Last month Jordan Gardner discussed buying a team in Scandinavia with plans to develop American players. It seems that those plans have become more concrete and he and other American investors are in the process of buying FC Helsingor in the Danish first division. In an interview with Forbes’ Robert Kidd, Gardner gave details about why he selected the club and his plans for the future. He discusses that while it has struggled on the pitch (following being relegated from the Superliga last year, the club sits last in the table two points from safety) it has infrastructure, an academy, and commercial resources.
Assuming that the purchase goes though, the real work will begin to realize his goal of bringing American players to get them a foothold in Europe and strengthen the overall development of youth players. While Americans are again seeking opportunities in Europe and avoiding the path taken by the Soft Tattooed Millionaire generation that stayed in MLS or returned to the league, Gardner thinks he has a better way for those players to develop, telling Forbes:
“We’re seeing those players at a high rate coming to Europe but they’re coming to Europe in a very much piecemeal fashion. One player goes to Portugal, five go to different clubs in Germany - it’s not really a cohesive way that’s good for their development. I didn’t really understand why an American group wouldn’t come over and own a team where a lot of those players could land, be developed under that American mindset and ownership, and then move on to bigger clubs.”
This has been tried before in a much different form, under less than ideal circumstances, and in the United States with senior squad level players and not academy products. Think back to a time of short shorts, mullets, and Mr. Roboto when a struggling league was looking to grab headlines and try to revive what had been a popular and seemingly successful enterprise. In 1983 the NASL and US Soccer Federation joined forces to create Team America, basically the USMNT, as a club team. The idea was to get Americans more playing time in the league and become more competitive internationally. The result was a last place finish as the team dissolved at the end of what would be the second to last season for NASL version one.
Gardner has a lot more going for him than that struggling league. For one thing, he has experience as a club owner with stakes in Swansea City and Dundalk. For another, he seems to be focused on taking small steps to reach his goal rather than sinking a lot of money into the club to win now, even as the team sits in last place and risks again being relegated. His plan is to have younger players join the club’s youth academy and earn their place in the senior squad, saying “With us, we know who we are and what we’re going to be and that is a player development model, first and foremost.”
This would be a departure from the MLS model in the past where the league enticed USMNT players to the league with high paying (perhaps much to high paying) contracts to try and leverage the popularity of the national team to grow the league. With FC Helsingor, Gardner is setting realistic expectations to begin to reach his ultimately lofty goal. As he told Forbes, “With our model we’re not going to be able to jump up to the Superliga and be in European competition. We don’t have the resources to compete with the big clubs in Denmark,”
Time will only tell if Gardner’s idea works. There are obviously challenges that will need to be met before Helsingor unearths the next Christian Pulisic and the steps between attracting young American players to becoming a Danish version of FC Porto are enormous. Currently the club is made up of mostly Danish players and perhaps fans will be alienated by a new owner emphasizing the development of American players over local ones. Gardner experienced a fan revolt when Swansea hired Bob Bradley as manager and he will no doubt want to avoid a similar situation with the club. On the other hand, fans mostly care about winning and if this unique endeavor works, it may push both Helsingor and the USMNT beyond what Gardner is planning at these early stages.