Don Garber and Sunil Gulati campaigning for Kathy Carter illustrates SUM/USSF conflict of interest

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Sports Series

Current U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati and MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who is also a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation Board of Directors and the CEO of Soccer United Marketing, have taken an active role in SUM President Kathy Carter’s run for USSF President according to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl. This is after the duo denied trying to influence Kathy Carter to run for USSF President and said they weren’t taking an active role in securing her support for the position.

The entire article is worth reading, even with the auto-play videos and onslaught of advertising that pops up, but basically the outline of the story is that at a dinner attended by Kathy Carter, Gulati, and Garber on Tuesday December 19th, the Eastern New York State Soccer Association committed to vote for her as U.S. Soccer Federation President while Garber and Gulati were there to get support for her from the association.

As association president Sal Rapaglia said in an interview with Wahl, “Let’s put two and two together. So they support her, naturally, which is good. She’s got a big help. If she’s in trouble, Sunil could help her, you know.…[Gulati and Garber] help her, and we’ve got everything going. We [the state associations] just vote.” Wahl also noted that other sources at the dinner say that Garber and Gulati were actively trying to get support for Carter at the event and in the past Wahl had reported that the two were influencing her to run in the first place.

Wahl further reported that Garber denied he was there to campaign for Carter, but the MLS commissioner added, “I think she’s really qualified to lead the federation. And I will support that effort. But again, she needs to do the work to convince the majority of the membership that she’s the right person for the job. And I have been consistent there. I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to think that Don Garber is not going to support Kathy Carter as president of U.S. Soccer.” Somehow, Garber, who referred to himself in the third person, believes he can say “I will support that effort” but not think that he’s campaigning for her when he says that.

For his part, Gulati said, “Kathy has asked me a couple times to introduce her to the New York association folks. When I got invited to the dinner, I told them we might have a surprise guest. Kathy came to part of the dinner, and actually Don stopped by as well. I’d mentioned to him if he wanted to come by for a drink [he should], and he’s done that in the past at some of these dinners as well.”

Ghosts of fat cats past

The entire episode has a certain Chuck Blazer-type feel to it. Denials, deception, and backroom deals hark back to the days of corruption and embezzlement that were supposed to be a part of past. There’s even a peppering of sexist comments from ENYSSA President Rapaglia about Carter that add a layer of creepiness to the story. While the embezzlement and apartments for cats may not be a feature of powerful figures in soccer in the U.S. these days, transparency and what is in the best interest of the game have not replaced them.

It also brings up some questions that Gulati, Carter, and Garber should answer:

The story further illustrates that the links between MLS, USSF, and SUM are indeed too close and are at best a conflict of interest. Garber, as CEO of SUM, personally has a lot to gain from ensuring that the links between the three organizations stay strong and grow. For example, the SUM agreement with USSF is set to expire in 2022 and having the former president of the company running the federation, or up for re-election by then, after he helped get her elected would be a big chip to cash in when it comes time to renew the agreement.

And yet, Carter doesn’t think it is fair to call her moving from a corporation that gains massive profits off of the federation to running it a conflict of interest. Indeed she might be right, it may very well go beyond a conflict of interest and be a case of obvious corruption.

In response to the article Carter issued a statement to Wahl, saying:

Since announcing my candidacy, I’ve spent every single day meeting with and calling members of the federation from around the country. I’ve asked a number of people to make introductions for me and I appreciate the opportunity to make my case. My job in every meeting and conversation I’ve had is to share my vision for the game, earn respect and trust, and ask for support—that’s on me. Every member then makes their decision based on my experience, qualifications, and passion for making soccer the leading sport in this country.

In no way, shape, or form does Carter’s generic statement address that Gulati and Garber have been lying about actively supporting her. It also doesn’t explain how she can be committed to transparency while also accepting the backroom work of Garber and Gulati to secure support for her in the election.

This is all futile

The fact that the two most powerful people in the sport in the country have been lying about campaigning on Carter’s behalf, an act she hasn’t condemned them for, and in the past denied that they were doing, damages her credibility and should lead voters to question her ability to impartially lead the federation while she talks to them about earning respect and trust. Despite that, it might not matter and could even help her cause.

