From NESJ: Q&A with the Revolution's Jonathan Kraft
By Kyle McCarthy
Revolution investor/operator Jonathan Kraft is bullish about the future of his club and MLS. (New England Revolution)
New England Revolution investor/operator Jonathan Kraft sat down with New England Soccer Journal assistant editor Kyle McCarthy in late November to discuss his club, his plans for it in the future, his pursuit of a soccer-specific stadium and the growth of MLS.
This Q&A is a portion of that conversation, edited for clarity and space.
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New England Soccer Journal: We’re speaking a few weeks after the season ended, and it was the most successful year here in a while. What was it like for you to see how this team progressed under coach Jay Heaps over the past two years and then watch the team make the playoff this season?
Jonathan Kraft: “It was a fun year. We started strong. The middle 50 or 60 percent of the year was up and down, but you saw flashes of really great soccer. I think, defensively, the back line and the goalkeeping allowed us to stay in games. I would never want to blame officiating — so I’m not blaming officiating — but I think over the course of the season, you get some calls that go your way and some that don’t go your way. I think, for the second year in a row, we were disproportionately affected by calls that didn’t go our way, more so than I think other teams in our league. It didn’t balance out for us. I think next year, we’re owed that.
“In spite of all that, I watched a young team stay mentally tough. Jay has very quickly grown into a mature and experienced coach. It’s been fun to watch. He was able to keep this team together mentally through some of the challenging times and then have the finish we did — for two months almost, we were in what were effectively do-or-die games — and come within a whisker of taking it to Kansas City on their home turf in the end. They’re now hosting MLS Cup. It was a very successful season. We’re a young team with an energetic young coach. I’m very excited about the future.”
NESJ: Did you have this blueprint in mind when you brought Jay in a few years ago?
Kraft: “Stevie (Nicol, former Revolution coach) was awesome. Stevie and our family are on great terms. Stevie — in my opinion — was as successful as any coach has been in this league. Other than winning the ultimate game, he really did a lot as a coach. Ultimately with all coaches, teams need a change. When we were changing from Stevie, we felt bringing in somebody (homegrown was a possibility) — there were now enough real, American kids who had grown up playing the game in this country, played the game at a high level and understood the game and the American player and, in the case of Jay, had been in an MLS locker room and understood the international player. Jay was a student of coaching himself. His story with Coach K (Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski) is well-documented.
“Jay just brought a perspective of growing up in the American game, a real passion for coaching, a real energy and charisma. We knew it was a little bit of a risk, but we felt it was a good and a calculated risk. Fortunately, it’s worked out. I’m excited to watch what happens next year with one more year of development of the club and Jay’s coaching experience. I think it could be a very exciting year.”
NESJ: It fit into what the club has tried to do over the past few years: build a younger base of players, invest in the Academy system and focus on rebuilding the club from the inside.
Kraft: “Look, in all sports, you need free agents, you need to bring people in to fill roles, but, at the end of the day, how you develop players — and in this league, that’s through the draft and through your academy to get guys like Diego (Fagundez) and Scotty (Caldwell) — it feels like the right thing to do. Any time you go out and bring somebody in — especially if you use the DP (Designated Player rule). You watch what Jerry (Bengtson) does for Honduras. He’s a great guy, but, for some reason, it hasn’t fully translated to the field in MLS yet. Those are the risks you take.
“Any time you can get talent young, you can build it and develop it. You know what you’re dealing with. In any sport, it’s a better path. That doesn’t mean you don’t go out and look for big-time free agents. But you always like to have some knowledge of the person firsthand. That isn’t always easy. The core of the team has to be homegrown.”
NESJ: The emergence of more homegrown players also helps the bottom line, too. Is there only so much you can do in terms of finances — in terms of player salaries and spending — until the revenue base grows?
Kraft: “The revenue base will grow and the salary cap will grow. In the interim, we’ve created the DP situation to go outside of that and bring some of that talent in. I think it’s a fine balance in the chemistry and the mix of that equation as we grow. I think you’d be hard pressed to talk to people around the league and say the talent on the pitch hasn’t grown significantly over the last 10 years or the last five years. I think the trend is up, not down. It’s something we’re very aware of. We spend a lot more time at owners’ meetings talking about the quality of play and players than we ever have.”
NESJ: At this point in the league’s growth, there are three or four teams with significantly more resources — Toronto, Seattle, New York and LA — and then there’s everybody else playing in a different realm. How does the league manage it going forward?
Kraft: “Look at what happened this year. The teams you just named, none of them were in the championship game. I think that relates to the rules. If you look at the mix of playoff teams — I’m not going to call anybody out or compliment any teams — I think it shows that our competitive balance rules are right. Ultimately, these sports leagues are about level playing fields and great competition. That’s where the entertainment value comes from. I think when you watch MLS from week to week — with the exception of a couple of outliers, which will always happen — it’s a pretty balanced competition. That’s good for the competitive, entertainment value of the sport.”
NESJ: Does that principle explain why you have set the budgetary structure of this club as you have?
Kraft: “We operate under the cap. We have had a couple of DP players. I think that’s what you’ll see us continue to do. I think that’s the way you’ll continue to see us operate. Are you going to see us go out and spend millions and millions of dollars for a DP from outside of our system that doesn’t move the needle for the league in a major way? No, you’re not going to see us (do it).
“If we thought it would give us an opportunity to compete more, then we would. We’re not convinced spending millions of dollars on a single player can have that impact. If you look around the league, it’s right. But that being said, spending at a DP level as we’ve spent before, that’s worth the money and worth the risk to do it. I think you’ll continue to see us do it.
