After a contentious election, Carlos Cordeiro becomes new president of a fractured U.S. Soccer

The sitting vice president prevailed in an election in which "change" was the operative word. How did that happen? We explain.

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ORLANDO – Carlos Cordeiro was elected Saturday as the next president of U.S. Soccer, winning an eight-way race to succeed Sunil Gulati and the challenge of repairing a federation reeling from the men’s national team’s ouster from World Cup qualifying, which shed new light on long-standing conflicts in the sport.

The election required three ballots. On the first, Cordeiro (36.3 percent) and Kathy Carter (34.6) distanced themselves from the rest of the field.

The second saw Cordeiro pick up some support to 41.8 percent, and the field dwindled down to five.

Cordeiro finally nailed down the win on the third ballot, picking off most of Carter’s support.

The campaign was often bitter, especially on the fault line between the “establishment” candidates (on-leave Soccer United Marketing president Carter, and current vice president and longtime board member Cordeiro) and a slate of “reformers” that included four former (one possibly still current) top-level players and two lawyers.

The day before the election, the U.S. Soccer board met and shared concerns about accusations (and a lawsuit, courtesy of the NASL) thrown at the board on social media and elsewhere. An effort to unite six candidates against the two perceived “establishment” candidates fell apart. Rumors of voting blocs and accusations of unfair pressure flew around the giant Renaissance hotel outside SeaWorld in this resort city.

And the race changed rapidly in the final hours.

During a break between other meeting business and the election, several reporters tweeted that the king-making Athletes’ Council had decided to vote for current vice president and longtime board member Cordeiro, a shocker given the apparent resistance to bloc voting among some athletes and the overnight sentiment that Carter’s win was inevitable. U.S. Youth Soccer publicly endorsed Cordeiro as well, though such an endorsement wouldn’t necessarily sway state youth associations.

Even before the candidates spoke, the fault lines in the federation were apparent in the National Council meeting, the main event of the Annual General Meeting and the body that elects officers, when a member rose from the floor to speak in favor of a proposal to cut registration fees U.S. Soccer collects from $2 per $1 per adult, and from $1 to 50 cents per youth player.

The proposal was actually made by U.S. Adult Soccer Association president John Motta the day before in the meeting of the 15-member federation board and was voted down, 11-3 (with Cordeiro abstaining, a potentially costly move given the state associations’ discontent) under the rationale that it was too late to make a change to current budget, especially with an election looming in which eight candidates have their own plans to use or reduce those fees.

No vote was taken because the parliamentarian explained that such a move must be approved by the board first under the federation bylaws. But the speech drew a standing ovation, and another representative rose to remind the “front of the room” (the board along with the Pro Council and Athletes’ Council) that the members who stood to applaud weren’t just stretching their legs.

Given the timing, the issue was simply symbolic. But it was a definitive message that the state associations wanted to remind everyone of their importance before an election in which much of the focus was on the “establishment” and their perceived allies in the Pro Council and Athletes’ Council.

Final pleas for change fall on deaf ears

The months of campaigning – sometimes in public forums but mostly in private conversations with the diverse voters from state associations, national groups and athletes – ended with each candidate being given five minutes, with the order selected at random the day prior, to make a final pitch before the National Council meeting, the main event of the federation’s Annual General Meeting.

Paul Caligiuri, who scored one of the biggest goals in U.S. soccer history to get the men’s national team to the World Cup after a 40-year absence, complained about unspecified changes to the election rules and touted his ability to bring people together.

Gans, the first candidate to announce, threw a big party in the Renaissance hotel the night before the election. But the lawyer, former player and current player representative seemed subdued when he took the podium, pledging to unite disaffected associations and competing organizations.

Mike Winograd, also a lawyer and former player, said his ideas have resonated, then touted his experience within the game and also in the business world, representing big companies in big-money deals. “I’ve garnered support from across the spectrum, and I’ve said exactly the same thing to everyone,” he said, claiming his message could bring forth the unity U.S. Soccer currently lacks.

Next up was Carter, a longtime executive with MLS-affiliated Soccer United Marketing. She congratulated her fellow candidates, then embarked on a personal story about her love of the game before pivoting to her experience in soccer business.

Player-turned-TV-analyst Kyle Martino said this is a “change” election. All the people with whom he spoke asked for change. And he turned to departing board member Donna Shalala and hailed her call on Twitter for a revolution. He referred to the call to reduce membership fees earlier in the meeting: “We saw membership stand up and for something they’re not getting.” He pledged to follow through and listen on all issues.

