Ottawa Fury President Pugh: Building a Style - BigShot Q&A

John Pugh, a former semi-pro soccer player and current president of the Ottawa Fury, discusses his team as it prepares for its 2014 NASL debut
by Herb Scribner   |   Thursday, August 08, 2013

John Pugh - President of Ottaway Fury FC (NASL)

John Pugh is currently the President of Ottawa Fury FC, an expansion franchise going to the NASL in 2014. Pugh previously played semi-pro soccer in the United Kingdom, playing for Welsh and British universities as well as Swansea City, Llanelli, Durham City and Sheffield FC. He’s been a resident of Ottawa for 30 years, and has been a part of the Ottawa soccer scene since 2005.

Tell the readers a little about yourself and how you got involved with the sport.

JP: It goes back a long way to England. I first got involved in soccer over there and had trials with Spurs at one point at time, played for British universities and played semi-professional like Swanson City reserves and some non-league clubs and paid my way through college.

Do you consider yourself English or Canadian now?

JP: We’ve been here over 30 years. My wife and I have taken out our Canadian citizenship so I think we consider ourselves Canadian. But obviously when you go home to England, and you’ve got family there, you still call that home.

At what point did you know you wanted to run a soccer club?

JP: I guess it was more of the point when we sold our high tech company that I probably didn’t want to start another one and do that again. And it was about the time my son was in the soccer program here, and I felt I could do something about that. It so happened the Ottawa Fury W-League team was available and we selfishly purchased that because it would get us into the United Soccer Leagues and that would allow us to offer other opportunities to play in Ottawa. We offered our players a chance to play in the United States and be seen by a lot of coaches. It’s a great exposure for our players. The proof is in the pudding, I guess, since more than 90 players have gotten scholarships since that time.

How did you first get involved with the Ottawa Fury?

JP: My son was playing soccer in Ottawa. Ottawa’s not Toronto and it’s not Montreal, so the opportunities for elite soccer players in Ottawa was sort of limited. So a few of us got together and decided we’d try and put something together and decided we’d put something better on for Ottawa soccer players. We had two things in mind: build up the youth-league program, and ultimately put the highest level of soccer in front of fans that we felt Ottawa fans could support.

How did the Fury come about?

JP: An opportunity arose here in Ottawa. A group of businessmen got together with the city to bring football back to the city. And we realized after the success of the U-20 Championship here in Ottawa – where we had sellout crowds of 27,000 for 5 nights – that the stadium would also be ideal for soccer. So they got me involved and now it’s a $400 million project to renovate Landsdowne Park in partnership with the city. Right now we expect the stadium and parking garage and everything needed to host teams to be ready for us to play in 2014.

The club is multi-faceted from youth to now pro and both girls and boys. Was the intention to design it like a European club from the start, or did that just evolve like that over time?

JP: I think it was the natural way for the people that were involved. Many of the coaches had a European background as well, and we just felt that was a direction which would be the best one to follow and give the best opportunities to the kids.

Why was the decision made to become a NASL club?

JP: We were looking at that at about the time when the US Soccer Federation had stepped in to look at Division 2 soccer. We looked at the opportunities there and felt Ottawa could support Division 2 soccer, and felt NASL was probably the best way to go at that particular time.

What were some memorable moments since the Fury began in 2005 that you want people and fans to know about?

JP: Well memorable moments here in Ottawa most recently are the 2007 U-20 Men’s World Cup. So we had marvelous games here. There hasn’t been high-level soccer in Ottawa at that level before. A lot of Brazilians, Argentinians, we had Ghanaian fans, Nigerian fans for one game. People came away from those games marveling at the soccer … and they came away realizing that going to a soccer game when you’ve got a big crowd supporting their own team, that’s a great thing. I think that was a very telling moment in Ottawa soccer history, and recognition from me at least and others that Ottawa could support a soccer team.

Personally, for our club, ourself, finally winning the women’s W-League Championship on our own field, on our field, in penalties … was a very memorable moment. That was a very memorable moment and one we had aspired for for many years.

Is the Ottawa Fury a club for just the Ottawa scene, or a club that all of Canada can get behind?

