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Bonding Over “The Beautiful Game”

Two alumni turn their love for soccer into a job description.

Taped to the wall of a tiny midtown coffee shop is a signed snapshot of two high school-aged boys. Now men in their thirties, they are greeted like celebrities when they stop in on their way to their offices upstairs.

Friends since they started at Packer as First Graders in 1989, Jesse Perl ’02 and Will Kuntz ’02 have also, for the past four years, been colleagues at Major League Soccer, which oversees all the professional men’s teams in the U.S. and Canada.

Fluent in Spanish after a stint in Argentina, Jesse started at MLS as an intern, focusing on international communications. (He was hired by Ben Spencer ‘01, who was then working in MLS’s international communications department.) From there Jesse moved into fan development, partnership marketing, and brand and creative marketing, which he now leads. 

Will’s career in sports began during college, when he interned at the New York Yankees. After graduating, he was hired to the Yankees’ pro scouting department. A few years and a law degree later, he was running the department. 

Will moved from baseball to soccer for a variety of reasons. A New York Red Bulls season-ticket holder (“I sold you those tickets!” says Jesse), he had spent plenty of time hanging out and talking soccer with Jesse and his MLS colleagues after games. When MLS’s director of player relations left to become the general manager in Toronto, Will decided to apply. He has held that position since 2013.

Work-life balance was also a factor in his career move. “Baseball is a lot of hours. They play 162 games a year,” Will says. When he made the move to MLS, his friends saw [him] “more in those first four months than they had in the previous four years!”

Though only Jesse played soccer at Packer (Will — who is six foot five, played basketball), the two have in common a life-long love for “the beautiful game.”  

“At Packer, we were among a minority of people talking about soccer during lunch,” says Will. “During free periods, Jesse and I would run to my house, watch Champions League on TV, then run back to Packer for practice.” 

Somewhat sheepishly, they admit that they followed only European teams back then. 

In a fortuitous turn, their first direct exposure to Major League Soccer was through Packer. 

“The first MLS game I ever went to was with [then soccer coach] George Boutis. He took us and a bunch of other guys to see — was it the Metrostars?” 

“Yup, now the Red Bulls. They were playing in Giants Stadium,” says Will. 

“With football lines on the field. In an cavernous 80,000-seat stadium,” continues Jesse. 

“With fewer than 10,000 people watching!”

“You could sit wherever you wanted. And we’d never heard of anyone on the field except one Bolivian player on the other team, and we didn’t even know how we knew him.”

Just as readily as they finish each other sentences, the two are quick to point out that Major League Soccer has grown enormously in size and popularity since then. Today the Red Bulls play in a state-of-the-art stadium dedicated to soccer. Jesse calls it “one of the best in the world.”
 
“Our team in Seattle sells out all their home games now,” says Will.
 
Jesse adds Orlando and Portland to that list. “And we just had a playoff game at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal and sold out 60,000 seats,” he cites. “We’re getting past the NBA in terms of average attendance.”

Notably, a major factor in soccer’s growing popularity in the U.S. is a video game. 

“EA Sports FIFA is a huge, huge driver,” says Jesse. “A big reason why Will and I are the best buds that we are and are [both at MLS] are all the hours in our friendship that we’ve spent sitting around playing the video game.”

They have seen this growth in interest in soccer even at Packer. A few years back, Upper School English Teacher Eric Weisberg invited Will to sit in on a student debate on different sports models. “I was shocked by their command of the soccer world — MLS rules, European rules,” he says. “They were so beyond where we were at the time. Soccer is more of a common language today, and there’s more awareness that it’s the most popular sport in the world.”

They see the challenges and rewards of working for America’s “sports underdog” as two sides of the same coin.

Jesse’s responsibility at MLS is to increase the size of the fan base, both in attendance and in television audience. “That’s a tall order in a league office,” he says. “It’s different from, How do we increase the fans of an individual club?” 