Then came Wynalda, the populist firebrand. He looked intent on mending fences, pausing his speech to shake hands with Gulati. “The fight stops now,” he said. “Not until we stop fighting each other and start fighting together are we going to be a soccer nation.”

Hope Solo, the goalkeeping legend who complained about many aspects of the race on her popular Twitter feed, took the podium and immediately mentioned her complaint to the U.S. Olympic Committee that alleged the federation has forgotten its obligation to develop the sport for all. A vote for Carter or Cordeiro, she said, is a vote for disunity, discord and failure. Cordeiro in particular stood by idly, she said, while the women’s team was mistreated and the NWSL’s Boston Breakers folded. She also took aim at Carter, claiming a lack of transparency in SUM. After speaking well above a crescendo of music aimed at cutting off speeches at five minutes, she received a loud ovation, with a few people standings.

In a bit of awkward timing, Cordeiro followed. He said the status quo was unacceptable and asked who can deliver that change. He says he alone had the experience and the vision to deliver it. He hit upon popular themes – reducing the cost of coaching education, offering a “well-funded” ODP program to expand the country’s talent identification and development, building the NWSL into the world’s strongest women’s soccer league. Finally, he pledged to be inclusive.

Then, finally, it all came down to the electronic keypads in voters’ hands.

Two clear favorites emerge in three rounds of voting

Even those keypads seemed to cause some problems, despite being standard fare for recent Annual General Meetings. Voters had to be reminded to hit “Send.” After a couple of minutes, the election overseers said they still only had about 80 percent of eligible votes and decided to restart the process.

After that hiccup, the first ballot proceeded: Cordeiro 36.3 percent, Carter 34.6, Wynalda 13.7, Martino 8.6, Gans 4.1, Solo 1.6, Winograd 0.6, Caligiuri 0.5. Under election rules, no candidate was required to withdraw before the next ballot, but Caligiuri did so anyway.

The second ballot saw slight shuffling. Cordeiro moved up to 41.8 percent, with Carter slipping slightly to 33.3, Wynalda slipping to 10.8, Martino up to 10.2, Gans down to 2.4, Solo nearly steady at 1.6 and Winograd down to 0. Winograd, who drew many positive comments through the campaign but suffered from lack of name recognition, promptly withdrew. Gans withdrew late in the 15-minute break between rounds.

Voters bowed the apparently inevitable on the third ballot. Cordeiro took 68.6 percent, while Carter fell to 10.6 and a virtual tie with Martino, also at 10.6. Wynalda finished at 8.9, followed by Solo at 1.4.

The election itself was unique in U.S. Soccer history. Gulati was unopposed for each of his three terms. No campaign in recent memory had this many candidates.

The fallout of an ugly campaign

A few candidates presented thoughtful ideas, many of them overlapping. Everyone agrees that U.S. Soccer needs to boost its youth and adult participation, especially in underserved communities. Each candidate pledged new apparatuses to boost the federation’s transparency. Most agreed that the federation needs one or two general managers for the national team programs.

But the attention went to the dramatic conflicts in perception. Wynalda, a Hall of Fame player with a devoted audience from TV, radio and Twitter, posited himself as a fiery but reasonable reformer. He stole a bit of the thunder from Gans, who declared his candidacy long before the others, back when it was still thought Gulati would run for a fourth and final term.

Other candidates also declared themselves reformers. Winograd, not well known before he declared his candidacy, joined the race along with former players Martino, Caligiuri and Solo.

The most surprising entry was Cordeiro, the vice president of the last two years and an independent director before that. He seemed to be Gulati’s eventual heir, but he declared his candidacy before Gulati declared he would not run.

When Gulati decided not to run, Carter joined the field.

Candidates were mostly civil in public. But fractures were apparent. An effort to unite six “reform” candidates (everyone except Carter and Cordeiro) fell apart in Orlando. Rumors of arm-twisting persisted, though with a secret ballot, such threats would be hard to enforce. While the Youth Council and Adult Council cut their meetings short, the Athletes’ Council – which holds 20 percent of the vote by U.S. law – met for longer than its scheduled three hours and had a second meeting later Friday night.

Cordeiro now faces the challenge of bringing all these parties back together to grow the game at all levels, to build better resources and eventually better players who will win more international competitions.

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