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Former Stoke City Technical Director Mark Cartwright on returning stateside to help USL graduate to the global stage

Mark Cartwright instantly strikes a rapport and it is no wonder the once lower-league goalkeeper has gone on to have a distinguished career as an agent, technical director and most recently as Sporting Director at the United Soccer League (USL).

A member of the Association of Sporting Directors, Cartwright was one of the early pioneers in the role within the English game and has utilised the Association to help peers and himself along the journey.

Speaking to Colm Hand, Cartwright outlined his career, hopes to  showcase and grow the USL, giving fans and ownerships a chance for some European style football in one of the most untapped markets globally.

It all started with a playing career with Cartwright most affiliated with Wrexham and a promotion with Brighton and Hove Albion.

‘My mum was English, my dad was Welsh and worked as a fireman so every time he got promoted, we moved around. We lived in the Cotswolds for a bit and then moved up to Cheshire which is probably the family home if I was to put a place on it.

‘Then I had a very nomadic footballing career, I was at Wrexham for a while and after that I had four or five clubs for shorter periods.  In total, I played in the lower leagues for about ten years which is a great achievement given how difficult it is to stay there for any sort of sustained period. Also on the club side, promotion with Brighton was different class.

‘I was also capped at Wales U21 level and also got to play in Europe courtesy of the Welsh Cup many years ago when I was at Wrexham.’ Cartwright said.

On top of a successful career in England, Cartwright went to America on a scholarship with the Florida Institute of Technology, gaining a business degree and later being inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2016 following a successful period with the Englishman in goals. Little did Cartwright know then that he would be returning to the Sunshine State in 2021.

‘I had done a university degree in America between my scholarship and turning professional, so when I finished playing a number of people came to me and said I was a clever lad and asked me to do their contracts. So eventually I evolved into becoming an agent. I did a little bit of coaching in Scotland too but I was more interested in planning and building someone’s career to as far as they could go based on their ability and what we could do together.’ Cartwright added.

The world of agents meant Cartwright started to build relationships with clubs and other stakeholders within the game and it was through this network that he ended up being approached by Stoke.

‘I enjoyed being an agent for a long time and it led me to being on the radar for Stoke. When they needed to completely change what was going on at the club, I had already taken them to Europe, I already had conversations about moving players out and bringing players in. I was probably an absolutely left-field curveball in terms of the industry as normally it was an academy director who would progress to technical director. But Stoke needed to build a scouting network and they didn’t have any contacts as at the time the club predominantly signed British players or those already in Britain.

‘My appointment probably surprised a few and there was a gentleman at the time called Alan Watson who was at Manchester City and was a great bloke and scout, jokingly texted me on the day saying, ‘it’s not very often you hear the words technical and Stoke City in the same sentence.’’ explained Cartwright.

After departing The Potters, Cartwright spent some time assisting the FA as a mentor and tutor before taking up his current role as Sporting Director over the USL. Once Cartwright seen the plans, it was an easy decision to relocate to Florida for him and most of the family.

‘I had been speaking to a Championship club in England and I was offered a role at an MLS club. But then when this one came up, and I looked at what it was doing, where it was going and the opportunities that were going to be opened up in the future, it really stood out for me.

‘So for me it was a no-brainer, for my kids, it was a no-brainer as they had been to Disneyworld and thought it was great that we would be going to Florida. My wife was happy to do it but wasn’t over the moon. But now over a year here, she is very happy. The kids are settled and it’s a good environment for us.’ Cartwright said.

With familiarity of the USL, it made the process easy for the former Stoke man. But with the lack of English and European media and public knowledge of the structures stateside limited, it is now one area Cartwright is hoping to address as he enters into his second year.

‘The USL despite what some may think is a sperate entity to the MLS, we are a standalone league and actually have a bigger footprint across the USA than the MLS. Most of our best players are now ending up in Europe with La Liga, Sweden, Denmark and France being very popular.

‘There was a really good partnership between us and the MLS when the USL was developing and the MLS needed to grow their young players. That has come to a natural end as our teams have evolved leading us to split from them. We are now in a position where we have a great opportunity to differentiate ourselves, rather than being in the shadows which is why people often think we act as a sort of feeder for them.

‘At the moment we have three leagues where we can look at promotion and relegation and look at aligning with the international calendar. These would all be a first for any professional league in the country and would help takes us away from people seeing us as a smaller MLS. The MLS is also a single entity where the league owns the players, whereas we are very much like the rest of the world with our clubs owning their players.

