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U.S. Soccer presidential candidates speak at United Soccer Coaches Convention

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The United Soccer Coaches Convention put the presidential campaign on full display.

SOCCER: OCT 06 USA v Panama Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Seven of the eight United States Soccer Federation Presidential candidates shared their platform at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia this week. The forums offered the industry, and voters, an opportunity to compare almost all candidates in a similar format.

I sat through over seven hours of presentations (they all ran long), questions from angry members of the U.S. Soccer community, and a variety of answers, and summarized my personal observations about each candidate. Repeated themes related to lack of transparency, equality and inclusion emerged and became the calling cards of many candidates.

Quick disclosure: I selected the good parts of the presentation and parts that I thought were concerning. My own point of view colors whether or not I selected each category, so I should disclose my point of view. While running the organization like a business and supporting investment is important, I believe the USSF needs to be more balanced in how it approaches nurturing the sport, from a parity and inclusiveness point of view. I also believe that America should have promotion and relegation at some point in the future. Anything related to those themes I labeled as good, but if you disagree, feel free to move them around to the category that fits for you.

Session #1 – Kathy Carter – moderated by Alexi Lalas

The good – Kathy Carter gave a personal and professional presentation. She certainly has an impressive resume of large roles within the U.S. Soccer landscape and knows the inner workings of the community. She said that “Trinidad was the rallying cry for all of us” and proposed a vision for change which included an independent commission led by Casey Wasserman to develop a plan forward. She welcomed the outside viewpoint of Wasserman, who recently won the 2028 Olympic bid for Los Angeles but is mostly a stranger to soccer. Carter said repeatedly that she wanted to make the members apart of the conversation as well, and would listen to all ideas.

The concerns – While advocating for change via new and smaller voices, Carter came across as an insider. “I’m in favor of what will drive the most revenue into our sport,” she said at one point. The current regime has been criticized for too much of a focus on financials and not enough on technical development, and that comment seems all too close to that criticism. Fans would like to hear that sentence end with improve the quality of players in our sport.

The net – People are justifiably concerned that a Carter presidency would be a continuation of the current philosophy of the Federation and the presentation certainly raised those concerns. But Carter impressed with her approachable personality, executive presence and vision to listen and install change. It all comes down to which of those two possible sides come out stronger.

Session #2 – Michael Winograd – moderated by Alexi Lalas

The good – Michael Winograd is a high-end legal executive who would be able to continue the tradition of running the Federation like a business. However, Winograd was very clear that revenue would not be a primary focus. Rather, success would be measured by the growth of players and talent in the game. His boldest idea is to create U.S. Soccer centers in each state to help with scouting, coaching and player development at a local level. He also spoke to equal pay for all national team players saying that it’s “unconscionable that we’re still having this conversation.” He also proposed lowering ticket prices, and at the same time had ideas for how to compensate for increased budget size he was proposing.

The concerns – Winograd has spent his career in executive board rooms, and while he helped start a local soccer club, would not start with the deepest appreciation of the players and culture within the landscape. He would be akin to electing an outsider to political office, which may be too big of a risk given a more technical focus on soccer is what this country needs most.

The net – Michael Winograd left a strong impression that he would run a tight ship and likely elevate soccer and Federation to a new level if elected. It’s unclear exactly how these new state run centers would interact with the Development Academy and the Olympic Development Program and may ultimately be an inefficient layer. Winograd’s lack of experience on the developmental side may be too big of a gap given the current needs of soccer in this country.

Session #3 – Paul Caligiuri – no moderator

The good – Caligiuri was the passionate fire and brimstone preacher who positioned himself as the visionary this country needs. He highlighted the current Federation’s issues with transparency, parity and inclusiveness and spoke about the need to fix each. “This is a non-profit organization. At this point we shouldn’t be dealing with issues of transparency and inclusion,” he said. His best formed idea was to invest in the under utilized resource that is the Olympic Development Program in a way that would complement the Development Academy. He also wants to involve our coaches more directly in scouting top talent. Caligiuri has 106 USMNT caps, played in the World Cup and also in the Bundesliga, so he’s seen soccer at the highest levels and served in a number of positions that show his solid experience at this level.

