Our story on today's paper deals largely with whether the Sounders could widen their fan base by bringing in players of specific nationalities. However, the interview I did with general manager Adrian Hanauer went wider than that, and so I thought I'd share most of the interview here, including many topics that didn't make it into today's paper. (Some questions and answers edited for length and clarity.):
Q: Considering the 50,000 crowd that watched the Mexican national team friendly, has the club considered trying to appeal to Mexican-American soccer fans by signing Mexican players?AH: We’ve definitely talked about it. We’re not blind to the fact that football for the Mexican-Americans, it’s a duty to support their teams and the Mexican national team in particular. And we certainly have looked at Mexican players over the years. And we would be very happy to bring a Mexican player into our team. But we have to find the right player. What we’ve always said is we’re not going to pander to any ethnicity, whether it’s Mexican, Russian, Ethiopian, Japanese or German. And we’re always going to err on the side of just trying to find the right players that fit our team, or system, our ethics. And so to this point we haven’t been able to find certainly a Mexican player.
Q: If you were in the pandering mood, would it even work? Did Chicago get a bump from signing Blanco?AH: They did. And certainly when they went on the road they did. And I would anticipate some sort of bump. But I’m of the belief that – just like with (LA star David) Beckham – there’s only so long that you can ride that newness with attendance, sponsors. Especially in this market, which is a sophisticated soccer market, and we’re not star frenzied or in need of stars. The No. 1 thing our fans want is entertaining, attacking soccer. Period. They want us to win and play entertaining soccer. And so, yes, I anticipate there would be a bump depending on the type of player that you brought in. If you brought in Chicharito at this time, it’s probably a big bump and you probably do get some sponsor support. But ultimately we want to build our business for the long haul and not pander or feel the need to sign players based on anything but how they help our team win and play entertaining soccer.
Q: Again, if you actually tried this, would a Mexican player be the way to go, or might the Pacific Rim make more sense for this market?AH: We’ve talked about Japan, we’ve talked about China, Mexico obviously. We’ve talked about India at one point. And Kansas City had an Indian player at a while. We’ve talked about Russia because there are a lot of Russians in the Northwest. All things are never completely equal because one player has English as a first language, one player has English as a second language, one player’s family is maybe closer, one’s further away, one’s maybe married with children. If all of those were equal, certainly there is a marketing side that would probably argue for whether it’s a Mexican player or a Chinese player or a Russian player, bringing that player in to try to appeal to a larger demographic.
Q: Is there anything unseemly about a conversation dealing with nation origins in this way?AH: I don’t think so and probably because we are a melting pot of people of all ethnicities. And also an American player and a Mexican player – while we can say ‘all things being equal’ they never are. A Mexican player – just by virtue of the environment in which he was raised and as a soccer player – is going to bring a different skill set than an American player. ... But there’s always a gray area. But when you look around Major League Soccer – I haven’t put players on a piece of paper – but it probably would be fair to say some of the more creative dynamic players in our league are of other ethnicities than American. And there is just the fact that the United States have never produced … one of the top creative players in the world. It’s just going to take time. I think the American player is getting better technically, tactically, creatively, but it will take time.
Q: If MLS had no limitations on foreign players, would there be a lot more foreigners in the league?AH: I don’t know. There are very few teams in our league that as desperate for additional foreign spots. … Now part of that is because some of the players have been converted to green cards. ... This is where it gets into this whole melting pot thing. And we are a mix of first-generation, second-generation, people born in one place and raised in another. So, I don’t know the answer to your question. If you put a line in the sand and said a foreign player is a player born outside the United States, I would think that yes there probably would be more foreigners. … But with our cap structure – and maybe it’s unfair to the Americans – but I think that some of the better values in our league are some of the American players because they come out of college, they have less opportunities, it’s riskier to them to go to some other country to try to get a job. In a lot of countries they can’t get work permits. So, when you look around our league, I’d venture to guess that if you put together a list of the best-valued players, a larger percentage would be Americans.
Q: Dealing again only with attendance, would stocking up on local/Northwest players be more effective than any nationality?AH: I’m a big fan of developing players and bringing players home, because I think it may be only incremental. But I think a player playing for the badge in the city where they were born, raised, have a connection, adds value. That’s my opinion. At the same time, it comes back to the quality on the field: the ability to play, the entertaining attacking creative winning soccer. If we could do that with all Northwestern players – and again, all things being equal – I think that a smattering of that group would absolutely be a good thing. I’m not convinced that an all-Northwest team … we might be able to win as a many games, but I just can’t fathom a world where we’d play with as many different qualities because we just wouldn’t have the creativity, the tactical awareness, the clean technical abilities. Now, 20 years from now, who knows. If the development of the game continues, we keep getting better and better athletes, we keep doing a better and better job of developing the technical/tactical part of the game, you never know.