‘We are trying to distinguish ourselves so when individuals or clubs view the US, they will see both organisations with ours more aligned with the global footballing landscape. The demographics of football fans here, didn’t grow up watching the MLS, they grew up watching European football such as the Bundesliga, LaLiga, Premier League, Champions League etc… So European Football is massively ingrained into the football fans and that is where they want to go.

‘Kids are now thinking that if they sign for an MLS team, they could get blocked as they may go and get a designated player from overseas. So similar landscape to the Premier League where young players must decide if they should stay at a Liverpool for instance or go to a Coventry and get some really meaningful games, develop and then get the move from there. In the USL, we have a very good platform where some 16, 17, 18-year-old players who deserve to play, can get opportunities in front of crowds of up to 15,000.’ Cartwright explained.

In terms of league structure, the USL holds many traditional methods true and Cartwright sees the model as a bit of a hybrid. Traditional US caps and designations are not prevalent but as the league is in its formative years in terms of large-scale development, there are licencing and regulations to help ensure the growth is sustainable.

‘Stadiums are being developed and there is a figure of approximately $3bn being invested into them across the leagues. There is a big shift in the landscape here and it is only going to continue for the foreseeable future. With the MLS, they have stadiums which the federation can classify as league one. Our championship stadiums are classified as league two and division two as league three. We have all these different layers and until you have the stadiums reaching a certain capacity, you cannot get that league one status. So to compare to England, the MLS is the Premier League and we are the Championship, League One and League Two but they aren’t connected.

‘Like other leagues in the world, if one of our clubs has a good player and an MLS club wants them, they have to pay the relevant transfer fee and can’t just trade them. The USL also works incredibly closely with the teams to ensure they breakeven or are profitable. We don’t implement a salary cap but we have the option if a team is starting to go out of control, losing ridiculous amounts of money, we can cap them. We don’t have any of the other what you might call U S governance measures like game allocation money, transfer allocation money or designated players. It’s very much like any club anywhere else in the world in terms of how it’s run.’ Cartwright said.

With the MLS limited in size, the USL has growth nationwide and Cartwright is hoping to create community clubs with a tribal element to their supporter base. With the 2026 FIFA World Cup coming to the US, Canada and Mexico, there is a real opportunity to capitalise on the game which is already growing.

‘Given the value of the MLS clubs which are hitting $500-$600 million dollars, which is incredible in what they have done. Ours is more of a community club feel, and we want our fans to become almost tribal in nature. With the size of America, we see it as completely feasible to have two leagues when you contrast it to the size of Europe and number of leagues there. So that is where we are trying to take it.

‘It is still very early days and we are still having to fight hard to engage the fans as you still have basketball, baseball, American football here which are very popular. But I think football has overtaken baseball and is now the third most popular sport in the States, so it’s on an upwards trajectory.

‘Wherever the market is, given our spread, we will have a club. Statistically there is a boom in the game before any World Cup in a country and I think we have a very sustainable four-to-six-year period where we can really grow the league and take it to a completely different level to where it is at now. We have good owners, we have good people at the clubs who want to learn, who want to be more competitive and who want to get more involved in the global game rather than just a bubble that is America.

‘There are a small number of fans who are incredibly serious about the clubs but not to the degree of what I had seen during my time at Stoke where you could sell 25,000 season tickets with any hint of marketing. We still have to work at that here to get a smaller return but we are trying to get the person that’s sat on the fence to commit. Different environment, different demands and needs but it’s definitely growing and growing in the right the direction.’ added Cartwright.

Cartwright acknowledges that the project and growth will take time but with some positive responses from owners and clubs, the league is rowing in the right direction.

‘I think it’s a long-term project, youth development is one thing we are trying to do. Educating the clubs is another and you can’t hit them with everything at once, it’ll take time. We are looking at putting certain certifications in place in order to be in certain roles within the league. We are looking  into changing the calendar which is a difficult one as you have to close the calendar as it is now, have a break, then put something in place for a short-term season, before another break to be able to kick into a new campaign come July. These are all things which will take a number of years. But it is all about giving the people here the information so that they can understand and realize that it is a worthwhile journey.

‘So if you are in League One and you get promoted to our Championship, you might have to go from a 5,000-seater stadium to 10,000 for example. And clubs could get a waiver to allow them a year or two for instance to do it but you need to get that proof that it will be done. Certainly in a young and upcoming league like us, you need to have those types of measures in place, Otherwise it can all be hit or miss.’ noted Cartwright.

Cartwright was appointed to his first Technical Director which was with the aforementioned Stoke in 2012. During that period and since, the role has evolved but the perception has perhaps been slow to catch up.