JP: We don’t have many professional clubs in Canada. We have the 3 MLS clubs, FC Edmonton playing in the NASL and Ottawa coming on the scene in 2015. We really hope, and we have seen, a big change in the way development at the top level is taking place. We see that the growth of professional soccer across the country will give us far greater opportunities to produce young players. They’ll have professional clubs to aspire to play for. And hopefully in the future, hopefully, this will be a spin-off for the Canadian National Team.

We’ve seen former lower divisions clubs like the Whitecaps, Impact, Timbers, Sounders, etc, move up and have success in MLS. Is this the eventual goal of the Fury? Or is it just to compete in the second division?

JP: We need to get our legs in the second division to begin with. I don’t think any of us are quite sure how professional soccer … is going to evolve going forward. You’re absolutely right. If you look at the history, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland all started in Division 2 and had nowhere near the crowds they’re drawing now, and they’ve been tremendously successful. We’re looking forward to competing in the Amway Championship. There’s nothing better than being able to host one of the MLS teams here in Ottawa. So I think the next few years we’ve got to build our fan base and make sure we’re competitive. And we’ll see if we have the fan base and we’ll take it from there, at that point, when we can see how the land lays. But right now I think Division 2 soccer is the place to be.

Some Fury and Ottawa soccer fans on Twitter mentioned how the naming vote decision in late February wasn’t really fair, or not a vote at all, but rather more like a recommendation to the club – which in turn kept with its original name. Was Fury the #1 submission? Will those results be released publicly?

JP: It was never to be a vote in that way. It was a campaign to ask fans for suggestions. It was being done with the same campaign to name the CFL team. We’re also working closely with a branding company from Oregon, so when we got 4,000 names, we got 4,000 names and 4,000 emails and lots and lots of suggestions. When we looked at those suggestions, obviously there were a lot of people who wanted to keep the same name and others we couldn’t use because they didn’t have anything to do with Ottawa. We also had some focus group where we brought in fans and they worked with our branding company.

So obviously what we ended up with was the fact that the Fury was the most popular name, but there was no outstanding name that ran away with that. Fury has a brand already. It’s a respected name across North America, and has respect already. We should build on what we had. We built a strong foundation on what we had, so that was obviously a big part of the decision as well.

Is it weird to call yourself a “Football Club” in North America where most players and fans call the sport “Soccer”? And doesn’t it also confuse the situation that you will be sharing the new stadium with the Canadian “Football” League team?

JP: No I don’t think so. The trend is to call us what we are. It’s football, and it’s the world’s game. Especially in Canada, it’s TFC, it’s FC Edmonton, it’s Whitecaps FC. So actually it’d be odd if we kept the soccer club name. They’ll all get used to it, it’s two very different games.

How excited are you about the redevelopment of Landsdowne Park? What is the timetable? Will it be ready for your first NASL match of 2014? What are some of the neat features you think the fans will love?

JP: It’s an absolutely tremendous project involving far more than just the rebirth of the stadium. There’s a whole retail component, there’s an urban park, there’s some housing and office buildings so it’s kind of a project in itself. The site has a lot of history attached with it. More recently, in fact since 2007, there have been few events held at the stadium. So what we’re turning it into is a destination. So when you come to a soccer game in Ottawa, you’re coming to something more than a stadium.

As for the stadium itself, we’ll have a 24,000-seat stadium, which is a bit big for the NASL. This will be a spot for many events including CFL football. The South Stand, where the dressing room and teams will be, has a very iconic design. It has a wooden vale that goes around the back to the roof of it, which goes back to Ottawa’s logging days. It’ll be instantly recognized as ‘Ah! That’s Ottawa!’ The South Stand has a very good pitch in terms of allowing fans as near as possible to the field. We have widened the field over what it was, and is now in more of a bowl. We’ve attempted to make it a very intimate stadium for soccer fans.

Was it made purposely with soccer fans/sights/atmosphere in mind? Do you feel like it is more CFL or more soccer oriented?

JP: It’s going to cater to both. It’s our strong desire that when the soccer team plays, there’s only soccer lines on the field, and when CFL teams, only CFL lines are on the field. Definitely soccer fans don’t want to see teams playing on a field with football lines. It’s a very, very desirable environment.

If a stadium naming rights deal came to be, would the Fury be entitled to a piece of that income?

JP: It’s probably not better to get into those things at the moment.

