation fired head coach Jason Kreis, and five days after it appointed Patrick Vieira to be the new man in charge.
It was quite a coincidence that City Football Group head honcho Ferran Soriano took the stage at BlazerCon just under two weeks after his company's New York operation fired head coach Jason Kreis, and five days after it appointed Patrick Vieira to be the new man in charge.
It was less of a coincidence, though, when just a few days before the event, the subject of Soriano's remarks in the program changed from Manchester City's growth to reviewing New York City FC's first season on the field.
The same might be said of the fact that Soriano was not made available to reporters for any further questions after his conversation on stage with "Men In Blazers" co-host Roger Bennett. Whether you think that ultimately matters is a judgement that only you can make. I think it's necessary to have the full transcript of what Soriano said - and, just as importantly, what he didn't say - about NYCFC available in the public domain.
So here's a transcript, lightly edited for clarity. Some of the banter on stage has been removed, but none of the substance. Bennett's remarks are in bold, and Soriano's are in italics.
Your players are back in training, you've got a new coach in town. A gentleman who takes me back, from his playing days, to memories of some of the most beautiful football - invincible football, winning football - I've seen. Patrick Vieira has arrived in New York as the club's new leader. As they say in America, he's a rookie head coach. It's his first time at the helm. What was it that made you look at him and say, "This is the gent?"
Well, obviously we know him very, very well. He has been with us for years, as a player and then as a coach. And we know that he is an excellent coach. You called him a rookie - and he might be a bit of a rookie in coaching, but he has already been working for three years as a coach [with Manchester City's reserve and Elite Development teams], and he has been an amazing player.
He understands not only the technical aspects of the game, but also how to be a winner, what you need to have a winning mentality and to be a winner. So we're actually extremely happy and thankful that he has taken this challenge. For us, New York is not only an important project, but maybe the most important project, and we have asked our best coach in our system to come here. We are very excited.
In his first interview, on Thursday [with NYCFC's website], Vieira said, "I still have a lot to learn about MLS, but what is important to me is to have the right people around me who can help me to understand how things work."
There is a common wisdom here that in MLS, only Americans can coach; only they can understand the idiosyncracies, the travel, the salary cap, the allocation draft, finding fringe players who can contribute. There are 20 men managing in MLS, and only four came of age outside the U.S., and two of those played here.
When I hear people say that foreign managers cannot coach in this country, it always is very evocative emotionally to me. Because I remember it being said over and over again in England in the 1980's. The common idiom was, "Foreigner coaches can bring nothing to our English game." What's your take on that for this country?
I'm not worried about this. I'm not worried, because soccer is soccer everywhere. And we have been exposed to this, I think, by recent times in New York - the last two or three years. I've seen this conversation many times, where people say, "Oh, the MLS* is different. The MLS is different, the style of play is different, players are more athletic, and so and so."
The reality is, it's not true. It is not true. Maybe the MLS was different five years ago. Maybe it was. Maybe when I first came here to look at the MLS in 2005, there was a huge difference. There is no difference now in the way football is played. So somebody that knows how to play good football - sorry, good soccer - in Europe, in Spain or in England, will know how to play or how to coach good soccer in the U.S., for sure.
Now, you mentioned the other aspects that are more on the administration side. The salary cap, and so on. This is the role of the football director, not the coach that is with the team every day. And for this role, we have Claudio Reyna, who understands U.S. soccer very well, and understands the MLS very well.
Let me tell you one more thing. We help the teams that we have with the best talent that we have in-house. And I've been fortunate to work with, I would say, one of the best football directors of the last decade, who is the football director at Manchester City, Txiki Begiristain.
I was in Barcelona when Txiki Begiristain, confronted with choosing a coach, had to choose between an experienced coach - I'm talking about 2008 [after Frank Rijkaard left] - we had a number of experienced coaches who wanted to coach Barcelona, including [Jose] Mourinho, and we had a young guy that had one year experience in the B team: Pep Guardiola. Txiki came to me and said, "Guardiola is the guy. I've seen how he coaches, and he's the coach that we want." And we took that risk.
