U.S. Soccer Federation’s presidential election Saturday felt like an inflection point in a seemingly endless conversation that’s gone on for the last four months.
The topic of how to fix the USSF has been wide-ranging, fiercely discussed and bitterly divisive ever since Sunil Gulati stepped down after the U.S. men’s national team crashed out of 2018 World Cup qualifying at Trinidad & Tobago.
On one side of the equation stood those who did not want to shake things up too much. Change had to come, but it could not come at the expense of what was already in place. Those following this line of thinking generally backed either Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter or, to a lesser extent, USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro.
In contrast, six other candidates saw opportunity to dramatically shake up the system or, better yet, completely overhaul it and start over. Television analysts Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino spoke of transparency and openness and building a grassroots campaign through state federations. Soccer outsiders Steve Gans and Michael Winograd had business credentials to run organizations, even if they did not have the specific soccer chops. Hope Solo and Paul Caligiuri added their voices to the conversation, but many considered their bids longshots at best.
Many national federations that miss out on soccer’s crown jewel event go through an evaluation process. Italy and the Netherlands certainly had its fair share of hand-wringing and fallout from failed bids this winter.
However, the U.S. fallout seems much different than what those European powers went through. The total amount of voices trying to be heard in the U.S. made anyone standing out difficult to a soccer public that really wants a full autopsy into the wreckage that was the failed USMNT bid. Further, the conversation is not focused on just the men’s national team. When it comes to the discussion of U.S. soccer, there is no off-topic angle–men’s versus women’s national team pay, pay-for-play, Major League Soccer vs. European players, youth development, etc.
Given the cacophony of voices trying to passionately make their case, it’s little wonder that the rhetoric became fierce and the campaign at times downright nasty. Instead of change being something to work toward, the tone at times became that of a scorched earth approach–burn it all down and start over.
What’s led the USSF to this reckoning and inflection point? I can think of three reasons:
Keeping up with the Joneses
At first blush, this is just a natural process any national federation goes through once failure occurs. If the bar is that of Germany or Brazil, look at what they did in overhauling their systems to be more competitive. If that’s too high a bar, look at England or France when they failed to qualify for the World Cup and/or Euros and how quickly they recovered.
There’s a natural hunger to change anything that fails and the desire to see the men’s national team back at the level it was just a few years earlier fuels this passion.
Yet, all this desire for change tends to obscure the numerous positives about the USSF. The women’s national team is in a pretty good spot at the moment. Although some of the old guard that won an Olympic medal and a World Cup are gone, the youth movement throughout has the USWNT still at or near the top of the sport. Also, the youth teams are starting to develop talent that’s ready to take the next step for the senior national teams.
And there’s Christian Pulisic.
Fans let their voices be heard
There was plenty of dissatisfaction with the Hexagonal campaign even before the men’s team lost to T&T. Early losses to Mexico and Costa Rica put the U.S. in a hole and led to the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann and the retread of Bruce Arena to try and save qualification.
Instead, the fans became more irate with curious playing decisions and the absence of certain team members. As the fan base continued to be restless, hope still remained for qualifying. After a convincing 4-0 performance against Panama in Round 9, the U.S. appeared all but in the World Cup.
Once the USMNT dropped its match at T&T, U.S. soccer fans raised their already loud voices and demanded something be done. The deafening roar on social media eventually helped put pressure on the USSF to remove Arena and eventually Gulati from their respective posts.
In an ironic way, the loss was perhaps the best thing to happen in showing that the U.S. is a passionate soccer nation.
A rotting system finally exposed
Perhaps the loss to Trinidad & Tobago finally was the band-aid that needed to be ripped off to fully display the issues underneath the surface.
Many of these issues needed to be addressed much earlier, but got put on the back burner. Breezing through qualification the previous three cycles kept things status quo on the outside while underlying issues festered or were simply pushed aside. Even watching Mexico struggle but still qualify for Brazil in 2014 did not register as a warning shot that something like this could happen to the U.S.
Without the men’s World Cup as a distraction, all the ancillary issues that were pushed aside now came to the forefront as a tidal wave. The fractures that had been papered over are now full display. Those issues now found voices and people willing to listen to them.
With the election of Cordeiro, U.S. soccer is in a tough spot. Those who sought change or transparency find it difficult to trust Cordeiro to make the kind of alterations they desire. If their candidate did not make it, it’s almost a “to hell with the system, then” approach.
For those that elected Cordeiro, he represents an opportunity to be an insider while making incremental process toward some kind of change, especially if the U.S. intends to co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada.
I tweeted this about the election once it was over (forgive the incorrect spelling on Cordeiro in the tweet).
If Cordiero was the candidate you supported for #USSF President, great…hold him accountable for what he does going forward. If he wasn’t your candidate..still hold him accountable. Good governance doesn’t end after an election. Push for transparency and accountability.
— James Wold (@jameswoldbdc) February 10, 2018
But I think good leadership is respected when a person or entity owns up to a problem and seek advice from others to take corrective action. If USSF and the new pres does that, it will go all long toward an open, honest and healthy dialogue.
— James Wold (@jameswoldbdc) February 10, 2018
Honesty and transparency will go a long way in bridging the divide that consumes USA soccer. If Cordeiro is smart, he will hold himself accountable to the stakeholders of U.S. soccer.
Because they will be watching.