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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Interview with Mick Hoban, President of SoccerSolutions LLC, in May 2005

Editor's Note:

This interview was originally published by AC Cugini Scuola Calcio in May 2005. It is republished here with the kind consent of Lisa Cherubini of AC Cugini and Mick Hoban, who is no longer associated with SoccerSolutions, LLC. Mr. Hoban is now a Soccer Sports Marketing Consultant and an Alumni Ambassador for the Portland Timbers.

02 May 2005

Calcio Connection is very pleased to welcome a veteran of soccer in North America with tremendous insights and international experience. Mr. Mick Hoban is the President of SoccerSolutions, LLC (www.soccersolutions.com), which is a soccer marketing consultancy with partners located in Oregon, California and South Carolina. A few years ago, Mr. Hoban was gracious enough to take my World Cup History test, which is when I first became acquainted with him.

Mr. Hoban was born and raised in England, and began his professional playing career with Aston Villa, a famous club in the English League. In the early 70s, Mr. Hoban moved to the USA to play in the nascent North American Soccer League (NASL.) During his career in the NASL Mr. Hoban served as the director of community relations at three professional soccer clubs (Atlanta Chiefs, Denver Dynamos and the Portland Timbers). He then joined Nike, where he became the first employee hired to work on soccer. As part of his duties with Nike, he moved back to Europe with his family where he served as European Soccer Promotions Manager. He then became the Vice President of Soccer Promotions of Umbro, which is another famous soccer company. Much of his focus during his years with Umbro was to promote his company in North America as a market leader. After his successful tenure with Umbro, Mr. Hoban formed his own soccer marketing consultancy firm.

Mr. Hoban has also been involved both domestically and internationally with adidas, as a soccer consultant, another well-known brand in the world of soccer. Mr. Hoban is a licensed soccer coach in England and in the United States. He has coached at the Division I collegiate men’s level at the University of Portland, and his amateur sides have won state championships at every level in Oregon. He is a former member of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s Governor’s Council. Mr. Hoban has also taken time out of his busy schedule to contribute articles to leading soccer publications such as “Soccer America,” “Three Stripes Magazine,” (adidas) and “Soccer Products and Services,” a former British publication.

Mick, please accept a warm welcome to Calcio Connection.

Thanks Steve. I appreciate the opportunity. 

Q1: Steve Amoia (SA). Coming from a traditional and passionate football country such as England, what were your initial impressions about soccer in the United States upon your arrival? Who was the first team that you played for in the NASL, and how long did your playing career last in North America?

A1: Mick Hoban (MH). I played for the Atlanta Chiefs & Atlanta Apollos (1970-1973), the Denver Dynamos (1974) and the Portland Timbers (1975-1978) and I’m proud to say I played for the US National Team, on one occasion, in the early ‘70s (it’s a long story). My first impressions were: the sheer size of the US – having to fly across the country for games, the diversity in the playing ranks (the Atlanta Chiefs had players from the US, Germany, England, Jamaica, Greece, Brazil, South Africa and Zambia to name a few nationalities) and, undoubtedly the single most overwhelming impression I gained was the warmth and friendliness of the hometown fans. Obviously, I noticed a difference in the tempo of the game (slower than in England at the time, given the climate, field conditions). Also, Barry Lynch and I, who came over together from Aston Villa, were full-time professionals in both England and the US while many of our teammates in Atlanta were semi-professionals.

Q2: (SA). In 1975, Pelé of Brazil arrived to grace us with his tremendous skills and warm personality. Did you ever play against him, and how would you characterize his contributions and legacy to the North American soccer landscape?

A2: (MH). I played against Pelé on two occasions. Once as a young professional with Aston Villa I played in an international friendly against Santos (Brazil) and on another occasion I played against Pelé, when he was on the New York Cosmos team and I was playing for the Portland Timbers.

Pelé’s arrival and participation in the NASL was probably the ‘Tipping Point’ in modern soccer in the US. I say modern soccer because one can never forget all of the hard work and dedication of the thousands of players, coaches, officials, administrators, sponsors and fans before the arrival of Pelé, before World Cup 1994, Women’s World Cups in 1999 & 2003 and before Major League Soccer.

