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"Past, Present, and Future: The Journey of American Soccer"

Part III of the Original Series

"Serving the City and Changing the World: A Conversation with Mark Geissbauer"

When most people think of American soccer, they think of Major League Soccer (MLS). MLS is attractive to both casual and hardcore fans because of their internationally recognized star players and some of the best young talent in the world. However, some of the best soccer here in the U.S. and Canada is played on fields manned by USL (United Soccer League) teams. The USL and its success are best measured by the performance of its teams in the CONCACAF Champions' League.

To gain a perspective unique to the USL, we decided to speak with an executive from the Cleveland City Stars of the USL's 1st Division. Mark Geissbauer currently serves as General Manager of the team, but is more than that. He has been described as "one of the hardest working executives in the soccer business.  He is dedicated beyond belief." More importantly he is called "a true friend" and a man with "an insatiable passion for excellence."

Mark literally has a world of experience. Mark was the General Manager for the Cascade Surge of the PDL during their 2004 and 2005 seasons, leading the team to a PDL Championship in both 2004 and 2005. The USL honored Geissbauer as PDL Executive of the Year in 2005 and USL-2 Executive of the Year in 2007. He was also involved in planning for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Geissbauer is a visible and vocal spokesman for the team and more importantly Ohio's best example of a soccer ambassador. Geissbauer, along with other front office staff and players, is trying to build a tradition of excellence fused with a sense of community and service. His dream is to build a culture where soccer will continue to thrive for decades and generations to come. Geissbauer hopes to return to Cleveland in 50 years and find great, entertaining soccer thriving in the city. There are many challenges to this goal, but the City Stars as an organization are up to the challenge. The City Stars have already made a successful transition from USL-2 to USL-1. They have acquired the rights to play in a new stadium and have hired a new coach. The club is now building a foundation of passionate fans that will surely increase over the years.

However, there is no shortage of obstacles for the City Stars and the USL in general. The City Stars operate in strong sport market with a great deal of competition like the Cavaliers (NBA), Browns (NFL), and the Indians (MLB). The USL keeps losing its best teams (Vancouver, Portland) as well because of MLS expansion. The loss of these two clubs takes the West Coast out of the USL.

The roster was completely reworked since last season, but talent from all over the world was brought in. Geissbauer and the City Stars have extensive international contacts, perhaps the largest "list" in the USL or even MLS. They often know about players other teams don't; this discovery process is crucial to their future. USL teams do not have millions to invest in a single player like European clubs or even Designated Player allocations like MLS. USL teams could spend large amounts of money if they had it because there is no salary cap and little regulation. Geissbauer sees the USL and MLS working closely together some day. The City Stars have already partnered with the Columbus Crew of MLS. The best role of USL might be acting as a feeder system for MLS. He is not the first to suggest this.

Geissbauer strongly believes that an organization should invest in its people. He looks out for his staff and his players in every way. The player's best interests are always put first and this has led to a comfortable environment where players want to be. The team owns the rights to its players and often negotiates directly with players. Geissbauer has been known to even negotiate on a player's behalf to promote a successful player to other leagues around the world. The City Stars do have a high turnover rate as discussed earlier, but they see their former players develop in Asia, Europe, and Africa. This is much different than MLS where the league office holds a great deal of power in this area. Often MLS is criticized for keeping its players too long and out of the prominent leagues in Europe.

The American style of play was another important topic of discussion. Geissbauer describes American players as "athletes first" who are "fit and run like crazy." What they often lack is basic skills and are often victims of bad coaching. Foot skills come right away in a place like Brazil, but that is not the case here in the U.S. Our athletes must develop into soccer players and that takes time and patience. It can be hard to bring out talent.

In order to get a full understanding of the career of Mark Geissbauer, the assistance of David Irby was sought. Irby currently serves as President and Technical Director of the Cascade Surge. Irby is personally responsible for building a "launching pad" for the careers of Geissbauer, Dr. Aaron Tredway, and Martin Rennie. He shared his thoughts on Geissbauer's start in the soccer business:

"I met Mark Geissbauer in Maputo, Mozambique in October of 2003. We had been invited by the government of Sudan to bring a soccer team, which was called Ambassadors in Sport, on a "peace mission" to Sudan, in the midst of their civil war. Our team was comprised of players from several countries and three USL Teams (Cascade Surge, Charlotte Eagles, Minnesota Thunder). Aaron Tredway, who had traveled internationally with me previously and played for me at the Surge, recruited most of the team from his base in Cleveland. Mark, working for Anstoss zur Hoffnung (Kickoff to Hope) the Stuttgart, Germany based mission in Mozambique, heard we were coming to Africa and extended his stay in Mozambique to visit with us." 

"When we left Mozambique, Mark headed home to Germany, but before we left he invited all of us to come and visit him in Stuttgart.  I was the only one who took him up on the offer.  The following year I traveled to Stuttgart to work with him in soccer and his church. During that trip I invited Mark to come and be the General Manager of the Cascade Surge.  He came to Salem, and along with Aaron Tredway they were keys to building the two most successful Surge teams in history."

Note: Mark Geisssbauer announced his resignation from the Cleveland City Stars on June 6, 2009. It was received with great sadness by all the fans of the City Stars. However, Mark left behind a legacy of excellence and success that will continue for years to come. The flow of job offers have not been limited by any means. He has been offered a position as a consultant for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and as an executive in the German and Spanish leagues.

Part I-Peppe Pinton

Part II-Kevin Milliken

Part IV-Grant Wahl

Part V-Steve Bell

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Soccer is a Kick in the Grass