Soccer: The New American Pastime

The Houston Dynamo is restructuring how it operates, and club president Chris Canetti says soccer is well on its way to becoming America’s new favorite sport

Chris Canetti, The Houston Dynamo

In many families, favorite sports teams are decided long before the children make an appearance on planet Earth. Fans are not made; they are born. Like any other familial tradition, a love of the Yankees or the Red Sox is often ingrained, passed down through generations. This is something Chris Canetti understands deeply. As president for the Houston Dynamo, Canetti has a difficult task: creating lifelong fans for an emerging team in a sport still finding its footing in American culture.

Familial traditions aren’t helping Major League Soccer (MLS) much. The growing popularity of MLS has been decades in the making, but it has nowhere near the fan base of the NFL or the NBA. Still, make no mistake: soccer is thriving. One needs only to look at viewership of the 2014 World Cup to verify this—the World Cup was the most-streamed sporting event in the United States. Part of Canetti’s job is figuring out how to translate this once-every-four-year fascination into a year-round passion, developing interest in his American club, as opposed to just the American team.

“we have long workdays; we work nights and weekends. There can be a lot of stress and emotions run high.”

“Soccer is a fast-growing sport, but the Dynamo has been around for less than nine years,” Canetti says. “It goes without saying that building a fan base is hard. It takes a generation or more, and our existing fan base is the first generation. But we’re already seeing the shift. A lot of our fans grew up with the sport of soccer, but their kids are growing up with us.”

It’s a special time for the Houston Dynamo. Since the club’s inception, Dominic Kinnear has held dual roles as Dynamo coach and general manager, but when he announced his departure in October 2014, Canetti decided to split these responsibilities into two distinct roles. In the months since, Matt Jordan has been hired as the team’s new vice president and general manager, and Owen Coyle has been hired as the team’s new head coach.

“As we continue to grow and evolve as an organization, sharing the duties of GM and head coach seemed like too much for one person,” Canetti says. “It’s just not the best way forward for us anymore. The GM is like the CEO of the soccer operations. The coach needs to be solely responsible for managing the team.”

Canetti took eight weeks to find the right coach. He says the Dynamo received at least a hundred applications from around the world, a bulk of them “high-quality candidates.” He hired Coyle, a former English Premier League coach, after a thorough process. The challenge, Canetti says, was finding the right fit, a person of strong moral character; an open-minded person with excellent people-management skills; a coach that knows the ins and outs of the game and who isn’t afraid to use technology; someone who understands the importance of using data, scouting, and being strategic.

“We were looking for someone who is on board with our broader vision for the club,” Canetti says. “Of course he had to meet our qualifications, but at the end of the day, it’s about chemistry. We have long workdays; we work nights and weekends. There can be a lot of stress, and emotions run high. We wanted someone we can go to battle with.”

Personally, 2014 has been a meaningful year for Canetti, who joined the Dynamo in 2006 and became president in 2010. He’s come a long way from his humble beginnings. He began his career as a young, bright-eyed kid who would drive hundreds of miles to press conferences to personally hand his résumé to team presidents and general managers. After knocking on enough doors, Canetti eventually got his start in the professional sports business as the clubhouse manager for the New Haven Ravens, a Double-A minor league baseball affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. The job was less than glamorous: for $400 a month, he washed uniforms and cleaned the locker room. “It was the bottom of the totem pole, but I saw it as a foot in the door. I took the job at twenty-three. I remember thinking, ‘If this is all they’ll give, I’ll take it. I’ll show them,’” Canetti says with a laugh.

He moved up the ladder quickly, making history by becoming the youngest general manager in baseball at the age of twenty-six. Canetti’s career is still on the rise. In November 2014, it was announced he would take charge of BBVA Compass Stadium, the 22,039-seat stadium considered home base by the Dynamo.

The Houston Dynamo expanded the stadium’s senior management team from two to five people, and like many other recent developments for the organization, it is an important shift. “We’re creating a collective entity instead of silos,” Canetti says. “Overall, we’re trying to have a more unified team that is working to achieve our goals. It’s a shift in philosophy and maybe even a cultural shift. It’s an exciting time.”