Pelé gave the US professional game credibility. Pelé’s participation brought attention to soccer in the US outside of the soccer community. The media, sponsors, investors and other great players from around the world looked at the NASL and US soccer differently thanks to Pelé’s contribution and participation.

There is no question in my mind that Pelé, the New York Cosmos and the NASL in general served as catalysts for the growth in youth soccer in many NASL cities and beyond.

Q3: (SA). The focus of AC Cugini is to provide young people with a life-long passion for soccer. You have coached at many different levels, and are a keen observer of world football. Can you please discuss your philosophy about youth player development, and perhaps compare and contrast European models (academies and schools) with coaching techniques found in North America? In your opinion, what should be the primary focus for players (boys and girls) between the ages of 7 to 14?

A3: (MH). I believe that young players (under the age of 14) need to focus on technical, tactical and physical development rather than a brutal schedule of competitive training and competition. Most of all, young players need to be introduced to the joys of the game. For this to happen they must enjoy playing football.

I believe that players should experiment with positions until they are 12-14 years of age and once they’ve made a decision – spend some time learning about the role of this position(s) within various systems of play, Tactical exercises and tactical game plans can only be executed if individuals within the team have the necessary technical and physical skills to employ them.

I believe in the concept of ‘The Game as Teacher’. I do not believe in endless, aimless, drills. I like to see players being offered game situations to see how they can cope with different systems of play and tactical plans (their own and the opposition’s), with minimal interference from the coach.

From what I gather the over-emphasis on competitive play and ‘over-training’ is just as real in Europe, today, as it is in many cities in the US. Example – I fail to see how young players can develop when they are constantly exposed to multiple leagues, championships, try-outs, camps and tournaments. Tournaments which require 3-4 or more games in as many days do little to help in a player’s development. On the contrary they increase risk of injury caused by fatigue and can contribute to ‘burn-out’ with players who are not committed to the game. 

So, all in all, my philosophy is about players enjoying soccer, learning from their participation (on and off the field) and making a personal, conscious decision at an appropriate age – as to whether or not they wish to pursue a highly competitive level of play. 

If I had the time to explore one facet of development and competition it would be the mental aspect. I often ask players, at competitive levels, what percentage of your performance, would you say, can be attributed to your mental ‘state of mind’. To which they, almost inevitably, answer some percentage greater than 50%. I follow this question with – “And, how much time do you spend preparing yourself mentally for upcoming games? Needless to say the answer is appreciably less than 50% of practice time.  I think that, in the future, clubs will work a lot harder in developing the means to measure a player’s mental strength as, it has been my experience that at every level the ‘edge’ is often mental.

Regarding the development models in Europe and the US, while there are many similarities one has to acknowledge that there are many differences too. E.g. The Academy systems associated with professional clubs in England could not be adopted, entirely, by MLS clubs as this would create many issues related to the eligibility of young players at the High School and Collegiate levels here in the US.

I’d like to see a symposium on the subject of ‘Developing Elite Youth Soccer Players in the US’ involving all parties currently involved in elite youth soccer in the US. Topics should include: a unified development calendar, research into the ‘burn-out’ factor and the drop-off rate of players in US youth soccer circles and some guidelines regarding training and competition schedules by age, gender and level of play.

Q4: (SA). As a follow-up to the last question, you mentioned an interesting concept before this interview. You used the term “colonization of US football,” and referenced Ajax Amsterdam, Manchester United, and Charlton Athletic. You are no doubt aware that AC Milan of the Serie A has begun to market youth soccer camps in North America.  And that David Beckham, an England International who plays his club soccer for Real Madrid, plans to open a youth academy in Los Angeles. Would you be kind enough to elaborate on these very positive developments for the sport in our continent?

A4: (MH). I’ll comment on these developments and I’ll let you, and your readers, be the judge as to whether or not they are all positive developments. The US soccer market is the largest single soccer market in the world and every company, brand and, yes, football club with the resources, has to consider if and how to best cultivate this and other key markets e.g. China, including what their motives are for entering the developing soccer market.

