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Friday, November 28, 2008
Gazidis departure a blow to MLS

Ives Galarcep, Special to ESPNsoccernet

Major League Soccer has seen its share of key players leave the league for greener pastures in Europe through the years, but it had never lost a top executive to Europe until now. The departure of MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis to become CEO of Arsenal is a landmark moment for the league, but it may be a while before we see just what impact Gazidis' departure will have on MLS.

While commissioner Don Garber gets plenty of credit for overseeing the growth of MLS during his nine years in charge, Gazidis has served as Garber's second-in-command for all nine of those years and is widely regarded as having been the soccer brains of the league operation since replacing current U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati as deputy commissioner in 1999.

"You don't replace someone like Ivan overnight because he brings so many different talents to the table," said Gulati of Gazidis, who was his assistant at MLS during the league's first three years of existence.

"From his knowledge of the game to his understanding of the business side of the game, Ivan contributed in all areas of the business and the league was stronger for it."

"Major League Soccer's on-field product has marched steadily forward, primarily due to Ivan's thorough understanding of the game and its global market, his impressive reasoning and judgment, and his deep-rooted desire to see soccer grow in North America," Garber said in a league-released statement.

While Gazidis was a key figure in negotiating player contracts and signing foreign players throughout his time in MLS, it was his successful leadership of Soccer United Marketing, the league's marketing arm, that helped bolster the league from a business and financial standpoint. That rare combination of experience with player contracts and business development made him a top target for European clubs, first by Manchester City, which he turned down, and then ultimately Arsenal, which made the offer Gazidis could not pass up.

What will Gazidis' departure mean for the MLS on-field product? That depends on who you ask. To some, Gazidis leaving is a major blow because he was considered the league's leading soccer mind. To others, Gazidis leaving won't have an impact because so many rules are in place to govern things such as player contracts and other transactions, that handling them isn't that complex. The league has been careful about controlling contracts and salaries to a point where there isn't nearly as much negotiating of player contracts as you might think for a league the size of MLS.

This leads us to the question of whether Gazidis' experience in MLS will really prepare him for the battles that await in the wide-open realm of European soccer. The iron-fisted approach to negotiating Gazidis at times employed with American players in MLS isn't going to work in Europe as Gazidis will soon realize that it is much tougher negotiating contracts with players who actually have options.

We will find this out soon enough as Gazidis is entrusted with trying to keep together the deep collection of top young talent currently on the books at Arsenal. It isn't as if Gazidis doesn't have experience with big contracts, with the likes of David Beckham, Claudio Reyna and Juan Pablo Angel completing multimillion-dollar deals with MLS in recent years, but trying to manage a roster full of young stars won't come easy to an executive who was more a puppet master than true manager of players.

So where will MLS and its fans actually feel the absence of a 14-year executive and pioneer of the league? The league could definitely feel Gazidis' absence is in 2010, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. Gazidis' knowledge of the league and its rules, as well as his background as a lawyer, would have made him invaluable in the league's attempt to reach a reasonable labor agreement with the MLS players' union.

Other than that though, MLS shouldn't miss a beat in the immediate future as Gazidis bids farewell. Not because Gazidis wasn't important to the success of the league, but rather because the league has grown enough during his tenure that the departure of one top executive won't be enough to slow it's continued growth and health. After 14 years working in MLS, Gazidis deserves some credit for that.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.


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