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You barely even need to ask a question. Just mention any issue facing American soccer, grand or minute, and Kyle Martino gets rolling. He’s been up since 6 a.m. It’s his 14th phone call of the day, with a 15th at 8:30 p.m. still to come. He’s just devoured his first true meal between the 13th and the 14th. And yet he’s as animated as ever. Passion flows.
Perhaps it’s that passion has collided with opportunity, and Martino senses it. We’ve reached an “inflection point,” he says. “This is our moment,” he said in a board room in Chicago two weeks ago – our moment to alter the course of U.S. soccer, the entire American soccer landscape. And to do it, Martino thinks the course of U.S. Soccer – the federation itself – must be altered as well. That’s why the former MLS midfielder is running for president.
“This is our chance to finally elect a soccer visionary,” he told youth soccer executives at that meeting in Chicago. And it’s not the first nor the last time he’ll use those two words. Soccer visionary.
In the wake that infamous October night now known simply as “Trinidad,” Martino’s phone started buzzing. It was former teammates and opponents, coaches, friends, all emitting emotion and concern. After Martino publicly stated he wouldn’t – couldn’t – enter the presidential race, the phone calls multiplied.
Martino isn’t sure he’d be running if it weren’t for Trinidad. In fact, he doesn’t think he would be. But that’s just because Trinidad provided opportunity.
“The heartbreak creates hysteria,” Martino says over the phone. “That hysteria isn’t good when it’s misinformed, and when people think the problem exists at the national team level. That’s what was concerning in the aftermath. [Trinidad] was a symptom of a systemic issue. The federation isn’t growing a soccer culture. Ninety-five percent of the people I talk to” – of the state association reps and stakeholders he’s sounded out since deciding to run – “never mention the national team. They never mention the top of the pyramid. That’s not how you build a soccer culture.”
So how do you?
Building U.S. soccer from the bottom up
Martino doesn’t have all the answers scrawled out on a notepad or stored somewhere within his brain. He’s spent the last month-and-a-half traveling and organizing phone calls to try to find them. He’s spent the last month-and-a-half listening. He held a soccer summit in New York last week. But he certainly has some thoughts of his own.
“99.9 percent of the kids who get into this game won’t make it to the top of the pyramid, so why are we planning for the top of the pyramid?” He questions. “The national team will benefit by the federation finally servicing the largest part of the membership. That’s the beginning of your soccer experience, as you come into the game.”
The key is getting people into the game by reducing barriers to entry. The question gnawing at all eight U.S. Soccer presidential candidates is how to go about that. Martino and his campaign team have combed through the federation’s budget to see how money can be spent more efficiently, and earmarked for scholarships, subsidizing coaching licenses, building fields, and so on. He also wants to dip into U.S. Soccer’s roughly $150 million surplus, and into the private sector. He wants to empower the U.S. Soccer Foundation, or other organizations like it. He’s launched an initiative of his own, one he’s calling “Over/Under,” a privately-funded project aiming to build goals under inner-city playground basketball hoops.
Martino’s bottom-up approach – one other candidates have discussed, too – is about more than just bringing players into the system. Those players, Martino points out, are also American soccer’s future coaches, administrators, and, most importantly, fans for life.
Creating those fans for life also requires enjoyment of the game. Martino talks about introducing more “disorganized components” to youth development, “where there aren’t coaches and parents yelling about drills and winning games.”
He tells a story of a recent phone call with former U.S. national team star Mia Hamm, a player he idolized as a kid. We have an epidemic, he says Hamm told him. Kids aren’t having fun anymore. He also recalls a recent visit with Thierry Henry, during which the former French star showed him a presentation from Barcelona’s famed academy, La Masia. On every other page, Martino says, in big, bold letters, were the words: “MAKE SURE THAT THE PLAYERS ARE ENJOYING THE EXPERIENCE.”