When I used the world ‘Colonization’ I did this to emphasize that many a club, league, Federation, company and individual have grossly under-estimated the quality of work being done at every level of the game here – whether it’s in coaching, events, the media or other facets of the game and the business of soccer. As was the case with Colonization there is, often, a sense that the indigenous people would greatly benefit from the advanced status of the ‘colonizer’, which we know from history was not always the case. Before we open our arms to every club, organization, league and Federation that wishes to do business here in the US, I’d suggest that we need to exercise a healthy sense of inquiry.

What’s the objective for each group wishing to conduct business in the US soccer market? Does this group have a unique product or range of services? How does this group’s products/services compare with what’s on offer already in the US? Is this group working cooperatively with local soccer communities, organizations and leaders or are they working in competition with local soccer groups?  Will this group’s work benefit the US soccer community?

I would like to see the US soccer Community develop a ‘White Paper’ on this topic of ‘free market’ football. What are the implications, positive and negative for soccer in the US? In this way leaders could formulate a proactive strategy that chooses the ‘best in breed’ leaders from around the world of football instead of waiting to react to every club or organization that enters and starts to compete in the US soccer market. Additionally, as laws and regulations allow I’d like for all leaders in US soccer to consider what impact the plethora of games being played in the US, between foreign teams, has on the domestic soccer market.

What most foreigners (including myself) are surprised to find when they experience soccer in the US for the first time (beyond a vacation, summer camp experience or friendly match) is just how dynamic, innovative and intricate the US soccer market is. Where else in the world does college soccer play such an important role? Which other country in the world could have supported a professional Women’s soccer league to the extent that WUSA did? Which other country in the world has a coaches convention of the magnitude and quality of that organized by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America? Which country, in the modern era, has hosted highly successful men’s and women’s FIFA World Cups of the magnitude of the 1994, 1999, and 2003 World Cups hosted in the US?

To finish my thought – all clubs, leagues, Federations and companies wishing to enter and compete in the US soccer market need to take a long, hard look at just how competitive the US market is. Large clubs, for instance, might think that it will be easy to develop their own camps and tournaments without realizing how competitive that market is. This should lead them to ask ‘Can we really bring all of our resources to bear in the US in such a way that local consumers can see how our products and services are competitive with and/or superior to local equivalents? Furthermore, as is the case with the development of any business, a single event or a series of small events is hardly the establishment of a year-round business in a market. Where local camp organizers (high school coaches, club coaches, college coaches and independent operators) live and operate in their market year-round, will foreign clubs be able to afford the necessary investment to have year-round employees in each market they are trying to cultivate?

The difficulty in cultivating  consumers (as opposed to fans) is “How do you create the same impact in a distant market when the reason that people become fans is the players and the team and these resources cannot be present, personally, in multiple markets at once?” While players and teams can be accessed through media (magazines, newsletters, videos, DVDs, radio, television and the internet) will that be enough for fans who want to see their heroes in the flesh?

Q5: (SA). During your many travels, you have spent significant time in Italy. Can you please share your thoughts and impressions about Italian football?

A5: (MH). First of all I have to say that I love Italy and the Italian people. The combination of its history, architecture, fashion, food, football and passion for life is incredibly compelling to me.

I believe that football in Italy is played at an extremely high tactical level and many of the world’s leading clubs and players are to be found in Serie A.

My personal observation is that the result, in Italy, is everything. The necessity to entertain one’s fans, appears to be secondary.

Italy, as the developer of much of football’s defensive tactics are the leading exponents in defensive tactics. I enjoy watching Italian players and teams defend. They have raised it to an art form and as a former defender myself I have always had great admiration for Italian defenders e.g. Facchetti, Baresi, Maldini, Nesta et al. I also think that Italian fans appreciate good defenders more than other fans do. It’s great to see the respect and adulation shown for great Italian defenders like Baresi and Maldini.

In conversations with our business partner, Jürgen Klinsmann (who played for Inter Milan) he confirmed my impression that playing football in Italy requires a total immersion in the game. The level of preparation, the quality of training facilities, the scrutiny of the press, the pressure to uphold successful club traditions and successes and playing amongst many of the world’s top players and teams means that to be a professional in Italy requires a total commitment to performance as the only true mark of quality is success. While this could be said of other countries and teams – I remember the criticism of Carlos Alberto Parreira (unjustified in my own personal opinion) after his team won the FIFA World Cup, in the US in 1994. To some critics in Brazil –winning the World Cup wasn’t enough – they felt as though the 1994 World Champions hadn’t exhibited enough of the ‘Jogo Bonito’ (the Beautiful Game) in their performances.

