Why a U.S. Soccer revolution failed despite widespread calls for change

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The United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup led many to believe change was on the way. But no anti-establishment presidential candidates did enough to be able to deliver it. (Getty)
The United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup led many to believe change was on the way. But no anti-establishment presidential candidates did enough to be able to deliver it. (Getty)

Failure, a wise man once said, is opportunity.

Opportunity for change.

And for precisely four months, that’s what American soccer fans were promised.

It’s what they clamored for. It’s what they yearned for. It’s what they lobbied for. It’s what they begged for. And in the weeks and months following the biggest failure in U.S. Soccer history, they found their change agents. They found their revolutionary leaders. They found their champions.

They found Kyle Martino, and Eric Wynalda, and Steve Gans, and others, people who, in many ways, thought and spoke like they did – without concern for appeasing the establishment, and with a thirst for change. People, who, like they did, understood that relationship between failure and opportunity.

“This is our moment,” Martino said two months ago, passion shrouding fatigue on his 14th phone call of the day. “This is an inflection point. … And I’m fearful if we miss this opportunity, it might not come up again in the near future.

“If we miss that opportunity, I’m fearful of where this thing heads.”

And yet Saturday morning in Orlando, when the third-ballot results in U.S. Soccer’s presidential election flashed up on a screen and applause began to crescendo, Trinidad was an afterthought. The biggest failure in American soccer history might as well have just been a petrifying nightmare. Carlos Cordeiro, the one federation insider out of eight candidates, had won with 68.6 percent of the vote. No outsider eclipsed 15 percent on any of the three ballots. And fans fumed.

Cordeiro, to be clear, will not be a Sunil Gulati clone. Both his actions and his words speak to that. In his final months as vice president, he was one of the driving forces behind the creation of two general manager positions – one for the women’s program, one for the men – which the board approved in January. He has called for more oversight of business deals, and has pledged to put soccer decisions in the hands of “soccer people” rather than his own. He will be different.

But his election is anything but the awakening that many thought Trinidad would provoke. It is not the big-picture course correction that other candidates promised. It is not a sharp left turn. Rather, it’s a continuation along a seemingly endless path, albeit with the potential for reinvigoration. It’s an extension of the establishment’s reign.

It has left many feeling empty. And not just fans. One defeated candidate declined an interview request Saturday afternoon, telling Yahoo Sports via text message that “having a voice” is “pointless.” After months of hearing that grassroots stakeholders wanted a shakeup, Saturday’s result was incredibly deflating.

But therein lies the disconnect. Why, if so many stakeholders wanted a shakeup, didn’t they vote for it?

There are several answers. There are four that matter. One is that MLS, affiliated leagues, the USSF and athletes they employ(ed) control roughly 40 percent of the vote. The other three reasons are a bit more complex.

A bona fide challenger never stepped forward

In the end, chief among the shortcomings of the so-called “gang of six” was the absence of a bona fide anti-establishment candidate. Neither Wynalda nor Martino, the two most personable and eloquent among the six, had any experience running an organization, leading a board meeting, managing a budget, and so on. They simply weren’t qualified. Neither were Gans and Michael Winograd, both of whom lacked necessary soccer credentials and intimate knowledge of the federation. Neither were Hope Solo and Paul Caligiuri, who never stood a chance.

We can discuss platforms and political maneuvering all we want – and we’re about to do just that – but the bottom line is that no candidate with sufficient soccer experience and leadership experience came forward to challenge Cordeiro and Kathy Carter. Voters didn’t feel comfortable choosing a 36-year-old TV analyst to run their $100-plus million organization over a savvy operator with extensive connections throughout CONCACAF and FIFA. And frankly, you can’t blame them for that.

The election’s – and U.S. Soccer’s – fundamental question

From the moment they entered the race, Wynalda and Martino had one big task: They had to redefine the word “qualified.” They had the re-frame the role of the president, and therefore the skill set necessary. Martino in particular did a decent job of that. He talked about the need for a “soccer visionary.” Both reiterated that the U.S. has a “soccer problem” that requires soccer solutions.

But where their candidacies broke down was in the details. Because there simply weren’t enough.

This was the biggest impediment to change, the painful lack of specific plans among the “gang of six.” They talked about building state soccer centers and regional training centers and inner-city futsal courts; about subsidizing registration fees and coaching licenses; about making the game accessible for kids and adults who can’t afford it.

And then over on the other line sat Cordeiro, pointing out that all of this costs money. A lot of it.

The fundamental question underlying many decisions that U.S. Soccer makes is whether business success kickstarts soccer success or vice versa. It was the fundamental question of the election, too. And there are compelling arguments for either side.

Cordeiro insisted on the current path. The conservative path. The slow build. He argued that astute business will grow the budget, which will in turn fund programs that, in the long run, improve the soccer. “And it becomes a virtuous circle,” he told Yahoo Sports in December. But a slow moving, arduous circle.

The counterargument is that the biggest revenue generators for a national soccer federation are the national teams. Sinking tens of millions of dollars into youth soccer initiatives that may or may not bear fruit isn’t fiscally responsible in the short term; but if they do bear fruit, and the national team improves, the return on the investments will be lucrative. The federation, the argument goes, should therefore sacrifice minor revenue sources for the betterment of the game whenever possible. That means making coaching licenses cheaper, allowing youth clubs to keep 100 percent of registration fees, hiring scouts to ensure better Latino outreach, and so on.

This, implicitly, is the path Martino, and on a more extreme scale Wynalda, were advocating for. But it’s the risky path. To be convinced it was the right one, soccer stakeholders needed hard evidence; they needed in-depth proposals for how changes would be implemented, and detailed breakdowns of how they would be funded. They never got those. Without them, they likely didn’t feel comfortable taking the plunge. Call them risk-averse if you want. But risk aversion isn’t always a bad thing.

Cordeiro’s political shrewdness

There was, seemingly, a legitimate hunger for change. But while the “change candidates” failed to convince delegates they were capable of enacting it, Cordeiro convinced the same people that he could satisfy their hunger. He positioned himself somewhere in between Carter and the “gang of six” on the change continuum, conveniently helped by his apparent split with Gulati.

He also knew how to conduct a campaign, having won one two years ago, and having convinced many of these same voters to support him then. He spent much of his time operating behind the scenes, and used his select media interviews to push himself ever so slightly toward the outsiders; to pitch himself as a moderate reformer. He siphoned off some of the establishment vote and some of the anti-establishment vote. Critically, he wooed the Athletes’ Council. And when it became clear the “gang of six” had no chance, the votes naturally slid across the change continuum to him, not Carter.

He was preferable for some, and palatable for many. He’s now under pressure from all to back up his words and deliver change.

But it won’t be sweeping, overarching change. It won’t be a revolution. That unique opportunity, which seemed so energizing after heartbreak had subsided, led right back to where it came from.

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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.