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May 4, 2008

De La Hoya plans for his MLS future

CARSON, Calif. -- Oscar De La Hoya polished off an efficient victory over Steve Forbes at the Home Depot Center Saturday, but a different sort of fight awaits him in his new capacity as part-owner of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo. The bob and weave required in the ring might be simple compared to the political positioning required to broker an agreement with the city to build a stadium for the champion soccer team that has claimed the past two MLS Cup titles.

At first glance, it wouldn't even seem a natural fit since De La Hoya is a legend not in soccer, but in boxing -- with his successful Golden Boy productions. That company successfully promotes fighters so well that even former adversaries like Bernard Hopkins happily united under the Golden Boy banner. Yet De La Hoya was intrigued by the chance to move into another sport. There was also the chance to get in on the ground floor, since with only 13 years of history, MLS is a young league.

"We're presented with different types of business opportunities and the MLS is a great opportunity," De La Hoya said. "We feel that the MLS is just beginning. It's just the start."

Growing up in the soccer-mad neighborhood of eastern L.A. also had an affect on De La Hoya.

"He's a heck of a soccer player," business partner Richard Schaefer said.

For their part, the Dynamo players could respect and be inspired by their new owner in a unique way.

"The players are stoked," said Dynamo general manager Oliver Luck. "They know that there's an owner who is an active athlete and who has trained hard, fought hard and done all those things that our players are doing on a daily basis. They can easily relate to Oscar."

More importantly, De La Hoya became the highest-profile MLS owner yet to the general public. Even as a minority owner, one who controls less than 50 percent of an organization, De La Hoya's name recognition gives him tremendous influence.

"He's an icon who is very much loved in the Latino community," Luck said, mentioning a target demographic that MLS has long coveted, yet often struggled to win over.

De La Hoya's celebrity status was obvious at the fight, where the crowd roared his name out repeatedly. The many stars scattered ringside were there to see him, not Forbes.

What they and the millions watching the fight also saw was De La Hoya wearing an unusual color combination -- orange gloves and orange striping on his black shorts -- Dynamo colors. De La Hoya has never previously worn advertising on his clothing, but his shorts also bore a small Houston Dynamo logo on the right leg.

De La Hoya prophesied a victory not only for himself, but for the Dynamo as well, since they played Chivas USA in Texas the same evening. The Dynamo fell short, though, and that match ended in a scoreless draw.

Besides the feel-good factor of De La Hoya demonstrating his loyalty to the club through his attire, it's hard to point to any concrete influence the fighter has had on the Dynamo. This contrasts to the hands-on style of new Chicago Fire owner Andrew Hauptman, for example, who dismissed general manager John Guppy less than a month into the 2008 season.

"It would be incorrect or inaccurate to say [De La Hoya] has had an affect [on the club] at this point," Luck acknowledged. "He has come to town. He's visited with the players and coaches, visited with our staff. He's done all the P.R. things at this point. But I think until he ends his active career as a fighter, it would be very difficult for him to get too involved."

That's a crucial sticking point, because the Forbes bout was only the start of De La Hoya's farewell tour. He expects a rematch versus Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in September, with a final fight versus someone else looming in December.

"I am towards the end of my career and like I said, this will be my last year in the sport of boxing -- inside the ring," De La Hoya said.

Like he has at so many points in his career, De La Hoya is using focused discipline to accomplish his goals. That doesn't allow the Dynamo to become a distraction.

"With the Houston Dynamo, I'll be assisting a few games here or there, but it's not going to come in-between my training or interfere with my training," De La Hoya said.

Determined to go out on top, De La Hoya has his priorities in order. However, it could adversely affect the Dynamo to be ranked so low on his list. The club's slow start to the season is worrisome in and of itself, but the bigger issue of securing a stadium for the squad looms. The commissioner of MLS, Don Garber, has pledged his willingness to relocate the team if a deal and timeline on a new soccer-specific home ground are not reached.

In the hoopla announcing his ownership, De La Hoya enthusiastically promised he would secure a stadium for his new team. More recently, though, he has delegated Dynamo business.

"I have a great team of people who will over see operations with our partners, AEG and with the Brener group," De La Hoya said. "It will not affect either boxing or soccer, with my schedule, with my training."

It might be that this approach will ultimately pay off, as negotiations with city governments are often complicated, lengthy procedures. Though the weight of a famous name could be seen as a way to positively influence the outcome, Luck was skeptical of this approach.

"I don't think that [De La Hoya's] presence really affects one way or the other our discussions with the city about a stadium and the practice complex," Luck said. "Those discussions are what they are. It's almost irrelevant if it's Oscar owning the team or Joe Smith or whomever."

On the other hand, a heavily-involved owner, even if not a big name, could help the organization market itself as an asset to the community. The goodwill engendered by such a move would go far.

"It was a big story when the announcement [of De La Hoya's ownership] came," Luck acknowledged. "We were fielding dozens of calls every week. 'Can he come speak here, can he come speak there?'"

With a busy fight preparation schedule to stick to, De La Hoya couldn't follow up on such requests. It had to be a bit frustrating for Luck, working in the trenches daily to help the Dynamo succeed and avoid any issue of relocation. He remained optimistic, though, looking ahead to working more closely with De La Hoya in the future.

"There's tremendous upside to the sport right now, particularly in a city like Houston," Luck said. "I think a lot of the lessons that Oscar has learned in his professional life and the business community, how to become a promoter, like he has with Golden Boy, finding boxers, working to promote and market them successfully -- those skills that he's not only learned, but applied, will be beneficial to us, there's no question about that."

Ultimately, once De La Hoya has time to close the final chapter of his fighting career, the Dynamo could get more than a savvy businessman with celebrity cachet. A genuine fan appeared eager to make the transition from the ring to the sidelines.

"I can't wait, once I hang up those gloves, to be at every single soccer game, cheering on the Houston Dynamo," De La Hoya said.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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