Weekend Interview: Whole new ball game as our man from Filey sets out star-spangled vision

Chris Wright's career has come full circle.

Yorkshireman Chris Wright is building a new MLS team in Minnesota.
Yorkshireman Chris Wright is building a new MLS team in Minnesota.

He has been involved in football as a player, coach and manager and has taken up most roles behind the scenes at boardroom level across the pond.

Now, after a quarter of a century working in the top level basketball league in the USA, the National Basketball Association (NBA), he is in his element helping steer a brand-new football team towards an American dream.

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Wright, born in Filey, assumed the role of chief executive at Minnesota United last year and is enjoying the challenge of establishing the club in the competitive market of Major League Soccer (MLS).

“I have had the experience of coaching the game, I’ve played the game and I’ve been involved upstairs in both soccer and basketball,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“So to be able to bring all of that back to a fledgling franchise and build it from scratch with owners that I truly respect – it’s incredible.”

Despite his long-standing work in basketball, Wright has always had a love and pure passion for football.

It was a love that first manifested itself when he was plying his trade as a young goalkeeper on the books of Hull City.

Wright admits that he was never destined to become a professional player unlike close pal Stuart Pearson, who was a school friend and who went on to represent England and Manchester United.

After playing for Hull in his youth Wright still follows the progress of the Tigers, but he also keeps a close eye on two other sides.

“I actually have three teams – Manchester United, Derby and Hull City,” he said.

“I follow United because of Stuart, who obviously played for the Red Devils.

“For a while I also owned a little piece of Derby County.

“I was part of an American group that ran them for almost seven years and so I still follow them daily – and of course I played for Hull so I still keep tabs on them.”

Wright quickly brushed off the disappointment of not making it as a player and made his next move into coaching.

That in turn led to management before a chance meeting threw up the opportunity to head to the States after he was offered the general manager’s role at a low-level football club.

“I did my coaching badges and eventually got them at 23,” said Wright.

“I then got a job coaching at Hitchin Town in the Isthmian League.

“In all of those years I started to come over to the States and coached a lot of academies and camps so I began to network on all those trips.

“Through that I got the job as GM of a soccer team.

“After six months the owner asked if I wanted to run the whole of the club.

“At that point I knew nothing about TV deals, corporate sales, PR, media etcetera. But he basically allowed me to run a professional sports business and from there my career took off.

“Eventually I found my way into the NBA as a vice-president and then ended up being the president of the men’s and women’s teams – I had a great run there.”

To many the jump from one sport to another could appear bold, but Wright’s career path shows he is not afraid to take on new challenges.

Indeed he impressed so much at the Minnesota Timberwolves that he was handed promotion after promotion.

Despite enjoying his role immensely he admits his eyes lit up when the club’s owners raised the prospect of creating a football franchise.

“I was at the Minnesota Timberwolves for 26 years where I rose to the position of president,” he said.

“When I went into the NBA it was very similar to soccer and there was a lot of sharing of best practices.

“That made it easy to take the business side of soccer into the business side of basketball

“Yes, I had to adapt to it, but at the same time I had an open mind. It’s amazing how quickly you can adapt to the fact it’s a different sport.

“While I was there I had many, many conversations with different people about how the game of football was growing here and in Europe.

“The club then applied to have an extension team called Minnesota United and after they launched the franchise I was approached by the owners.

“They felt they needed an experienced CEO who had been in sports, knew this market and knew the game to help them with their vision for the team.

“I decided this was a great way for me, at the tail-end of my career, to be able to make such a large impact on the community by building a stadium, a team and a community in the beautiful game.”

Once he accepted the position Wright was quick to buy into United’s aims and ethos.

The club soon got to work on planning a football-specific 20,000-seater stadium and Allianz Field is due to open next March.

The 67-year-old adds: “It will be a soccer-specific stadium and there aren’t too many of those in the US.

“We want to host national team games here too.

“We feel that we will get the men’s and women’s national sides playing here.

“Our standpoint is that if the team is going to play in the north of the country it’s got to be here.

“We want to build a reputation.

“In terms of on the field we’re in the middle of a two-year plan that will build a team that will go out there and compete at the highest level of the MLS.

“We have aspirations of challenging for the MLS Cup and we’re adapting a South American style of play that moves the ball forward quickly.

“We’re trying to develop an exciting brand of football ready for the new stadium when it opens.

“We’re in the business of revitalising a complete area.”

Minnesota’s stadium will have been open for seven years when the 2026 World Cup takes place in the USA, Mexico and Canada.

Despite being too small to be considered as a host venue Wright says Minnesota have applied to be a host city for one of the teams in the build-up to the expanded 48-team competition.

He also believes that by the time that tournament comes around the USA will be seen as an established environment for the sport – and miles away from its reputation when it last hosted the world’s most prestigious event in 1994.

“We have bid to become a host stadium for a team as they train for their games,” he added.

“We’ve submitted a bid to be considered and, who knows, maybe Minnesota will be the place England base themselves for the 2026 World Cup.

“The last time the World Cup was here in 1994 it elevated the overall game and it was incredible.

“When people think of the MLS the majority of people will recognise the names such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney.

“But there’s also incredible talent coming here from other continents and I have to say that the standard of play is going through the roof.

“The MLS used to have a reputation where players would only go at the very tail-end of their careers.

“But I think we’ve gone away from that now.”