20 year relationship with Soccer in North America
Football (or soccer as it’s known across the pond) in North America has and continues to be on an upward trajectory since the early 2000s.
Now boasting four highly competitive and professional leagues (Major League Soccer (MLS), USL Championship, USL League One and National Independent Soccer Association), comprising 81 clubs, the States is steadily climbing towards its aim of becoming one of the sport’s powerhouses.
Despite its eye-catching progress, not even the most avid UK-based football supporter or expert would have followed or possess much knowledge on how a game once ridiculed in the US has become a well-oiled multi-billion pound industry.
But one man who is certainly clued up, and has played an important supporting-role in growing football on the continent, is Beswicks Sports Managing Director, Gary Mellor.
Taking his initial footballing interests to the US over two decades ago, Gary and the Beswicks Sports team have contributed to the birth of two clubs, been at the forefront of numerous player transfers and contributed to putting a professional academy system in place across the States and Canada.
Previously operating as a Director of MLS club Orlando City and now heading up the Beswicks Sports’ expert North America team, Gary and the team have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in Northern American Soccer.
Where it All Started
Beswicks Sports have had dealings in some shape or form with various clubs across a number of States, but Gary’s ‘American Dream’ actually started back on home soil in Stoke-on-Trent.
“It really goes back to Phil Rawlins, who sold his business in Dallas and invested in Stoke City where he became a director,” said Gary.
“He’s a close friend of mine and I went over to a place called Boulder in the early 2000s to see him.
“While I was there I went to have a meeting with Colorado Rapids because Phil and I had the plan to start a team over there.”
Following many more trips and due diligence meetings with other clubs from Portland to Washington DC, Gary and Phil successfully launched Austin Aztex in 2007.
Based in the Texas capital, the club entered the country’s longest-standing division, the USL, which is, in a sense, the closest league there is to a rebirth of the North American Soccer League (NASL) which rose to stardom in the 1970s due to the arrival of legendary Brazilian striker Pele at New York Cosmos.
An established FA Intermediary working closely with players and clubs back in the UK, Gary and Beswicks’ first step was to utilise their contacts by opening up new opportunities to British-based football professionals.
“The first person I talked to about taking part in this journey was Adrian Heath – the old Stoke City, Everton, Aston Villa and Man City player who also managed Burnley and Sheffield United,” explained Gary.
“He ended up coming over when we started the team and took the role of head coach.
“We then took a few English players over with the likes of Eddie Johnson, who came through at Manchester United and had been on loan with Adrian at Coventry.
“I then took Eddie as his agent to Portland Timbers in 2011, so it really started to show that there was a pathway for English players that hadn’t perhaps achieved what they anticipated over here to go and play in MLS.”
Despite hosting the FIFA World Cup in 1994 and welcoming David Beckham to LA Galaxy in 2006, a lot of the United States were still coming around to soccer, with national sports American football, baseball and basketball all trumping it in ratings and popularity.
Gary, who admits that the country “was not ready” for the global showpiece event 26 years ago, experienced that lack of interest first-hand soon after the birth of Aztex.
Just a couple of years down the line it became apparent that Austin’s appetite for a football club was not quite what was needed to grow a successful business, leading to Gary and Phil having to relocate over 1,100 miles away.
“We moved to Orlando in 2010 because we couldn’t get a stadium solution in Austin,” Gary recalled.
“It was a bit controversial at the time because as two Brits you’re not used to moving your team unless you’re MK Dons.
“We got crowds of 6,000 in Austin but, despite talks with the city, we just couldn’t get the traction and we had to keep moving every year.
“It would’ve been impossible to build a proper club without a regular home and the people of Austin just couldn’t get that
“Now they’re going to do an MLS team (Austin FC will join in 2021) and I’m so happy for the city because there are lots of proper soccer fans who deserve a team around.
“I do really hope it’s successful.”
Although years of ground work had been laid to create Aztex, the sheer size and diverse population of America means it’s not easy to get it right – especially when it’s not a national sport.
But having – in the words of Gary himself – “learned from mistakes”, the relocation to Florida was complete and Orlando City started to make waves.
With Heath in the managerial hot seat, the club enjoyed four successful campaigns in the USL Pro leagues before their dream of competing in MLS came true in 2015.
“We proved we made the right decision as we started off with a championship winning team in 2011,” said Gary.
“We then got it to MLS where we started off with 60,000 fans at the first game and averaged 44,000 over the first season.”
As well as having the city’s first MLS team, a large majority of those capacity crowds were drawn in by the prospect of watching a former Ballon d’Or winner.
The board had managed to persuade Brazilian legend Kaka to join the team in their debut top-flight campaign.