Honing MLS’s marketing strategy has been critical. “We are more disciplined in having a focus, and resisting the temptation to go after [too many different demographics]. We’re about being a multicultural millennial brand. That’s what we consider our target.”

Will, who oversees players’ contracts and negotiations, also enjoys the international dimensions of his work. “Working on the collective bargaining agreement with our players’ union, dealing with international legal issues that pop up, signing and transferring players internationally — it’s a really interesting and welcome additional piece.”

Acknowledging the glaring difference between the money-is-no-object Yankees and the leaner MLS outfit, Will points out “surprising overlaps.”  

“What makes the Yankees so competitive is their obsession with efficiency. They spend at huge levels, but they’re just as focused on who their 25th man is — the second left-handed reliever, a guy you only use in an emergency — as they are [in their top players]. At MLS we’re exponentially increasing that same drive to efficiency.”

“Our league isn’t even the top league in the world,”  Will continues. “That speaks to the amount of interest and money in global soccer: you never really know what the best league or the best team is. In any given year, the Spanish league might be way up, or the German league. There is so much player movement and money in Europe. As a 20-year-old company, we don’t try to compete with them, but we do try to learn from what they’ve done over the past 100 years. And we’re really starting to get to that point [of acceleration] in the curve.”

Sitting in the Belle Alenick Baier Atrium — a space that was merely the air above an outdoor basketball court when they were students — Jesse and Will address the expansion that Packer has undergone since 2002. 

“During our time here, the secret wasn’t out. Sure, Packer was always a selective prep school in Brooklyn, but we were kind of small and kept to ourselves. An element that is different now is that Packer isn’t so small any more,” Will says, gesturing behind him to the Student Center and the Middle School, which opened in 2003.

“Every time I come back,” he continues, “I run into Mr. Weisberg, Mr. Boutis, or Mr. Riggio. The soul of Packer is still here, even if the [size] is a little different. It’s that nurturing atmosphere and the freedom to speak your mind about different topics without being castigated for it. [Those values] are as important now as ever.”

Will reports seeing Packer more regularly on the resumes of MLS job candidates. He even hired a fellow Pelican, Matthew Ratajczak ’09, to his department at MLS last year. “There’s no doubt that Packer is a market quality, and not just quality of work ethic but quality of person and quality of thought. That’s what Packer is about, and I think it’s still very much the same.” 

Jesse agrees that Packer leaves a valuable mark on its graduates. “I really felt like, Kids here are nice. There was kindness and empathy. We got along. That’s a credit to the culture of the school. That’s how I came to see the Packer community and what I liked about Packer.”

How did Packer crystallize who they are today?

“I went through so much more change at Packer [than in college]. You’re exposed to so much here, so much diversity of thought. I was a much more finished product after Packer,” says Will. “At college, I saw people going through difficult issues and conversations — all things that we’d been exposed to since First Grade, the early Nineties. We did things like looking at Keith Haring drawings and talking about AIDS awareness. At college I realized that that was the first time these other kids  — and many of them were from elite schools — were exposed to these frank, dynamic conversations. To me, they were old hat.”

“At Packer you’re able to become a pretty well-rounded person. You felt nurtured and confident, able to pursue things — brass band like Will, or theater stuff like some of our friends,” says Jesse. “There’s a kind of emotional and intellectual maturity that Packer kids had, and probably still have, being a little bit more mature than some kids your age. You’d get to college, and between having a social life and getting your work done, there’s an importance balance that Packer prepared us for.” 

“When I think about us and our friends, Packer was kind of the center of gravity of the universe. It pulled you in closer towards those values and norms that Packer embodied. After Packer, we evolved more as individuals, but being there created a sense of stability. Packer has this way of pulling you all together toward the center.”  

“I’m not sure that gravitational pull has really dissipated,” counters Will. After attending an event at BAM recently, he walked a few blocks to The Prospect, the Fort Greene restaurant owned by classmate Alan Cooper ’02. 

Whom did he run into there but Jesse, who was catching up with Lincoln Restler ’02.

Will concludes: “We’re still crashing into each other.”

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