Last week, I sat down with Old Glory DC owners Paul Sheehy and Chris Dunlavey, along with new business manager Marcelo Blanco, for a wide-ranging discussion about the state of the team and its future.
As soon as we were all assembled, Sheehy immediately jumped into the disappointment of last season. The frustration was evident. "It hurt," were his first words of the interview, completely unprompted. The pain from last season's struggles are clearly something he takes personally. When he says that he wants the team to be successful, I believe it.
He expressed a lot of confidence in the upcoming team, though, bringing attention to the major upgrade at flyhalf. This is where Blanco couldn't help but chime in, stating that Tito Diaz Bonilla could be one of the best flyhalfs in the league next year. He made a simple argument: you take one of the best 9s in league in Danny Tusitala, and you add Diaz Bonilla, who could be one of the best 10s in the league, and you have a halfback pairing that will take the MLR by storm. When Blanco makes an a statement like that, he smiles and his eyes seem to make a friendly dare for you to try disagreeing.
Part of the purpose for this interview on my part was to get a sense of who exactly Marcelo Blanco is and why he's here. Is he a business guy or a rugby guy? It didn't take long to figure out that the answer is both. He described himself as "addicted to rugby", and when I asked whether he had played a part in the recruitment of our fresh South American contingent, his eyes lit up. That group, starting all the way back with hooker Facundo Gattas last year, have all been scouted out by Blanco, a fact he takes an evident satisfaction in. He was very proud of having found a great leader in Lautaro Bavarro and discovering center Fermin Martinez, who has a US passport and will qualify as domestic under the MLR rules. Martinez isn't the only Argentinian playing high level amateur rugby who could come to the MLR as a domestic player, either. Blanco didn't name names, but he clearly has his eyes open for more South American talent.
All this talk of talent brought us naturally to the new coach, Josh Syms. The New Zealander was announced as the new head coach on Monday, bringing to an end months of impatient speculation. It was a long process - originally, I was expecting the announcement to come before the collegiate draft in August. Sheehy described the process as frustrating, but ultimately he is happy where it ended.
The search was truly global in scope. The team did claim it would be when they announced they were looking for a replacement for long-time head coach Andrew Douglas in April, but I didn't know at the time whether that was just some PR fluff. In this case, it was true. The owners talked to coaches from across the rugby world, getting recommendations from the Scottish Rugby Union, a minority owner of OGDC, as well as other connections like former player Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira. They came close on a few candidates, only for personal or professional matters to prevent a deal at the last minute.
Syms came in late in the process, because he was still actively coaching Hawke's Bay in the playoffs in early October. However, once the owners started talking to him, they took a shine to him very quickly. They expressed appreciation for the hard work that he'd put in during his career and emphasized his capacity to get the most out of an existing roster. After all, he won't be building a team from scratch; the roster for next season is pretty much set, so his ability to maximize its potential will be paramount. They also consider his long experience in the high school rugby to be an advantage. Since the US doesn't have nearly the same degree of youth rugby as New Zealand, he will have to do a lot of that development himself. The players may be older, but in terms of sheer rugby experience they will likely be closer to the high schoolers of New Zealand than the professionals of the NPC.
Speaking of development, Sheehy had an announcement he was very excited to share: Ben Cima, the recently retired flyhalf, is returning to the area to help with Old Glory's youth rugby initiatives. A local product of Gonzaga College High School and Rocky Gorge Rugby Club in Maryland, he played professionally for the Seattle Seawolves and internationally for the Eagles. He'll be partnering with OGDC's head of player pathways Tim Brown, lending his high-level knowledge of the game to an already extensive youth rugby program.
Bringing things back to the business side, I asked what the goal is for Old Glory over the next next several years. Dunlavey's answer was straightforward: "Butts in seats". The team is proud of the sponsorships they've been able to bring in, as they're the top sponsored team in the league, but he made it absolutely clear that the team would only succeed if it engages fans and gets them to the games. Sheehy agreed, pointing out that "all of our highest attended games, we've won".
Blanco laid out an engaging vision. He wants to pull fans in, not just for the two hours of the match itself, but the two hours before and the two hours after as well. He talked about making it an experience where you want to bring your family, your kids, your friends. People attract people, and that's how you start to build an atmosphere that will draw people in again and again. He wants 3,000, even 4,000 fans at a every game.
And all of this isn't just talk. While they aren't ready to officially announce any of these improvements yet, as they are very much still in the works, they outlined a lot of different initiatives that they are working on. One of them is free parking, sponsored by Sheehy Auto Stores, to eliminate the long lines that developed last year just to get into the parking lot. They are also working on getting tailgating, something that a lot of fans have asked for. For people traveling by Metro, the Silver Line extension will be open and the team is hoping to provide transportation from the station to the stadium and back again. Blanco also floated an idea of partnering with the local restaurants around the station, to make the wait for a shuttle more fun. None of these are guaranteed yet, but it does show that the team is responsive to the feedback they are getting from fans and trying to improve the experience.
Blanco was adamant that fans should have more opportunity to connect with players, a unique advantage that rugby has as niche sport. He wants players who are not on playing in the match to be in uniform on the concourse, greeting fans as the enter the stadium, passing balls around with the kids, and socializing with the fans. After matches, they also plan to let fans come on to the field to interact with the players, like they did for the last home game last season.
The conversation also ventured towards the subject of where Old Glory would play in the future. After all, there has been a fair amount of dissatisfaction from fans about the experience at Segra. However, Dunlavey believes they can make it work. There is a lot to like about Segra, as one of the few stadiums in the area capable of handling a professional team. The improvements they're bringing next year are only possible because of the willingness of Segra and of Loudoun County to work with them on addressing the issues that fans have raised. It's clear that for now, Old Glory's home will be at Segra field, at least until they outgrow what it can sustain.
It was obvious from the enthusiasm the Blanco brought to this conversation that he's the driving force behind a lot of these efforts to improve. While Sheehy and Dunlavey have wanted to fix these issues, Blanco brings a combination of passion, experience, and confidence that makes him perfect for driving change. It made me wonder how Old Glory managed to snag such a clearly over-qualified man. Blanco explained that he'd first met Sheehy and Dunlavey a year ago, at the All Blacks game in DC in 2021. Later, when the team started looking for a coach, Scotland Rugby recommended that they hire Blanco, who was working in Scotland as a consultant. "We went looking for a coach and got a business manager," quipped Sheehy.
There has a been quite a lot of turmoil in MLR this year, first with the teams in Austin and LA getting suspended from the playoffs, then dropping out of the league entirely when their billionaire benefactor ran into financial difficulties. But the Old Glory ownership is focused on their own team and seems optimistic for the future. Sheehy made one thing very clear: "We're here to stay".