The first 100 days: These are the most pressing items on Carlos Cordeiro's to-do list
ORLANDO, Fla. – He nimbly navigated the turbulence of a divisive presidential election, but Carlos Cordeiro’s true test of leadership will come in charting a course for a U.S. Soccer Federation at an inflection point.
Cordeiro not only inherits a range of knotty issues from his predecessor, Sunil Gulati, but also has a limited amount of time in which to earn the trust and buy-in of his constituents, many of whom are frustrated and divided. And as the federation’s vice president since 2016, he has made a hefty bank of promises in order to win not one, but two elections over the past two years. So, the American soccer world is watching closely, and critically, as he takes the helm.
Based on my conversations with a range of attendees at the 2018 U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting, here’s the top of the (easier said than done) to-do list at the dawn of the Cordeiro era.
1. Drive sweeping reform and reconciliation on the youth landscape
Like most any organization of its size, the federation has policy, administrative and ideological work to do, as well as on-field performance concerns. But nowhere does that full list merge into a more vital nexus than in youth soccer, where stagnant participation rates and persistently inefficient development structures have alarm bells ringing.
The youth scene, particularly its upper reaches, has always been a teeming, chaotic and often cutthroat marketplace, and that reality won’t disappear anytime soon. The question is how the federation can improve it, and where it should begin. Over the past decade, U.S. Soccer has shifted from a “referee”-type mentality – as the regulator and arbiter of the many interactions between associations, leagues and clubs – to more of a “participant” situation, where the federation is just another of many actors on a convoluted landscape, operating two national youth competitions of its own and exerting heavy gravity on those around it.
“Around the country, soccer people refer to ‘Chicago’ the way politicians refer to ‘Washington,’” one insider told FourFourTwo USA after the AGM, alluding to the shorthand use of Soccer House’s location. “It’s almost always with a negative connotation.”
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which debuted on the boys side in 2007 and began its girls division in September 2017, has undoubtedly had some positive effects on player development. But its forceful remodeling of the player pipeline has also triggered some unhelpful side effects, muscling aside existing organizations and centralizing power.
At the grassroots level, the federation is widely perceived as insular, patronizing and officious, convinced of its own superiority and uninterested in outside input. The recent results of some of the youth national teams could be presented as evidence of progress. But the broader vibe around the federation is one of underachievement and lost credibility. It is Cordeiro’s job to change the culture, most likely by surrounding himself with an array of smart, diverse voices.
2. Make good with the adult, amateur and lower-division levels
For all the talk of the federation’s bullish finances lately, if you stepped into some of the committee and council meetings happening during the AGM, you’d get a very different picture, one of bootstraps, budget shortfalls and chronic uncertainty.
For many of those who watched the live stream of the National Council Meeting, during which the election took place, it might have been hard to make sense of the standing ovation that erupted among large swathes of the rank-and-file delegates during a discussion of a proposed cuts in the per-player registration fees paid to the federation.
This motion from Richard Groff:
Rollback federation fees of $2 and $1 to $1 and $0.50 (Adult and Youth).
By-laws trump electorate. No vote.
— Paul Kennedy (@pkedit) February 10, 2018
Is this “inside baseball”? Maybe. But this is just the kind of issue that can make or break you in a technocratic post like USSF president.
Cordeiro has done two rounds of heavy politicking in a fairly short span of time, and the associations are ready to see some tangible improvements. And that’s to say nothing of the bruising battles that continue to smolder at the lower tiers of the professional system, where litigation and bad blood runs thick between an alphabet soup of leagues and entities.
Gulati is very, very smart, but he himself has admitted that he’s not the smoothest political operator. His successor will need to schmooze, empathize, disarm and inspire. If not, he’ll face a skeptical electorate in a few years, or perhaps a ready-made rival in his old vice president’s chair even sooner.
