How U.S. Soccer plans to redesign its sporting director job
U.S. Soccer plans to narrow the focus of its sporting director job as part of a slight but significant restructuring near the top of the federation.
The role has been vacant since Earnie Stewart departed last month. In 2019, it was essentially created for Stewart, who extended his responsibilities beyond the U.S. men's national team, to all of U.S. Soccer's national teams and even to the sport's broader American ecosystem.
But now, as U.S. Soccer's leaders conduct what they are calling "a global search" for Stewart's successor, they have also changed the job description. President Cindy Parlow Cone said Saturday that the new sporting director, whom they expect to hire before July's Women's World Cup, will "really focus on our national teams ... and our technical plan at the elite level."
They have essentially split Stewart's job — which "was huge," Parlow Cone said — into two. They will create a new position to oversee the broader landscape. That new executive, who will report to CEO JT Batson, will focus on everything from coaching education to referee development, and on "growing youth and adult participation," Batson said.
This will, in turn, allow the sporting director to work almost exclusively on the elite player pathway and the environments and structures surrounding U.S. Soccer's 27 national teams — from the USMNT and USWNT all the way on down to youth teams and what U.S. Soccer calls its extended national teams (beach soccer, deaf soccer and more).
The redefined U.S. Soccer sporting director role
It will also create a job description that better aligns with the skill sets of many qualified sporting directors throughout global soccer. Batson, speaking from the federation's annual general meeting in San Diego, told a small group of reporters that, in interviews with prospective sporting directors, candidates have given "a lot of very positive feedback ... around the narrowing of focus."
"Folks have been pretty direct around appreciating that evolution," Batson said.
What U.S. Soccer is looking for in its next sporting director, he said, is a "pro at identifying, attracting, retaining and making successful elite-level sporting talent, and someone who can own our technical vision."
And while that description is vague, and seems less influential than sporting director roles at clubs — where executives can sign and sell players, and actually shape the team on the field immediately — it will be more refined that it was previously.
Why U.S. Soccer made the change
Batson said discussions about the "evolution" of the role began in Qatar, between him and Stewart. He realized, in those conversations and others, that "to run our national team programs is more than a full-time job." This left other areas under Stewart's purview lacking the attention they deserved and required. "We were not able to focus — in the way we would all think we want to and should — on growing youth and adult participation; on growing the number of referees in this country; on growing the number of coaches," Batson said.
Those discussions with Stewart led to further conversations with other U.S. Soccer staffers and stakeholders around the country. And in their work with Sportsology, the consulting firm brought in to lead the sporting director search, "we got validation through the review as to how other federations [around the world] are organized, as well as feedback from our team around what's working well, and where are some challenges," Batson said.
"So," he said, "put all those things together, and that's what's led us to do this."
He and Cone acknowledged that there will be overlap between the sporting director position and the new position — in the talent identification realm, for example. And of course, for now, both are extremely conceptual; both could continue to evolve.
But the new delineation, Batson explained, is that the sporting director will be "looking at player pools of thousands or low tens of thousands, [and] coaching pools of hundreds" — the very top of the pyramid. "As an organization, we also need to be thinking strategically around player pools of millions, coaching pools of hundreds of thousands, referee pools of hundreds of thousands" — and that's what the person who fills the new position will do.
"Those are very different skill sets, and those are very different types of things to be thinking about day-to-day," Batson said.
As for the leadership structure atop the USMNT, and specifically whether the general manager position will be filled or phased out, Batson said that hasn't yet been decided; it will be decided by the new sporting director.
And he declined to go into specifics on the sporting director search, other than to say that he and U.S. Soccer have "been interviewing people from all around the world."