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A return to the centre | Cordeiro wins out in testy US Soccer election

When the United States Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in over three decades, social and grassroots ire resolved around the election for US Soccer Federation president, resulting in an unexpectedly testy campaign. 

Much of the anger was focused on outgoing president Sunil Gulati, whose 12-year tenure ended at the Annual General Meeting in Orlando on February 10. Gulati’s tenure saw financial success – the USSF enjoys a budget surplus close to $150m – but diminishing success on the pitch, legal challenges and a governing style that rankled. Gulati announced he would not seek another term in December. 

An eight-candidate field fought over polarizing topics – promotion and relegation, solidarity payments and training compensation for youth clubs, the role of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) and the multiple pieces of pending litigation the federation faces – but yielded a decisive winner in Carlos Cordeiro, the sitting USSF vice-president.

Considering he had served as a USSF board member for over a decade perhaps it should not be a surprise that Cordeiro won close to 70 per cent of the vote on the third ballot, after leading on the two previous voting rounds. But entering the weekend of the election many felt Kathy Carter, backed by MLS and – reportedly – Gulati, was the front-runner. Many insiders were surprised by the movement toward Cordeiro on each ballot. 

Cordeiro’s victory means both MLS and the North American Soccer League – which officially backed Eric Wynalda – both lost. But for MLS, Cordeiro represents a far safer option than any of the candidates that were reportedly tied to NASL, especially the league’s publicly endorsed candidate, former US Men’s National Team star Wynalda. 

Cordeiro’s coalition was built on youth and adult amateur soccer delegates as well as the unanimous support of the current and former players who make up the Athlete Council. Why exactly did Cordeiro prevail? Here are some key points: 

Evolution, not revolution

Cordeiro – with his experience but willingness to question USSF’s relationship with SUM and perhaps embrace a dues rollback for youth and amateur registration – appeared to the majority as the right man to institute internal reforms without rocking the boat and blowing up the professional and youth structures. 

Youth and adult soccer leaders wanted a receptive president but also one that would offer informed leadership. Cordeiro – seen as a good listener and a consensus builder – emerged from the crowded field in the days leading up to the election as the clear first choice of many. 

The former and current players that make up the Athlete Council have a unique relationship with the sport’s governing body in the United States. Many owe their livelihood and success to the USSF’s investment in the game, but at the same time are outspoken about the need for reform and progressive changes. 

The Council backed Cordeiro because of his familiarity with the system, his business background and his willingness to act independently from the USSF leadership and MLS when necessary. 

Much of the media coverage of the race for USSF president was focused on the six insurgent candidates. They ran on similar platforms, but the “Gang of Six” reformers never managed to put together a unified strategy.

The anger that was evident among supporters and fans on social media toward the federation dictated to a large extent the combative tone of the race. This in turn pushed the six reform candidates to take positions that in retrospect might have cost them institutional support. 

As six big egos – four ex-US internationals and two prominent attorneys – no one was willing to step behind another. So despite a groundswell of support from fans – particularly for Wynalda and Kyle Martino – the race essentially became a contest between Carter and Cordeiro. 

Carter was too tied to MLS,  and a perception developed among delegates that she did not have enough first-hand knowledge of the amateur or youth game. Given her time involved with the game, many commentators said they were surprised Carter didn’t have a firmer grasp on issues outside MLS. 

Ultimately, the election was decided by a combination of insiders, former players and important stakeholders in the youth and amateur ranks – a group that is aware of supporter angst but largely immune from it.

In an election defined by extreme ideological disparities, the centrist won.

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