Q6: (SA). Could you please discuss your mission and business philosophy at SoccerSolutions, along with some of your favorite projects or affiliations over the years?

A6: (MH). I’ll quote, directly, from our company website (www.soccersolutions.com) how our business philosophy has been shaped:

“In the 1970 World Cup, England, the defending World Cup champion, played Brazil, arguably the greatest team ever assembled. When the ninety minutes of fierce competition under the broiling Guadalajara sun ended, a defining moment in soccer history occurred.

Pelé and Bobby Moore embraced and then respectfully exchanged their match jerseys. The symbolism of their exchange was then, and remains today, compelling. Forward and defender. South American and European. Black and White. Small village and big city suburb. Samba soccer and traditional soccer. Emerging champion and defending champion.

This moment and its symbolism shape the business philosophy of SoccerSolutions:
  • Soccer is a transcendent influence around the world.
  • Competition can be tough and fair.
  • Competitors can compete with respect for one another and the game itself.
  • Striving to be the best is an intense experience.
  • Winning counts - but it is not everything.
  • People and cultures of the world, however different, can come together.
  • Leadership in an organization can come from both the front and the back.
  • Being champion today does not guarantee being champion tomorrow.
  • Different "teams" need different game plans.
  • Relationships matter.
  • Being a fully committed participant is exhilarating.
Our ‘Mission’ (company purpose) at Soccer Solutions is to use our global network of resources to help our client partners achieve success in soccer. Our client base is diverse and so, too, is our work.

It’s hard to choose among the many projects we’ve been involved in but working with MasterCard as they continue to position their brand as the leading supporter of major football competitions and fans’ debates about football has been compelling.  Working with the LA Galaxy and AEG, to build plans for their development programs and Jürgen’s role as Technical Advisor in 2004 was extremely challenging and rewarding. Our role as the co-developers (with two coaches in South Carolina) of the All-American High School All-Star Games for boys and girls was extremely enjoyable and so too has been our role as co-partners in the event management (along with Vision Sports Marketing) of the adidas Elite Soccer Program (adidas ESP) since 2003. Warren and I thoroughly enjoy the volunteer work we have done, and continue to do, with the NSCAA. This organization is full of staff and volunteers who have shown an incredible dedication to the sport of soccer in the US.

We thoroughly enjoy sitting down with companies and helping them develop their plans for the future as has been the case with Coerver Coaching, Vern Gambetta, and the NSCAA (marketing plan) among others.  

Q7: (SA).  One of your partners at SoccerSolutions is Jürgen Klinsmann. He was a World Cup champion with Germany in 1990, and a European Nations Cup champion in 1996. Mr. Klinsmann also played in the Serie A with Inter Milan and Sampdoria (Genoa). While at Inter Milan in 1989, he won their last Italian championship. He is now the head coach of the German National Team, and very dedicated to youth soccer. When did Mr. Klinsmann first become associated with your firm, and in what type of capacity?

A7: (MH). Jürgen is a Vice President and partner in Soccer Solutions, LLC. We first started working together about 4 years ago and Jürgen joined SoccerSolutions in late 2001. I was first introduced to Jürgen by adidas. They asked me, when I was a soccer consultant with adidas International, if I would meet with Jürgen and give him my perspective on the US soccer market and how he might develop his career in the US. After a few extremely positive and enjoyable meetings we decided that we would join forces and that Jürgen would become a partner in SoccerSolutions. Jürgen wanted to work alongside Warren and myself to see how sports marketing and business development related to soccer works ‘on the other side of the table’. For most of his career as a player Jürgen had been engaged as a ‘spokesman’ for various companies and so he knew what the role of a spokesman/endorsee felt like but by working as a consultant he has now been actively involved with why and how companies develop marketing campaigns, business development concepts and entire businesses in soccer, including how they measure the success of such initiatives .