Reforming U.S. Soccer as the president
The main problem with Martino’s ideas is that many think these decisions shouldn’t be his to make. They don’t think the president should be actively charting the course of U.S. soccer or U.S. Soccer. And they don’t believe a 36-year-old former player with no high-level executive experience should be the president. Martino would be an outlier in global soccer.
But he’s adamant the presidency should be a full-time, paid, hands-on role. And he’s adamant it should be filled by a “soccer guy.” By that “visionary.”
“We just had a business guy, and that led us to the lowest point in our soccer history,” Martino argues. “We don’t have a business problem. We have a soccer problem. If U.S. Soccer is a company, its product is soccer, and it hasn’t been run by people who are product experts.
“All of the comments to assuage fans’ concerns from the establishment are that the budget has grown, the surplus has grown. A lot of what they’re trying to do is say, ‘Look at how much more money we’re making, of course we’re making progress.’ But it’s like the CEO of a company doing stock buybacks to inflate the stock price, instead of spending money on R&D. Yeah, you increase valuation, but the product suffers.
“And that’s not to say the federation hasn’t done good things.” It is to say, though, that, “at this inflection point, it’s incredibly dangerous, when we have a soccer problem, to elect someone who admitted they’re not a soccer person, or someone else that may have conflicts of interest that won’t really bring the soccer person in them out.”
He doesn’t mention them by name, but he’s clearly referring to current U.S. Soccer vice president Carlos Cordeiro and Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter. Martino acknowledges the counterargument that they – the “establishment” – will make. That, rather than give hands-on responsibility to a “soccer person” in the president position, the federation should scale back the president’s influence. U.S. Soccer’s board of directors reportedly moved in that direction last weekend in Toronto. “I don’t believe the president should be our technical director, unequivocally,” Carter recently told Yahoo Sports.
[More FC Yahoo: Q&A with U.S. Soccer presidential candidate Kathy Carter]
Martino doesn’t necessary believe that either. “You have to have a president that’s qualified to be a technical director, but doesn’t want to be one,” he says. And he pushes back on the validity of a structure where the business person leads the federation and surrounds herself or himself with soccer people.
“I was just in New York City in meetings, and I could’ve thrown a rock and hit a very good businessman. I would’ve thrown that same rock 100 times and never hit a very good soccer mind. The businessperson is the easy part. And we have a great businessperson at U.S. Soccer, his name’s Dan Flynn, he’s the CEO. So this idea that the president needs to be the business guy is a misdirection.”
And what about the idea that the president need not be either? That he or she should simply be chairperson of the board, in a part-time, unpaid capacity?
“All of [the board members] have other full-time jobs,” Martino said last month in Chicago. “And as a part-time job, [they] come in to oversee U.S. Soccer. … We need a president who’s doing the full-time job of going out and finding out what needs to be done in this country. If we think that’s a part-time job, with a full board of part-time people, it’s a really, really dangerous thing.”
He follows up on that over the phone: “Maybe eventually, when you fix the structure, and there are actually checks and balances, yeah, you could probably move in that direction.” But, he says, the federation “never modernized, they never created checks and balances. So people who had good intentions, who have put their life into this game, because of the lack of transparency and checks and balances, they couldn’t be protected from themselves. They made decisions they shouldn’t have been making. And those decisions have harmed the soccer country.”
Martino and his team are developing a “progress plan” that includes various suggestions for bylaw reforms to increase transparency. They have a skeleton right now, and hope to release the full plan on Jan. 15.
But, of course, he would need to win the Feb. 10 election to put the plan into place. And he knows there’s urgency. Now is the time – perhaps the only time – to enact change.
“Of course it’s a business, and of course we have to focus on budgets and surplus, and be fiscally responsible,” he says. “But we have to understand that, if we don’t flip the pyramid, and have the federation actually at the bottom, and have the entire soccer culture sit on top, we’re destined to continue this stasis that’s leading to a lack of progress.”
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