It's time to rethink our definition of a 'soccer person'

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

An antiquated narrative has emerged in U.S. Soccer's presidential election, and it risks alienating those who need to take part in the reformation.

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Perhaps the most contradictory topic of discussion surrounding the messy election campaign for the next U.S. Soccer president is definition of a “soccer person” vs. the "business person."

A clear line has been drawn between the “business” candidates – generally seen as the status quo bloc who led the U.S. into its current quandary (a view dictated largely by the state of the men’s program, to be clear) – and the “soccer” candidates. The latter has been easily defined as the four candidates with high-level international and professional playing experience: Paul Caligiuri, Kyle Martino, Hope Solo and Eric Wynalda.

To pigeonhole the other four candidates as simply business people, without any acknowledgement for their experience in the game on and off the field, would be even more inaccurate than suggesting that four “player” candidates don’t understand the business side. And the fact that these positions have been taken at all should call into question the authenticity of candidates’ desires to give a voice to the masses, who all have unique soccer and business backgrounds and share equal responsibility in reforming U.S. soccer’s culture.

They are the “99 percent” to which the eight presidential hopefuls have been referring. Candidates have stated that the 1 percent – the professional leagues and national teams – cannot be the sole focus of the next president. The foundation of the sport’s future will be determined by addressing issues in cities and towns across the country, with clubs who may never produce a professional player – but are essential fabric of the soccer culture. These are the places where kids become lifelong players and fans. These are the settings where, as so many candidates have pointed out, a potential star could be discouraged, or lack access to the sport and drop it altogether. There is widespread concern over declining youth participation.

The 99-percent topic has emerged as a political stance, no doubt in part due to the influence state soccer associations have on the election. It was reemphasized on Jan. 31, in a position statement released by United Soccer Coaches, the largest community for soccer coaches in the world: “Don’t forsake the 99% for the 1%.”

So, how should the 99 percent feel to see such black-and-white arguments being made about who is or isn’t a soccer person? How should the greater body of soccer coaches, players, administrators, players and fans feel about their place in the game if someone like Carter isn’t considered a “soccer person”? Are Carlos Cordeiro, Steve Gans or Michael Winograd not “soccer people” after decades in and around the game?

Carter’s 20-plus years in the business are well-documented; that is her platform. But she isn’t without first-hand playing experience. Her resume includes ODP, youth national team camps, high-school All-American honors and a starting role for nationally ranked College of William and Mary – Jill Ellis, current U.S. women’s national team coach, among her teammates. Carter played in adult leagues following her college days, in an era when professional women’s soccer didn’t exist in the U.S.

If that doesn’t qualify as a “soccer person,” then I don’t know what does. This author played in those club and local ODP ranks, for four years in college and in adult leagues after the NCAA said eligibility had run its course. Five percent of high school players compete in the NCAA. Is that not considered among the better soccer experiences, whatever that is even supposed to mean? (It should be noted, as many have already, that the playing credentials of other men in the race - Steve Gans and Michael Winograd - haven’t been called into question in the same way, despite similar or arguably lesser on-field experience.)

Click here for the lowdown on each presidential hopeful

None of this is a defense of Carter – whose platform continues to feel like too much of the same for a federation that needs change – nor an attack on the supposed soccer bloc of candidates; this is a conversation about the 99 percent to which these eight presidential candidates ostensibly want to reach, serve and engage. This is about rethinking an arrogant view of who is and is not qualified to serve in specific ways. Accusing people who have dedicated their lives to the sport, in one way or another, alienates the very groups who will then need to serve the next president.

This election process has been ugly and divisive; it has, at times, been tribal. Accusations have flown in both directions of this soccer-business line, from candidates and observers alike. Soccer in the United States is having an intervention, and improving the state of the game will require action in every corner of the country, from that already-cliché 99 percent. The challenge for the next president is aligning these conflicting entities so that they can coexist.

Now is a time of self-reflection for everyone in the game. I’ve spent 10 years writing about soccer, in addition to 20-plus years playing it; maybe it’s about time that I finally act on my longstanding thought of obtaining that coaching license so that I can help my small, local community. Surely you, too, have been putting off seemingly insignificant tasks which could be making differences in your immediate world. These hyperlocal, anecdotal problems that candidates are using to convey national dilemmas need to solved by the constituents – the soccer people – to which they are trying to appeal. The U.S. soccer community needs to think globally and act locally.

We need to rethink how we define people in the sport. Playing at the professional and international level commands a high level of respect for any discussion; it is not, however, the baseline for having an informed opinion on the sport. If being part of the 1 percent is the standard for becoming part of the 1 percent, then we’re headed toward an increasingly small meritocracy. It's elitist, at best.

Just because someone hasn’t played at a high level does not mean that they can’t hold expertise in or influence the direction of the sport – as a coach, an administrator, a lawyer, a journalist or as part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s executive structure. We're reminded of this when star players can so often struggle as coaches: They can’t relate to the larger majority of players who don’t have the same talents – or struggle to unlock them as easily. Some of the best coaches had unremarkable playing careers, and the same can be true for a high-ranking executive in the game - whether the president or someone in another role.

Candidates are appealing to these disenfranchised sectors for a reason. Whether it’s adult soccer organizations, forgotten youth development pathways, women’s soccer, or Paralympic soccer,  there are important groups demanding to be heard and included in a landscape which continues to feel eerily similar to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

There isn’t one right answer to this U.S. Soccer succession crisis. What’s certain is that any good boss will put into place subordinate employees who complement and compensate for his or her weaknesses. All eight candidates have something to offer this game at a high level, even if not as U.S. Soccer president (see this intriguing idea from Anthony DiCicco).

A “soccer person” will need business experts; could the average person easily manage that $150 million U.S. Soccer surplus?

A “business person” will need the right visionaries in place to reform a lagging development system and a fractured youth system.

Neither Paul Caligiuri, nor Kathy Carter, nor Carlos Cordeiro, nor Steve Gans, nor Kyle Martino, nor Hope Solo, nor Michael Winograd, nor Eric Wynalda is going to solve any problem alone.

Defining any one candidate as simply being one and not the other is nonsensical. Perhaps we aren’t all business people, but if you’ve read this far, I’m confident you are a soccer person. What U.S. soccer needs is unification, not further division.

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