Reforms planned after internal criticism leads to 'wake-up call' for U.S. Soccer

U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro presides over a meeting of the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
President Carlos Cordeiro and the top brass at U.S. Soccer have admitted that there's a work-culture problem within the federation. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

If the reports are to be believed, the U.S. Soccer Federation isn't a great place to work.

Long hours, low pay, a lack of direction and deference to the powerful old guard were cited in reports from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that labeled the federation as a "toxic" place to work.

But whether those characterizations are true or not — and, for the record, U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro denies labels of toxicity — it's clear the federation is trying to change.

The fullest glimpse of those efforts came at U.S. Soccer's December board meeting, where Cordeiro and board members discussed everything from the federation's budget and its CEO search to the future of the NWSL. For the first time, the board also heard from Tonya Wallach, the federation's new chief talent and inclusion officer, a position that didn't even exist two years ago.

With a small, fledging team, the new "human capital" department at U.S. Soccer has been trying to figure out what changes are needed to retain talent at U.S. Soccer House. That started with an "engagement survey" and a series of focus groups to identify where the federation needs to improve.

"Engagement really is one of the most important indicators of performance at any company," Wallach told the board. "It's not happiness, it's not satisfaction. It's the emotional connection that our employees have to the work that we do and it results in extra effort, right? Engaged employees are the ones who show up each day ready and willing to do the work."

The results of those surveys have led to plans for several reforms that are in the works. They run the gamut from minor changes, like loosening the employee dress code and adding an organization-wide process for comp time, to changes that get at the heart of those negative reports about U.S. Soccer.

In 2020, U.S. Soccer will add performance reviews for all employees, which will be tied to compensation, and employees will each be put on their own development paths to grow within the organization. In other words, to the extent that promotions and raises may have felt arbitrary to employees in the past, they shouldn't be going forward.

"We heard from our employees that they wanted more of a merit-based system," Wallach said. "A merit-based organization is one where the best people and the best ideas win, where all employees have a chance of succeeding and equal chance at the rewards available at the organization. That requires minimizing the effect that biases have, both conscious and unconscious. The way we do that is by establishing processes."

Wallach asked the board for approval in creating a talent committee, which will oversee that evaluation process. Cordeiro will serve as chairman.

Don Garber, the commissioner of MLS and one of the U.S. Soccer board's pro council representatives, said every public company and league has a similar committee, and it was a "no-brainer" that he would vote in favor of it.

"Right now, how are we evaluating CEOs and other employees?" Garber asked.

"We don't," Cordeiro said.

Cordeiro, who was elected as president last year and inherited many of the federation's problems, is insistent that U.S. Soccer is modernizing, and the talent committee will be a big part of that. The federation has never conducted surveys to solicit feedback from employees before, and it's never had any sort of employee evaluation process.

“I can’t overstate the importance of this," Cordeiro said. "As we have grown from 80-odd staff to 180-odd today over the last seven years, and are projected to go to close to 300 in a matter of a few years from now, having these processes in place is absolutely vital, that we provide our employees the opportunity understand what the goals and objectives are and know they'll be treated fairly.”

Anonymous allegations and a ‘wake-up call’

The string of negative reports about the state of affairs at U.S. Soccer House can mostly be traced back to a spat of reviews posted on the employee review website Glassdoor over the summer.

"Toxic environment" was the headline on one. "Intervention needed," read another. "Avoid this job," another warned.

Although the reviews were anonymous and anyone can leave a review on Glassdoor without needing to prove they work at a given company, the New York Times later spoke to employees who said the reviews accurately reflected their own feelings about working at U.S. Soccer House.

Speaking to reporters after the board meeting, Cordeiro took a skeptical view of whether the reviews reflected widespread feelings in U.S. Soccer House, but he simultaneously insisted the federation had taken them seriously all the same.

"Obviously something happened to trigger it — there's no denying that," Cordeiro said. "But no one's bothered to ask the question about the coincidence of four or five of these reviews all being done within 24 hours of each other. We take them seriously, but look at the history of Glassdoor vis-à-vis U.S. Soccer."

"I thank Glassdoor, and I thank those who actually chose to write, because it did provide us with that wake-up call," Cordeiro later added. "But I wouldn’t take it to the other extreme, to say this place is burning down. That’s a disservice to the people outside (who work for U.S. Soccer)."

While the recent reports about U.S. Soccer paint it as an organization with egotistical, power-hungry leaders at the top, Cordeiro and those associated with the federation offer a very different view: The federation just got too big too fast, and it was never appropriately scaled. In other words, the problems stemmed from negligence more than malfeasance.

"To be fair to us, to be self-critical, I don’t think we managed our growth as best as we probably should have," Cordeiro said. "Up until very recently, we still managed U.S. Soccer like it was some 50-person organization run out of some kitchen. Not to be disparaging, but U.S. Soccer House is a little bit like that, right? I think Glassdoor was a good wake-up call, quite frankly. It alerted us to, potentially, some tremor lines."

The engagement survey that Wallach presented to the board was done in September partially in response to the Glassdoor reviews and the New York Times report. U.S. Soccer hired a consulting firm, Leadership Research Institute, which interviewed 25 senior staffers and the entire U.S. Soccer board, Cordeiro said.

Now that Cordeiro and the top brass at U.S. Soccer have admitted that there's a problem, they have to prove they are actually fixing it, which should start next year.

The talent committee should officially be approved in February at the federation's Annual General Meeting. And a new CEO — which will likely be an outsider rather than longtime string-puller Jay Berhalter, who seemed to be the target of some Glassdoor reviews — will also play a major role in shaping the federation's culture. But that's still a ways away.

Carlos Bocanegra, an athlete representative on U.S. Soccer's board, may have summed it up best when it was his turn to speak at the board meeting: "It's been a tough time to be associated with U.S. Soccer. It really has. So I think everybody appreciates that in this room and what it means for everyone here to fight through that, to keep going.”

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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