Runners and riders | Our guide to the USSF presidential hopefuls

  • Failure of US men’s national team to qualify for Russia 2018 has shaken up the race
  • Support for grassroots football a key issue
  • Several candidates propose to introduce promotion and relegation in some form 

The development of soccer in the United States has taken a different course than in most other nations. While the United States Soccer Federation has invested tens of millions of dollars into the sport, the professional league structure and mechanisms for player development differ radically from other parts of the world. 

For years, the United States has had vocal critics of how the sport was run domestically but prior to the failure of the men’s national team to qualify for Russia 2018, those voices were often heard in isolation. Since then, the critics of the structure and governance of the sport in the United States have become louder and more mainstream. 

Those voices now dominate the election for USSF president, which will take place February 10 in Orlando. Incumbent Sunil Gulati, for long the most powerful man in American soccer and a sitting member of the Fifa Executive Committee, has stood down in his re-election effort, leaving the door wide open for a new voice to shape the federation’s future. 

Key issues in the race

Among the major discussion areas are the cost of individual player development fees. In the United States, soccer is more a middle-class or upper middle-class sport due to the high cost of participating at the academy level. Critics claim this “pay to play” formula disenfranchises many working class and minority youngsters from developing talents and pursuing a professional career. 

The concept of “solidarity payments” to youth clubs which have developed pro players is closely linked with the issue of pay-to-play. Currently the United States does not permit solidarity payments, but several youth clubs have filed claims with Fifa regarding transfers that have been completed by MLS to European clubs. 

Promotion and relegation in the US system has been talked about for years as a remedy to lack of investment and player development in the lower divisions. During this campaign, the conversations about this subject have become more detailed than ever. Multiple candidates have offered plans to move forward with promotion and relegation in some fashion. 

Additionally, the marketing and media rights deals the USSF has with MLS’s marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, have come under intense scrutiny, with one candidate – Kyle Martino – openly claiming a conflict of interest among USSF leaders that are alleged to hold an equity stake in SUM. 

In allowing SUM to broker media and other commercial partnerships for both US Soccer and MLS, many claim the federation has focused on building up MLS at the cost of being a fair broker to all stakeholders in the US game. 

This week, Hope Solo, a former standout US Women’s National Team goalkeeper filed a complaint with the US Olympic Committee alleging that the USSF has “neglected its fundamental obligation to develop soccer in America”. Central to Solo’s premise is the relationship between MLS and SUM, which she considers damaging to the development of the game beyond MLS.

The Candidates

Paul Caligiuri

Scorer of arguably the most significant goal in US Men’s National Team history, which qualified the nation for the 1990 Fifa World Cup – its first in forty years. Caligiuri's candidacy has struggled to gain support outside of his home state of California and the UPSL, an adult league sanctioned as a national 4th division. 

Funding sources: Self-funded.

Key proposals: 

●    Equal salaries between men and women players
●    Create a women’s Futsal league to spur player development and improve technique at a youth level
●    Cut player registration fees at the youth and adult levels

Kathy Carter

The establishment candidate, Carter is the President of SUM, whose relationship with the USSF has become a major point of contention in the election. Carter was a college soccer player at William and Mary and one of MLS’s first employees, hired in 1995 before the league kicked a ball. She left MLS for a short period of time in the late 1990s, but since returning has become one of the most powerful people in the American professional game. Her candidacy plays on her decades of deal-making and marketing experience and the financial success of MLS. One of the favorites to succeed Gulati. 

Funding sources: Self-funding and family.

Key proposals: 

●    Push for bigger bonuses to women from Fifa tournaments 
●    Create a US Soccer General Manager position to oversee day-to-day technical operations, in theory minimising the president's role in technical decisions
●    Hire a diversity compliance office for the federation 

Carlos Cordeiro

A retired Goldman Sachs executive, the Indian-born Cordeiro has spent over ten years on the Board of Directors for US Soccer. Cordeiro is considered a business-savvy candidate and has created good will with many of the former US players who have a vote in the February election. Cordeiro is considered an establishment candidate but isn’t perceived to be as averse to reform as Kathy Carter. Cordeiro has maintained lots of influence within the corridors of power in US Soccer even after distancing himself from Gulati.