‘When I was hired as a Technical Director Mike Rigg was probably in situ, Dan Ashworth too and certainly Nick Hammond was in place. The role was becoming more and more prevalent but fans still didn’t know what it was we did. Your role initially was around recruitment and the public perception of Sporting Director or Technical Director still remains transfer centric.

‘The role itself has however certainly evolved and it is far more encompassing and far more sophisticated than that. Those in the position have to have knowledge around medical, analytics, data, the intricacies of youth development. So that is how the role has really grown and developed and I think it’s a much bigger role than the public and indeed the media see.

‘I think the media perception in England can be a problem as they like the idea of the Head Coach or Manager running the club, rather than working hand-in-hand with the Chief Executive or Sporting Director. The next step for the role is to have more and more commercial understanding and maybe even be much more forward facing to the fans. Certainly over here, it’s more or less there as they see the need for a General Manager rather than a CEO or Sporting Director. The General Manager is the Sporting Director but also needs to have a knowledge of what the commercial side look like, what does ticketing look like etc. You’re basically the CEO of the football side, rather than overseeing one or two pockets.

‘The role is definitely become more strategic encompassing all aspects of the football business. Dan Ashworth and Stuart Webber for instance, brought in assistant Sporting Directors to be able to take certain things from their plate. The next generation of Sporting Directors are going to need a much broader business knowledge than the first generation probably did.’ added Cartwright.

Cartwright has also been a member of the Association of Sporting Directors and attributed some of the education and awareness to the work being done and global network of members.

‘The Association of Sporting Directors was formed where part of it is keeping people in a good network and knowing that you have someone to call if you need to have a conversation or sounding board, there are people there to help. It’s a massive plus for what everyone is doing because the role of a Sporting Director is by no means an easy job.

‘I think the perception is slowly starting to shift with the Association of Sporting Directors and the FA helping with that through what they are teaching on the courses and developing and educating Sporting Directors and coaches.’ Cartwright claimed.

For potential Sporting Directors looking at the American market, Cartwright sees a landscape that is playing catch up on the recruitment. The need to educate owners and stakeholders on what Sporting Directors do is an ongoing challenge. Cartwright has utilised the Association of Sporting Directors who have been working with leagues and football associations to deliver bespoke world leading education, workshops and seminars – in this case the association helped advise football leaders from the USL.

‘One area of growth will be the due diligence when it comes to recruitment of players for instance. The ULS and indeed the MLS are getting there but it’s not yet at the level of many European leagues.

‘Where the Association of Sporting Directors is invaluable for me – seeing who would be available, who would be interested etc.

‘Then again there is a huge degree of education needed over here to help get people better prepared to do a transfer, deal with agents and even dealing with some of the basic FIFA rules. So there is a massive education push we are looking to do out here. The Association of Sporting Directors can really help me in that sphere and they did so about three of four months ago. We put a webinar together about the role of a Sporting Director and I had every single owner, Chief Executive and General Manager from the league on that call listening to the likes of Mike Rigg, Stuart Webber, Dan Ashworth, Tony Asghar, Rich Hughes, Gregg Broughton, Damian Comolli and others just talking about the role and how they saw it. It was absolutely perfect and every one of the speakers reiterated the story that I am telling the ownership groups here on a weekly basis. So again it’s pushing up that desire, need and understanding of what a Sporting Director does. It was absolutely phenomenal.’ added Cartwright.

Cartwright is keen to help Sporting Directors and clubs alike as the USL grows. The pressures of English and European football can make America an attractive prospect for those looking to build something long-term.

‘What you will get out here as a Sporting Director is that you will finally have the opportunity to build something and do the job you are supposed to do. If you are working in the Premier League, Championship or whatever club you are at, Sporting Directors tend not to be given the opportunity to actually implement the plans, strategies and vision and see it through to fruition as the demands are so high.

‘I think what you have here, is the time to do what it is that as Sporting Director makes you satisfied and that is a huge pull. Mike Rigg and I used to speak about the spinning cogs – the CEO is on the slow cog; managers are on the fast one and initially the Sporting Director is on the slow one but it slowly transitions to the fast one. You don’t have that here; you are still on the slow cog and working towards something. Now that might change with promotion and relegation coming in, where it means that bit more to the fans and the owners.’ explained Cartwright.

The USL may just have the right man at the right time with their growth trajectory and Cartwrights experience creating an environment for the league to flourish. An exciting time for the game in the US and a fantastic opportunity for Sporting Directors to implement their vision and strategies in a different environment.

Article wrote by Colm Hand, student on the Football Industries MBA at the University of Liverpool

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