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Ninety Minutes With Craig Tornberg

The New England Revolution’s New General Manager Settles Into His New Role

by Michael Jones

February 10, 2004 - Craig Tornberg regrets that he has lost touch with the soccer world since he became General Manager of the New England Revolution. He used to have time to watch several international matches a week and keep up-to-date with all the happenings of the Champions League, the English Premiership and any number of other foreign leagues.

"I'm as passionate a soccer fan as there is," he says. "I used to pride myself on the number of games I used to catch up with. That's probably been one of the disappointing parts. I've lost some touch, I have to turn off the television and miss a Champions League match. But on the other hand I also know the reality of what we're faced with over here."

What he is faced with is a job description that has far less to do with soccer, and more to do with marketing and operational issues than a similar position might entail in any number of soccer-loving nations he could name. Yet Tornberg’s new job is one for which he is uniquely qualified, having worked for both the Revs and the Miami Fusion in various capacities since the league was launched in 1995. And his appointment has come as a relief to many Revs fans who have fretted about a perceived lack of soccer knowledge that the powers that be at Gillette Stadium seem to possess. Tornberg dismisses, however, the notion that there has ever been any lack of soccer focus since his predecessor, Todd Smith resigned in September of 2002.

“I don’t think the (GM’s position) has ever been vacant,” he says. “In title, yes, but I think there’s always been a soccer presence within the organization and I think that’s probably a misnomer during the restructuring of whether there was anybody paying attention to the soccer or not.”

That may be hard to believe for soccer fans who are used to attending a stadium where it is hard to discern that a soccer team even plays there. A cursory glance around Gillette Stadium on a Revs match day will reveal no soccer banners, no obvious mention of the Revolution, and an atmosphere that makes the average soccer fan feel like a gatecrasher at a football party. Tornberg recognizes the problem but sees the solution being primarily in the hands of the fans.

“We haven’t been able to stamp out culture inside the building yet and we fight that fight all the time. And it’s not really a fight, it’s just a matter of us getting to a point where our business is so meaningful in the overall scope of 365 days that it’s going to leave its indelible mark. We’d all love to have it already but, unlike some people, I’m willing to roll up the sleeves and see to it that it happens over the correct period of time, whatever period of time that is, where it’s a meaningful viable business.”

If that sounds like a dig, it may well be. Internet message boards have been buzzing over the last year or more with complaints about the lack of attention the Kraft family and their minions have paid to the Revs in comparison with the other team they own, the New England Patriots of the NFL. Some fans have chosen to stay away in protest at what they see as a slight to their favorite sport. Tornberg admits to being baffled at the attitude of some fans who claim to be die hard soccer fans, but who refuse to show up to Revolution games. He also sees their absence as being counter-productive.

“The fans want to be heard and taken as a serious component,” he acknowledges. “What they need to do, in my opinion, to be that component is to turn up and to make sure they multiply themselves, and then they will be a force to be reckoned with. Soccer fans coming to the stadium will have to ultimately come out in sufficient numbers throughout the country to make sure their voice is heard.”

Craig Tornberg and Jonathan Kraft
Tornberg (left) may not have the power of a traditional GM, but he does have the ear of Revs owner Jonathan Kraft

And that, in a nutshell is Tornberg’s job. Get fans to the stadium in sufficient numbers that any talk of the Kraft family neglecting the Revs in favor of their more illustrious ‘big brothers’ from the NFL becomes moot.

Tornberg is originally from Los Angeles, but a stint in Costa Rica early in his career cemented in him a passion for soccer, and particularly for the Costa Rican club side Deportivo Saprissa. He first became involved with promoting the sport in New England in 1991, when the US Men’s National team played Ireland at Foxboro Stadium as part of the World Series of Soccer. The US had already been tapped to host the 1994 World Cup by that time, and Boston business leaders, prodded by Foxboro Stadium’s General Manager Brian O’Donovan, were making a claim for Beantown to become one of the host cities. Additional stints promoting US Cup games between Ireland and Italy in 1992 and the US and England in 1993 helped Tornberg land a job when did Foxboro become a World Cup site in 1994. In 1995, he was Foxboro Stadium Venue Manager for the US Cup, and he joined the Revs as a ticket rep that same year, at the inception of Major League Soccer.