I have to tell you that Txiki came to me months ago to say, "Patrick is the guy. Patrick is the guy who can be the coach of a top team in the Premier League, or whatever." So this is the guy that we're saying, he's a top guy, he should go to New York.
[* - Yes, Soriano said "the MLS" a lot. It's a grammar pet peeve for me, and I know it is for many of you as well. Bennett did not, and does not, use the definite article.]
Jurgen Klinsmann is the first person to say this, and he says it all the bloody* time: American players are different mentally to European players in elite European football. Not lesser, but different. Different motivations, different psychology. From what you've seen in MLS so far, would you agree with Jurgen? And if so, with Patrick, thinking through how he'll understand those differences?
[* - It's not an expletive on this side of the Atlantic.]
So this is what I've seen. And obviously, we have looked at this with all the detail. We now have a year of experience, of playing in the MLS. We know the players. And there is some truth in that. There is some truth about the education of the players.
What you see in Europe, and more in some countries than others - in Spain, as an example, it is understood and this is not controversial - kids are taught, are coached, differently than in England. And in a more technical and tactical way. So kids understand the positions on the pitch and the movements better. And these things are taught when kids are seven or eight years old.
When you come to the U.S., you realize that at that age, kids were not taught. So you have players at the age of 20-something that lack some of the coaching that should have been done when they were 10. That's a reality. But the other very important reality that I learned myself, but I learned also from David Villa and [Andrea] Pirlo and [Frank] Lampard, they all say the same about American players: they are competitive, they want to learn, and they listen. So what they need is good coaching. They need to be helped to understand the game better.
And this is happening. You see the soccer that is played today in MLS, it is better. And it will be much better as the kids that are now 11 years old - I saw the kids that we have in our academy that are 11 years old and 13 years old, they play very, very good soccer. I think that Patrick is going to help in teaching and in developing some of the American players that we have here at New York City.
When Jason Kreis exited*, the reaction was fascinating to me. In the world of MLS fandom, the response was massive. Which can be taken as a great sign that the community really cares, is really invested.
[* - That is admittedly not the verb that I, or just about anyone else, would have chosen.]
But in the New York Times, the transition was covered in, I think, about 450 words, [maybe] less than 450 words. A sign that MLS still has some way to go in this market to get the coverage that a major league sport coach would have done if he had been fired.* How do you experience both sides of the profile of the team and the sport right now?
[* - That is admittedly more like it.]
This is an ongoing process. The reality is that the coverage, the media attention that the MLS gets, is less than what we would like. But this takes time.
I have spoken to lots of fans in New York and I have seen people talking about the MLS in some sort of negative way. And when you ask then, "When is the last time you watched a game?" they say "Five years ago." So they don't know.
The soccer that is played in the MLS and the relevance of the MLS are much bigger than what the media are portraying. New York City FC got 48,000 people in a game at Yankee Stadium, and we had an average of 29,000 people going to games. How many teams in New York, how many sports teams, have this fan base? You tell me, right?
You compare this fan base with the media attention that we get, it doesn't fit. But it will take time. This is, Roger, I think this is unstoppable. Unstoppable.
You're so bullish on the future of American soccer, the future of MLS. But I want to review the first season of NYCFC's play. A record of won 10, drawn 7, lost 17. Top line, how do you assess the first campaign?
Well, the first thing to say is we are very disappointed, I would say totally unhappy, with the results. We will never be happy if we don't win, and we lost too many games. So I am going to speak about this, and this is the first thing I want to say, because it's very important: We need to play better soccer.
On the other hand, we are extremely happy with the results of the building of the club. You look at the numbers, and the numbers speak for themselves. The number of fans, how much the fans care, for the club. Because we are not only a soccer team, we are a club. And we have welcomed so many New Yorkers to this team. This idea that we had became an evident reality, that New York City was waiting for this to happen.
The only thing that we've done is offer New York City soccer fans a platform to grow and to flourish. This is what we have done. Because the fans were here, and the love for soccer was here. I am particularly about the way the club has developed. And I'll give you a very little example that had me very impressed.
The first game, in the subway going to Yankee Stadium, there was a father and a boy, maybe six years old. They were wearing the blue shirt [of NYCFC] and the boy asked of his father, "Why are we wearing this? Isn't this the Argentinian national team? The father looks at the boy and says, "No, no, no. This the team of your city. This is your team."
