The driving force behind the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election is largely the on the field failure of the United States Men’s National Team to reach the World Cup. Since the eight candidates have emerged, on the field topics haven’t been discussed nearly as much as conflicts of interest or transparency. One on field issue did come up again, but in an unexpected way.
Monday, the U.S. Soccer Athlete Council released questionnaires filled out by every candidate for the office. Some answers were revealing, others less so, but one of the most unexpected responses was Kyle Martino’s take on the choice of Red Bull Arena for the World Cup Qualifier in September against Costa Rica.
After the match there was a subset of the fan base that felt the reason that the U.S. played so poorly was that there were too many Costa Rica fans in the stadium. The opinion has re-surfaced months later because Martino echoed those comments in response to a question posed by the U.S. Athlete Council. The organization asked “What is the relationship between US Soccer and Soccer United Marketing and how does it affect the players?” In part Martino answered:
There are many perceived conflicts of interest but a clear way the arrangement affects the players was the decision to have a World Cup Qualifier at Red Bull Arena against Costa Rica. Home World Cup Qualifiers are crucial, which is why home teams go to great lengths to tip the competitive advantage in their favor. Even the length of the grass is meticulously planned. Having played Costa Rica in a WCQ at old Saprissa Stadium I can tell you this from personal experience, it was terrifying.
SUM is the marketing partner for CONCACAF so it made a business decision, without consulting the coach of the National Team, to prioritize profit, which gave our competition an advantage by hosting a game in a location that would produce the highest turnout of their fans. Bryan Ruiz spoke in an interview after the game about how enjoyable it was to play in front of so many of their fans saying “we felt very, very comfortable.” This decision contributed to the US failing to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, costing our Federation tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. It’s a decision that never would have been made without this conflict of interest.
In response, USSF posted this on twitter:
U.S. Soccer Statement in Response to Comments About U.S. National Team Venue Selection: pic.twitter.com/p4eoyttBOj— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) January 8, 2018
While it seems like there could be a conflict of interest with the CEO of SUM sitting on the Board of Directors, Martino himself said there was no proof of what he was claiming and then demanded that the federation prove its innocence for something he has no evidence for.
What’s more troubling than the baseless comments that SUM chose the venue is that Martino is conflating the issue of a conflict of interest about SUM with a take that Costa Rican, and Costa Rican-American, fans are to blame for the U.S. failing to qualify to go to Russia. If Martino wants to make an argument about why SUM is bad for U.S. Soccer, there is a way to do that without undermining his position that he wants to unite people and make the game more diverse in the U.S.
Furthermore, if there was ever a bad time to drop a take about why the U.S. didn’t qualify for the World Cup that blames the diversity of the country, it is the day that Jonathan Gonzalez, a once potential future dual national star for the team, decided to take his talents south of the border. As SBN Soccer writer Kevin McCauley points out, “It’s a monumental failure on the part of the federation, and one that could hurt really badly for a long time.” McCauley went on to note that some of the best players for the U.S. have included dual nationals like Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Tab Ramos, and Earnie Stewart.
Those players joined the team because of a concerted effort to get them to rather than go play for another country they were eligible for. The U.S. took a different route in this latest qualifying run, building a roster that was largely MLS based for marketing reasons according to something Danny Williams was told, which Arena denied despite other comments and roster choices featuring a large percentage of MLS players.**
The thing that’s super frustrating about this is that Kyle Martino understands that it is a huge problem for Gonzalez to choose Mexico over the U.S., saying on Twitter:
Laying the blame of a Duel-National choosing to play for the other country at that player’s feet because they don’t see ‘we are the better option’ is the very reason they don’t choose us. That arrogance continues to harm us.— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) January 8, 2018
He even discussed why it is important to reach out to Latino players and develop relationships with Latino fans in order to keep dual national players:
The real issue, I think we would all agree, is that USSF has done a poor job of establishing affinity within Latino communities. We lose players and fans because they don’t feel served by or connected to our Federation. That is the biggest problem we must solve.— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) January 9, 2018
Yet he doesn’t see the way that his comments and ideas hurt the game in the U.S. and could help repeat the monumental failure of not securing the services of the next Jonathan Gonzalez. Rather than step back and see how what he said might come off as xenophobic, he even doubled down on his comments about Red Bull Arena in a Twitter thread. There Martino alternates between saying that the stadium isn’t why the team lost, which contradicts his earlier point about SUM making a marketing decision that led to the team failing to make the World Cup, and that the away fans gave Los Ticos a competitive advantage.
However, instead of criticizing SUM for one of the dozens of other ways it affects the players, he has managed to make comments that could alienate Costa Rican-Americans and other Latinos who he wants to attract as players or fans by telling them that as President he doesn’t want them attending games. Luckily, Martino plans to hire a Chief Diversity Officer, hopefully he picks someone who can explain to him how his comments run counter to expanding the sport to the groups he hopes to as president.
The entire episode illustrates what has been a consistent theme in the USSF Presidential campaign: the candidates have a very difficult time translating their ideas and principles into a plan to lead the federation. For Martino, and those who may think the U.S. needs to play matches to restrict away fans from attending games, thinking through those policies can lead to some dark places quickly. This is something it seems like he hasn’t considered based on this odd policy idea he has about allocating tickets to matches:
8. Ticket Transparency: Institute either clear merit-based or randomized process for offering team access, field access, seats, etc. to members and member organization for USMNT and USWNT matches.
Since the opening round of the Hex began, U.S. Soccer has been careening down a path that has led to one set back after another for the federation. This includes: losing two home games during the Hex, failing to qualify for the World Cup, lawsuits filed by a league that the USSF seems happy to let fail if not actively hurt, and now a baffling case of negligence leading to a star player in the best league in North America deciding to represent the biggest rival of the U.S. With candidates who can’t seem to put their ideas into policies, and may even have some that would work counter to what they do, the election may not pave the way for resolving these and other problems. Indeed, it may make them even worse.
**Author’s note: This paragraph originally concluded saying, “which is largely supported by comments made by Bruce Arena in the past.” This was changed so to not misstate Arena’s denial of Williams’ claims.