Not to sound too much like a nihilist, but it’s clear that this is a completely futile exercise. The voters who would have been inclined to vote for Carter because she seemed like a continuity candidate who wouldn’t threaten their interests will still do so. In fact, knowing that Garber and Gulati stand behind her in this case may make them and others more likely to support her.

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter a lot what fans say and think about all of this because there are two votes that the fan council gets out of 1,300 that will be cast. Hanging banners in stadiums and making noise online may have helped lead to Sunil Gulati to decide not to run in the election, but that may end up being the only victory fans can claim in deciding how the election goes. Other voters have their own set of interests and voting procedures that align with what they want to get out of the election.

For example, MLS will control 64% of the votes cast in the Pro Council - which translates to nearly 17% of the overall votes that will almost certainly be going to Kathy Carter. The ENYSSA is a member of the adult council, which among other things organizes the U.S. Open Cup. It isn’t clear what the value of their vote is, but it is conceivable that the association that covers an area that includes the largest city in the United States could be significant.

When Sunil Gulati told Sam Borden of ESPN, “the general perception in the soccer community versus the people who vote in elections may be different right now," this is what he meant. While that may have been self-preservation, it could also be put another way by saying, it doesn’t matter what the public thinks about this election since they don’t vote in it. There are about six weeks from now until the voting for the next federation president kicks off at U.S. Soccer's National Council Meeting on February 10th. A lot can happen between now and then, but this case illustrates how difficult it will be for a candidate advocating for change to be elected.

Comments

One step forward, then ten steps back

This is disappointing to say the least.

The gall of this lady and our federation is appalling

Her running would be like the CEO of BP running to be the head of the Department of Energy. And she actually claims it wouldn’t be a conflict of interest??

Unfortunately, you’re probably right that she’ll get enough of the vote and we will see very little if any change. SUM and MLS and the USSF will continue to be an alliance of corrupt money grabbers who’s only true interest in the sport centers around marketing and exploiting the sport.

It’s a well written article by you, and it’s a good piece of work by Grant Wahl as well. Maybe it sways a few votes to look away from the powers that be.

You say that like it's something shocking, but the current head of the EPA is a guy who spent most of his adult life trying to get it dismantled

What's shocking is she claims it isn't a conflict of interest

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that she (and Garber and Gulati) want that power. It’s nonsense.

Perfect for the times of a Trump Administration: #1 Goal is regulatory capture.

She is going to win and there isn't much we can do about it.

Seriously considering boycotting all USMNT and USWNT games if she wins.

Let's not punish the proletariat

for the sins of the aristocracy.

Not that I plan on doing it or think it will work

But we don’t really have any other form of revolution available. Guillotining folks is frowned upon these days.

I like the guillotine idea, but we should probably hit them in the pocket book instead.

Boycott the businesses that sponsor MLS and USNT. This way only the profit takers are hurt and not the players.

I agree. There's only so much one can do in a not-so democratic system

If she wins, I won’t watch. There is no other way to force change. I 100% will not support MLS, and I won’t have much national team coverage to consume since this current system lead to the US not qualifying, so turning that off isn’t a stretch. I prefer watching the US youth perform for their club teams anyway, and since MLS is anti-youth, I’ll stick to the Bundis, Liga MX and hopefully EPL if a few yanks can break through.

perhaps this is all smoke and mirrors and she’ll turn out to be great, but until she proves it, she can do it without my support.

I'm in the same boat

Supporter of the UMSNT since the early 90’s. Followed them around US in ‘94. Went to France in ’98. Germany in ’06.
If Kathy Carter and the status quo is what the USSF and the voters go for – I’m out. One can only support this bunch of corrupt idiots for so long.

I don't think it will work.

