Michael Winograd wants to bring his problem-solving expertise to the U.S. Soccer presidency

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(Photo: Michael Winograd)
(Photo: Michael Winograd)

There was no one moment. No sudden realization, or single enlightening conversation, or triggering mistake that compelled Michael Winograd to run for U.S. Soccer president. But as the New York-based attorney began to navigate northern New Jersey’s youth soccer scene with his two kids, he was struck by a dichotomy that, years later, is at the heart of his plan for reforming the sport in America.

“Wait a minute,” he recalls thinking to himself. “Soccer today vs. soccer when I grew up is night and day. We’ve got a pro league, lots of money, it’s a whole different world.” But then he looked at the youth landscape in which he was now waist-deep, and thought: “Whoa, what is going on here? This has not kept pace.”

As a parent, he was befuddled. He, like so many others, struggled to differentiate between different types of leagues and teams with different three-, four- and five-letter acronyms.

That’s “when the contrast between the growth that the sport has experienced in the last couple of decades and the confusing and fractured landscape at that youth level really became apparent to me,” Winograd says.

And that’s when the conversations began. That’s when Winograd started to “probe” – to bounce ideas off various people entrenched in the game, and further familiarize himself with the problems American soccer is facing. Eventually, he decided he thought he could be the one to help solve them. Because, as he says, “this is what I do for a living.”

He hasn’t done soccer for a living in some time, which is why his entry into the race in early November came with little fanfare. He is viewed as an underdog in the Feb. 10 election. He is, in many ways, an outsider whose soccer credentials alone pale in comparison to his competitors’.

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But his pitch doesn’t revolve around his playing career – four years at Lafayette College, three in Israel – or his management stint with a local professional club. It revolves around his 17 years as an accomplished corporate lawyer, now at Ropes & Gray – around his time in board rooms with executives from Microsoft, Samsung, Bank of America, FedEx, Bain, TPG, and so on.

Winograd, 47, is selling himself as a problem-solver. He’s impressed pundits and fellow candidates. He’s come to the table with clear, refined ideas, and has reiterated them at candidate forums and in interviews. He has a five-point plan for cutting into pay-to-play and subsidizing coaching licenses. He’s proposed an innovative, even if perhaps unfeasible, interim promotion-relegation system that could appease both sides of a fervid debate.

But, he says, “obstacles aren’t always clearly defined. You need to be able to address them in real time.” That’s what he’s done “at much, much higher levels” in the corporate world, and it’s what he thinks he can do in soccer.

It’s how he’d approach the youth system. He stresses that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Because of geography, demographics and soccer infrastructure, no two states face the same dilemma. Winograd, therefore, wants to go state by state, convene experts and stakeholders from the various youth soccer sanctioning organizations, and find resolutions that are palatable for all. That doesn’t necessarily mean standing in the way of competition between those sanctioning organizations, but it ideally means getting everyone on the same page.

“Youth sports are now a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry,” he says. “So there’s more money there. When there’s more money there, there’s more businesses trying to get in and compete.” The result, he says, is “this conglomerate of overlapping businesses who have just been left to their own to go compete with one another. … You need some sort of structure and collaboration.”

The end goal is clarity for the consumer – for kids and their parents navigating a complex system, just like Winograd has. It’s defining a clear path to the national team or a pro career – a path, he says, that currently differs by region and state – but also defining paths for kids and families without those aspirations.

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He talks about establishing a soccer center in every state, with state soccer directors who are paid competitive salaries by the U.S. Soccer Federation. He talks about bringing in the top players in a given state to that soccer center for somewhere between 8-16 sessions per year, on blackout dates coordinated with clubs and state associations.

There might be unforeseen flaws in the plan, or resistance to it. But it’s those types of roadblocks which Winograd feels he’s qualified and able to clear.

He gives an example from outside the world of corporate law as well: “I volunteer at my local level. I just broke a deadlock that had existed for years, over building a park and an athletic field, between a whole bunch of competing factions – residents, neighbors, sports groups, preservationists. I got involved, spearheaded a committee, and [we came to an agreement] that everybody signed off on, everybody’s happy with, that gets the field built.”

Winograd believes similar skills would apply across the American soccer spectrum.

“We all know there are lots of problems,” he says. “Solving these problems is not about saying, ‘Hey, here’s a bunch of problems, let me pound the table loud enough to get everybody to pay attention,’” he says. “It’s gonna take somebody who can actually fix them. And it’s what I do.”

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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