“If there was a global name at the Beckham level that wanted to play in this market, we would talk to him seriously about doing it because he would obviously move the needle. You’d have the competitive aspect — which still comes with the risk — but he would move the needle for us and the league in a big way. We’ve actually talked to one like that in the past couple of years. We thought we were making some progress. Unfortunately, it didn’t come to fruition. I’d say there were at least five meetings with a player that we think fit that moniker.”
NESJ: When you look at it from that perspective, the fact you play here (at Gillette Stadium) as opposed to your own stadium …
Kraft: “Well, this is our stadium.”
NESJ: I know this is your stadium, but a soccer-specific stadium in an urban environment.
Kraft: “I realize we sound like a broken record on this. I’m sure people doubt us. I understand it. I can tell you we’ve spent seven figures of our own money in pursuit of it. We thought we were very close a couple of years ago to something in the city of Boston. We — at the mayor’s request — worked pretty hard on something. We thought it was moving to fruition. Unfortunately, the city changed its mind about the desirability of it after we put a lot of work into it. We’ve been working on other things. We continue to do it.
“Ultimately, what needs to happen is the New England Revolution need to be playing in the Greater Boston market in a soccer-specific stadium. The mayor-elect (Marty Walsh) has said publicly that he thinks a soccer-specific stadium in the city is a good idea. Hopefully, that will be an opportunity. We’re also working on a couple of other things that aren’t within the city of Boston, but they are extremely close. You’d call them urban stadiums with great access to public transportation. For the Revolution to realize its full potential, the club needs to be playing in a venue like that.”
NESJ: A new venue would also bring you back into the U.S. national team consideration a bit more.
Kraft: “Absolutely. And then you have a cool thing in the Boston market. You could have U.S. national team friendlies and competitive matches there. If major opponents were coming, we could always play them at Gillette. It would give the Greater Boston and New England soccer market the chance to host any type of soccer match in the appropriate venue. That would be really cool.”
NESJ: What has it been like for you to watch this city develop as a soccer market over the past 20 years?
Kraft: “I did believe — and now it’s known — that there are a passionate group of people who really view professional soccer as a part of the landscape for professional sports in this town. Clearly, our supporters’ clubs show that. It’s really nice to be able to provide it. I think — as someone who has coached soccer teams in BAYS (Boston Area Youth Soccer) for almost a decade now — it’s fun to hear the conversation. Ten years ago, I didn’t hear much about the Revolution and MLS. To see the kids who are playing the game now having an outlet to talk about the team and wear the jerseys, it’s kinda cool.
“For us to really finish the job, we have to bring the soccer-specific stadium to this market. We know that. We’re not blind to that fact. But, unfortunately, it’s not always as easy to get things done here as it is in other places, where land is more available and people don’t take for granted they have sports teams in their markets. It’s been a much more arduous process than we’d like. We’re working on it. There’s a person and a half in the Kraft Group who are spending pretty much full-time hours trying to make it happen.”
NESJ: When you look to the future of soccer in New England, you see the soccer-specific stadium as a big part of it and the Revolution as a part of it. What else do you see?
Kraft: “I really believe a soccer-specific stadium would create an atmosphere which would take people who are on the fence about soccer and allow them to understand what it means. If you’re a fan of the game, you can come to Gillette and you might now think it’s the perfect environment or atmosphere, but you can watch what happens on the pitch and you can enjoy it. I think for a casual or neutral sports fan, until you get into that soccer-specific stadium environment, you can’t truly catch the bug. I also think, on television, it changes how the game is presented when you’re in an environment like that.
“I think that’s the next step. You need the soccer-specific stadium. You need the continued growth of the academy and the development of young players. Look, Diego has a chance. He’s a kid who came out of Leominster, Mass. He came out of our academy. I think he has a chance to be a special player for the U.S. once he becomes a citizen. That’s exciting. We had Juan (Agudelo) — he was a product of the Red Bulls. I’m a fan of Juan’s because he obviously came to us on a short-term basis with his goal of getting overseas. We tried to keep him here, but it was understood when we signed him that was his goal. I know that’s been complicated (with his work permit), but he’s a product of a MLS academy. More and more Juans, Diegos and Scottys, it’s going to complete the picture.
“If you think about the United States and trying to break through to relevancy in a crowded landscape with four established sports leagues, college football, college basketball and NASCAR, it’s more than any other country in the world. I actually think it’s pretty impressive what MLS has done. No one questions it. Ten years ago, people still questioned it. We came close to the league not being here. But people questioned it. Today, nobody questions it. The real question is how big is it going to be. I think it’s not unrealistic to assume that at some point in the future — it’s not five or 10 years — we could easily have jumped over some of the more established sports leagues in this country in terms of relevance.”
NESJ: It’s a signal of how far the league and its teams have come. It wasn’t like that in 1996.
Kraft: “No. It wasn’t like it in 2001 and 2002, either. I think Commissioner (Don) Garber, 10 years ago, laid out a passionate vision for the league. At the time, it was really just (AEG owner) Phil Anschutz, the Hunts and our family sitting around the table. It was a point in time where we needed to really decide if we were going to change the strategy of the league and really make it go or are we just going to forget it. There was a pretty strong feeling around the table that if we gave up, that was it for soccer in this country. Instead, Commissioner Garber had a vision and all of us were willing to continue.
“It’s gratifying to see what it has become. Now it’s making sure we achieve the ultimate goal of being on par with the major soccer leagues in the world, which, by definition, will have us at a place where we’re much more relevant in the U.S. than we are today, and how quickly we’re going to get there.”
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2014 issue of New England Soccer Journal.
Kyle McCarthy is the MLS editor for FOX Soccer, the assistant editor of New England Soccer Journal and the Revolution beat writer for the Boston Herald.