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Kyle Martino: USSF has “lost touch” with its membership

Martino has cast himself as a listener who doesn’t have all the answers, but is willing to find people who do.

Kick In For Houston Charity Soccer Match Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images for FOX Sports

Listening to Kyle Martino speak is kind of like searching for a recipe in these modern times: inevitably you have to scroll through someone’s 1500-word charming, heartfelt story about what the dish personally means to them to get to the actual ingredients and instructions. That was the case on a conference call between Martino and various soccer media on Tuesday as he mixed anecdotes about growing up and the names of various people who have endorsed him or spoken to him about the issues (David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Mia Hamm) with actual soccer policy. Martino poked fun at himself, admitting “You guys knew I’d be long-winded,” after about 20 minutes of delivering his thoughts on the election so far, before diving into another 10 minutes of soliloquy. But if you dig a little, Martino does indeed have a message, and he got into several planks of his platform on the call, laying out his overall message that “Our federation has just lost touch.”

“They’ve atrophied,” he said. “And a lot of the inertia of this game that’s grown the sport, some of that they deserve credit for and some of that is just where this beautiful game was headed.”

Martino called this a “change election,” citing a disgruntled membership, particularly at the youth level. “I represent the change needed in this election,” he said. “I’ve been at every level in the US Soccer system... I have no obligations to any party in US Soccer. That means I can go about this pure of heart, wanting the game to be the focus, the members to be the focus.”

For the record

One rumor that Martino addressed right off the bat: he won’t be dropping out to consolidate his vote with another candidate who would give him a vice president role in USSF. “I’m not making any deals,” he said.

And about the position of president becoming a paid one, Martino said it was up to the membership and not an agenda he was pushing on his own. “Some of the members feel strongly that that will improve the quality of candidates that come forward to challenge every four years. It will create accountability so we know what the president is doing,” he said.

On his opponents

Martino also walked a bit of a tightrope in discussing other candidates. In response to a question about the negative tone surrounding the election, Martino called it “really, really disappointing.”

“Most of the membership I’m on the phone with say it disappoints them,” he said. “It’s abhorrent and it should stop. I’ve yet to talk to someone who enjoys these attacks. Everyone in this campaign, we’re all different. We all have our strengths, we all have our weaknesses. There’s no perfect candidate for US Soccer. We’re all people. And I think we’re all good people that have the good of the game as our priority and that’s our motivation.”

Martino balanced his call for a civil election process with discussion of what he saw as some of the missteps from his fellow candidates and their supporters.

“One candidate has a platform that’s titled ‘aim higher’. [Ed - this is Carlos Cordeiro’s slogan.] And that platform and its slogan shows how out of touch some people are with thinking that ambition is our problem,” said Martino. “Ambition’s not our problem...aiming higher is not our problem. In a way it’s sort of a Freudian slip. I think aim too high in where we invest our budget and our surplus. We invest all of our money too high and we hope that it trickles down to these local levels and it doesn’t. And I think you look at Jurgen Klinsmann getting $3 million a year salary versus 10 years we’ve spent $3 million on financial aid, you see that the problem isn’t that we’re aiming higher, the problem is we aren’t recognizing the federation should exist lower, should be underneath the soccer pyramid.”

He had stronger objections to Kathy Carter. “If I was a voter and I had to push a button, I wouldn’t be able to push a button for Kathy. Not because she’s not qualified, and not because she’s’ not smart and not because she’s not a wonderful person.... But why I couldn’t push the button is I think that conflict of interest is a real one. The commissioner of Major League Soccer is also the CEO of the company that she is president for and the commissioner of Major League Soccer also sits on the US Soccer board. The organization she runs was built and now is owned by Major League Soccer. It’s hard to get over a conflict of interest without an explanation why it’s not a conflict of interest. And questions that either Kathy or others involved have faced on this issue, the membership are dissatisfied with the answer that they’ve given.”

He backed that up by pointing to Carter’s suggestion she would name Casey Wasserman to head an independent commission to review American soccer. “To suggest that the head of an agency that represents so many professional soccer players in this country, including Major League Soccer players, to suggest that that person should have a formal relationship with US Soccer was a move that did not assuage concerns that that conflict of interest is not an issue,” he said.

And what about things like accusations of secret phone calls to voters to discuss candidates?

“There’s no rule against board members supporting candidates, lobbying for candidates, or people with special interest doing that,” said Martino. “But the members are upset with all of this clandestine behavior because it should be done publicly. You do things in darkness that you’re not proud of. So if you feel strongly about a candidate and about a platform, get out there and say it.”

Women’s soccer

One topic that came up in several questions was how Martino would approach the relationship between US Soccer and NWSL. Much of it was spurred by the folding of the Boston Breakers, one of the league’s founding teams and one of the oldest brands in the American pro women’s game, and questions focused on how Martino might have ameliorated that loss or what he would do to prevent a similar situation in the future.

“Major League Soccer had this exact same thing happen with Miami Fusion and other teams dropping out,” he said, “And sometimes you have to take a step back to consolidate the strong owners that believe in the longevity of the game and then come up with ways to underwrite losses in the short term to get over humps.”

Martino made a point to emphasize how much of his answers were informed by conversations with current NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy and once again pointed to expansion as a top goal for the league. Martino has said before one of the ways to expand NWSL is to tell potential MLS owners one of the prerequisites of joining is also fielding a women’s team. When asked in a follow-up call if he had concerns this could lead to NWSL owners who weren’t fully committed to their women’s teams or treated them as secondary after their men’s team, he said, “I think we can learn a lot from the ways that MLS teams felt like second-class citizens to NFL teams. That wasn’t right....[to play soccer] in an NFL stadium or on the NFL training fields and have to wait your turn.”

“So the ways that you can do that is create training policies and facility policies that create an equitable agreement so that no one’s left – it’s kind of like the adult community and the youth community in soccer, it’s the same thing. The youth are prioritized over the adults.”

Martino was still a bit cautious about the policies that USSF could set to help benefit NWSL. “This can’t be done unilaterally by me so I don’t want to offer suggestions that both parties don’t think is beneficial,” he said. “It’s about bringing MLS, NWSL, and the players union together to come up with an agreement on how this relationship can be equitable. If that agreement can’t be made then I don’t think it is beneficial to grow the MLS way because of the treatment you’re suggesting could happen.”

A common theme

What came up over and over again for Martino was his insistence that it wasn’t necessarily about the money, it was about making sure what money exists is properly spent in service to the membership, and that he has done his due diligence in listening to that membership. “We have a soccer problem and not a business problem,” he said.

“The revenue and the surplus has grown exponentially but there still is an exodus of players out of the game. Participation’s down 25% from last aren’t having as much fun anymore. So it seems that profit is being used to demonstrate progress and that’s misinformation. Of course it’s great to grow budget and surplus, but only if you know what to do with it.”

So where does that leave Martino in terms of position in the race? He acknowledged he and his team believe he’s part of a group at the front of the pack, but called it “a bit humorous” to see anyone trying to name an actual percentage.

The AGM is fast approaching, with voting to take place on February 10. Campaigning will no doubt fly fast and furious in these last couple of days. Whoever wins, fans will surely be placing heavy expectations on the next president.

Why not take our straw poll on who you prefer as the next USSF president? Fans don’t get a say in the actual vote, so griping in a comments section might be the closest you get to the election.