As part of his recurring series of interviews on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley talks to Will Kuntz, Major League Soccer’s new director of player relations. Kuntz comes to the league from the New York Yankees, where he was the manager of pro scouting. A former college basketball player, Kuntz worked his way up the Yankee ladder from unpaid intern to being one of the men at the table to weigh in on big decisions.
A longtime Red Bulls season-ticket holder, Kuntz makes the move to soccer, he explains, because of his love for the game, and his interest in helping MLS continue to grow.
BRADLEY: Let's get right to it: What brings you here from the Yankees, and how did this job come about for you?
KUNTZ: It all happened pretty quickly. I was watching soccer on a Saturday with a friend of mine who works for MLS. And we were talking about all that Toronto was doing, and I was told that the GM, Tim Bezbatchenko, worked in the MLS office and that his position was open. I was told they were looking for someone with a soccer-playing background, which I don’t have, but I said, "If things changed, I’d like to be considered." In the middle of February, [new Yankees pitcher] Masahiro Tanaka was having his press conference, the office was all packed up for spring training in Tampa and I got a text message saying, "Send your résumé in." So, I did that and got the job offer shortly after that.
BRADLEY: Why leave baseball for soccer?
KUNTZ: There are a lot of reasons. There’s no getting around the fact that I love soccer, the way the game is played, the flow of it. Baseball is a static sport, there’s not really teamwork. It’s a team sport, but it’s individual events. I played basketball at Williams College and I think I naturally gravitate toward more free-flowing sports with greater movement.
And I have really loved seeing the way MLS has grown, especially in the last five years. It’s remarkable. I’ve had season tickets to the Red Bulls since [Red Bull] Arena opened and every year there’s more talent coming into the league. I see a huge upside.
BRADLEY: What was your role with the Yankees?
KUNTZ: Most recently, I was running the pro scouting department. My title was pro scouting manager. But I’d started with the Yankees as a college intern in baseball operations 11 years ago. That was mostly administrative work. But at the end of 2006, I was asked if I wanted to try to work on the pro scouting side, evaluating. It was very different. The first couple of years was pretty rough. I needed the pro scouts to show me the ropes. I went to scout school, and that’s where I got my sea legs.
The last few years, I’ve done everything from setting the pro scouting budget to scouting the minor league system, ranking the top prospects for every organization in baseball. We developed a scouting application for the iPad for all pro scouts. And the day to day stuff, making sure our scouts are seeing the right players, and talking to the general manager about players of interest, guys who might become available, all that stuff.
BRADLEY: What was our greatest piece of input during your tenure with the Yankees? Did you have one of those "slam your fist on the table" moments, where you told general manager Brian Cashman and the brain trust what to do? Anything you want to be remembered by?
KUNTZ: Ha! No. I think Brian has always been a GM who has an organic, holistic approach. He’s very good at not relying on any one person to make a call.
BRADLEY: Do you remember the first time you were invited to sit at the "grown-ups table?" With Cashman and manager Joe Girardi and others?
KUNTZ: It was at the new stadium, I think 2009. I remember it was right before the trade deadline and Brian and the coaching staff came into the scouting war room. They were going to talk about what players they’d like to add. And that day Brian asked if I wanted to come sit in on the discussions.
BRADLEY: How do you think your experience with the Yankees can help MLS?
KUNTZ: I think in a lot of ways. First of all, being in a very demanding, high-pressure environment with the Yankees will help. I think MLS’s league offices are very lean but operate at a high capacity and I have that understanding of what it’s like to work a lot of hours, under pressure, with things coming up left and right. I feel very battle-tested.
BRADLEY: Will you be evaluating players?
KUNTZ: I don’t think initially. I think my role is going to be in the management of teams’ salary caps, and helping with contracts. I’m a lawyer also, so I’ll be able to contribute with labor issues. Obviously, the collective bargaining [agreement] expires at the end of this year, and I expect to be working on that, and lend some expertise. Initially, I’m going to be getting the league rules down and making everything from roster and salary-cap standpoint are copacetic.
BRADLEY: You’re a lawyer? How’d you manage that?
KUNTZ: I started my first semester in the fall of 2009. The Yankees beat the Phillies in the World Series that year and I had to go to class the day after winning the World Series. I finished my law degree in August of 2012.
BRADLEY: So, we know you’re a Red Bulls season-ticket holder. Who else do you support?
KUNTZ: I’ve leaned toward Arsenal through the years. I attribute that to the old days of Fox Sports World and Lionel Bienvenue showing the English Premier League highlights. Those were the Dennis Bergkamp years for Arsenal and they played a game with short passing and movement.
That led to Thierry Henry’s ascension and the unstoppable teams of the early 2000s. And, as far as MLS, I think my first ever game was the MetroStars and D.C. United at the old Giants Stadium. Maybe 8,000 people watching Marco Etcheverry going nuts and the MetroStars losing. I had a blast.
BRADLEY: And you stayed with them?
KUNTZ: Yeah, me and a couple of buddies, when Red Bull Arena opened, we said, "Let’s do this." And a year later, Henry landed there. It’s been awesome.
BRADLEY: Do you see yourself in MLS for the long haul?
KUNTZ: That’s the hope. There isn’t a job that I’d have left the Yankees for, except this one. Well, maybe if someone offered me a Major League Baseball GM job, but really as far as switching sports, the NFL, the NBA don’t have any appeal. This is where I want to be. And as scary as it is to leave a place you’ve been for 11 years, I could not be more excited about this. I’ve got a lot to learn. But I’m really thrilled to be a part of the league.