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Change vs. Continuity in the USSF President race

A crowded field is emerging with candidates leaning towards two camps

US, Canadian And Mexican Soccer Federations Make Major Announcement Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

(Author’s note: since this story was first published Kyle Martino has entered the race as the list of people running for USSF President is expanding faster than the universe itself. Martino is decidedly in the change camp and his plans are detailed below).

If there is one thing U.S. Soccer fans seem fairly in favor of, it is replacing Sunil Gulati as U.S. Soccer Federation president. Since the U.S. Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the World Cup, the calls for him to step down or not run for re-election have been growing. At many MLS games there were “Sunil Out” banners hung after the loss to Trinidad & Tobago, #SunilOut is all over U.S. soccer twitter, and every nationally televised MLS playoff game in American stadiums so far has had some kind of banner or poster calling for him to leave USSF.

In the wake of the disenchantment with the federation, several figures in the sport have stepped up to announce they will oppose Gulati in the 2018 election. For the most part, they are developing their ideas still and have some time between now and mid-February when the vote for USSF president will take place.

Eric Wynalda

Eric Wynalda is probably the most high profile candidate running on a massive change platform. He has lots of ideas that he has discussed in media appearances which would more closely align how the sport is played in the U.S. with the rest of the world. His ideas include implementing a promotion and relegation system and reforming the pyramid in the country. He would also follow Norway’s lead in paying the USWNT equally. The former USMNT star also has identified that the scouting and youth development systems are broken.

Wynalda certainly has ideas about how to more effectively bring soccer in the U.S. in line with how it is structured in the most successful soccer nations. It is still early, but articulating a plan to implement these changes is the main weakness of his platform. That said, he does have the makings of a snazzy campaign website, which is slightly more toned down than his personal one. What’s more, because his changes are so drastic and so directly challenge those who hold power in the American soccer landscape, he has the tallest mountain to climb. Bridging the gap between the haves and have nots will be difficult, if not impossible, with the restricted voting pool that structurally rewards powerful, self-interested groups that don’t have a motivation for change.

Steve Gans

Since well before the USMNT failed to qualify for the Men’s World Cup, attorney Steve Gans has been considering a run for USSF president. He promises to spend more time focusing on issues aside from the national teams and criticized Gulati for neglecting youth soccer specifically. His website mentions several areas that the federation needs to address and criticizes Sunil Gulati for not being accountable to the public. Interestingly, he does not specifically mention any changes or concerns about the USWNT.

As far as Gans’ plans for how he plans to treat the WNT, he offered a vague, politically expedient response in an interview with the Washington Post in September, saying, “I am very confident I am going to be able to give proper attention to every constituency, from youth to adult amateur to pro and national team. It’s going to be a big tent.” Gans has extensive experience participating in the sport in the U.S. as an athlete in the NASL as well as exploring business opportunities with professional teams in the U.S. and England. The Boston attorney also stood on the board of FC Boston, a team in the USSF youth development academy.

Paul Lapointe

Paul Lapointe, a businessman and the Northeast Conference manager of the United Premier Soccer League from Rhode Island, has detailed a program that sounds awfully similar to what Wynalda has proposed though he entered the race earlier than the later. He would institute promotion and relegation, focus on expanding access to the sport at the lower levels and extend federation sanctioning to futsal. Lapointe also wants a U.S. Open Cup style tournament for women’s soccer and said in an interview with American Soccer United, “I think we should take care of our women’s team as we do the men” as far as equal pay for equal play goes at the national level. He’s done interviews as well as posting the sketch of his platform on Twitter.

Michael Winogard

Michael Winogard, yet another lawyer, is also throwing his hat in the ring. Winogard has a website which details his background in youth, professional, and college soccer including, “coaching, scouting, and recruiting duties” with the University of Richmond. His platform is to form a transparent advisory committee, treat the USWNT and USMNT equally, and help improve youth development. The website also has a section of secondary issues that he seems not to be prioritizing such as pro/rel. Winogard also achieved notoriety when a youth tryout dispute he was involved with led to a lawsuit in 2014.

Paul Caligiuri

Paul Caligiuri is the newest member of the USSF Presidency pool. He granted an interview with the GotSoccer blog to comment on his candidacy saying that he would give further details about his specific plans for the federation at the GotSoccer forum on November 11th. He did, however, say of the WNT that, “the women who spoke out are our heroes” and criticized Carlos Cordeiro as advocating “methods that have been in place for a long time.”

Carlos Cordeiro

If these candidates represent change to some degree, there is one name who seems to offer largely more of the same: U.S. Soccer Federation Vice-President Carlos Cordeiro. In his third and fourth tweets ever he outlined his plan for the federation and they show that he is running as the Al Gore to Sunil Gulati’s Bill Clinton, the George H.W. Bush to the current president’s Ronald Reagan.

Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Cordeiro had an interview with ESPNFC that was light on specifics, claimed that USSF needs to be run like a business, and noted he is basing his plan for changing how the federation is run on openness and transparency with less power in the hands of the president, a post he would continue as a volunteer position. Cordeiro also has a catch phrase for his campaign, calling it Mission 26/27 for hosting both the Men’s and Women’s World Cups and playing in the tournaments at a high level.

Largely though, it seems like not much would change with the priorities of the federation and his plan seems more like empty political rhetoric packaged around a bid for hosting the Women’s World Cup, which should be a priority no matter who is president, and minor structural reforms to the president’s role.

He had more words to give to in an interview filled with vague answers and some evasive responses. The interview came off sounding less like it was from a person who has a real plan for the USSF, and more like what might be said by a politician trying to be diplomatic and make himself out to be everything to everyone.

For example, Cordiero gives an answer about the U.S. Women’s National Team that criticized the public nature of the contract negotiations, in which the USWNT waged a public campaign for equal pay, and then spoke vaguely about the “need to have serious discussions about all issues, not just the women.” He also noted that his solution for improving the youth system and lower divisions, which he grouped together in the U.S. Soccer pyramid, was a kind of trickle down economics plan saying:

That has to trickle down more to the bottom of the pyramid. The bottom of our pyramid is what has been left behind to some degree. To me, that’s one of the big challenges. Our grassroots, our youth programs, need more resources.

In another question, Cordeiro is asked about what he would do to appeal to diverse audiences including fans and players, specifically from Hispanic backgrounds. His answer to the question both dodged the specifics of it and appeared to illustrate that he has little idea about the composition of the player pool, the factors that drive who plays soccer in the U.S. and why, and he stated directly that the increasing Hispanic-American birth rate would make the pool more diverse by default. His comment did not address the structural inequalities that are the root of what limits opportunities to participate in the sport at a high level in the U.S.

However, Cordeiro did seem more nuanced about his view of how to attract fans from Hispanic backgrounds who live in the U.S. that was more inclusive than the current strategy of marketing One Nation, One Team.

There’s even pandering and commentary about social media from someone who had two tweets before announcing he would run for USSF president:

I think this traffic going back and forth on Twitter and on other forms of social media is unparalleled. I don’t think there’s any country in the world that shows that degree of involvement, of passion, of commitment on the part of our fans.

His rhetoric and comments are eerily similar to those of Sunil Gulati in his conference call with reporters where he used some variation of the phrase “look at things” or “look at everything” 14 times rather than offering specific answers to questions that had been plaguing the federation for years; questions that he should have been thinking of ways to answer as USSF leader while the federation festered on the field for the USMNT at the senior and youth levels, denied the USWNT equal pay, and focused on the business side of the organization to the detriment of everything else.

Sunil Gulati

The other presumed establishment candidate is of course Sunil Gulati. He still hasn’t announced if he is running and a federation vice president standing against him may indicate that he won’t stand for re-elction.

However, if he does run, Gulati is the most powerful person in soccer in the U.S. and one of the most powerful at the world level. He got Gianni Infantino, who has been less corrupt but not a significant departure from Sepp Blatter, elected FIFA President in a move that illustrates his political dexterity. His experience as a political mover and shaker will be a tool that would give him a major edge above the others who are running.

To the extent that this matters at all will not be known until the vote for president takes place on when the USSF meets from February 8-11, 2018. The public doesn’t vote for the position, save for two members who represent the fans, and it isn’t even set how many voters there are. This is obviously a pivotal time for soccer in the U.S. and if major changes are going to occur, they will clearly not be coming from Carlos Cordiero or Sunil Gulati based on what has been said up to now.

Kyle Martino

The newest entrant to the USSF President race, Kyle Martino will take a leave of absence from his role as an analyst on the NBC coverage of the Premier League to fully focus on his campaign. The New York Times reported that the former USMNT midfielder is basing his candidacy on the idea that now is the time for a former player to be running the federation. He told the Times, “we don’t need an MBA right now. We need a soccer PhD, and that’s what I have.”

Martino also says he is committed to working with Sunil Gulati, presumably as a member of the FIFA Executive Committee, in order to implement what he calls the three pillars of his plan. They will be: transparency, which includes making USSF President a paid job; equality, specifically of youth players who cannot afford high level coaching, those who feel unsafe in locker rooms, and the unequal treatment of the USWNT; and progress, which Martino noted would be based on business and soccer analytics to create a teaching program for youth players that are currently not identified by scouting and would also create a soccer council to advise the president on major decisions that affect the sport.

In addition to leaving his job for now with NBC, Martino will be selling his shares in Real Mallorca in order to run for the office. He already has the endorsement of Thierry Henry and David Beckham, that along with his high profile will make him a formidable candidate by the time February arrives.