Apart from a brief stint with the ill-fated Miami Fusion in 1998, he’s been with the team ever since. In an industry that is known for staff turnover, he has been one of the few constants, and over the years he has established a reputation among fans as one who will “go the extra mile” to address fan concerns and as the “go-to guy” within the Revs organization. His seniority made him a particularly valuable resource early in 2002 when his boss, former Revs GM Todd Smith, was diagnosed with leukemia.

“It was only natural because I had the amount of time, the experience and the age, that several of the staff looked at me and said, ‘you’re an individual we’re going to turn to for answers,’ ” he recalls. “Here we were in a changeover from Walpole, Massachusetts coming into Gillette Stadium, this $350 million building, with a brand new season and a brand new look. During that time frame we were all just trying to push forward and continue our identity and make progress, all while having a leader who was struggling and going through a personal battle. And everybody showed a certain level of leadership, I think.”

Yet Tornberg showed more than most and was ‘saved’ when a dramatic restructuring of operations cost most of the soccer operations staff their jobs at the end of the 2002 season. He jokes now that he is almost condemned in the eyes of some fans because he survived the blood letting. But he was not surprised to see the ax fall, and on some level, even agreed that drastic measures needed to be taken.

“The soccer business going back a few years was not really working,” he admits. “At the professional level it wasn’t working. It was quite obvious that we didn’t have a business that was going to be secure. When a business is in that kind of shape, they either wipe out the entire front office, they fire a head coach to shake things up, or they let go of the manager in charge. I’ve seen that situation in sports before. So I wasn’t entirely surprised that there would be that kind of a shakeup.

“It wasn’t an easy determination, but any of us who were living through the preceding year before that, and the three years before that, and the five years before that, and saw where the business was going, knew truly that it needed to change. And you know, it’s funny, people say, ‘yeah, it needs to change, it needs to change,’ but as soon as you come up with a radical change, then the first thing somebody say is, ‘Oh my God, well, I didn’t mean that, I meant change from just a tiny bit off center.’ ”

The restructuring coincided with the final decision by Todd Smith that he needed to devote himself full-time to fighting his illness. Tornberg may have seemed like a natural successor, but instead, a collaborative system was set up involving Patriots business manager Lou Imbriano, Managing Director of Kraft Soccer Sunil Gulati and Tornberg, whose title as Assistant General Manager implied that football people were now going to be running the soccer show. But Tornberg bristles at the fans’ notion that soccer has been neglected since Smith’s resignation.

“There’s no question about it. The role of the General Manager has taken on an unusual structure here,” he acknowledges. “It had impact from Lou, on the operational and the business side of things, but it also had a tremendous influence from Sunil weighing in strongly on the soccer side of things. It’s not like we had this shift where all of a sudden nobody was paying attention to the soccer things. I don’t think you create a team that comes within a goal of winning a championship because nobody’s paying attention to soccer things.”

Tornberg gives great credit to the coaching staff of Steve Nicol for the turnaround in on-field fortunes of the team. And he acknowledges that the challenge now is to build on that to build the Revs attendance. But to observers who cite declining attendance as a sign that the franchise is headed in the wrong direction, Tornberg insists that the current method of ticket distribution is better in the long-run than the short term tactic of filling the stadium that was employed in the past.

“We’re not distributing the tickets that were distributed in the past,” he explains. “We are selling tickets. We’re careful as to the final areas that those tickets are going to end up in that there are actual dollars and cents that are reflected. I think in the long run it’s going to pay dividends.”

To build attendance he is going back to his ticketing roots and re-establishing ties to the youth soccer community that he admits have been neglected in recent years.

“Some of the relationships we have with the clubs are eight years strong, it’s just brilliant, but there’s no question that, because it was very easy at the time to be able to just pick up the phone, (others are less so). I know from being involved with ticketing that you’ve got to be out there, you’ve got to be face to face. And because of some of the changes, I think we needed to retrench, but now we’ve got to really get back out there. And we have to do it not only with ourselves internally, but we rely so much on people who are equally passionate within those clubs.”

