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Professional Jan 20, 2012

PSW Q&A: Silver Spring, Md.’s Will Kuhns spearheads MLS Communications Dept.

By Charles Boehm

Media coverage of Major League Soccer has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, with the league’s steady expansion and growing legions of committed fans forcing more and more outlets to pay attention to both MLS and soccer in general.

But behind the scenes, there’s a host of people whose full-time job is to help those journalists do their jobs, and one of the most important figures in that process is Will Kuhns, the Silver Spring, Md. native who serves as the league’s Director of Communications.

A graduate of the University of Maryland and DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., Kuhns grew up playing soccer and worked for SoccerAmerica, the Washington Post and other D.C.-area print publications before joining MLS six years ago. Having honed his Spanish skills on a Fulbright scholarship in Argentina, he is the primary point of contact for national media and a “spokesperson for soccer issues,” to use the league’s official phrase.

Kuhns graciously spared some of his time to chat with Potomac Soccer Wire in the lead-up to the MLS SuperDraft during the NSCAA Convention in Kansas City last week, sharing his own background in the game and even offering his hometown’s soccer fans a few reasons for hope in their long-running quest for a new stadium for D.C. United.

PSW: Could you talk a bit about your own background in the game, and what led you to your current position?

WK: I did the whole club soccer route when I was a kid, I think I played in MSI for the first eight years or so, then transferred over to what they call travel soccer now and played for a couple different clubs: Bethesda, Olney, Potomac, and really enjoyed it. Soccer was a big part of my upbringing…my next-door neighbor happened to be an Italian-American whose son was my age, and he just got us into it. We played every sport and I played organized football and basketball up until about fourth or fifth grade, but soccer just took over at that point.

Certainly, watching D.C. United in those first couple of years was inspiring as well, because they came out of the gate really strong from a fan perspective…One of the things that I’m always reminding media members is that the fan culture we see in Portland, Seattle, Toronto, is that is has roots, it has an antecedent, and that’s in D.C.

Obviously Chicago came along and did it really well, too. But when we think about supporters’ clubs today, I think a lot of it goes back to D.C. United ’96, ’97, ’98, when they were really leading the pack in that category.

At the league office and as a journalist, you have to be neutral, so I don’t really care which team wins and loses, but I do, sort of as an organization, look out for D.C. United because I know so many people in the area and know a lot of people in the organization.

PSW: Could you offer some advice for those considering a career in the sport?

WK: Sure. There’s a lot of opportunities, there’s a lot of different types of jobs that you can do in soccer, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that. They think that if they’re not playing or they’re not a coach, it’s hard to be involved in the game. But that’s really not true, and I’m learning more and more about those other opportunities as I work at the league office. Obviously media and journalism was my focus and what I wanted to do, but you can take anything that you want to do or you’re good at, and apply it to soccer…Figure out what you’re good at, get even better at it, and figure out how to apply it to soccer.

PSW: Having the draft and the NSCAA Convention here in KC has highlighted the positive transformation of a market that was once considered terminally inhospitable to soccer. With United struggling financially at RFK Stadium and considering relocation, do you worry that Washington, D.C. could slip in the other direction?

WK: I have similar fears, but I also think that MLS and the club leadership are very smart, and they’re not going to let a good thing die. I think we all know [United president] Kevin Payne’s passion and we all know [owner] Will Chang’s passion for the game and for the club. It’s tough, it’s tough to watch them not be able to get over certain hurdles in terms of the stadium. But I believe that there’s an almost hibernating, larger fanbase than the one you’re seeing at D.C. United games today. So many people have been to a D.C. United game in the area and enjoyed it, and missed those glory days. All it takes is one really good season and you’ll find a lot of them flocking back in. I hope the fans that are sticking through it welcome them back in when that happens.

On the business and political side, it’s tough for a fan. Things move at such a glacial pace with things like stadiums that it’s not surprising to me people get impatient. But in my six years at MLS I’ve seen a little bit of the back-room side of it, what’s actually going on in the conversations and how quickly things can go from bad to good. On the one hand, it’s not likely to happen like that, but on the other hand we’ve seen it happen in other places, where nothing, nothing, nothing, no progress, no progress – no hope – and then all of a sudden there’s a breakthrough, whether that’s a new inversion of investment money or some sort of tax break that they didn’t think they were going to get, an elected official changes, a piece of land becomes available that wasn’t before.

PSW: Local fans are also pretty frustrated by the lack of news or information on the stadium hunt.

WK: I think D.C. United has been burned a little bit in the past by trying to be very transparent about the process, and educate fans…basically opponents have come out of the woodwork when they hear about it, and blocked their efforts. A lot of the time those things do happen behind the scenes, and they have to, because otherwise you jeopardize any chance of success until you know you have everything ready to go – similar to a player signing but just on a much more colossal scale.

These things take such a long time calendar-wise. We live in such an immediate-gratification world now, and stadium building is glacial. It’s just so slow, it’s frustrating.

PSW: There seems to be a lot of negativity among United fans these days. Could you offer them any reasons for optimism regarding a new stadium in the future?

WK: All they need to do is look at the other examples objectively, and realize that there’s so many reasons to believe that something will happen, despite the long wait, despite the near misses and expectations that haven’t panned out.