The Designated Player: Behind the Lines With Nelson Rodriguez

“Great question.”

I hear this phrase a few times in my interview with Nelson Rodriguez, the MLS executive vice president of competition, technical, and game operations (“anything that happens inside the white lines”) in his office at MLS headquarters in New York. Either I’m on Pulitzer form (doubtful) or it’s a fairly standard disarming tactic from someone who’s had any degree of media training, as Rodriguez surely has. Notably though, he gives the impression that a “great question” is one served up in such a way that he can volley it into the net with definitive authority. Not that Rodriguez is in any way bombastic — he is engaging and garrulous company — nor does he try to hide from any inquiry or only want to deal with soft questions, particularly around the contentious issue of the workings of the MLS disciplinary committee. His energy, though, is of the sort that suggests that rather than sitting behind his desk facing me, he’d be happier bouncing on his toes on the other side of the room, going “Great question! … Give me another,” like the interview equivalent of that scene where Stallone is saving penalties in a WWII prisoner-of-war camp in Escape to Victory (which if by chance you haven’t seen, give your jaw a dropping treat sometime).

Rodriguez is self-described as “an incredibly passionate Latino — I like to argue with my hands and with my voice,” and he gets plenty of opportunity to argue his corner as the public face of the MLS disciplinary committee, the body he chairs, but does not vote on. We’ll get to that committee, as well as goal-line technology, and the typical MLS soccer player by 2022, shortly, but first of all, and bizarrely, we’re talking about Swindon Town. Rodriguez has invoked the provincial English club in the context of MLS being the first national league to have been founded in the digital age, with all of the consumer choices, accelerated news cycles, and implicit cultural pressures that come with it:

“So … Swindon is a club in England — I don’t know it, I haven’t visited it. But they have an inherent fan base. I would be curious if Swindon hadn’t previously existed and tried to start today if it would attain its same relevance that it currently holds. In North America we have the competition of all the other North American sports and sports cultures, which is daunting enough. From the King, which is the NFL, to NBA, MLB, college sports, and all the little niche sports. We’re competing against all of that at some level, even if it’s just for a share of time on the television, or print. Then we’re also competing against our own sport, on a global level. And that’s an incredible challenge.”

The methods MLS has used to meet that challenge have been varied. At times the executive has given the impression of being too scattershot, even impulsive, in its approach — setting structures and solutions in place on and off the field that, in their haste to be implemented, create their own structural and cultural problems down the line.

There is an organizational goal within MLS management of being one of the top leagues in the world by 2022, but perhaps understandably for a league birthed in the accelerated spin cycles of the digital age, there’s a spirit of tremendous restlessness that seems to affect, if not infect, MLS, that at times makes it an easy target, albeit a shifting one, for critics.

Rodriguez is unapologetic about this — if anything he’s bullish on the spirit of change. “Our president, Mark Abbott, uses a word that I think really describes us well: ‘nimble.’ And sometimes being nimble irritates traditionalists. Why should we continue on a path that we don’t think will lead us to our 2022 vision? We’re not afraid to admit that, we’re not afraid to try something different. That innovation, though — there’s a limit to it because it can’t be gimmicky. We have to find that narrow column that allows us to try to make improvements.”

Among the more notoriously “nimble” moves the league made this year was the midseason introduction of goals scored as the tiebreak format for playoff qualification — a decision that might have been met with raised eyebrows in February, but when announced to the public in midseason, around the time of the All-Star break, inevitably drew accusations that it favored certain clubs more than others. Rodriguez points out that the decision was taken with the full knowledge of technical staff from each club, before the season started, as a means of dealing with the consequences of the 19-team, unbalanced schedule. He also points out that the decision will be under review in the offseason, with there being a lot of support for number of wins as a tiebreaker. Perhaps just as intriguingly, Rodriguez mentions that “disciplinary record” has pushed up to be the third level of tiebreak criteria this year — in part he says to “send a message” to those who regard MLS as “just being a physical league” where “bad tackles are allowed.”

