ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Edwards spreads the word as vice president of American federation
Albuquerque’s Mike Edwards has been to the ends of the earth and back.
He grew up wanting to become Mickey Mantle, but now follows the fortunes of a game most of the rest of the world calls football.
To his puzzlement, he has acquired the title of executive vice president of U.S. Soccer, an organization which is celebrating its 100th year of existence this month.
“I shake hands, kiss babies and go places where the president doesn’t want to go,” Edwards says.
Edwards’ real job, the job that actually pays him a salary, is at the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM).
But he has been this nation’s soccer veep since 2006. U.S. Soccer oversees everything from the pros to the kids. As one of only two national officers, he deals with rules compliance, reviews applications for those who want to own professional teams and goes to a lot of meetings. He’s also on the Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s (FIFA) disciplinary panel.
“Thank God for Skype and the Internet,” he says. “I can work remote trapped in a hotel.”
Edwards was in Chicago this week. Then it was off to Panama. He’s been to Frankfurt, Tokyo, Johannesburg and Dubai, to name just a few places he’s seen in the name of soccer. He was in Azerbaijan when he ruptured his quadriceps.
“I’ve got a pretty full passport,” Edwards says.
Edwards was sitting at his desk at PNM in 1980, minding his own business, when one of his co-workers approached him about joining the company soccer team.
“Soccer?” he said. “What the hell is that?”
Still, he joined. A year later, someone asked if he’d go to the adult league meetings. He had done it for softball, so he figured it was no big deal.
“Wrong,” he says.
He went and there was an election. Everyone sat stone-faced.
“I was dumb enough, so I said I’ll be the secretary,” Edwards says.
Great, they told him. You can be president.
And this kept happening to him. First locally, then at the state and regional level. Eventually he became a national figure.
“I have a penchant for finding jobs no one else wants,” says Edwards, whose term as U.S. Soccer VP ends in 2016.
Since discovering the world of soccer, he has studied the sport’s U.S. ebb and flow. He says during the first 70 years of the U.S. Soccer federation’s 100-year existence, the sport was sustained by “men playing soccer on the weekends.”
“What really set it off was the World Cup in 1994,” Edwards says of the event the United States hosted and set an average game attendance record of 69,000.
FIFA was stunned when the Rose Bowl was sold out three times for the 1984 Olympic soccer matches, which helped the U.S. win the World Cup bid.
“They realized there was business to be done here,” he says.
Edwards remembers when the only soccer on TV in Albuquerque was a 30-minute, German-only show on KNME.
“Now I’ve got three soccer-only channels,” he says. “And NBC has jumped into it. You can watch soccer 24 hours a day.”
However, he says, U.S. interest in soccer has not always translated to Major League Soccer.
“We still have a lot of work to do on professional soccer,” Edwards says. “But look at where we started. It was a struggle even to get equipment.”
He credits MLS owners, beginning with Lamar Hunt, who risked building soccer-specific stadiums.
“I’ve been to games in Seattle, and the Sounders have an experience unlike anything I’ve seen in American sports,” he says. “There are parades, fireworks. Portland, Vancouver, Kansas City, Houston. It’s crazy the fans they have there.”
At the youth level, he sees an interesting dynamic. Some clubs have a mission to win a state cup, which means playing a lot of games. Some kids are more interested in becoming professionals, which generally means less games and more training. And some kids just want to play.
New Mexico is surrounded by states with youth soccer academies sponsored by MLS teams.
“The quality is pretty good, particularly when you consider the limitations,” Edwards says of youth soccer in New Mexico. “You don’t have the high rollers in New Mexico youth soccer to be able to put teams into youth academies like the one in Phoenix. … There are less resources here.”
Edwards points to the men’s and women’s soccer programs at the University of New Mexico.
“Our shining star is our two UNM programs,” Edwards says.
U.S. college soccer is the second question he most often gets on his international trips (behind curiosity about the NFL).
“They’re stunned,” Edwards says. “Somebody pays you to go to college? In Europe, when you’re 10, 11, 12, somebody signs you to a pro contract. The idea of college sports is just mind-boggling to people.”
He says a South African official told him: “I don’t understand how you could let that go on. Stop that.”
U.S. soccer, and its unique brand on the game goes on. And so does Edwards, who has another plane to catch.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal