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U.S. Soccer Teams Shuffle Top Legal Jobs as Season Kicks Off (1)

April 29, 2021, 9:30 AM; Updated: April 29, 2021, 3:50 PM

Three teams in Major League Soccer are switching law office jobs with the mid-April kickoff of the top tier of the U.S. sport’s 2021 season—a start delayed a few weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

D. Brock Denton, outside general counsel for FC Cincinnati, an MLS team whose owners include former gubernatorial candidate and business executive Meg Whitman, will give up his role when he starts a new job Aug. 1 with Cintas Corp., one of the largest U.S. uniform and workplace product suppliers.

But Denton will be in attendance Saturday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at FC Cincinnati’s new home, the 26,000-seat TQL Stadium. He’ll also be there when his team makes its home field debut May 16 against Inter Miami CF, which is co-owned by former global soccer star David Beckham.

The MLS season has been overshadowed by billionaires brawling over the future of European pro soccer, but Denton is looking forward to “celebrating the opening of the greatest soccer-specific stadium in North America,” he wrote in an email to Bloomberg Law.

Denton, who is head of the business representation and transactions practice at Cincinnati’s Keating Muething & Klekamp, said he advised FC Cincinnati on a naming rights agreement for its new stadium announced April 21.

The agreement is with Milford, Ohio-based Total Quality Logistics LLC, a privately held freight brokerage company that turned to Arent Fox for outside counsel on the deal. Denton worked on the accord with Keating Muething partner Nicholas Simon.

Denton’s new general counsel job at Cintas, announced this week, has him replacing retiring longtime legal chief Thomas Frooman. Denton, who was primary outside counsel to Cintas during his two decades in private practice, said FC Cincinnati has not yet named a new legal chief.

Off the Pitch Switch

The new MLS season saw Austin FC—an expansion team co-owned by actor Matthew McConaughey—make its on-field debut more than a year after hiring former DLA Piper partner Eric Hagen as general counsel.

Hagen, promoted to chief legal officer in January, isn’t the only new MLS team lawyer.

The Philadelphia Union hired Amy Minniti as general counsel this month, according to a staffing page on the team’s website. Minniti didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about joining the Union, a club that began playing in MLS over a decade ago and which posted a job listing for its top legal role earlier this year.

Minniti spent the past three years as a deputy general counsel for Spectra Venue Management, a Philadelphia-based hospitality company. The former Reed Smith associate also worked for a decade as an in-house lawyer for Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, which named a new legal chief last year.

Washington’s own pro soccer team, D.C. United, a perennial powerhouse in the early years of MLS, recently parted ways with its general counsel, Christopher Deubert.

D.C. United didn’t respond to a request for comment about its general counsel role, which Deubert’s LinkedIn profile shows he relinquished in March.

Deubert, a former associate at Berg & Androphy who joined the club as its legal chief in late 2018, said in an email that “my ethical obligations restrict me from discussing the nature of my departure from D.C. United.”

Deubert and D.C. United made news late last year over an email that Deubert wrote to team staffers asking for volunteers to work overnight security without pay at Audi Field, a 20,000-seat stadium the team began playing in two years ago.

D.C. United was looking to save money during the pandemic after shedding a costly security contract. Deubert apologized for the wording of his email.

Jason Levien, a former general counsel for the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings, who also once worked as an of counsel at Greenberg Traurig and associate at Williams & Connolly, became a majority owner of D.C. United in 2016.

The team and MLS, like many other sports leagues, have been hit hard by Covid-19. MLS laid off 20% of its staff last year amid the pandemic.

Still, some teams are hiring.

Nashville SC, which saw its former legal chief leave last year for the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans, hired Joseph Kennedy as general counsel in January. Kennedy had worked in-house for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks since 2014.

Chicago Fire FC, New York City FC, Real Salt Lake, and the Vancouver Whitecaps all recruited in-house legal chiefs last year in Laura Warren, Jennifer Pogorelec O’Sullivan, Michelle Hull Hyncik, and Manav Deol, respectively. O’Sullivan is a former Arent Fox partner who previously ran legal affairs for the now-defunct Arena Football League, while Hyncik spent five years working in MLS’ home office in New York.

Big Legal Bills

Despite the financial challenges facing MLS, there is optimism for the league as one of the fastest-growing U.S. sports seeks to put pandemic-related plights behind it.

An amended version of a collective bargaining agreement reached last year between MLS and its players was ratified in February after the league invoked a force majeure clause, citing the economic fallout from Covid-19. The new deal runs through 2027.

An annual LM-2 financial statement filed March 25 by the Bethesda, Md.-based MLS Players Association shows it paid nearly $391,000 during 2020 to executive director Robert Foose, a former associate at a predecessor of legal giant Dentons.

The labor union representing MLS players also itemized legal fees last year of $148,700 to Washington-based labor and employment firm Sherman Dunn; $58,000 to Brown Rudnick; and $5,100 to Boston-based Hemenway & Barnes.

The U.S. men’s national soccer team, in an LM-2 also filed March 25 with the Labor Department, revealed it paid almost $594,000 to Williams & Connolly last year. Mark Levinstein, a litigation partner at the firm, is acting executive director for the squad.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team, embroiled in a long-running pay equity battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation, disclosed in its own LM-2 filed March 31 that it paid $226,000 to Washington’s Bredhoff & Kaiser and $10,000 to the San Jose, Calif.-based Acceleron Law Group in 2020. Rebecca Roux, a former summer associate at Cooley serving as executive director of the women’s team, was paid $196,300.

Lydia Wahlke, a former general counsel for the USSF who stepped down last year, recently rejoined Kirkland & Ellis. The USSF hired Karen Leetzow to succeed her.

(Adds detail on other MLS legal hires in 19th and 20th paragraphs and information on the USSF's legal leadership change in last sentence.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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