That's it. That's game over. It means we've done it. It means we've given the opportunity to fans in New York to embrace their team, and they got it. And that's 100 percent what we needed to do in year one. But with this comes an immense responsibility. Because the team of New York has to play good soccer and has to win.
So when I saw that [record at the end of the season], I felt satisfied [that] we did what we wanted, we offered what we wanted. But the second after, I was very - I won't say terrified, but very conscious that the responsibility that we carry on our shoulders is very real. We have to make this team a winning team, and we will.
I went to a number of NYCFC games this season and one of the things I found fascinating [was] at Everton, at Liverpool, at Barcelona with the socio* phenomenon, identity and football allegiance is something that is passed down generation to generation. Grandparent to grandchild, you know. It's in their blood. What I saw at NYCFC this season was - the American reality is always inverse. It's actually kids dragging their parents to go and watch the sport that the kids love.
[* - A Spanish term for a fan who pays a membership fee to have a vote in the club's operation, which is a common practice there.]
This is a moment of history that will be remembered in 100 years. We won't be here, many of us. When the history of Barcelona is explained, or the history of Manchester City, they talk about the origin of the club, and this is what we are experiencing. We are experiencing the birth of something, of a community, of a club. I'm not talking about a business, I'm not talking about a brand, I'm talking about a community that will be here for the next 100 years.
I'm also interested in what you can tell me about NYCFC [and] football in general. Who's in your crowd? What is their age? How many have held season tickets for any kind of soccer anything before? What do you know about who your target audience is?
We obviously learned a lot. We have 20,000 members - and by the way, that's a record.* I think it's very impressive. And that's a credit to the people that are members, not to us. But it's very impressive that in one year, NYCFC is second in the league in number of members, third in attendance - it's very impressive.
[* - I'm not so convinced it's a record. If he was talking about season ticket holders for an inaugural campaign, and I think he was, Seattle hit 22,000 for its MLS debut in 2009.]
I came here three years ago to start this project, and I started asking fans, and I went to visit fans. I wanted to learn about, to see the people who were playing on Saturdays [in rec leagues across New York]. I was getting the same message all the time, that has been reflected in the demographics of our fan base: This is a mainstream sport. It is not "for minorities." It is not "for Hispanics." It is not "for Eurosnobs." It is for everybody.
The reality today is that the composition of our fan base is very similar to the composition of the population of New York. We don't have a majority of Hispanics. We have a high percentage of highly-educated people. We have a high percentage of white Americans. More than 30 percent of people [in the fan base are] from Manhattan.
And we have, I think the number is 65 percent of the people never had a season ticket for any other sport.* So these were truly soccer fans. These are people that were soccer fans, and they didn't go to baseball, or to American football, or to hockey because they were soccer fans. And now they have a soccer team.
I've got to say, I was genuinely blown away by the fan culture that grew around this team so quickly in that tiny cauldron.* The Third Rail [NYCFC's biggest supporters' club] are one of the most fascinating [groups].
[* - Even by the standards of Bennett's flowery prose, that description of Yankee Stadium was sarcasm.]
To develop that level of fandom - I watched MLS at the beginning, I watched D.C. United, and I enjoyed them very much. But the fans in those first years, they didn't know how to be fans. They didn't really know. They were very self-conscious.
There is something truly wonderful and authentic that those guys are building around your club. But for you, there's another great strength to this: commercially. The NYCFC logo seems to be as omnipresent a soccer logo as I've seen, casually and anecdotally littered around this city. I know you had four of the top 10-selling MLS jerseys this season.* I think I contributed to that, because I own four Mix Diskerud jerseys. How would you grade the club's performance off the field?
[*- Andrea Pirlo was No. 4, David Villa was No. 5, Frank Lampard was No. 7 and Mix Diskerud was No. 10. The details are here.]
Astonishing. Better than what we thought. As I mentioned, we were No. 1 in merchandise sales in the whole league.* We feel that the fans have really embraced this club, and that's why we are more and more convinced that we have to play good soccer. We have to play better soccer. Because the fans are there, [and] the fans love the club. It's up to us now to put a good team on the pitch.