3. Don’t let Cordeiro get distracted by the World Cup bid
More than a few heads turned on Saturday when Cordeiro, in answering the very first question of his very first press conference as president, said “the most important priority for the federation is for the co-hosting of the World Cup in 2026, and that we start with a meeting on Tuesday morning.”
In many ways, this statement is both understandable and correct. It’s true that the decisive moment for the 2026 quest is nigh at hand, and that seeing the favored North American bid to victory over Morocco in FIFA’s halls would likely have dramatic long-term and largely positive effects on the federation. And Cordeiro’s hefty international contacts have always been one of the most valuable tools he has brought to the U.S. Soccer table, putting the bid process right in his wheelhouse, unlike many other technical and soccer-specific aspects of his new role.
But the bid is Gunil’s baby, so to speak, with the freshly-relieved president having plainly stated that 2026 has occupied around “90 percent” of his time and focus for months, a natural reflection of his position as chair of United Bid Committee 2026. If Cordeiro is the collaborative, proactive delegator-in-chief that he has presented himself as, he may be better off leaving Gulati – who also happens to be a member of the influential FIFA Council – as the point person instead of inserting himself in the process excessively.
4. Rein in MLS, at the very least symbolically
Many who covered the USSF presidential election dwelled on the outsize impact of the Athlete Council and its move to vote as a bloc for Cordeiro. Even with that in mind, however, we might want to consider MLS commissioner Don Garber’s enormous role in getting one of the race’s two “establishment” candidates elected.
Garber backed Kathy Carter’s entry and lined up nearly the entire 25 percent heft of the Professional Council vote – with the glaring exception of the NASL, of course – behind her. And when the first two ballots failed to produce a majority winner, he switched MLS’ vote to Cordeiro to break the stalemate before it stretched out long enough to offer Kyle Martino, Eric Wynalda or one of the other “change” contenders an opening.
It was savvy work by Garber, and for some in the audience, it was a metaphor for MLS’ huge influence over the federation at large, which is manifested most overtly in the league’s Soccer United Marketing partnership. One doesn’t have to ascribe to the most wild-eyed of theories about that relationship to feel concerns about it: Cordeiro himself readily stated on the campaign trail that it “creates conflicts that need to be addressed.”
One recurring theme in Orlando was the widespread perception that the federation’s overriding priority under Gulati was MLS first, and everyone and everything else afterwards. Yes, the survival and prosperity of the top-flight men’s professional league is key business for U.S. Soccer, and it’s easy to take MLS for granted today compared to where it was just a few years ago. But a greater sense of balance and fairness would benefit everyone. Close attention will be paid to how Cordeiro juggles that.
5. Nudge the NWSL back onto an upward trajectory
If you believe that it was/is crucial for American soccer that the federation help MLS grow and prosper, it’s only fair to apply the same logic to the nation’s top women’s league. After five years of mostly promising progress, the National Women’s Soccer League’s fortunes have leveled off dramatically of late.
When the league marked its fourth season of existence in 2016, outlasting the three-year lifespans of its folded predecessors WUSA and WPS, a sense of relief – and in retrospect, perhaps complacency – washed over the women’s soccer community. With the federation and its Canadian counterpart taking an active stake, and A+E Networks buying in big-time at the start of 2017, survival and stability seemed assured. Yet the past few months have seen founding clubs in Kansas City and Boston collapse and only one newcomer, Utah Royals FC, hastily recruited to replace them.
Some observers, noting that consolidation of wealthier, more committed ownership may be a ‘short-term pain, long-term gain’ equation, are mollified by the theory that 2019 West Coast expansion is a fait accompli. Conversely, others fret over looming concerns in Seattle and New Jersey, and question the ongoing vacancy at commissioner (for nearly a year now) and persistent paucity of major national sponsors.
The point is, the NWSL appears to be on less stable ground than it was assumed to be, and Cordeiro needs to provide vocal, inspiring – or at the very least, reassuring – leadership ... or find someone else who can.