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Future Faces of American Club Soccer

Anyone not believe that U.S. soccer is at the brink of success? Then why are some USISL franchises thriving, while others are folding? Whom would you trust with the franchise in your hometown?

As long as USISL grants franchises based primarily on the ability to pay fees, there will be clubs that form and quickly fold. What will it take to survive for five or for fifty years? If you gaze into soccer's crystal ball, you see the faces of Eddie and Spirit Rodriguez. They know.

Spend a few minutes with this couple and you will be amazed at the scope of their combined soccer experiences. From New York to Florida, W-League to Mexican first division, pitch to front office, this young couple has the passion, the playing experience, the contacts and the management focus that American clubs will need to succeed in the U.S. in this century.

They Play the Game

Eddie is one of the most recognized faces in the A-League. Andrew Bell once referred to him in a Soccer Focus interview, as the "Journeyman of the A-League". Currently with the Raleigh Express, Eddie has had stints with Hershey, Charleston and the Jacksonville Cyclones.

He moved to the States from Guadalajara, Mexico when he was fourteen, attended high school and college here and was an All-American forward at the University of New Mexico, the first All-American ever out of the program. After leading UNM in goals scored, Eddie lived out a childhood dream, returning to Guadalajara to play for Chivas. "It was an unbelievable experience, training twice a day. Two or three hundred people would come just to watch practices. Playing in Chivas' stadium in front of 90,000 fans is incredible."

Since returning to the U.S., Eddie has played in the MLS for Kansas City, NY-NJ (as first round supplemental draft pick) and San Jose. An attempt to get traded to Tampa Bay to be nearer to Spirit's family in 1998 soured at the last minute. The result had him training with the Mutiny during the week, playing indoor soccer with the Tampa Bay Terror and flying to Jacksonville on weekends to play in Cyclone matches.

Pete Peterson asked him to come to Raleigh in the spring of 1999 for an MLS exhibition game. He had a good outing, the owner liked him and a deal with the Express was signed. He was traded to Charleston after Raleigh's playoff chances evaporated. Fortunately, he was able to play with the Battery in the U.S. Open Cup, defeating D.C. United and Long Island before losing to the Colorado Rapids in the semi-finals. He and Spirit were married in Tampa on October 29th that year.

Spirit's got the touch, too. She was an All-American at Lynn University in Boca Raton. She played for a while in the W-League with the Tampa Bay Extreme and worked three years for USISL as Director of Operations for the W-League.

Her talent on the field didn't develop in a vacuum. The family has deep soccer roots. One brother is the women's soccer coach at LSU and is married to former U.S. National Team player Danielle Fotopolous. Both of her brothers played at the University of Tampa for Tom Fitzgerald, now the head coach for the Columbus Crew. Her father owned an amateur team of Greek and Italian players in New Jersey.

All in the Family

Most A-league clubs have at least an inkling that they must market to their fans. Fewer clubs understand their responsibility to the players.

Both Eddie and Spirit understand the demands of the constant relocations in pro soccer first hand. Moving from city to city, club to club is one of the drawbacks of this profession. They've witnessed one of the more subtle traits of successful clubs, concern for the players and their families.

Eddie looks forward to the day that players have some stability with longer-term contracts. "Fans definitely bond with players that play in the same place year after year." This is just starting to happen with some teams.

He'd like no less for himself. The difficulty is that the A-League season and most of its contracts are for six months. "It would be really great to settle into a place for a while. If that's not possible, then maybe an area with an indoor and outdoor team so we won't have to move so often."

There is a downside, though. If club finances are not strong, a player could get shipped out and forced to honor the second year of a contract in an undesirable situation. A one-year contract gives players a say in where and under what conditions they want to play.

Successful clubs are starting to offer education services to players to help them with careers after their playing days are done. Spirit points to Charleston as an example. "If you ask any of those players, they will tell you that they are very happy with that situation. Charleston has done a great job of taking care of the players and their families."

They are also impressed with the progress that has occurred at the Raleigh Express over the past year. "The coaching staff and management have really started to turn things around here. The team is a lot better, and there’s so much soccer potential in this area. We’re glad to be a part of it."

Eddie credits head coach John Dugan for doing a great job building a club with good chemistry. "Raleigh doesn’t have a huge personnel budget right now, but so often, high budget teams look great on paper, but just don’t have the right mix of players. You need a good balance of youth and experience."

All the recent moves mean that not many of the couple's wedding gifts have traveled with them. "Moving so often, you have to limit what you travel with." But Spirit remains determined and resolved. "Whatever happens, happens for a reason. We're surviving; Eddie is doing what he loves to do. He has a job, and there is a league. We really like it here in Raleigh and would love to stay."

Pro Soccer Savvy

The next generation insiders will have to be creative about managing this game, the American game. European and South American clubs will not be the source of marketing and ideas. What works in Germany works for Germans. American clubs will cater to America's unique characteristics that stitch this expansive, diverse culture together.

Spirit's stint in the USISL front office showed just how important sponsors are to a club. They are essential to the survival of the league. Eddie points to the recent drop in MLS sponsorships. Many sponsors have left the MLS after their initial four-year contracts expired.

But there are some creative ways for A-League teams to attract and retain sponsors. Some teams have moved towards sponsors for individual players. It is less expensive way for a smaller sponsor to participate and definitely has more personality than a stadium ad board. Eddie once wore number 58 in support of local AM station 58.1.

Spirit also wants to go to the people. "Don't try for huge sponsors and underestimate the power of small groups, especially the Latin community and small companies. The players are salaried, so they can help spread the passion with personal appearances. And don't forget to ask your customers what they are thinking. Poll the fans and give them what they want, whatever that may be."

Passion for the Game

Spirit points out that by analyzing successful clubs, "you see they are trying to achieve a love of the game in their communities, but there's a huge difference between managing a pro team and a recreational league. We definitely need more owners that are soccer fanatics."

She points to Minnesota as a successful club with humble beginnings. "Peter Wilt had a great organization, catered to the fans, attracted sponsors and was very successful.

Eddie knows the passion from the pitch. He likes the Battery's Blackbaud Stadium, and says, "It's a great feeling to love the sport and to step into a stadium like that. You really want to play when you get out there."

He's aware that there are dues to be paid and considers himself lucky to be playing professionally. "I've been doing this successfully for nine years. I'm doing what I've always dreamed of ever since I can remember."

The Future

What will your hometown club be like in forty years? Will your grandchildren attend the matches? Will they dream of playing for their hometown team like Eddie Rodriguez dreamed of playing at Chivas?

If you have Eddie and Spirit Rodriguez on your side, then there is hope for your town after all.

Many Thanks to News Digger John Zukas who scours up all of the local news links during the year.