Before the beginning of Major League Soccer, there was Ivan Gazidis.By Andrea Canales
People sometimes talk about the founding players of Major League Soccer who are still around and have stuck with the league since 1996. DC United's Jaime Moreno, the league's all time leading goalscorer, is probably the most notable of these.
Ivan Gazidis, however, predated the tenure of any MLS player still in the league by at least two years.
It was 1994 when the young lawyer who'd been born in South Africa and raised in England began to work for a league that didn't yet exist. MLS was basically an idea then, a promise made to FIFA that was already faltering because it was behind schedule.
FIFA had granted the U.S. the rights to host the 1994 World Cup contingent on the country establishing a top-level professional soccer league.
The thing was, too many in the U.S. didn't know what such a thing was. Gazidis, who had grown up an ardent fan, did.
It was obvious to me when I first met him. He was shadowing MLS commissioner Don Garber at a press event, but was off to one side on a phone call. It was still a bit early and the people gathered around Garber were engaged in idle chatter about a game. I moved closer and was dismayed to overhear they were discussing a recent NFL (American football) game.
Then again, that made sense, as Garber had been an executive for the National Football League for many years. He had been brought to MLS precisely for his expertise in managing the American sports market. He knew what appealed to corporate America and as a familiar face in sports boardrooms, was perfectly suited to campaign for a sport that seemed foreign to many.
But Garber didn't know soccer like Gazidis did, not by a long shot.
The duo worked well together partly because their skills were so in balance. Gazidis understood both the power and reach of the global game, but also how far MLS still had to go to reach that level. Garber, meanwhile, had the local connections in the U.S. scene that gave the league the clout it needed to advance.
One mistake that Gazidis was careful to keep from making was turning MLS into a copycat version of another league. He avoided the political and logistical nightmare of proposed deals of a relegation and promotion system with the United Soccer Leagues. Yet he also exerted influence to rid the league of some of its more outlandish traits, such as a shootout ending to any games without a clear winner. He prevailed upon others to finally believe that Americans could understand that draws were an acceptable outcome.
Unlike most MLS executives, Gazidis still played soccer into adulthood. That may seem like a small detail, but it reveals someone who, at his core, loved the game simply for what it was.
That likely isn't going to be as crucial to his success at Arsenal now. Truth be told, it's painfully obvious that there are far more people who live and breathe the sport over on that side of the pond. I can't imagine that idle discussion of other sports takes up much time for Arsenal executives in England.
What will probably hold Gazidis in good stead now is the fiscal responsibility, the creative problem solving and the focus on a long-term vision that he learned as the quiet power behind the throne of the commissioner.
It's not that part that I'm concerned about MLS being able to replace now that Gazidis is gone. No doubt there are plenty of business people ready to step in and crunch the numbers for MLS. That's only a dry understanding of what constitutes soccer success, and ultimately, the financial angle is only one aspect of that.
What I'm more concerned about is who now in the upper circles of league power couldn't care less about any other sport. Gazidis was a soccer guy, first and foremost. It leaves me with some worry about who could fill that role now in MLS.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com USA