Could there be a better location in Ottawa than Landsdowne Park?

JP: It’s very central, let’s put it that way. It’s got some transportation challenges, but those have been met in the past. We have lots of plans that have been put in place for events of different sizes.

About five years ago Ottawa Senators (NHL) owner Eugene Melnyk was in the hunt for an MLS expansion team and trying to tie it to a new SSS near their arena. After that didn’t materialize were you relieved?

JP: Actually in the early days we were very supportive of the Senators’ plans. They were going to bring 7 or 8 other fields to the stadium, which was going to be built on the outskirts of town. Ultimately, that plan fell to the wayside. The alternative plan, which involved Landsdowne Park, which is a city site that the city had to develop anyway, came to fruition.

What is your relationship with Melnyk? He is a big soccer lover, any plans to get him involved with the Fury? Or a potential joint-bid for an MLS franchise?

JP: We have good relations with the Senators, there’s no doubt about that. I have no idea whether or not Mr. Melnyk still harbors the idea to bring MLS to the city or not. We’re comfortable now with the CFL football, NASL soccer and NHL hockey all operating in the Landsdowne facility.

What are the most popular sports and teams in Ottawa in order? Is it Hockey, hockey, hockey, CFL, soccer? Can the Fury stand shoulder to shoulder with the Senators and CFL being a Division 2 soccer club?

JP: Well let’s face it – Canada’s a hockey country and Ottawa’s a hockey town. From that regard hockey rules. There will be some overlap in the seasons. Ottawa’s been a very well supported Canadian football team. Even at its lowest point on the field, it was still bringing in 17 to 18,000 fans to the field.

So soccer’s the new kid on the block. But if we talk about participation, more kids play soccer than hockey. There is a soccer fan base that is waiting to be developed that by now you’d have to say: hockey, football, soccer. Soccer’s the new kids on the block, and this has happened in other cities – Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto – that people have taken to soccer.

Do you envision being the best supported club in the NASL?

JP: Right off the bat, probably no. But that would be our goal to build the fan base to be the best, or one of the best, soccer fan bases in the NASL. One thing we have to recognize is, how long did it take Montreal to the point where they were bringing in 10,000 fans to a division 2 game? We’ve got work to do and we have to earn our right to have a good fan base and that’s what we intend to do.

The NASL has been expanding as of late, with no end in sight as both the current and former Commissioners have said. The league has Ottawa, Virginia Cavalry, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Jacksonville on the way. What are your thoughts on the league’s recent expansion moves? Would you like to see Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan get involved in the NASL?

JP: The quality of ownership we’re seeing in these new groups is tremendous and bodes very well for the future of the league. In terms of additional Canadian teams, we would obviously like that from a Canadian perspective. The US Soccer Federation does set a limit from non-US teams that can participate in the NASL. So when you mention 4 teams that will have to come gradually as the league grows. There are certainly teams in Canada that could be good NASL teams.

What are your thoughts on the allegations that the CSL might have had gambling tamper with its results, and the recent issues with the CSA?

JP: I’m not knowledge enough to speak to that to be honest.

What are your thoughts on the New York Cosmos? Glad to see them back in American soccer? Do you see the Cosmos sticking around in the NASL for a while? Or is this just a preliminary measure before they move to the MLS?

JP: I think it’s great to have them back. I happen to be in New York City for the Board of Governors meeting when they were admitted to the league. They are New York’s team, and will always be New York’s team. It’s front-page news with a New York team. Who wouldn’t want to have a team of that pedigree playing in your league? Ultimately where they land, I’m just delighted to have them back.

Describe your relationship with Toronto FC and MLSE? Some say that MLSE has made many errors in staffing, moves and how they have dealt with their fanbase – maybe even eroding one of the best fanbases in North America. What would you have done differently?

JP: Well I don’t have intimate knowledge about what they do. Obviously, we’re just concerned with what we’re doing, which is to develop a good relationship with our fans. If you look at the successful models, those teams have a lot of supporters groups, which is something we’ll try to cultivate in our Ottawa environment. One thing we definitely do need to do is put affordable soccer on the field, [make sure] that it’s of good quality [and] it’s exciting. And in that way we’ll grow fans that will come close to the passion of fans of Cascadia in the Northwest coast.