The Champions League and World Cup winner joined England legends Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in testing themselves in America’s elite division.
All in their mid 30s at the time, outsiders have suggested that top players in Europe go to the US for a final pay day.
However, with talent now going in both directions, Gary says playing football in North America is far from a holiday.
“You just have to look at Inter Miami’s World Cup winning midfielder from Juventus (Blaise Matuidi), who’s gone in and has found it tough.
“He says people can run and they can play – you can’t just go and stroll around like maybe they have in the past.
“Going the other way, the odd player like Clint Dempsey or Brad Friedel would come to Europe and do well but now you have the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Giovanni Reyna, Alfonso Davies and others who are some of the top young players.
“I think a lot of people underestimated the league before but, with that much talent, more people playing, better coaches and a professional academy system in place, people can no longer not take it seriously.”
In relation to moving players from North America to Europe, Gary and his team at Beswicks have facilitated transfers for the likes of Stoke City and current QPR midfielder Geoff Cameron, and Fulham defender Tim Ream amongst many others.
Moving players both ways over the Atlantic is Beswicks’ real bread and butter and although the Kaka deal was the one which made the headlines, it had preceded years of many years of hard work in which the agency had opened a new career door for predominantly British based players.
Kickstarting that trend with Eddie Johnson back in 2009 and then the likes of Chris McCann, James O’Connor, Chris Birchall and Lewis Neal, Beswicks Sports now have numerous players performing at a high level on a consistent basis in MLS and USL.
Full-back Anton Walkes is excelling at Atlanta United having come through the youth ranks at Tottenham Hotspur and spent time with Portsmouth, while Colorado Rapids’ Jack Price – formerly of Wolverhampton Wanderers – beat David Beckham’s all-time MLS set-piece record in 2019.
Over 1,700 miles south east of the Rapids in Florida, Scotland international Lewis Morgan is turning heads as David Beckham’s first number 7 at Inter Miami after his January switch from Glasgow Celtic.
Despite the financials in a transfer being important, Gary admits it’s success stories like these which make Beswicks proud of the work they do.
“The special stories mean more to me than money at the end of the day,” said Gary.
“People are asking us about Lewis more since he’s scored a few goals there but he’s already played for Scotland and in the Champions League and Scottish Cup final for Celtic.
“Lewis had multiple opportunities to stay in the UK as he had lots of interest from south of the border.
“Jon Hassall did a good job of sitting down with him and his family and going through all the different opportunities.
“He decided that he wanted to try MLS because he thought the Miami franchise would be an exciting one in a historic first season.
“Lewis made that decision and he is now putting the ball in for (Gonzalo) Higuain. It’s a great story.
“He may come back or he may decide to try and stay over there the next 10 years and see what that will bring as it’s an exciting time with the World Cup in 2026.
“All we can do is give them the full range of options but it shows there are definitely opportunities for players from the UK to go out to America to reignite their careers.
“You only have a short career, your memories are what make your career but, obviously, you’ve got to look at finances and after yourself as well. So, the deal has to be right.”
Putting Players First
There’s no getting away from the fact that in football the financial side is important to all parties when a transfer is being negotiated.
Agents are often all tarred with the same brush of putting their monetary interests before the player.
At Beswicks though, they have offices in Toronto, Chicago, Montreal and Miami and people on the ground in various locations to support their players – some of which have relocated thousands of miles – at any time of the day or night.
“Everything in life, I believe is about relationships,” said Gary.
“If you have a player that moves out there and it’s not working, if you can’t pick up the phone to listen and speak to them, or the decision makers, then you’ve got a problem.
“If someone has relocated it’s even more important they get extra support and, even if one of our team isn’t in that city, we are not averse to jumping on a plane at the end of the day.
“It’s important that we speak to our players on a regular basis as I’ve heard of some players who only speak to their agent every six months.”
Beswicks Sports’ have a very experienced team and have acquired all the knowledge over the last 20 years which has earned them the reputation of being the leading transatlantic agency in Europe.
With designated player rules, salary caps, Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), General Allocation Money (GAM) and different payment structures just some of the variations in dealing with a club in North America compared to Europe, it’s no wonder Beswicks stand out from the competition.
“The rules in Major League Soccer are completely different from any other league in the world,” explains Gary.
“I think you’ve got to have an understanding of those and to know how you get the best deal for your clients.
“I feel that due to our experience, we have a better grasp and understanding of those rules than most.
“We spent a lot of time putting in the hard yards. We’ve spent years out there getting to understand the DNA of all the MLS and some of the USL teams to make sure that we put the right people in the right places.
“You’ve got to really understand the market if you want to go and do deals and, as we know, that homework needed to understand the league properly comes at an expense.
