Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Timbers and Thorns, is the most vocal soccer owner in the United States—which made him a perfect guest for the latest Planet Fútbol Podcast.
Here are some of the standout quotes from the interview, which can be listened to in its entirety in the podcast console below and can also be downloaded on iTunes. Subscribe to our podcast here:
On his controversial Twitter persona, which got him noticed against last weekend (a couple days after the podcast interview) when Paulson went off on the officiating in Portland’s 3-2 MLS loss to Orlando:
“My stance is that it’s been a good tool on the whole. When I decided to get on Twitter, I could never do anything where I had people writing my tweets for me. That’s just not me. That’s not this organization. And I’m also somebody who likes to engage, and I’m probably not conflict-averse either. But I’ve also made mistakes on Twitter. I mean, there have been times where I have done something or said something that could be taken out of context that’s kind of kept me up at night. Or shot off a response where I’ve been more or less ticked off and regretted that. Doing anything in writing in the heat of the moment is not a good deal, and Twitter is so easy to do that with. So it’s taken some learning. Somebody gave me the advice, 'look, if you wrestle with pigs you’re going to get dirty.' And there’s some people I respond to that I probably shouldn’t and dignify. But at the same time I also, to the accessibility point, I don’t mind having some interaction with everybody. … I will say that when I’ve taken prolonged hiatuses from Twitter I have slept better.”
On any particular Twitter regrets he has:
“The Timbers Army thing after CONCACAF, after we got beaten at Olimpio in Honduras, where we were taking that game extremely seriously. We put a great lineup out on the field when we had a meaningful game against Dallas coming up in a few days. Whoever was running the Timbers Army official account, which represents them, took all sorts of shots at our GM and our coach … I think I said STFU. You know, Stand Together For Us, right? Then it’s Merritt Paulson tells all his fans to shut the F up. And obviously that’s not a headline that I’m looking for. That’s not what I feel. To me, it’s who do you guys let run your account and put it out on … an account that’s supposed to represent a group. People get upset after results. I certainly do as well, and I get that. So that would be a very good example of one that I regret.”
On Miami FC owner and media magnate Riccardo Silva saying that he knows some MLS owners who would be in favor of adopting promotion and relegation in the United States.
“No, I don’t think that’s accurate. Everything that he does … Silva is clearly a savvy media guy, pushing out the whole media rights deal if we adopted promotion and relegation [for a $4 billion offer from MP & Silva] when he knew that was something that could never happen due to existing contracts with the current broadcasters. It’s all just I think a PR deal with him. When people buy into the league with the sense of what the structure is, that type of seismic change would be a pretty big deal. The idea that the U.S. men’s national team or the U.S. player pool would be better if we had promotion and relegation—which is an argument I hear some of the people in this pond that’s about an inch deep but makes a lot of noise and pushes for that—is also a complete farce in my mind.
“Promotion and relegation is a necessity when you have a non-parity league like so many of the leagues in Europe where you’ve only really got four teams who have a realistic chance—Leicester excluded, of course. Someone just has to realize that lightning struck when that happened. But in any normal year you’ve only got four teams who can win the league. Imagine how that feels for the other number of teams in La Liga or the EPL or Serie A or whatever it is. And so having that other element of drama I think is an important part of that league, an important part of the history. But in terms of adding pressure on the playing side and creating quality of players, I would disagree wholeheartedly that that’s something that has had any impact on the development of our player pools. We’re pushing the quality of this league forward pretty aggressively as it is without that.”
On whether Paulson considers himself a soccer expert:
“I do. But I’m an expert enough to know that I’ll never be a technical person. A good coach or GM will forget more about the nuts and bolts on the field than I’ll ever know. But I know I’m an expert enough to evaluate them, and I’m a lot more of an expert than the average person. I think the whole ‘I’m not a soccer guy’ cliché that sometimes you hear from people on the business side, look, if you’re running an MLS team and you say you’re not a soccer guy, that’s an issue. So I’m a soccer guy, and I’m definitely a soccer expert, but I’m not playing fantasy soccer and choosing a starting 11 and picking the 18 and deciding if we’re going to play in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-3 or whatever.”
On how his father, Hank Paulson—the former head of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Treasury Secretary—influenced Merritt as person and a businessman:
“Nobody has had a bigger influence in my life than he has. He’s my best friend. Growing up, I count myself unbelievably lucky to have him as the example. Everything from his work ethic, which is off the charts, and he always preached it’s not necessarily the smartest person who succeeds, but it’s the one who works the hardest. He actually had me in high school working construction sites in downtown Chicago. There was a guy who worked with him whose family had a construction business. And I was wearing a hardhat and running around and doing asbestos removal and working on loading docks and a whole bunch of other things. Which I absolutely hated at the time. I thought it was cruel and unusual punishment.”
“But I look back on some of the most formative experiences that I’ve had. And he’s always had a candor to him. When he was an investment banker, he wasn’t a guy in a flashy suit. Far from it. He never really cared what people thought, but he was extremely candid and would tell CEOs things that other people might be afraid to tell them. There are elements of that that I think have influenced me. I certainly wish I didn’t care what people thought to the extent that he does—that confidence in his own skin is something I might not have to the extent that he does.”
“He’s actually the majority owner of the team as well. I have a significant percentage now that I’ve accrued with time of ownership interest in the Timbers and the Thorns. But all decisions ultimately go through him. I don’t think that probably gets talked about that much. And he’s an unbelievable soccer fan, he and my mom. They don’t miss any games. And that’s been an interesting process as well. Early on it was a lot more about the business stuff, and now what he cares about is winning more than anything else. He was an All-American football player and wrestler, and all he watches is soccer now.”