I landed my first full-time job in broadcasting in May of 1989, as the weekend sports anchor at WKBT-TV, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Just weeks before I got my job, former University of Minnesota basketball star Phil “Flip” Saunders was named head coach of the La Crosse Catbirds, a team that played in the CBA, or Continental Basketball Association, which was, at the time, the minor league to the NBA.
I left La Crosse before Flip did, but in my three seasons covering the CBA I was consistently intrigued, amused and not a little bit confused by the comings and goings of the players in the league. The CBA was intended to serve as a feeder program for the NBA, but because of the pay disparity between the two leagues, players frequently left their CBA teams on a moment’s notice opting for big cash payouts from pro teams in Europe or Asia. As such you never quite knew what the Catbirds lineup was going to look like from night to night. Neither did they. Ultimately, it was Flip’s ability to work that system better than his peers as much or more than any X’s and O's strategy he ever employed on the court that allowed him to reach the NBA.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the workings of Major League Soccer (MLS) is anything near as fly by night as the old CBA, but as I seek to gain a better understanding of our newest pro sports entity I will admit that I am frequently confused by the process of adding players to a roster versus my familiarity with how it’s done in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB. And apparently, I am not alone.
“I think it’s more murky, and I’ll explain why that is,” says Amos McGee, Director of Player Personnel for the MN United FC Loons. “But beyond that, MLS is even more murky because it operates under a single entity system. And that means there’s a lot more kind of, institutional controls as to how you add and acquire players.”
McGee, a St. Paul native who at one-time played forward and midfielder for the Minnesota Thunder, has the task of trying to locate and obtain talent to bring to life the shared vision of United GM Manny Logos and Head Coach Adrian Heath.
Factor in the many moving targets that are -- the MLS windows to add players, the windows of other leagues all around the globe, immigration, foreign travel, salary cap, roster restrictions, contracts, agents and designated players -- and the single word that seems to best sum up McGee’s role is, complicated.
“It’s a lot of dominoes to line up so you can get your targets identified,” says McGee. “You can start to negotiate with the clubs and with the players and then you can get all the paperwork across, and then next comes getting a player here, the visa stuff, the immigration stuff and then you have to get the player integrated into your teams so, it’s a huge process, for sure.”
If it seems like the process is never ending that’s because with MLS there are actually two windows for member teams to add talent. There is the winter window, which this year ran from February 5 to May 12 and the summer window, which this year opened on July 10 and closes on August 8.
“Within two periods we have to try to figure out how to situate our roster, situate our salary cap, and to situate our scouting to try to be able to take advantage of those windows to find and add players,” says McGee.
The “we” McGee is referring to is primarily United GM Manny Lagos, a guy McGee has known since their days as teammates at St. Paul Academy. While the two traveled different routes to where they are today, it’s their commonalities that help them work best together in their current roles.
“We share a similar view on how to put together a group and what we want to ask of our players and coaches and staff,” says McGee. “And in that way it’s been a really easy transition and I think we’re right in line with each other on how to build this thing.”
The transition was easy for McGee because he followed his career as a player by serving as an assistant coach with D.C. United. A stop where he was also able to learn more about other aspects of pro soccer, including management, player personnel and salary cap navigation.
“I think you have to know soccer, you have to know MLS, you have to know the league. It’s a very interesting and complicated league,” says McGee. “Having experience in that is important. I think the relationships are very important. You know, my wife’s a PhD in economics and I can’t pretend that my brain works in that way, but I do like mixing and matching numbers. I do like to be creative and trying to figure out how to fit things in that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to fit. I like that challenge.”
Make no mistake about it, it has been a challenge. MN United FC attempted a major roster makeover in the off season, only to see their plans hindered by a series of early injuries. Not content to play the hand dealt them, the Loons have continued to upgrade their roster, recently adding designated players Darwin Quintero, arguably the team’s best attacking player since he was integrated into the lineup in mid-May, and Angelo Rodriguez, a striker who could make his Loons debut Saturday night.
What are designated players? As I understand it, these are players that MLS teams can add to their roster by going above and beyond the designated salary cap. Each team can have up to three designated players on their roster at a time, and it allows teams to go above and beyond in their quest to win a title, while limiting teams in major markets from simply scooping up all the best players because they can afford to pay more.
Are you listening Major League Baseball?
“I think by the end of this year we’ll be a much better team than where we started, which is only two seasons into an MLS career," says McGee. "And then we go into a new stadium next year with a lot of excitement and I think, a really good core of a team. And hopefully we’re only adding one or two special pieces, which do the trick.”
Married, with children, McGee finds himself back in his home state, as part of an organization that’s about to move into a new stadium, backed by an ownership group that appears sincere about winning a championship. It’s a role he’s prepared for throughout his professional life, and one he’s not about to let the little murkiness that comes with the job cloud his vision of the future.
“I’d be quite happy to be in this role, to work with Manny and Chris Wright (team president), with Adrian (Heath, head coach)," says McGee. “And I’d like to be doing this for a while and build a championship here.”