How would you like to see MLS and the NASL work together?

JP: I think you should ask the commissioner that one.

Do you want and think promotion and relegation will occur between the leagues in the future? If so, when?

JP: There are some inhibitors there for promotion and relegation. It’s not the same as Europe though, obviously. Again, I’d refer to the commissioner.

What kind of players does Ottawa try to attract? The best possible? Those with Canadian backgrounds? Americans?

JP: I’ll just give my own personal opinion. We live in Canada. We have produced a number of players through our youth system that are playing professionally, and we’d love to have those players play for their home town. We definitely want to support the game in Canada, which means helping in doing our part to develop players in Canada.

That being said, we obviously want to field a very competitive team right out of the gate. We have a huge challenge with [5] teams coming into the league. And therefore it’s a challenge for us to add more quality players to the mix. Definitely we want to support the Canadian game, but it won’t influence us if we see US international players. If you look at NASL teams now, they’re a mix of young professionals, professionals who’ve been in the game for a while, we’ve seen players come from other countries, so it’s going to be that kind of mixture.

Will you try to create a unique “Fury” style of play from youth to pros – like at some Latin and European clubs?

JP: Well that’s always been our goal actually. Right from the outset. It’s nice for us sometimes when we hear “They play like the Fury” because we take that as a compliment. So we do plan to play that modern European style, “possession with a purpose.” Many of successful clubs operate that way and it kind of works for them top to bottom within the club.

Will you strive to push Fury players up the ladder into the pros?

JP: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been one of our goals right from the start and I think that just continues. We now have a higher level of soccer and it’d be marvelous if someone came up through our youth level to our NASL team and to attract attention from another league. The success of our club is measured by the success of our players, and that’s a mantra that’s served us very well with every decision we’ve made in a technical nature.

Will there be doubleheaders between the W-League and NASL on game days? Do you think the fans overlap?

JP: We haven’t gotten to that point yet. Other clubs have certainly done that. I think there’s an audience for the W-League and an audience for the NASL, and there’s some overlap.

Does Ottawa have supporters groups right now? If so, can you talk a little bit about them and the club’s relationship with them?

JP: We have some small forming ones, and that’s part of our task in bringing everything to fans. We have a group called the Bytown Boys now which is quite small. They were very loud and noisy at are naming event, so I’d encourage them to come out.

Are American soccer clubs passed the point where they can try to focus on hardcore soccer fans and less on families, or does the sport in North America still have to try and incorporate all-comers?

JP: We want to cater to those, as you call them, hardcore groups, and everyone in the stadium. We want as many people to enjoy soccer in Ottawa as possible. Soccer really is the world’s game. Here in Ottawa, it’s a very multicultural society and I think we’re going to be surprised by the groups that come out. But we encourage them to do so.

The Rowdies, Strikers and MLS clubs like the Timbers, Sounders, Philly and others seem to be pushing for the developing fan culture. Will the Fury let the supporters bring tifo, flags, smoke, horns, etc into the stadium to create that unique soccer atmosphere?

JP: All things are moderation – I don’t think we’d do anything different than clubs that have larger numbers of supporters groups like the Whitecaps or Sounders. If there’s something that’s a determent to other fans, we wouldn’t allow that. Giving those fans a certain location in the stadium is something most clubs do and I can see us doing that.

How has Canadian and North American soccer culture grown in the 30 years you’ve been here? How much further will it grow? What obstacles still remain? What things need to change to make it reach its potential?

JP: That’s a big wide-ranging question. First of all, we’ve come a tremendous way, there’s absolutely no doubt about it. At the professional level, we have a stable MLS. We’ve seen tremendous interest that way.

We’ve seen more progress in the United States on developmental level. But there’s been a lot of development in Canada. There’s no quick fix here, but I think that people are beginning to recognize if we are to develop players to their potential we have to be working with players at a young age. Winning is everything to an 8, 9, 10 year old, but you need to learn the basics of the game, what to do with the ball, etc. And at a much older age, competitive play can come into the mix. That’s the big move in Canada right now across the country.

We’re beginning to see changes at the younger age groups and changes at the competitive level at the U-13, U-14. But ultimately I think we’ll have a much stronger Canadian soccer team. But we’ve got a ways to go.


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SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.