Jérôme de Bontin has worked in many areas of American soccer, from the youth ranks to the professional game.
As chronicled here Thursday, his latest project is chairing Rush Soccer's entry into the USL. Rush joined forces with the Harrisburg City Islanders to create Penn FC, a team that will bring top Rush youth prospects to the pros.
But that is not what de Bontin is best known for. His most famous work in the United States came from 2012 to 2014, when he was general manager of the New York Red Bulls. Before then, he gained recognition in Europe while working as the director, and later the president, of French club AS Monaco.
These days, he is most famous for championing the adoption of promotion and relegation in American soccer. He has become a cult hero to a certain segment of the fan base because of it.
Pro/rel is the most hotly debated topic on the landscape, and de Bontin knows he has fueled the fire. He is more measured in an extended conversation than social media allows.
"I think radical changes are never good, because they are very disruptive. So I'm more lobbying for a proper evolution," he said. "Bringing promotion and relegation to the youth level, and eventually to the pro ranks, seems to be an obvious evolution."
Why the youth ranks first?
"The [U.S. Soccer Development] Academy program as we have it, where teams are picked more on the merit of administrative elements than on sports results, has to change," he said. "How can we competitively develop players if we provide a 15- or 16- or 17-year-old with an administrative status independent of whatever his team does? … It's just not right, and it's not very smart, because we're limiting the number of academy programs to 40, 50, 60 across the country — which in other ways de-franchises all the other clubs that want to be competitive."
As for pro teams, de Bontin knows how much team owners would risk financially. He phrases his advice on what he knows are their terms.
"Given an opportunity to develop better players, I think most of the professional team owners will conclude by themselves that promotion and relegation may make sense," he said. "How you get to it, that may be a five-year process. … I know most of those owners, and I have this sense that given the choice, with the right structure and the right leadership, most of them will conclude they have more to gain from allowing promotion and relegation than [they have] to lose."
Among the owners he knows well is the Union's Jay Sugarman.
"I feel strongly that eventually Jay and others in the league will come to the same conclusion: that we need a competitive national team first and foremost, and maybe a different organizational structure for professional soccer clubs in America," he said. "For the fulfillment of the aspiration, having an environment with promotion and relegation will serve them best."
Earlier this year, there was an effort on social media to draft de Bontin into the current U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election. There was even a virtual campaign poster that mimicked Shepherd Fairey's famed caricature of Barack Obama in 2008.
"It's flattering to hear that people think I can contribute," he said. "Maybe I can contribute a lot more maintaining my independence than by becoming a candidate for an election."
Rush has officially endorsed Eric Wynalda in the election. De Bontin has not personally endorsed anyone yet, and the distinction is worth noting. Though de Bontin chairs Rush, he isn't an employee of the organization. Tim Schulz is the president, and City Islanders owner George Altis remains the principal owner of Penn FC.
It's no secret that de Bontin thinks highly of Wynalda. He also knows many of the other candidates well. So he wants to stay out of the fray at the moment.
"If down the road, one of the elected future presidents wants to give me a more impactful role, I would certainly consider it," he said.
For now, de Bontin has the latitude to say what he wants to whom he wants, He'd like to keep it that way for a while.
"I've tried to help Tim and [Rush] to the best that I can, and I'm always happy to be invited to share my views. But I'm certainly not tied to any organization. … I don't want to be portrayed as having abandoned my free-thinking mind."