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MLS official comes full circle with Minnesota MLS All-Star Game

As the Major League Soccer All-Star Celebration headed to Allianz Field this week, league deputy commissioner and chief architect Mark Abbott returned to suburban St. Paul on Sunday for a homecoming.

It has been 50 years to the day since his father, Fred, an Englishman and newly hired optical engineer for 3M, moved his family to Oakdale. Two years later, Maplewood officials asked Fred Abbott to start a parks program for a burgeoning sport Americans called soccer.

“It was on the rise, affordable, anyone could play it,” said Mark Abbott, “and my dad had an English accent.”

Hiring.

Seventeen players responded, including 10-year-old Mark.

It was the start of his unlikely football life that included a day spent as a Minnesota Kicks ball boy in the 1970s and charting the arc of a fledgling MLS. The league started planning with an employee in a closet, and he was.

“It’s not a metaphor,” Abbott said. “I had this tiny little desk and a folding chair.”

A league that nearly went bankrupt in 2001 will add its 29th team next season.

The league will celebrate the growth in the international soccer market that Abbott calls “astonishing” by playing its annual MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday. A sold-out crowd of nearly 20,000 fans is expected for Minnesota’s first chance to host the event.

On Sunday, MLS honored Abbott’s nearly 30-year work by rededicating Fred Abbott Field in memory of his father at Hazelwood Park in Maplewood.

After graduating from Tartan High School in 1982, Mark Abbott left Minnesota for Georgetown University, then a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He stayed away from acting until he was hired by a prestigious Los Angeles law firm in 1992.

There he worked on non-football matters with sports attorney Alan Rothenberg, commissioner of football for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and CEO of the 1994 World Cup organizing committee.

Football’s governing body FIFA has awarded the United States the World Cup, with the intention that a new top-flight American league will soon follow. By then, it had been a decade since the once-popular North American Soccer League, featuring the Minnesota Kicks, had folded.

Sitting in another attorney’s office one day, Abbott overheard Rothenberg asking over the loudspeaker who could write a business plan for this promised new league.

Abbott ran out the door, down four flights of stairs, into Rothenberg’s office and said he would.

“He said, ‘Do what?’ “, said Abbott.

A new diet

Abbott penned much of the league’s innovative business plan when he was a young attorney who took time off from his Los Angeles law firm.

“It was supposed to be three months, and now I’ve been gone for almost 30 years,” he said.

World Cup matches filled stadiums before group pairings were announced, foreshadowing its popularity. Some 400 people worked to organize the World Cup while Abbott was initially the only one planning a new league which he was convinced could work.

Abbott said he believed because of the local success he had seen in those suburbs of St. Paul two decades earlier. A generation of American gamers developed, and the arrival of cable television made the sport more accessible.

“In 1993 the world had changed,” Abbott said. “I really felt the time was right for professional football here, given that the World Cup was coming up. I had planned to be a lawyer my whole career. But I was 28 and I thought it was was a great opportunity.”

Abbott calls himself the “project manager” for the 69-page business plan with addenda that are now yellowed but still on a shelf behind his desk at his Connecticut home.

As others were hired, Abbott’s group consulted with an eclectic collection of experts — American Football League founder and soccer fan Lamar Hunt, Nike’s Phil Knight and diplomat Henry Kissinger among them — on football, business and why the NASL with its big stars and big salaries failed. .

Abbott proposed a “single entity” structure, in which teams and player contracts belong to the league. It’s a structure Abbott says “really recognizes the reality of professional sports, which is that you’re a business partnership off the court and competitors on the court.”

The high school student who quoted the philosopher Nietzsche in a graduation speech the same year the Kicks folded has often told classmates and teammates how the NASL got it wrong and that professional football should be popular in the United States.

“He kept talking about salary caps and revenue sharing,” said Tartan student council member George Yoshida, now director of 3M’s global portfolio. “He had such a vision, and I just dismissed it. I would tell him we’re not a football country, and he did something about it. He was always thinking bigger than the rest of us. .”

Abbott will leave MLS later this year — “it’s not retirement, but I don’t know what it is” — to pursue other interests. He turns 58 next week and is expected to stay on as a consultant.

Before leaving, he saw the league follow in the wake of that hugely lucrative 1994 World Cup. He oversaw its expansion efforts from the start, growing MLS from 10 teams in its inaugural 1996 season to 28 this season, with St. Louis set to join next year.

Minnesota United paid a $100 million expansion fee in 2015 and began playing in 2017 not far from Abbott’s childhood home. Charlotte, North Carolina paid $325 million to enter this season.

Human and modest

Loons managing partner Bill McGuire said he couldn’t say what would or wouldn’t have happened without Abbott’s vision.

“As designed, it helped grow,” McGuire said. “You would be hard pressed to say that you could accomplish what has been accomplished without it, because it has contributed to a certain stability, a certain balance in the competition. It has allowed you to bring together cities of markets of different sizes and different dynamics.

McGuire called Abbott “very human, very humble, very approachable” and “a good person who can be proud of what has been achieved”.

“It’s unusual for someone to start at the beginning of something and see it through like that,” McGuire said. “I doubt they expected it to be that way, and he probably didn’t know it would be either. I’m sure there’s a satisfaction in watching something grow and develop in a long plan you had.”

Abbott calls Sunday’s rededication ceremony in honor of his father – a longtime Burnley fan from his native England who died in 2010 – and his last MLS All-Star game with the league back in his hometown as something fortuitous.

“It started for me in Minnesota and basically ends for me in Minnesota,” he said. “My dad started this thing with 33 kids, and now we have this thriving pro league, including this amazing team at this amazing stadium in Minnesota. It’s amazing to look back, what happened here .

“I couldn’t be more excited or more proud.”