Funding sources: Self-funding

Key proposals: 

●    Create a General Manager position for both the men’s and women’s programmes 
●    Develop a Technical Committee chaired by a former player 
●    Create a committee to handle commercial and media partnerships 

Steve Gans

Gans has long been preparing to run for this position. A veteran lawyer with extensive soccer playing and consulting experience, he has been an influential figure in New England’s youth soccer scene. He has also worked as an advisor to English Premier League clubs and represented Fenway Sports Group, now owners of Liverpool, in its initial foray into soccer. Gans also represented Fulham at a time when they grew the club’s American profile enormously. Gans hasn’t gained the amount of support from youth soccer leaders that would be expected.

Funding sources: Self-funding and personal friends, though none with business in front of US Soccer

Key Proposals: 

●    End the centralisation of referee programmes and administration, at least temporarily
●    End the playing of USWNT matches on artificial turf 
●    A comprehensive review of the US Soccer Development Academy programme

Kyle Martino

A former USMNT and MLS player who has spent five years as an on-air analyst for the Premier League on NBC Sports. The best-supported 'insurgent' candidate, Martino has engaged global leaders in the sport, including Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore and former Arsenal and France great Thierry Henry, who has formally endorsed Martino’s candidacy and campaigned for him. 

Funding sources: Gofundme.com donations, Rick Van Benschoten, Eric Eisner, Ralph Martino, Matt Popoli and Michael Meyer (Per SI.com) 

Key proposals:

●    Renegotiate the current Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA’s) with members of the US Men’s and Women’s National Teams.
●    Devote 25% of the USSF’s budget to low income areas and recreational programs. 
●    Institute Promotion and Relegation throughout the US professional league system by 2030

Hope Solo

A former US Women’s National Team goalkeeper, Solo is a World Cup winner and considered one of the best goalkeepers in the history of the women’s game. But she has also been at the center of numerous controversies including arrest for domestic violence and her comments about Sweden’s tactical approach following elimination from the 2016 Summer Olympics. Her last-minute entry to the race turned heads.

Funding sources: Self-funding 

Key proposals:

●    Equal pay for women
●    Creation of a citizen oversight committee
●    Host regional town hall meetings with state soccer associations  

Michael Winograd 

Former Lafayette College player who played professionally in Israel. Now a corporate attorney in New York. Winograd is an outsider candidate who has impressed many analysts with his deep understanding of both the youth and professional landscape in the country. He is well-connected among youth soccer leaders and helped found a lower-division club, the Staten Island Vipers.

Funding sources: Self-funding

Key proposals:

●    Place a US Soccer training center in every state
●    Stabilize the lower divisions as a precursor to promotion and relegation
●    Create a framework to begin to phase out “pay-to-play”

Eric Wynalda

Eric Wynalda

The 4th leading scorer in USMNT history, Wynalda had a storied playing career domestically and in the Bundesliga. He has coached in the NASL for the Atlanta Silverbacks and served in various technical roles. A long-time broadcaster, Wynalda was most recently an analyst for Bundesliga and Uefa Champions League matches on Fox. Long one of the most polarizing figures in American soccer, Wynalda’s calls for reform of the system are now winning converts. He has endorsements from the leadership of NASL, startup third division NISA and the semi-professional fourth division NPSL, but rather less support from establishment quarters.

Funding sources: Family and friends as well MP & Silva founder Riccardo Silva, the owner of NASL club Miami FC 

Key proposals:

●    Institute promotion and relegation throughout the US league structure
●    Shift US professional leagues to the same August-May calendar as top European leagues 
●    Institute a tender process for all USSF contracts 

Note to readers: Riccardo Silva is majority owner of SportBusiness Acquisitions Limited, the parent company of SportBusiness Group, which publishes SportBusiness International.

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