The U.S. Soccer presidential election is impossible to predict
Martino has credibility from his injury-shortened playing career and his work as an analyst for NBC Sports' sterling studio shows. He also has a lot of friends in high places.
He gathered a panel of experts to help draft his Progress Plan, the most detailed public proposals of any candidate. And he is a convincing, charismatic, extemporaneous speaker who conveys good ideas from his fellow former players.
- The current convoluted player pathway is "Frogger" -- nobody knows how to navigate it. (Unnamed women's national team veteran)
- Don't professionalize game at younger levels (Thierry Henry)
He also has good perspective on the NWSL, seeing the women’s league in the same spot as MLS was in several years ago. What it needs, he says, is a set of owners who believe they can “get over the hump” just as a small group of MLS owners did in 2002.
Given his close ties to many of his athlete peers, he may get some of the coveted (heavily weighted, by U.S. law) athlete votes. That, plus a few state associations that seem impressed with him, will make him a viable candidate.
The ideas are very specific -- borrowing a state association's idea of having a $3 player-registration surcharge going toward coaching education, for example -- but meant as conversation-starters. He thinks the plan will give him a head start because, while other candidates are talking about going on a listening tour, he'll already have done so.
It’s hard to gauge reaction to the plan so far, but he and his team passed out a lot of copies in Philadelphia, and plenty of people had their noses buried in it.
Solo will someday join Wynalda and Caligiuri in the Hall of Fame. She’s also a high-profile advocate for women's rights and an advocate for the game as a whole in lower-profile interactions with star-struck fans.
At times, Solo showed impressive grasp of the issues, and she's able to relate them to her unique story as a player who rose from near-poverty to international glory. Under the current system that drives players to the Development Academy or a handful of "superclubs," she says, she wouldn't have been able to reach the national team. A lot of people working in the game today would agree. ODP was a lifeline for her.
And it's not as if she's only concerned with issues that relate to her directly. Asked in her session what she would do with the Federation's cash reserves, she mentioned unique needs in several states, including Wisconsin and Alaska needing fields (the latter indoors).
But she also makes the occasional passionate speech about something that isn't quite accurate. She complained that U.S. Soccer doesn't have age-appropriate coaching licenses, so someone with an F license could coach a team from age 6 to age 18. Actually, the current system (F, then E, D, C and so on) is tied to age groups, and a new system being rolled out continues to tailor specific modules to specific ages. She made a curious complaint that the delegate list sent to candidates only has about 600 names of the 1,000 she expected, but based on previous years and the bylaws, it’s difficult to see more than 600 delegates having a vote.
Her individual session also reeked of fandom. While other candidates either had an excellent host (Alexi Lalas in three of them, Wood in another) or talked on their own, Solo’s host was Montana high school and club coach O'Brien Byrd, who made no effort to hide his giddiness at being on stage next to the woman his kids call “Auntie Hope.” It ended with an awkward “question” from a coach who was clearly on her side but wouldn't shut up long enough to let her speak for herself, despite several efforts on her part to break in politely.
And she did not address her pending court case in Washington state among other well-documented run-ins with authority, aside from a long, unconvincing take on the 2016 “cowards” incident.
Worth noting: Solo has not retired. She says she turned down a "historic" offer from an overseas club because she's still rehabbing her shoulder.
Like Gans, Winograd is a well-spoken lawyer with detailed plans, genial manners and a solid record in the game as a player, coach, parent and deal-maker. They share a similar issue -- trying to stand out in a crowded field against Hall of Fame players and experienced U.S. Soccer insiders.
But Winograd has won rave reviews for his appearances in previous forums, and those who hadn't heard him before had to be impressed with him in Philadelphia.
He's comfortable talking soccer. In his session, he chatted with Alexi Lalas about when to give young players freedom to play a variety of styles and when to bring them into a national style.
He’s comfortable talking business, including SUM, which he says sometimes has its best interests aligned with MLS and U.S. Soccer and sometimes doesn’t. Lalas asked for an example of when it’s not, and Winograd mentioned TV contracts, where perhaps MLS and the men’s national team would be better off unbundled at this point.
His ideas are intriguing. Winograd suggests a gradual shift to promotion/relegation by allowing “guest” teams to be promoted while existing MLS clubs can’t be relegated. He sees training centers in each state with a technical director whose salary would be competitive with MLS and college jobs.
One comment at the forum was apparently misunderstood. He said, as he has said in many previous interviews, that what works for some states doesn’t work for others. Some states, he said, are happy with having AYSO for recreational soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer for basic travel, U.S. Club Soccer for an elite travel league and the Development Academy on top of that. In a room full of U.S. Youth Soccer reps, the notion of U.S. Club being a higher level isn’t popular. But in some states, that’s the reality, and his point certainly wasn’t that U.S. Club’s leagues are universally on a higher level.
That misunderstanding aside, he’s popular with other candidates and others in Philly, and the consensus is that he’s someone who should be involved with the sport down the line, even if he’s not elected president in February.
Eric Wynalda is a Hall of Famer with an easygoing charisma in small groups, and he can work a room like no other candidate. He speaks in the manner of Barack Obama, full of dramatic pauses for emphasis and an uncanny ability to connect.
And he's quick on his feet. Baited (unintentionally) by a question about too many foreign players in MLS, he shifted the conversation to our youth development mentality, saying we're churning out too many robots and not enough creative players, forcing MLS clubs to look elsewhere for those players.
He realizes he needs to convince people of his business acumen. He promises to take advantage of business knowledge inside and outside of the Federation. He also pointed out that roughly half of USSF revenue comes from TV, a business he knows well (that number is disputed, based on some unknown details of SUM revenue).
But he also needs to convince people he isn't just pandering to those who think a president can impose promotion/relegation on the U.S. pro game, or that such a system will magically cure all ills. As such, he sometimes vacillates between throwing raw meat to his base and offering a more polite take on how he'll reform the Federation.
In his hour-long session, he offered sincere compliments for Sunil Gulati: "The man deserves an immense amount of credit. ... The fact that he may not be the right guy to take us to the future is irrelevant." Wynalda even demanded a round of applause for the outgoing president. He also mentioned he had just had breakfast with U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn. And he explicitly said he wasn't out to "blow it all up."
Then a few hours before the all-candidates forum, he released an attack on Carter and Cordeiro as "non-soccer people" that may well backfire because it makes him look like a populist bully. Implying that Carter, who played in college and at the adult level, is not a "soccer person" runs the risk of veering into sexism -- Carter graduated from college when women had no realistic pro opportunities.
In the forum, Wynalda started out saying he was going to “take the gloves off,” speak truth for the first time and offer solutions. He did none of the three. He did say the USA may not get the 2026 World Cup because we're not in "compliance" with what he described as 13 FIFA bylaws and statutes. The only ones he mentioned were promotion/relegation, on which the FIFA regulations are murky at best and unenforced at least, and playing a fall-to-spring calendar, which FIFA doesn't require at all.
But make no mistake -- he's the front-runner. Kathy Carter has a solid bloc consisting of MLS and whoever lines up behind the status quo. But that's not enough to give her the 50 percent she needs on the first ballot, and on subsequent ballots; it's hard to imagine support shifting to her from one of the other seven candidates. It'll go to Wynalda or perhaps another candidate that emerges from that first ballot as a viable president.
And many of the state representatives filed out of Saturday's forum, offering little to tip their hands as to how that first ballot will go.