It’s a subject dear to Rodriguez’s heart, given his role on the MLS disciplinary committee, which has become somewhat of a lightning rod, both for the obvious reasons of people responding to its verdicts along partisan lines, but also, and I’m speculating a little here, for perhaps operating in a manner that runs counter to the more “open source” tone of some of the rest of the league’s public operations.

Perhaps more than any other league in the world, once you make a decision to follow MLS, the level of access, whether for media or fans, is remarkable when judged by global standards. Locker rooms are open, major incidents from every match are posted online while still in process, and opinions on controversies are formed and circulated online in a matter of minutes. It creates a certain culture of expectation, and perhaps entitlement. In that context it’s understandable how it feels wrong to some fans to then have an anonymous committee making decisions without further dialogue.

It’s understandable, but it’s also unfair. The disciplinary committee, which consists of an ex-MLS coach, and ex-MLS referee, and three ex-MLS players (one of whom is nominated by the MLS Players Union as part of the last collective bargaining agreement) have to walk the line between being responsive to events without being swayed by the media or public “temperature” around them. They generally act swiftly, within days, if not hours of offenses, and without hearings with the accused present. For better or worse, it means that there’s a quick decision (no John Terry sagas here), but that decision often arrives when passions are still inflamed by the original incident.

When I mention that there’s sometimes a perception that the committee responds in a knee-jerk manner according to the strength of public opinion — at least partially because a league operation that prides itself on nimbleness, openness, and responsiveness could reasonably be expected to be at last partially influenced by that public opinion in some if not all of its decision-making — Rodriguez seems genuinely taken aback.

“I’m not sure I’ve heard that theory before really. First of all, every game is reviewed by at least two, let’s call them MLS observers. That’s either people in the competition player department, disciplinary committee, or individuals that we’ve identified that we ask to watch games on our behalf and to submit incidents for review. Or we go back and say, what did you think of the game, what did you think of the referee’s performance, how do you think the game was played? I watch, I would guess, 90 percent of the games this year. The committee’s first call is Sunday night. So if there is a reaction, I guess it’s coming in Sunday’s paper, or through the Internet and all the rest. But no one on any call that I can ever remember has said, “‘Hey, bro, did you see what so and so wrote?’

“We need to do a better job of being more transparent with the decisions. I really like what the NHL did this year with the player safety channel and Brendan Shanahan, who explains disciplinary decisions and uses video. We are still tinkering with possibly introducing that this year. Frankly, we’ve debated who should be the face and the voice of that. But I will fight for the committee members’ honor and I will defend them to the nth degree because at no time has any one of them suggested to me that they are making a decision with any other pretense other than what they think is right at that moment and in the best interest at that moment. And ‘best interest’ is defined by their mission statement, ‘To preserve the integrity of the sport and Major League Soccer and to assist in ensuring player safety.’ And that’s the lens by which they make every decision.”

We talk more about the particular offenses the committee is harsh on, such as diving/flopping. This is an area where Rodriguez feels that the “dialect” of the game as it manifests in North America, needs to be honored:

“North American sports fans, they admire the guy that gets hit, goes down, and gets up. And they really don’t like the guy who gets whispered on, falls and rolls around. We shouldn’t apologize for that. And if we need to consider policy that will help ensure that we’re within those North American norms, we should consider that. Even if that’s outside of the scope of where the global game is presently. Technology is another example. You know technology is readily accepted in North American sports, has been for a while. Soccer is behind. If the service had been available and been affordable, and approved by FIFA … Frankly we’ve been pressing FIFA on goal-line technology for years, saying, ‘We’ll be your test guinea pig league.’”

I ask where we’re up to with the goal-line technology — which is indeed due to be introduced into MLS on a test basis. Rodriguez points out that FIFA has so far only provisionally approved two systems, a 16-camera system and the so-called “chip and ball” system that is actually based on a copper field built within the goal that triggers a signal to the referee when the ball crosses the line. To the best of the league’s knowledge, neither of these is anywhere near mass production, let alone set for the logistical difficulties of installation and maintenance across a region as vast as the United States and Canada. When it’s ready, the league will adopt the technology.

