There's no escaping the politics dominating US soccer right now
In the end, we got a great team, if not a great final, and after the days of palace intrigue that led up to MLS Cup 2017, to have it end on such an emphatic note felt like a relief.
As the caravan of presidential hopefuls, World Cup bid presenters and assorted league officials, sponsors and wristband-toting hospitality guests cleared out of the host hotel and back to the United States, the Cup stayed in Canada. And that too, felt about as appropriate a full stop to this annus horribilis for soccer in the U.S. as any image you could think of.
There’s no need to rehash what created the troubled context for this particular MLS Cup, but the reminders of the context were everywhere in the build-up to the final. At the central Toronto hotel that served as base of operations for MLS Cup, several candidates for the U.S. Soccer presidency were prominently visible in the public areas — holding court in the hotel bar, or conducting quick sidebar check-ins with potential allies, king- or queen-makers, or stray journalists, as they criss-crossed the lobby.
Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino were particularly conspicuous presences, perhaps fitting their profiles in the race. But the establishment candidates were around too, though in more discreet fashion. Kathy Carter slipped into a seat at the World Cup bid presentation at the last minute (indeed the last row) and slipped back out again just as quickly. Again, there was something apt in the image. This is an election in which any perception of being an insider ties you to the failures of the U.S. men’s national team.
Then again, we are not talking about the political maneuverings we’re used to in democratic elections, when we talk about the public presences of these candidates. Especially with the incumbent insider, we’re talking about something more akin to politburo members needing to at least flirt with the idea of glasnost. Hence Carter even making an interview appearance in the first place (even if it was highly criticized), or a representative from the other establishment candidate, Carlos Cordeiro, also discreetly doing the rounds during the week. Those aren’t empty gestures exactly, but they’re made in the knowledge that the blocs that determine votes are not swayed by moods of sweeping populism, but by putting together the right coalition of tribal leaders.
As I’ve noted before, league- or federation-wide events like MLS Cup, All-Star Games, big international games and the SuperDraft are nothing if not gatherings of the tribes. It’s a logistic reality of covering a huge territory that they should represent rare opportunities to gather the meaningful constituencies together under one roof.
What’s different at this moment, is that in the past the tribes have all been notionally united by a common appeal to “grow the game,” and while that goal remains intact, there are now pockets of open mutiny about how to enact that, which can’t be simply silenced by pleas for unity. If that’s healthy, it also made every interaction seem more fraught with intrigue than usual.
This was again evident in the presentations of the state-of-the-league address and the World Cup bid. MLS commissioner Don Garber delivered the state of the league to a more visible media pushback than in recent memory for these events, especially when the subject of Columbus came up. Claiming that the league had stayed silent on many unsatisfactory aspects of the Crew’s tenure in Columbus, Garber reiterated that with the City Council insisting on an “impossible” guarantee that owner Anthony Precourt take the option of negotiating a move to Austin off the table, that negotiations to keep Columbus Crew SC in the city were essentially dependent not on MLS or the owner, but the city itself.
The questioning kept returning to Columbus, however, with Garber pushing back more insistently with a line pretty close to Precourt’s argument about the “metrics” — stating that Columbus was consistently 20th of 22 teams by “most measurements that count.” But he also had to field a question asking how Columbus was different from another once-moribund MLS city turned model franchise, Kansas City — “How is it the market and not the owner?”
Throw in the now-traditional annual question around Miami (which prompted a terse, “It’s conceivable,” comment about other expansion teams entering the league before Miami starts play), and this was an uncomfortable state of the league for Garber. Not that he seemed unduly concerned in the aftermath. If he feels the media culture is changing around him, he and the MLS owners probably feel much the same way about that as they do about fan campaigns. Unless the numbers are there, passion can be as vocal as it wants without changing the course of executive events.
Speaking of which, a day later, Sunil Gulati took to the same stage for a presentation on the progress of the 2026 World Cup bid, alongside his fellow federation chiefs from Canada and Mexico, and under the close watch of several candidates to replace him. Like much of the week, it registered as an odd mix of inspirational speak, dry corporate procedure and soap opera.
Coming off stage, Gulati would be swarmed in a corner of a room by U.S. journalists trying to clarify whether he actually had withdrawn from the race and if he was holding onto his nomination letters. Meanwhile his Canadian counterpart Steven Reed would leave the dais to head to BMO Field to watch the first ever Canadian MLS Cup champion being crowned.
Because, after all, we were in Toronto for a game of soccer to be played. And if only Toronto FC and Stefan Frei seemed to get the memo about that fact, the sweeping emotional outcome of the Reds finally winning a first championship after over a decade of struggle was a reminder that all moments pass.
This moment, at the end of 2017, is a deeply uncertain moment in U.S. soccer circles, and at moments during the week, that uncertainty seemed to infect everything. MLS Cup was a welcomed 90-minute distraction from the micro-politics.