By working on various projects related to event management, market analysis, the development of marketing plans, plans for youth development, grassroots program development and implementation with prominent sponsors, business development plans for diverse companies seeking to capitalize on their position in the soccer market etc., Jürgen has picked up a business skill-set and approach that few soccer managers/coaches can claim to have developed.

In our company Jürgen is the ‘Rainmaker’ or the ‘Lightning-Rod’ as we receive lots of publicity and opportunities as a result of his status in the game and position in our company. His network around the globe and the positive impressions he has left wherever he has played enables Jürgen to access and cooperate with many ‘movers and shakers’ in the world game. In Jürgen’s current capacities, Warren and I, along with a couple of other associates, are able to provide Jürgen with a level of support and service that he, and other celebrities/former athletes like him, would get from a large sports marketing agency e.g. IMG or Octagon. Jürgen decided, when he joined our company, that he would prefer to receive his support from partners in a company in which he had equity, a company he was personally committed to. As you can imagine, Jürgen’s focus through World Cup 2006 is on preparing the German national team to succeed in the competition. Everything else, except his family, is secondary.

Q8: (SA). Why do you believe that soccer, despite the tremendous success of our US women’s program (2 World Cups and 2 Olympic Gold Medals), along with many “Yanks Abroad” competing in prestigious European leagues, still generates many negative articles and/or biased commentaries by some in the mainstream North American media?

A8: (MH). My own theory, based on personal experience, is that the US for many, many years, thanks to its great natural resources and the endeavor of its people were relatively isolated from the world at large. Consequently, America had its own sports, food, musical forms, entertainment (movies in particular), and fashions etc. Many of these items, have been successfully exported to other areas of the globe but sport is such a defining characteristic in a nation’s culture that it’s difficult for many Americans to accept soccer just in the same way as it’s difficult for traditionalists in England to accept American-English as a legitimate language or food critics in France to accept American cuisine. Each of the cases I’ve quoted here are, to many people, part of how they define their being and I think that part of being an American is defined by one’s understanding and passion for Baseball, Football and Basketball.

I try to avoid arguments or discussions about which is the world’s greatest sport as this is such a subjective matter. I have a thousand reasons why I think soccer is the perfect sport but I respect fans of baseball, cricket, rugby, tennis etc., who have a similar belief in their own sport.

I pity those poor souls (Jim Rome as one example) who feel as though they have to denigrate other sports to make themselves and their preferred sports, somehow, more important. As Stephen R. Covey might point out Rome appears to lack an ‘abundance mentality’. Why must one sport be denigrated to elevate the supposed stature of another? I respect all sports and all athletes and I think there is room enough for everyone around the table.

Q9: (SA). What type of advice would you give young soccer players who aspire to become professionals in either the men’s or women’s leagues around the globe?

A9: (MH). Immerse yourself in the game. Play, train, compete, read, watch games, analyze games, question, listen and learn. Set yourself clear, measurable goals. Measure your progress and aspire to greatness and remember you can only be the best you can be. While the world wishes to compare you with others – stay focused on that which you can influence – your own performance and progress. Do all you can possibly do to achieve your goals so that when your career is over you can look back and say ‘I gave it my best shot’.

I’d add to this the necessity of getting a good education and grounding in another career. All but the top 1% of players around the world (in financial terms) need a career to fall back upon after their playing career in soccer is over. Too many young players, and unfortunately their parents too, watch as players place all of their hopes and aspirations on a professional career in soccer only to experience major disappointment when they fail to achieve their goals. Even those who succeed at the highest level can lose small fortunes and suffer greatly from the depression that can follow a career in soccer.

Jürgen is a great example to young players in that he continuously strives to improve himself ‘on and off the field of play’. His commitment to languages (German, English, Italian and conversational French) is admirable and so too has been his commitment to learning about new technologies (developed his own website) and starting his own foundation to give something back to a world that has given him so much, which he  sees as a responsibility that is part and parcel of his success.

Mick, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to contribute to Calcio Connection, and all the best wishes for continued success of SoccerSolutions.

by Steve Amoia for AC Cugini CALCIO CONNECTION

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