Tornberg expects that in a small way the Revs may be the beneficiaries of the recent demise of the WUSA. Certainly there were group accounts that used to regularly attend Revs games who were siphoned off over the past three years by the Breakers.

“We never really lost that market,” he says. “They came, they just didn’t come as often. A club that might have come twice as a group or a team four years ago was only coming once after the WUSA (was launched). So maybe they went twice to WUSA games and they went once to a Revs game. Or they timed it for when we had double headers.”

In addition to the youth market, he also cites partnerships with area pubs as a means of attracting die-hard, impassioned soccer fans who seem satisfied to watch television broadcasts of Liverpool vs Newcastle rather that attend a Revs game. And he is committed to building what he calls the Revs’ walk-up attendance among latino and hispanic fans. “I think you’re going to see an announcement very soon that’s going to be very exciting for that market,” he says tantalizingly. But he is also skeptical of the overall strategy of bringing in marquee players that appeal to a particular soccer demographic.

“When we first got started I think it was everybody’s desire to have their soccer hero play here. I remember Ally McCoist from one market, and somebody else wanted Luis Hernandez or (Claudio) Caniggia. So you always had these soccer stars that everybody in their mind said, and if you bring Rui Costa then we’ll all turn up. We will come in droves if you bring that star.

“I think what people are going to realize is that this, in the long run, is beyond one star coming from the country of choice. It’s got to be more than that, especially here. What it means to somebody who is a Portuguese American in New Bedford, who loves Benfica or Sporting or Porto, is there’s a far greater chance that their son will be playing in MLS than for Porto, or Benfica. There’s a greater chance that that child will cut their teeth as an intern with us than with Benfica or Sporting or Porto. That should be how a person views what we represent. Our league is home. MLS is home.”

Few can question the passion with which Tornberg tackles his new job, nor his devotion to the Revs. Yet that passion is tempered by the fact that he does not wield the power of a typical MLS General Manager. When I asked the hypothetical question of whether it would be his decision to retain or dismiss the coach should the team fall to a 0-10 start, he implied that any such decision would be made jointly by the Imbriano/Gulati/Tornberg “committee” he described earlier. And he made clear that, although he planned to travel down to Charlotte for the MLS SuperDraft, all soccer-related decision would be made by the coaching staff.

And yet I did not come away with the impression that Tornberg is merely a figurehead either. His long years of experience in the soccer market make him far too valuable an asset for that. Whether his power-base will evolve as he settles in to his new role remains to be seen, but Tornberg for one, has no illusions about the magnitude of the job that faces him.

“Someone asked me the other day if I had reached the pinnacle in being named General Manager of the New England Revolution that I love, and I’ll just say this. If somebody told you that you were going to be the General Manager of a team that had never won a championship and was losing money, That’s a hell of a thing to put on your resume. So I can’t say that I’ve reached a pinnacle.

“We haven’t even come close to what I envision the stadium is going to be like for soccer in years to come,” he says. “And that vision hasn’t changed for me from years ago when we were all just dreaming about having something like this. There will be something that’s very measurable for our fans seeing our progress from where we are today to where we will be tomorrow.”

Tornberg seems to be settling in for the long haul, which will come as welcome news for a front office that has been unsettled, to say the least, since O’Donovan resigned. And Tornberg insists that, despite rumors to the contrary, the ownership is taking a long-term view, as well.

“The Krafts are unbelievable sports people, and I’ve heard them speak to the boys in the locker room. At the end of the day, they want a championship like they can taste it, and they’d love it for soccer as much as they love it for football.”

As I readied to leave his office, I asked Tornberg how his job had changed since he was promoted from Assistant General Manager to General Manager. His answer seemed typical for someone who has always been the Rev’s go-to guy for fans’ concerns.

“I’m not changing just because I got a new title,” he told me. “I’ve had six of them since I came here. I’m not going to change how I am or how I relate with people. And if anyone does notice a change, call my cell.”

Return from Craig Tornberg to February 2004 Archive

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