[* - Including the highest-grossing single day of merchandise sales in MLS history at the team's home opener. ]
What were the disappointments for you? You're the most optimistic man in football, but what did not pan out for you?
I think the result is only a part of it, because it is truly difficult for an expansion team to qualify for the playoffs. The reality is that it doesn't happen too much. It is the fact that we need to play better soccer, and we need to improve, and we need to progress in the way we play soccer. By this I mean very technical aspects. We were not good defending. Our defending and organization were not good enough.
How do you understand that?
Well, we need to work more. This is about work on the training pitch and coaching the players and then adding more of them. We lost some games with very easy goals that we conceded, and that's not acceptable.
So we need to work more and make sure that our game is consistent. That when we see our team play, we know what we're going to see. Sometimes we will win, sometimes we will lose, but we know that we will see a consistent way of playing, a well-organized team.
And I think one of the clear examples of this is when you look at the four teams that are playing in the [MLS playoffs] semifinals, what is the common denominator? They are just better-organized teams, I think.
I'm glad you brought that up, because I look at the four teams left in the MLS playoffs, and I think they ask a fascinating question: What does it take to win in this MLS, right now, 2015? All of them, they're all built with below-the-line talent that gel together and turn into cohesive elevens [in lineups] with balance, value, youth development in some cases. When you see that, does that make you want to do the same thing? Or do you believe that you can do something different, and change the equation, and still win?
Well, I'm going to say two things. The first one is that the key, as I said, is organization on the pitch. Teams have been better organized than others, not only NYCFC. This, we can do it. And if we do it, if we organize ourselves better on the pitch, and we have more talent - I think we have a lot of talent in NYCFC - we will win more.
The second thing has do to do with the long term [and] patience. At the end of the day, in New York and everywhere else, we will develop winning teams if we have homegrown talent. If we have boys that are playing with us at the ages of 13, 14 and 15, and we teach them to play our way. That will take time, but we will be patient.
When you look at the history of this league, the teams that have prospered are the ones who find value at the $100,000-mark. When you look at that, do you say, "That's the MLS of the past," or is that the vital thing for NYCFC?
No, I don't think this is a MLS thing. We think the same way in Manchester. We play a certain way. This way is the same way that is played by all the teams, from the top professional team to the boys. This is about organization. This is about strategy, and it's about the way we play. Then, on top of that, you put the best talent that you have.
What I'm telling you is, if we can organize ourselves better on the pitch, and we have the talent - and we're going to have the talent, the Pirlos and the Villas and the Diskeruds and the like - we will be a very good team. We will be a much better team.
Apologies, because for a moment, I'm going to take you to a dark place, Ferran. Three games against the Red Bulls, three losses. Does that irritate you?
Absolutely. Of course it does.
I mean, privately, do you kind of say that's a good thing? Forty-eight thousand people in the stadium when you played [the Red Bulls] at Yankee Stadium. Do you say to yourself, "It's a fantastic rivalry that's brewing here, that's going to go from strength to strength over the long term."
That was a bad day, alright? I was there. It not only irritated me, I was angry, but this is part of this business. This is part of soccer. So you can be angry for five minutes - maybe for a game like this you can be angry for five hours - but then you have to go back to the office, and say, "How are we going to be better next year?" So we took it, they deserved to win, we took the loss, and I'm waiting for next year.
If you had one opportunity to re-do the year and you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
I can't think of one. I thought about this, about the decisions that we took, and I think they were all right. Let's put this in context. We know that it was very difficult to qualify for the playoffs. So there's no regret, no hard feeling, just the desire to do better.
You said last time we spoke that in football, you don't plan in seasons, you plan in cycles. You talked about multi-year visions, multi-year strategies. Everyone expected NYCFC to be first-year competitive, but did the first year suggest that this project is going to need a cycle of four or five years before success occurs?
Yeah, absolutely. It took time. I have two experiences of being in a team where it was not performing, and it ended up winning trophies: Barcelona and Manchester City. I know it takes time, it takes patience, and it takes a long-term view.