The concerns – While those present reacted favorably to Caligiuri’s passion, the overall vision was not clearly articulated. He seemed to want to punt those details down the line until he had a chance to talk to constituents. While listening first is noble, that strategy leaves doubts that enough homework has been done about what’s really ailing this country. Nothing Caligiuri said was “bad” per se but for a visionary, outside of a few ideas, I’d expect visionary ideas to be at the top of the list and there weren’t many.

The net – Passion would never be a question with Caligiuri but the ability to lead an organization of the size of the USSF and effect change is certainly an open issue. Finding the candidate with the perfect blend of development and business savvy is a tall order, and Caligiuri falls short on the executive side of the equation.

Session #4 - Kyle Martino – no moderator

The good – Martino opened his presentation with candid stories of his life in soccer, which revealed a human and humble side to the sharply coiffed television personality. He handed out a presentation to the audience (which you can access here) with a plan that he developed while talking to people all over the soccer community for the last 60 days. He positioned them as a launching point for further conversation. Similar to Caligiuri, Martino believes that this “inflection point” will succeed if we focus on youth soccer and localizing the game. “Return to the grassroots, make the game fun and ask the associations what they need,” he said, summing up how he sees the role of the Federation. He was listening to a broad group, and coming up with documented ideas.

The concerns – While his human approach was endearing Martino didn’t show the executive polish that some of the other candidates with more enterprise experience had. While he discussed surrounding himself with experts, there has to be a question how effectively he can lead the ~160 person Federation and beyond.

The net – In the battle of ex-players with tremendous passion to improve the game in the US, Martino gets the edge over Caligiuri. He was prepared and putting ideas on the table. The question with both candidates is will they support a candidate within a proven leadership track record.

Session #5 - Hope Solo – moderated by O’Brien Byrd

The good - Hope Solo offered a composed and articulate take down of USSF leadership during her time with the Federation. If anyone in the room thought that U.S. Soccer was on a decent path, they left with significant doubts. She opened with a ten minute story of how her “Cowards” comment, pointed at Sweden during the 2016 Olympics, led to her firing from the USWNT. The story painted the Federation as two-faced and opaque, but ultimately Solo understood her firing because she “was a thorn in the side of U.S. Soccer.” This is exactly how Hope Solo paints her candidacy, as a leader who will be relentless instilling equality and inclusion in the game. Like other candidates her focus will be on Grassroots and bringing soccer communities together and away from the business focus the current regime is so centered on. She will also take time to listen to the associations in all 50 states because she is not like Sunil Gulati, “Who thinks he knows everything.” Her session was easily the most intense and fun.

The concerns – If leadership experience are concerns for Kyle Martino then they have to be for Hope Solo as well. Solo also punted on a specific plan. She suggested that her step-by-step plan was coming, but not yet released, leaving too few takeaways in the minds audience. The audience was left thinking they must believe in Hope Solo to believe in her story, and with so many other candidates developing a platform of hard ideas, her presentation felt incomplete.

The net – Hope Solo’s tenacity and passion were on full display and her journey as a soccer player is painting support for Grassroots, ODP and the individual States. Exactly what those changes will be or whether or not she can effectively manage those changes are fair questions.

Session #6 - Steve Gans – moderated by Rachel Wood

The good – Steve Gans announced his desire to run for President back in May, before the Trinidad & Tobago debacle, which changed the landscape of the election. Had the USMNT qualified for the World Cup it would likely be just Steve Gans against Sunil Gulati for President. He positioned himself as the lone candidate with both business leadership experience and deep soccer expertise. Gans came across as personable as he spoke about how his German father’s passion for the game filled him for a lifetime. But he was also serious, as he recalled his “Listening Tour” where he heard time after time that members felt a lack of respect, and a lack of listening from the current Federation. He was also strong on equal pay and treatment for women, down to the fact that women play more frequently on AstroTurf, which isn’t fair. His platform is based on fairness, transparency and reform and he appeared genuine in his desire to shift the focus back to the game.