But you can’t boycott MLS because most people in this country already are, so they use expansion fees to hide their losses. And they sell MLS rights with USMNT and USWNT rights to avoid the embarrassment of realizing no one wants their shitty product. What else can we do? They have hijacked our game and it is appearing like only a complete collapse will allow us to take it back. Maybe creating a shadow federation will force FIFA to step in and sanction one of them, but honestly I don’t see that as realistic either. We are stuck, we sold our soul 20 years ago and now we are reaping the rewards of it. We are forever destined for mediocrity.

I agree the federation is a disaster, but this seems melodramatic to me

Billionaires are not paying $150 million to bring teams into MLS because they’re stupid, so even if the expansion fees are covering losses, that’s not evidence of MLS’ impending failure … quite the opposite actually, it’s a sign that wealthy people who are capable of due diligence see MLS as a wise investment even if the numbers aren’t there currently. And they’ve packaged MLS rights with the national team to gain leverage to get their product on TV. These are smart business decisions for MLS that do little to no damage to the national team.

Now, having the power to get a manager who was critical of MLS fired and replaced by an MLS stooge who then proceeds to tank the qualifying campaign by comically over-favoring MLS players instead of just picking the best players available? That’s a big problem. Letting the leader of the federation "fall on his sword" and then replacing him with another anonymous stooge ready to do MLS’ bidding and thinking nobody will notice? That’s a big problem.

The sheer existence of MLS is not an existential threat to US Soccer. Even if literally nothing changes in the relationship in the overall relationship between MLS and USSF, there is still hope that these people realize the comic ineptitude of the past 12 months was a "jump the shark" moment and start realizing they are doing damage to their own brand by prioritizing it over the overall welfare of US Soccer.

I don't think they are stupid, but it doesn't mean they always make good business decisions.

ESPN, Fox, NBC, Turner, etc. won’t be able to keep throwing money to buy rights. What happens if ESPN/Fox decided it isn’t worth it? What ESPN does with MNF in 2021 will be very telling. Does MLS turn to NBC who can’t offer the same money? The future is in streaming so maybe ESPN and FOX figure out how to master that platform by then. But I doubt there will be as much money in it.

I don’t think MLS is a threat to US Soccer. But if their relationship doesn’t change and we don’t force an open system then we will never reach the potential I think we should be competing at given our resources and diverse population. We will forever be R16 of material and if we are all ok with that so we can keep our MLS franchises then so be it I guess.

If you can see these problems coming down the pipeline, then so can they

And they are still convinced that dropping 150 million to get an MLS team is worth it. It’s fair to point out the possibility of the entire sports industry landscape changing, and it’s fair to point out that not every business decision ends up being a good one in hindsight. But you make it sound like the writing’s on the wall, and yet people are still dropping huge sums of money to get in the game. I just don’t think that’s likely.

But if their relationship doesn’t change and we don’t force an open system then we will never reach the potential I think we should be competing at given our resources and diverse population. We will forever be R16 of material and if we are all ok with that so we can keep our MLS franchises then so be it I guess.

SUM packaging MLS games with the NT isn’t affecting our potential. MLS having franchises and not operating a pro/rel model isn’t affecting our potential. All we need to do is have USSF think about and prioritize USSF over MLS again. We need USSF to care more about development than they do about profits. And we sure as hell need the national team to care more about putting the best product on the field than they do about showcasing players who play domestically.

MLS has an important role to play in the ongoing improvement of the American soccer infrastructure. We just need to get them out of the USSF board room, or at the very least, get them to figure out that they are sustaining long term losses in their pursuit of short term goals.

We're going to disagree about MLS franchises.

Part of focusing on development is allowing the system to naturally grow. Real clubs in real communities building relationships that help foster development with our youth players. Anything else is artificial and glossing over the real problem.

We do agree that MLS on it’s own isn’t keeping us out of the WC, the collusion between our federation and MLS is. And the things you are saying are at least a step in the right direction. And if that is a first step in a plan that gets us moving towards an open system then I am all for it.

