U.S. Soccer presidential race heats up as former players jab at establishment

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Hope Solo is one of four former U.S. national team players running for U.S. Soccer president. (Getty)
Hope Solo is one of four former U.S. national team players running for U.S. Soccer president. (Getty)

PHILADELPHIA — Hope Solo did not need an introduction, and she did not need a warm-up act.

The gold-medal goalkeeper and U.S. Soccer presidential candidate appeared first among the eight finalists at a forum Saturday at the United Soccer Coaches Convention, and she was spirited and strident from the opening salvo.

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“The Federation has failed you,” she told the crowd of club coaches and industry bigwigs – including outgoing president Sunil Gulati.

Solo spoke for several minutes before taking pre-arranged questions, and she went after two of her fellow candidates for failing to sufficiently help the women’s national team in its fight for equal pay.  She called them out by name: Kathy Carter and Carlos Cordeiro. “At least two of the candidates,” she said, “should be eliminated from your ballot.”

Next month’s election has turned from boardroom boredom into a populist movement, as Solo and fellow former players Kyle Martino, Eric Wynalda and Paul Caligiuri went after the soccer establishment. Together, they made the corporate types seem drab and detached. “The soccer product is broken,” Martino said. “I think you deserve to hear the truth about why we are here,” Wynalda added. But it was Solo who was the most blunt, painting the U.S. Soccer Federation as a tone-deaf dictatorship.

“People in Chicago,” she told the crowd, some of whom nodded in response, “should not tell you how to run soccer in your state.”

The question is, who should? It was clear throughout the two-plus hours that U.S. Soccer has both an elitism problem and a communication problem. Local clubs feel marginalized. Parents in working and middle-class areas feel frozen out because of cost and the winnowing of perceived top talent. Soccer is the world’s game, but here in this country it feels like a game for the upper crust. For the most part, the candidates here voiced the promise to change that.

“In almost every single call I’ve made to state associations,” Solo told Yahoo Sports after her time on stage, “there’s frustration with the federation, disappointment, there’s even heartbreak.”

The candidates’ approaches to the forum varied tremendously. Martino was both well-versed and folksy. He had an entire pamphlet to hand out to the audience. He has phoned everyone from Mia Hamm to Steve Nash throughout his campaign, and quoted them in his remarks and his answers. He neatly handled his own affluent background by complaining that he had never had a Spanish-speaking coach. “How is that possible?” he lamented.

Wynalda was more off-the-cuff. He promised hard truths at the outset of his remarks, and the audience seemed to creep to the edge of their chairs. But he never really delved into those truths or how to address them. He suggested the joint North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup “might not happen,” yet he didn’t clarify.

Caligiuri may have been the most pleasant surprise. Wearing a business suit, he spoke plainly and offered specifics. He wants to make all high school coaches into Olympic Development Program scouts. Yet he raised an eyebrow or two in the crowd by praising Gulati, asking for an ovation for the outgoing president for doing a “marvelous” job. One club coach who didn’t want to be named in this story dismissed that as “political.”

Most of the candidates appeared nervous at times. The pressure was high. Steve Gans, a Boston-based lawyer, broke into a continuing sweat as he spoke. Cordeiro responded to one question with what seemed like a moment of stunned silence. Solo’s voice vacillated at times.

But polish is probably not required in this election. Club coaches interviewed after the session by Yahoo Sports generally panned Cordeiro and Carter as establishment voices. They want a fresh look, a ground-up approach, and someone who is generally unencumbered. The question is how much change they really want. A modification, like player-turned-lawyer Michael Winograd? A shift, like Caligiuri? A jolt, like Martino? Or a burn-it-down maverick like Wynalda or Solo?

Saturday’s event would have been better if it was a debate, which was the initial plan. To succeed in this position, a candidate has to be able to challenge and be challenged. The first three questions everyone faced in the forum were ones they knew were coming.

“I was ready for a debate,” Solo said afterward. “I wanted to ask Kathy Carter directly, ‘Where was she in our fight for equal pay?’”

The election is Feb. 10, so this was likely the last, best chance for the candidates to broadcast their message to the public and the voters. The phone calls and meetings will continue until the vote in Orlando. But it was telling on Saturday that these sweeping statements were hardly at all about the embarrassing loss that ousted the men’s national team from World Cup qualifying. What began as anguish over an embarrassing game has turned into a toppling of a soccer structure in America. This isn’t about Christian Pulisic as much as it is about the next Christian Pulisic.

“In order to change the situation, remove them from power,” Solo said, “you have to fight for it.”

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