Remember that the base of the NYCFC team was the Expansion Draft, and the Expansion Draft was taking players from other teams that can protect their 12 best players. So it is very difficult the first year. We had, and we have, ideas of what to do now that we thought of last year, and we couldn't execute. I'd say this is, as you said, a three-to-five-year cycle.
Anyone connected to the City organization talks about beautiful football. In his first interview, Vieira said it: "This is a team that's going to play beautiful soccer in New York." What if it's not possible to play beautiful soccer in MLS right now? The salary rules, just the general culture - hard-charging, athletic ball as a way to win?
I challenge this. I think it is possible. I think it is possible to play beautiful soccer. It's challenging, because as you know, the budget that we have - so, let's look at the numbers.
The numbers are: a top team in Europe - I'm using Manchester City because I know the numbers - Manchester City has revenues of $500 million, so they can spend $250 million on players.
The best teams in the MLS, the best you can think of, would have revenues of $50 million. So if we want these teams to continue to be in business and not disappear, they can spend a maximum of $25 million on players. That's 10 times less. It means you don't have access to the same talent, that's a reality.
But it doesn't mean you cannot have well-organized teams, that you cannot play beautiful football. I think it can be done, as it done in other places. I don't buy anymore the idea that the MLS is more physical and less technical. It's not true. The teams that are playing well are playing good soccer.
Let's talk about MLS. The league's 20 [years old]. We both share a sense of how far the league has come so fast. But when you look at growth potential for MLS, what does MLS need to do as a league to move itself to the next level?
The one thing that the MLS faces - and I am very involved in this because I like and I love the MLS and I've followed it for years, and now I'm one of them - the one thing that the MLS has that is different from any other league in the world is the competition coming from the other leagues.
In the U.S., you can take [various sources of] research and they will all tell you that there are like 60 million soccer fans. Approximately 60 million people in the U.S. who watch soccer - league soccer, not national team soccer - on weekends. That makes the U.S. one of the biggest soccer markets in the world.
The challenge is that these people are not only watching the domestic soccer. They're watching the English Premier League, they're watching the Mexican league, and so on. So the numbers more or less are that of the 60 million, maybe 20 [million] watch the Premier League, 20 [million] watch MLS, and others watch other stuff.
We need to play soccer that is good enough, and we need to explain it to the American fans, so that they watch MLS on weekends. The main difference in revenues between MLS and other leagues is the TV revenue. The stadium revenue is fine, the marketing revenue is fine, the TV revenue is 100 times lower than in England.
So the question is, how do we convince those fans to watch the MLS game on Sunday night? And in this respect, I disagree with some opinions that say the MLS and the English Premier League, for example, are competitors and are incompatible. They are not. I think the English Premier League is the best Saturday morning soccer product by far. But it's Saturday morning. So, Saturday afternoon, Monday night, you have to watch other soccer. And the MLS is very good soccer to watch.
As I said before, there's a lot of people who think that the quality is not good, because they are not watching it. We need to encourage them to watch, because we need the revenue to do what you asked for: we need better quality. That means we need better players.
But we need to be able to pay for it. Today, most of the teams in the MLS, including NYCFC, we're losing money. Because we're paying more for players than we can afford with the revenues that we have. This is part of being part of an entrepreneur, and part of developing a business, but this cannot go forever. We need to make sure that the revenues come, so that they can immediately go to improve the quality of the players.
- So is it a salary cap increase, is it more TV rights money? What is the one thing that you think will be a game-changer?
The numbers, approximately, I'm going to simplify them, but if the TV revenues in the U.S. are $100 million, in the U.K. it will be $2.5 billion. This is the difference. And this is because the product is better in the U.K., but it is also because everybody knows that, and everybody watches the product on TV.
So once we have more revenues, then we have to spend on players, and we have to do it very carefully. Because the wrong thing to do would be to spend more on the same players. We need to be able to have the money to spend, but also be able to attract the best players to play in the U.S. And I think this is better than what it seems, because the U.S. is a much better environment for players to play in and to live in.
How can we not convince a young player from Colombia - I'm making this up - or Argentina, instead of going to play in Mexico or in Portugal, why not come to New York? At the moment, we can't, because we don't have enough money to pay for this [type of player]. But once we have a bit more money, I think we will attract a new wave of high-quality players to the league.
