With Major League Soccer's All-Star celebration headed to Allianz Field this week, the league's deputy commissioner and early architect, Mark Abbott, returned to the St. Paul suburbs on Sunday for a homecoming.
It is 50 years to the very week that 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 growing sport Americans called soccer.
"It was on the rise, affordable, anybody can play it," Mark Abbott said, "and my father had an English accent."
Seventeen players responded, including 10-year-old Mark.
It was the start of his unlikely life in soccer that included a day spent as a Minnesota Kicks ball boy in the 1970s and traces the arc of a fledgling MLS. The league started planning with one employee officed in a closet, and he was it.
"It's not a metaphor," Abbott said. "I had this little, tiny desk and a folding chair."
A league that nearly went bankrupt in 2001 will add its 29th team next season.
The league will celebrate growth in soccer's international marketplace that Abbott calls "astonishing" by playing its annual MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday. A sellout crowd of nearly 20,000 fans is expected in Minnesota's first chance to host the event.
On Sunday, MLS honored Abbott's nearly 30 years' work by rededicating Fred Abbott Field in his father's memory at Hazelwood Park in Maplewood.
After graduating from Tartan High School in 1982, Mark Abbott left Minnesota for Georgetown University and then a University of California, Berkeley, law degree. He drifted from the game until he was hired by a prestigious Los Angeles law firm in 1992.
There he worked on non-soccer matters with sports attorney Alan Rothenberg, the commissioner of soccer for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and CEO of the 1994 World Cup organizing committee.
Soccer's governing body, FIFA, awarded the United States the World Cup, intending that a new top-tier American league soon would follow. By that point, it had been a decade since the once popular North American Soccer League, featuring the Minnesota Kicks, had folded.
Sitting in another lawyer's office one day, Abbott overheard Rothenberg ask by speakerphone who could write a business plan for this new promised league.
Abbott ran out the door, down four flights of stairs, into Rothenberg's office and said he'd do it.
"He said, 'Do what?' " Abbott said.
A new plan
Abbott wrote much of the league's innovative business plan when he was a young lawyer who took a leave of absence from his L.A. firm.
"It was supposed to be three months, and now I've been gone nearly 30 years," he said.
World Cup games sold out stadiums before group pairings were announced, which foreshadowed its popularity. Some 400 people worked to organize the World Cup while Abbott initially was the only one planning for a new league he was convinced could work.
Abbott said he believed because of the grassroots success he'd seen in those St. Paul suburbs two decades earlier. A generation of American players had developed, and cable television's arrival made sports more accessible.
"By 1993, the world had changed," Abbott said. "I just really felt the time was right for professional soccer here, given the World Cup was coming. I had planned to be a lawyer for my entire career. But I was 28, and I just thought it was a tremendous opportunity."
Abbott calls himself a "project manager" for that 69-page business plan with addendums that's now yellowed but still on a shelf behind his desk at home in Connecticut.
As others were hired, Abbott's group consulted an eclectic collection of experts — American Football League founder and soccer supporter Lamar Hunt, Nike's Phil Knight and diplomat Henry Kissinger among them — on soccer, 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 are owned by the league. It's a structure Abbott said "really recognized the reality of professional sports, which is, you're a business partnership off the field and competitors on the field."
The high-school kid who quoted philosopher Nietzsche in a graduation speech the same year the Kicks folded often told classmates and teammates how the NASL erred and pro soccer should be popular in the United States.
"He'd go on and on about salary caps and revenue sharing," said fellow Tartan student-council member George Yoshida, now a 3M global portfolio director. "He had such vision, and I just dismissed it. I'd tell him we're not a soccer 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 remain on as a consultant.
Before he goes, he has seen the league ride the wake of that very lucrative 1994 World Cup. He has overseen its expansion efforts from the beginning, 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 started play in 2017 not too far from Abbott's childhood home. Charlotte, N.C., paid $325 million to enter this season.
Human and humble
Loons managing partner Bill McGuire said he couldn't say what would or wouldn't have happened without Abbott's vision.
"As designed, it contributed to growth," McGuire said. "You'd be hard-pressed to say you could accomplish what has been accomplished without it because it contributed to some stability, some balance in competition. It allowed you to bring cities together from different-sized markets and different dynamics."
McGuire called Abbott "very human, very humble, very approachable" and a "good person who can be proud of what has been accomplished."
"It's unusual for someone to start at the inception of something and see it through like this," McGuire said. "I doubt they expected it would be that way, and he probably didn't know it would be, either. I'm sure there's a satisfaction seeing something grow and develop in a long plan you had."
Abbott calls Sunday's rededication ceremony honoring his father — a lifelong 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 serendipitous.
"It began for me in Minnesota and essentially comes to a close for me in Minnesota," he said. "My dad started this thing with 33 kids, and now we have this booming professional league, including this incredible team in this incredible stadium in Minnesota. It's amazing to look back on, what has happened here.
"I couldn't be more excited or more proud."