Adopt. Adapt. It could be a motto for the ambitions of the league …

“I want us at the league office to be very careful. I believe that the clubs should be permitted their competitive advantage, their entrepreneurial spirit. Anything that they can figure out to give them an edge we should honor. I think what’s happened around the world is there’s this big chasm between the top teams and the bottom teams [because of financial wealth]. There’s very little chance other than a Cinderella season to bridge it. I think the great strength of our league is our structure, our business approach. In our first 16 years we’ve had nine different champions. That’s phenomenal. So while we want teams to innovate, we can’t allow teams to lag behind. The reality is some will. It’s like a classroom; you know those super-high achievers who will study every night all the time, and those others who won’t even study five minutes before.”

I ask him to name names. Rodriguez smiles, but doesn’t speak. So pushing on that note of competition, we move on to talking about the technical progress of the league’s players in his time at MLS, and what the typical player has been historically and will be in the future, assuming the league meets its 2022 target.

“At the onset, when the league started, its foreign player pool was exceptionally high, and in large part because the big, big money hadn’t yet hit Europe. So we could realistically compete for players. We had this great base of these foreign players who really delivered on the field. So that’s your first five or six years. As those players started to get to the end of their careers — so now you are looking at around 2000 and 2001 — we strategically moved in the direction of the American player. And so now we were trying to retain Clint Mathis, Josh Wolf, Brian McBride, Chris Armas — guys who we thought would be a big part of the national team, and then if the national team was successful we’d capitalize on that success by having those key guys here. Whether we are geniuses or we just stepped in it, in the 2002 World Cup all of the goals that the U.S. national team scored, save one, were scored by guys in our league.

“The third phase clearly has to point to David Beckham and the designated player. We went back and said, ‘We need sizzle. We are competing against that, we are competing against that and we need to change the dynamic.’ It’s becoming harder to retain the American player. The success of the national team, while it gave us a boost, also opened the eyes to a lot of scouts around the world saying, ‘I can get that lad for a lot cheaper than I can get him and he’s just as good.’ So greater competition for our players, so we go back to this designated player concept trying to bring in high-end players.

“In March of 2011, we started to gather a working group together. And I said, ‘OK, 2022 we need to be one of the world’s greatest soccer leagues. What are the characteristics of being the world’s greatest soccer leagues?’ One of the things that we landed on was players have a worldwide technical standard. We also had another one, which was an abundance of good [number] nines and 10s. Then we started to work backward from there. What are the things that we need to do and institute, so that if it all comes together according to the master plan we’ll get there in 2022?

“At the same time as the designated player phase, though, we finally started the foundational work that is so crucial — which is all of the academy staff, all of the youth development. Trying to create those integrated vertical pyramids at every local level. Everyone can talk to me about ‘tactically we are not this, we are not that’ — when you can make the ball do whatever you want it to do, whenever you want it to do, tactics either become really easy or really irrelevant. I think we need still a lot of work on attacking players in this country. Clint Dempsey aside, with his phenomenal success in the Premier League, it’s still an area where you look at the recent qualifiers and no Dempsey, Bradley, Donovan and … two goals in two games. Not easy. I think that that is a big area. In the other great countries, that player pool is far deeper with far more options. And we are not there yet. And we do think that Major League Soccer will be a big contributor and should be today.”

Rodriguez is more than happy to keep talking as I turn off my recorder. We talk about my team in England, how I came to follow MLS, and my own, ahem, playing career. He jumps on the fact that I’m left-footed — “I love lefties. I collected them [when coaching] at college. You never see a lefty with bad balance.” He stops short of drafting me onto his team for the next Media Cup tournament (where if he persists with this line of reasoning, he will see a lefty with bad balance/posture/luck …), but there’s no doubting that glimpse of animation within him at the thought of the game itself. Nelson Rodriguez is a soccer man whose job is to ask questions of the game. Some of them might turn out to be great ones.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

Filed Under: David Beckham, Graham Parker, MLS, Soccer