Speaking of quality of play, this morning we chatted with Don Garber, and I was reminiscing about the Premier League back in the days when it was utter crap. Early days. 1990. Serie A was unbelievable. And the first players that came through from Europe to the Premier League were the [Ruud] Gullits, and the [Gianfraco] Zolas, and the [Fabrizio] Ravanellis. The rest of Europe looked at England and said, "That is the elephant's graveyard."
Right now, the "elephant's graveyard" label is kind of a stink that surrounds MLS. What's got to happen for there to be less [Didier] Drogbas, less [Steven] Gerrards, less Kakás, and more [Sebastian] Giovincos, more [Giovani] dos Santoses? How does that happen, where great players who could go somewhere else choose MLS?
I think it will happen naturally as the MLS develops. But there's another thing that we need to accept in America. And this is a bit controversial, what I'm going to say, but it's the reality: For some time, I have heard people in the MLS saying, "We can't have players leaving our league. It's bad when an American player leaves to go and play in Europe." We have to change that. Because if not, nobody will want to come.
What happens with young players is, and I'm going to use this young player from Argentina or Brazil [as an example]: He's not ready to play for Barcelona or Manchester City [so] he goes to Portugal. Because he knows that he is in a window where people are going to watch him play. And then maybe he goes to a big team. In order to attract this quality to the U.S., we have to be able to let him go if he develops too much and we cannot pay him. That's natural, right?
In the past - now this is changing, but in the past - I spoke to players who were saying, "I don't want to go to the MLS because nobody is going to watch me." Now, I think this is changing for good. I have seen in England how people watch the MLS games Sunday night. It's a better time to go to those players and convince them to come here, and tell them, "If you do good, you'll stay there forever, but if you do too good, you will be able to go somewhere else."
I want to talk about two things you've said. The first is about [watching] the Premier League in the morning and MLS in the afternoon or evening. What is the true competitor to MLS right now? Is it the Premier League, the [UEFA] Champions League, or is it the NFL and the NBA that are both on Sunday nights head to head with the playoffs, and crushing them in the ratings?
Well, the evidence from the fan base that I know, the New York fan base, is that the NFL is not a competitor. Because our fans want to watch soccer, not football. The competitor is other soccer products, other soccer leagues. This is why we need to be better than the Mexican league, and we need to get closer to the European leagues. And I think the two things, as I said before, are not incompatible.
Months ago, I was in another country, not the U.S., talking about another league and another team. The commissioner of the league told me, "This is a zero-sum game. If you bring your English team to my country, you're taking my money, my spectators, my sponsorship money, my TV money. So I don't want you."
This is wrong. Because the European teams coming to the U.S., or to that country in this case - this was Japan - they help. They help. You can be a fan of a European team and a fan of a MLS team. It's not incompatible, and it helps the growth of the sport in the U.S. I see these fans. In the morning I watch one English game, and in the afternoon I go to my local game.
- I can see a reality where MLS continues to grow, and at 40 years of age is flourishing. But Ferran, I can also see a reality that ultimately there is so much football on offer in America right now every weekend, that ultimately it's about bandwidth and a fight for eyeballs.
Americans love "the best." - the NBA is the best, the NFL is the best. They know the best football is the English Premier League, the Champions League, [Spain's] La Liga, you can make different cases.
Can you see a possibility where MLS is buried alive in its own country by the English Premier League, because we just do not have enough time to watch 10 Premier League games, and then watch Barcelona and Real Madrid, maybe tune into Bayern [Munich], and then watch a whole slate of MLS games?
Ultimately, something has got to give. Can you see a reality in which MLS continues to grow its local fan product, as "the league of being there," but in 40 years, the national ratings have not grown?
Obviously, this will take time. I don't know where we are going to go, but I know the direction is the right one. I know that the quality of the soccer that is played is improving, [and] the people [are] attending the games.
I would challenge you: Go to Yankee Stadium and enjoy the atmosphere, and watch the game with The Third Rail, and tell me if you want to stay home and watch the Portuguese League or [Italy's] Serie A. There's no comparison. This is real, and it's happening here. I think the local product, the MLS product, is a fantastic product and it will win at the end.
