MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our third annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with former San Jose Earthquakes star midfielder and two-time MLS Cup winner Ronnie Ekelund.
Where He Was Then
Ronnie Ekelund’s 11 goals and 16 assists over four seasons in MLS isn’t what grabs you. What the Dane brought to the table was immeasurable: He was one of the most tactically gifted players in the league, schooled by Danish powerhouse Brøndby and cultivated under Johan Cruyff at Barcelona after starring for Denmark at the 1992 Summer Olympics.
In San Jose, that translated to being a key cog in central midfield as the ultimate linking player. During his four years at Spartan Stadium – two of which ended with MLS Cups – the offense ran through the well-traveled Ekelund and his unparalleled on-the-ball skills. He melted seamlessly into Frank Yallop’s passing game, allowing Quakes attackers like Landon Donovan, Ariel Graziani, Brian Ching and Dwayne De Rosario time and space to work their magic.
And, of course, there was the glory. Ekelund starred in both of his MLS Cup appearances, setting up De Rosario for the golden-goal winner against LA in 2001, and opening the scoring two years later against Chicago with a laser free kick just five minutes in. He was also named to the MLS Best XI in 2002 and cemented his place in Quakes lore.
Where He Is Now
Ekelund gets it. He knows what he’s up to these days isn’t exactly what one expects from a former footballer. In fact, it’s about as far from the testosterone-heavy game as you can get.
“I’ve been asked a lot of funny questions over the years,” he says while sitting in the conference room of his company’s offices in Los Gatos, Calif., about 12 miles southwest of Spartan Stadium. “I think now people are getting used to it.”
What often prompted double takes from his former teammates and foes is that Ekelund is now a successful entrepreneur in the maternity industry. His company, Bébé Au Lait, is one of the first to sell what Ekelund and his wife named “Hooter Hiders”: fashionable nursing covers for women.
Ekelund’s wife, Claire, an England native and former fitness instructor with “a cool eye for fashion,” originally came up with the idea a decade ago when she wanted a way to watch her husband’s games without disappearing to nurse their infant daughter. Thus the first fashionable nursing cover soon came to the market.
“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Ekelund, now 40, says before invoking a soccer analogy. “But I’m always one to shoot for the stars. If you don’t shoot at the goal, you don’t score.”
With Ekelund devoting himself full-time to the idea after his MLS career came to an end in 2004, he soon found himself a salesman, partnering with Claire and working tirelessly out of their home. It wasn’t a difficult transition, Ekelund explains, but it did involve a certain amount of reinvention – and humility.
“I remember the earlier days when I was still close to the soccer world,” he recalls, “I had to make cold calls to Texas and say, ‘Hey man, these Hooter Hiders are selling like hot cakes. You need to get on it.’ They had no idea who I was.”
That small operation has grown exponentially. When they started eight years ago, the Ekelunds packed and shipped the products themselves out of their home at night while watching TV. Today, Bébé Au Lait has 16 fulltime employees based in a small office complex in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The company designs and manufactures 80 different products – such as magnetic cloth bibs, baby blankets and, of course, nursing covers – and has distribution in more than 70 countries, including with big retailers such as Amazon.com, Babies “R” Us and Diapers.com.
And lest you think Ekelund has strayed too far from the game, Bébé Au Lait has a dedicated shipping center in Santa Clara, not far from the Quakes’ current home of Buck Shaw Stadium and future permanent home just across the commuter-train tracks. Ekelund admits he still pays close attention to his former team, especially after serving as a technical advisor to the recreated expansion club in 2008 and ’09.
Ekelund is no longer involved in an official capacity, but enjoyed watching the Quakes rise to the top of the MLS heap during their Supporters’ Shield run in 2012. And although he’s impressed with the physical, three-pronged attack of scoring king Chris Wondolowski supported by the twin towers of Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, he does miss the pass-happy game his Quakes teams employed.
“They’ve maybe changed style a bit from when we played,” he says. “We dictated games because we were a passing team. ... But what they’ve got now is working. If it works and you’re winning, that’s your style.”
Ekelund still thinks back fondly to a time when he practiced on the “pool table-like surface” at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, and was forced to improve as he competed for minutes with the likes of Romário, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and his countryman and friend, Michael Laudrup.
Even then, while playing under the legendary Cruyff, Ekelund had an idea of what he eventually wanted to do.
“I always imagined myself giving it a crack at coaching,” he says. “I still believe I have a lot to bring to the table.”
Not that he isn’t comfortable in his new life as a small-business entrepreneur. Quite the opposite. He, Claire and their three children are quite happy as permanent Bay Area transplants, and the success of Bébé Au Lait has far surpassed their expectations. But if the Earthquakes or some other club came calling, Ekelund would happily listen.
“Like in business and anything else, it’s all about opportunities,” he says. “For sure, if there was ever an opportunity, it’s something I would look at.”
What They Said
“He was very technical in terms of always playing the ball on the ground – always a great connector from the defense to the midfield to the forwards, and he was a great distributor as a forward. We had a great understanding of each other. The way he played is something I like and he had a lot of experience, so he had a lot to offer our team.”
– Dwayne De Rosario, former San Jose teammate