'The atmosphere is very fraught right now': Inside the windowless room of U.S. soccer

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

From the MLS SuperDraft and U.S. Soccer presidential campaigning in Philadelphia, to new rivalries and MLS media day in Los Angeles — taking the temperature in the U.S. Soccer bubble in the first big weekend of 2018.

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Los Angeles, Saturday morning

Having insisted there’s no systemic problem with U.S. Soccer, and that in his analysis, a goal in any one of several games in the Hex would have meant none of the current national spate of introspection actually happening, goalkeeper Tim Howard gets to his feet and leaves the hotel ballroom.

In some kind of metaphor for the current fever state of American soccer that barely troubles the surface of the broader sporting world, most of this weekend’s key scenes will take place in windowless rooms.

Dressed in full game-day gear, one of the most recognizable figures in the U.S. game is nonetheless unrecognized as he picks his way through the crowd of people here for the positive thinking seminar in the room next door. As Howard heads up the stairs for the next photo shoot of MLS media day, the scene is capped by an excited kid in full Harry Potter gear, sprinting past the hotel on his way to the Universal Studios tour next door.

Pennsylvania Convention Center, Friday afternoon

In another ballroom, a day and three time zones away, Eric Wynalda is on stage at the United Soccer Coaches convention making the latest in a series of candidate pitches for the U.S. Soccer presidency contenders that have been taking place during the convention. Earlier in the day, Hope Solo had given a battling pitch of her own; the day prior, Kyle Martino had broken away from his own discreet lobbying to make his case; and in fact at some point over the weekend, all but one of the candidates will have a chance to discuss his or her plans, even if some of them need rather less than a ballroom to house the curious.

But in this moment, it’s Wynalda’s turn. Technically, he’s being gamely interrogated by Alexi Lalas, in an interview format, but Wynalda, whose stated case for himself involves his intention to listen to the expertise around him, is more selective when it comes to listening to the substance of the questions. So what we got is a kind of muted cabaret, where Wynalda intersperses wisecracks and quick straw polls from the audience with a very self-conscious presentation of himself as a non-threatening sober thinker.

In some of these moments it appears a smart attempt to speak to two audiences. First, the populist base that has given his campaign its distinctive insurgent energy and which has successfully (for better or worse) colored the tone of the presidential campaign in general. And second, the actual voters, who may or may not be represented in the room, but who can be expected to have widely varying enthusiasm for Wynalda’s supposed iconoclasm.

At other moments, it’s just bizarre. Wynalda will reasonably ask the audience if they enjoy the FA Cup before segueing into an unsubstantiated suggestion that billions could be poured into the Open Cup. Without changing tone or facial expression a few minutes later, he’ll be back onto the safer claim that the country has been in the “business of soccer” rather than the “soccer business” for too long, and that priorities need to change. Among this undifferentiated array of possibilities, which talking points you believe and which you dismiss as magical thinking may say more about your own aspirations for U.S. Soccer than anything Wynalda might do or not do if elected. That may be the plan.

Los Angeles, Saturday afternoon

Carlos Vela is at the interview table now, and is being asked about reaction at home to his decision to play in LA. He smiles mischievously:

“In Mexico, every decision is wrong…”

Philadelphia, Friday morning

MLS commissioner Don Garber is at the podium on the SuperDraft stage set, in yet another cavernous space. In some kind of metaphor for the current fever state of American soccer that barely troubles the surface of the broader sporting world, most of this weekend’s key scenes will take place in windowless rooms.

He’s used to the annual ritual of being booed by the fan groups in attendance and, in general, accepts his theatrical role as designated heel with good humor. But now, as Garber attempts to read out the news that Joao Moutinho has been drafted by LAFC as No. 1 pick, Garber’s words can barely be heard above a chant of “Save The Crew! Save the Crew!” that is ringing around the room.

Los Angeles, Sunday afternoon

After pointing out the clear view of downtown LA visible from the press box, the lead architect conducting the stadium tour pauses on the main concourse of the fast-rising Banc of California stadium to illustrate piles of cardboard boxes taking up every available spare space:

“These are the grass seeds, waiting to be planted.”

Los Angeles, Sunday evening

Outside the Staples Center, crowds are forming for the evening. Most are in LA Kings regalia, though there’s a substantial number of baggy New York Rangers jerseys too, in honor of the evening’s opponents. And weaving through them all are small groups of two and three in vintage LA Galaxy gear. The club is launching its new shirts this evening, at an event space at LA Live, an adjacent entertainment complex.

But for long-term fans and club alike, the eve of this particular season, and this event, is a moment to lean heavily on the club’s two decades of history — and not coincidentally to give a little downtown reminder to LAFC that the Galaxy will not be conceding any of the ground the rival seeded without a fight.

On one wall of the AEG-owned Novo event space, a timeline of the club’s history is dotted with glass cases containing each of the five MLS Cups the club has won. On another, greeting arriving guests, is the simple message, “Unrivaled since 1996.”

Philadelphia, Friday morning

Francis Atuahene has been selected as the fourth overall pick by FC Dallas. He uses his speech to offer an emotional tribute and a debt of service to all who have helped him along the way, from his mother and grandmother teaching him the importance of listening, to the Right to Dream Academy that set him on his way to the U.S., starting at the age of 11.

It’s a heartfelt speech — when Bob Bradley is interviewed later in the day, he will go out of his way to praise it — and it’s a reminder of one of the more touching and continually relevant aspects of an annual event that is now annually accompanied by speculation about its impending obsolescence. Whatever its limitations, the SuperDraft still offers the theater of young men publicly marking life-changing moments. Atuahene, for one, shows a humble appreciation of that fact.

Los Angeles, Saturday afternoon

It’s early evening. Players have been shuttled in and out of the media roundtable room at 15-minute intervals throughout the day. Occasionally music from that positive thinking seminar next door bleeds through the walls as they talk, but by the time Sacha Kljestan is ushered into the room, the positive thinkers have drifted off and we’re the last group left in this wing of the hotel.

Tired from a long day of interviews and photoshoots, Kljestan nonetheless gamely answers questions about his “hardest offseason” and the circumstances of his trade to Orlando. Then, with time running out and the repetitiveness of the day weighing on everyone, I ask him about his recent political tweeting.

“Soccer is a sport where we all come from different walks of life,” he says. “Most people come to America for a land of opportunity. My father certainly did. And I just don’t like the close-mindedness of the way the White House is run right now, and most of my tweets that are political come from a place of frustration … my parents always taught me to stand up for what is right.”

I flash back to a day earlier and the long path Francis Atuahene took to the Philadelphia stage from the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana, and his own sense of duty to extend that possibility for others. Kljestan is still talking, though — now speaking about the importance of voting and how bad it was that he himself never voted in a presidential election until the last one.

It prompts a flashback to another interview a few hours earlier in the day. Tim Howard, still in press conference mode, hunched forward at the table like a hostage newsreader, shrugging at the prospect that a U.S. Soccer presidential election might change anything. A slight sigh:

“The atmosphere — at least in the U.S. soccer bubble — is very fraught right now.”

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