And we will have to assume, like they assume in basketball in Europe, that the NBA players are better.
You've been watching MLS with a passionate eye for many years. How do you assess the American talent pool? What kinds of players are we creating here?
I think the key here, and I'm going to use your example about England - in England, not many years ago, the quality of football was far worse than it is. And by the way, they were saying, "This is English football: Long balls, muddy pitch, strong players."
So if you were a small player - [Barcelona's] Andrés Iniesta, [Manchester City's] David Silva - you had zero chance to develop in an English team 10 years ago. A kid, small like this, would be sat from the team first day [and told] "Can't play for me." They were wrong.
Then they started to accept foreign talent: [Arsenal manager] Arsène Wenger, Patrick Vieira. Now they've got it. This is not about physicality, this is about talent.
I think in the U.S., we suffer from some of the same. People say, "No, no, this is about athletic players, this is about running up and down the pitch." No, sorry. It's about technical talent and it's about organization. It's about movement on the pitch, knowing where you are, being smart enough to know before the ball gets to you where you're going to pass it.
This is how American players will develop, and are being developed. If we don't do the switch - and the switch is happening now - we would have worse players. However, I think I said this before: I asked the experienced players in our team - David Villa, Pirlo, Lampard - I asked them what they think about the American players. They all said the same thing: Competitive, enthusiastic, hard workers, they just need to learn some of the basics. They need to be helped. But if they are helped, they'll be better.
When will there be more American outfield players in the Premier League?
I don't know when that's going to happen. I can tell you this will happen. We have an under-13 team, and I saw yesterday the footage of a game they played and won 7-1. They were playing the same exact way that the under-13 team plays in Manchester. No difference. Why should we be different?
If you could change one rule about MLS' structures, what would it be? More DPs? Larger salary cap? Relegation?
I don't know the answer to what rule we need to change. We are actually working very actively on this at finding what we need to do to solve the following problem - [and] I think [the lack of] relegation is not a problem. The problem is how can we make sure we attract better talent? Forget about marketing the league, forget about rules. It's about talent. It's about, is it okay for the teams to have three DPs, or should they have more, or less? How can we make sure that the boys, the men, playing on the pitch are the best that we can have? Maybe we should change some rules. At this time, I still don't know which ones.
[At this point, the conversation turned to Manchester City, which you all don't care about. So I'll jump ahead to the final question of the event, in which Bennett put the focus back on American soccer.]
Don Garber loves talking about how this league will be one of the best in MLS by 2022. You're a football man. You have a real sense of history. You've seen how leagues shift. You've seen how Serie A has kind of devolved, how the Premier League has flourished. Is it a pipe dream [for MLS to be] the best league in the world by 2022, or is it a vision that can come true?
The one thing I would say is that obviously, to be the best league in the world in five years is not realistic. Right? I don't think this is going to happen. But the one thing that is different [in] America [compared] to other leagues in the world is the size of the opportunity.
Let me give you the number again: 60 million people. The number of people that have watched a soccer game in the U.S. is like 200 million. But they are the people that watch the World Cup for nationalistic reasons. Let's take these out. Let's talk about the people that really like soccer. Sixty million people. That's more than the population in many European countries. It's more than the whole population of Spain. So the opportunity is here. The opportunity to develop soccer in the U.S. is here.
It's up to us now, whether we are able to solve the very difficult equation of how we bring more talent [and] spend more on players without going out of business. If we crack the formula, if we find a way to bring the talent - and also for this to be recognized by the fans, because we have the talent and sometimes it's not so much recognized - this league can be one of the top leagues in the world.
I believe there is a tipping point. There is a tipping point where the MLS becomes relevant and everybody talks about it. This is when I go to Argentina, and I talk to this boy, and I say, "Why do you want to go to Portugal or the Netherlands? Come to New York. You'll have a better life and you'll play good football, and if you're too good for us, maybe you'll go to Manchester City. But come to New York now."
We are not there yet, but if this happens, this will be a tipping point that puts MLS at the same level [as] the Mexican league, the Dutch league, the Portuguese league and so on.