MLS Teams Are in Their Communities

I mean, I don’t know if you simply don’t keep up, but most MLS teams these days have free or low cost academies and most teams invest some serious cash in them. The Sounders U12 team just got back from playing a tournament with Premier League U12s for example Sounders Truce Tournament. Sending 12 years to a prestigious tournament for free certainly seems like an investment. We’ve seen what happens with an "open league" like NASL in the US, investors swarm in and you get stuff like Rayo OKC, where the ownership buying in didn’t even know where Oklahoma City was. I’m fine with an open city someday, but right now it’s not feasible and quite frankly, the closed system isn’t the problem.

You have missed the point.

The NASL was never in an open system because it functioned within USSF. And the academies that the MLS franchises have opened are absolutely a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough for a country of this size and frankly asking our federation to scour the country looking for talent is unwise.

The burden, as in every other successful soccer country, is on independent clubs to cultivate youth within their own community and develop it. USSF should just be the umbrella that the system functions in not the gatekeeper locking franchises and communities in a division.

We aren’t going to agree on this and that’s fine. As long as we are willing to admit there are problems we can work together to find solutions.

We've had this argument before, but ...

You have this notion that the possibility of promotion is what drives these independent clubs to exist. That’s simply not the case. Many of these clubs in Europe have been there since before a unified league structure even existed. The clubs exist because there was so much love for the game in the community that they wanted to form an official team and go play other official teams, and that organically created an entire league system that helped teams play other teams in their relative talent sphere. If Europe didn’t have pro/rel, these clubs would still exist. If Europe didn’t have leagues AT ALL, these clubs would still exist. Further, most of the independent clubs that develop all this talent know they have little to no chance of ever making the top flight, and it doesn’t stop them from developing talent.

We don’t have the kind of en masse love for the game here to support that kind of organic club system (and in pockets where we do have that kind of love, there is nothing stopping a club from being created). And while MLS (with USSF’s backing) is definitely a gatekeeper, they aren’t exactly shutting people out entirely. They have allowed teams into the league at a rapid pace, and using a methodology that does a much better, more targeted, job to ensure the teams that come in have the support necessary to be viable. If we were using pro/rel to determine which two teams should join MLS, we’d be getting RSL’s second team and Louisville City, while Cincinatti’s 20K attendance per match toils away in sixth place. It would have taken a team like Atlanta United years to create a club from scratch and work all the way to the top flight, and the process would have needed a lot of luck to be achieved in short order. Instead, with MLS acting as "gatekeeper", we have yet another recent expansion success story setting an MLS record for attendance.

Eventually, they’ll have to stop expansion to keep the league from getting bloated, and pro/rel will come. But, for now, when there are still clubs in major markets that struggle to gain support, it remains a good idea to determine which clubs come into the league by viability instead of success.

This is incorrect.

But I don’t want to keep yelling into the void in another argument that leads no where. I don’t expect an open system overnight and as long as we are all willing to demand transparency from our federation and that they start doing what is in soccer’s best interest rather than MLS’ best interest its a good start.

Youth Clubs Have Little To Do With Pro/Rel

I think you’ve gotten your wires crossed a bit, youth clubs train well, youth in Europe, they generally aren’t in the pro/rel scene. Sure, a few guys may come up through the 4th tier of soccer as a 12 year old or something, but generally speaking they’re scouted way before that by big clubs and integrated into their training academies. The independent youth clubs that feed the big clubs’ academies are in no way looking to climb the pyramid, they exist to train young players and sell them to bigger clubs; there’s nothing about the current "closed" soccer pyramid that says we can’t have youth academies selling to MLS clubs, or NASL or USL aside from pay to play, which is a seperate issue.

As soon as I saw eight candidates were running I realized that we were going to get the shitty establishment choice

The rest are just a sideshow.

Get the lawyers ready...

Might see a lovely little lawsuit on the horizon if Carter should win. And maybe that’s what it is ultimately necessary, considering how the voting process is so obviously rigged – the corrupt SUM/USSF/MLS relationship needs to be subject to more legit legal discovery (at least, more than what we have seen so far from the NASL court cases).

Piqueing the interest of the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York wouldn’t be a bad idea either…

Pretty sure two of Carter's opponents are lawyers

Convenient.

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