The concerns – Only one word comes to mind when I think about concerns and that word is “charisma.” Fair or not, we respond to charismatic leaders and Gans isn’t someone who will put a fire in your belly. That said, neither does Sunil Gulati. Gans reminds me very much of Gulati in that regard.

The net – Steve Gans appeared as a serious, experienced, high character person who is serious about building the sport of soccer for all people at all levels. While his platform is light on specifics he appears as though someone who would move the sport in that direction. However, if you’re looking for National Team success, that may not be his strength. His candidacy, for me, calls to question the role of U.S. Soccer as we move forward and what we should expect of our President. Our Federation would be in a good position if Gans became president, but I didn’t get the impression he could take it to an entirely new level.

Session #7 - Eric Wynalda – moderated by Alexi Lalas

The good – if you want charisma, Eric Wynalda oozes it. He told a story to Lalas before the discussion began about how he ate pizza for breakfast. He was getting laughs before the show even started. But Eric is another passionate ex-player who sees a tremendous opportunity to make a leap forward, and another candidate that espouses that the Federation does not show enough respect to players, coaches and associations. “I’ve learned that the Federation does not serve its members. It’s the opposite,” Wynalda said. On Development he has been disgusted by the sterile, “safe play” environments that kids in Development Academies are prone to. He’d like more risk taking and a different mindset when it comes to competition and scouting. Wynalda spent a good amount of time on promotion and relegation and said he as looking at different ways to approach it. “We’ve spent all of our time serving 18 markets and we have to open up other opportunities,’ he said, referring to the eighteen U.S. cities with MLS franchises.

He also shared a passion for the U.S. Open Cup, and was the only candidate to even mention the tournament as an opportunity. Lastly, he strongly believes that MLS needs to move to a FIFA calendar and outlined exactly how his preferred calendar would be laid out.

The concerns – I’m with colleague Kevin McCauley on this one.

While Wynalda has no shortage of improvements in mind it’s unclear how influential he could be in implementing the ideas. It will be a long battle with Don Garber to change the MLS calendar and ultimately its not the USSF President’s call. Along with the other ex-players he just doesn’t have experience running a large organization, and like those candidates that brings risk to voting them as President.

The net – Wynalda and his team of experts are on a mission to overhaul U.S. Soccer. The ideas are radical and controversial and at the same time point to a new culture where soccer would be shared among more people. If you’re opening a craps roll and praying for a seven, Wynalda would be the candidate.

If I had a vote – If you made it this far I feel like I owe you my “vote” for the election after listening to these presentations. I warmed up to Kathy Carter a great deal during the course of her presentation, but ultimately I’m concerned she won’t be enough of a departure from the status quo. And while the sheer growth of the game under this current leadership is impressive, there was enough venom coming from coaches and administrators in these sessions to suggest change is needed. Those sins include a lack of transparency and proper governance, and lost focus on parity and inclusion. Time to move on. For that reason I would take a risk with a different candidate. The two that stood out to me the most in terms of both personality and ideas were Michael Winograd and Kyle Martino. Between the two it comes down to enterprise leadership experience versus staying within the soccer community with a connected ex-player. Both candidates exhibited honesty and earnestness. Martino would be the bigger risk from a leadership perspective, but he would get my vote.

It’s clear the voters have their work cut out for them. There is no obvious answer among the candidates. Many of them offer similar platforms and experience, but also have unique wrinkles in their approach. My hope is that voters perform their due diligence and dig deeper into these candidates and vote for the person who will take U.S. Soccer to the next level, and that is to all levels.