“We’ve had an advantage in me being a founder of Austin Aztex with Phil, owning championship winning teams.
“We’ve been working with people sitting on the board at a number of clubs which went on to MLS like the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.
“It means that not only have I dealt with owners of MLS teams and USL teams for a long time, I’ve sat where they sit.
“We have to outline all the pros and the pluses because even though we speak the same language, it doesn’t mean we have the same culture.
“Every state is different. Each one can be like a different European country but, because we’ve done years of due diligence, we can build a good picture before decisions are made.
“This has had people coming to us to see what opportunities they might be able to get through Beswicks.”
These opportunities have become even more attractive over the years due to the growth of both MLS and USL – summed up by the latter’s president, Jake Edwards, being invited to make two keynote speeches at this year’s industry leading Soccerex event.
With more clubs, higher attendances and exceptional viewing figures compared to the start of the millennium, Gary admits it’s surpassed Beswicks’ initial expectations.
“Did I think the game was going to be huge in North America? Yes, I did.
“But did I think Atlanta United will pull in nearly 80,000 fans and more than the NFL team has consistently over the last couple years? No!
“Did I think places like New Mexico would get 15,000 crowds in Albuquerque? No!
“These are the parts which highlight the grassroots growth of the game and the USL exploding with teams having been successful in big cities such as Miami and Atlanta.
“We now have a structure where clubs in the USL, who I think can be one of the biggest leagues in the Americas, see themselves as competing with MLS teams for players.
“In the last four of the US Open Cup last year, two of the four clubs (Orlando City, Minnesota United) were previously USL teams, so the top USL teams know they can reach MLS.
“I can see a situation very quickly when an MLS team wins the (Concacaf) Champions League and they will then play at the World Club Championship against a Liverpool, Real Madrid or Barcelona which means, all of a sudden, the league is taken even more seriously.”
That growth at grassroots level is set to get a further boost with the 2026 World Cup on the horizon.
Gary admits that the tournament, to be co-hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico, can take America’s domestic leagues to a whole new level.
“The 1994 World Cup was a fantastic event, but it didn’t kick-start the game at grassroots level whereas this one will be phenomenal.
“NBC already cover the Premier League which has people taking more interest in soccer. They’ve made a real dent in all the major sports in terms of participation, attendance and viewing.
“NFL is still a huge sport, but parents worry about concussions so more kids going through college and high school are playing soccer.
“When we first started in the early 2000s, a lot of American parents didn’t see soccer as a proper career path but, now we have professional academies, they can see it now is and that will only increase in the lead up and after the World Cup.”
A Challenging Year
Like the majority of sports across the world, soccer in America came grinding to a halt in March due to Covid-19.
In a scary and uncertain time for everyone involved, both MLS and USL stood strong and returned to action in early July – a feat which has been commended by Gary.
“I think MLS and USL have both done really well throughout this pandemic,” praised Gary.
“MLS was the first professional sport to return (MLS Is Back! Tournament) in the States so were, somewhat, the Bundesliga of the Americas.
“The USL clubs were the first ones to introduce safe spectating at reduced capacities, something that we’d like to see in the UK for the future of the game.
“So, in some ways, they’ve really shown the pathway of putting sport back on successfully, especially in the United States.
“It’s not been easy but hats off to both the leagues for dealing with it properly and in a safe way.”
As a company which spans not only across the Atlantic but across the globe, the pandemic has also presented Beswicks Sports with major challenges throughout the calendar year.
Regular face-to-face meetings have been replaced with Zoom chats as travel has had to take a back seat in a time where the health and safety of people has been the ultimate priority.
“The main change for us is not getting ourselves in front of people as much as we’d like to,” said Gary.
“Before the pandemic we were very active. I was in New York twice before the lockdown and we had big trips planned all over the country.
“I’m still talking to people in the USA every single night via video. I start in the morning, doing the UK and European stuff and then on to Atlantic business in the evening.
“You have to keep talking and communicating with people because that’s important and I would always prefer to get on a plane and sit down with them.
“But, at the moment, we have got to keep ourselves, families and staff safe.”
Covid-19 is of course on the forefront of everyone’s mind at this time but, once we’ve come out the other end of what is proving to be a long tunnel, it won’t be too long until attention in America turns to that World Cup in 2026.
Since Beswicks first ventured into North American soccer over two decades ago their influence in managing successful clubs and taking professionals from the UK to the US and vise-versa has contributed slices to what is now a multi-billion dollar pie.
So, if those progressive past 20-odd years are anything to go by, with football’s ultimate showpiece event steadily approaching, the next 20 promise to be even more exciting for Beswicks Sports and soccer in the US.