The U.S. Soccer presidential election is impossible to predict
Forget promotion and relegation. Forget the vague platitudes upon which everyone agrees -- transparency, accountability, diversity, etc. Forget Twitter.
And forget notions that the U.S. Soccer presidential die was cast weeks ago. The organizations and people who are publicly supporting a particular candidate are a vocal minority.
Make no mistake: The United Soccer Coaches convention in Philadelphia was a job interview for all eight candidates. Each candidate appeared for 15 minutes apiece at a U.S. Youth Soccer forum on Saturday, and seven of the eight had hour-long sessions over the prior two days. Next: State associations and national affiliates will be convening, either at their own annual general meetings or informally, over the next three weeks to decide how to cast their votes Feb. 10 in Orlando to decide Sunil Gulati's successor.
If you read what the candidates are saying, you won't see many differences:
- Everyone wants to cut costs for players and coaches.
- Everyone wants to revamp the Development Academy, with most candidates explicitly saying they would let Academy players participate in high school soccer.
- Most candidates have a "back to the future" approach on youth soccer, talking about revving up the often-reviled Olympic Development Program (ODP), in part because it can reach players that don't have Development Academy clubs nearby.
- Every candidate wants to do more with futsal, beach soccer and Paralympic soccer, though few have any specific ideas.
- Everyone wants more equitable pay for the women's national team. Some even recognize that it’s difficult to say “equal” because the women’s team still wants salaries instead of the men’s bonus-only structure, and they have ideas for evening things out, anyway.
- Everyone cites heavy-handed mandates, such as the change to birth-year age groups at not just the highest youth levels but also local recreational leagues (some of whom admittedly ignore those mandates, taking advantage of USSF's mixed messages about them), as decisions made without involving the people they affect.
The discussion of the ideas is interesting and overdue. But given the general agreement on the issues, the voters will simply have to pick the candidate they think is most able to do the job.
Here's how each candidate fared in Philadelphia, the most public platform yet in this race, which will be decided Feb. 10 in Orlando. (Candidates are in alphabetical order.)
Caligiuri's resume stacks up favorably with everyone in the field: Hall of Fame player with experience in Germany and MLS. College, club and semi-pro coach. Union leader. He even served on the U.S. Soccer board -- the only candidate in this field other than Cordeiro to do so -- yet it was far enough in the past that he can’t be written off an a status-quo insider. He even played briefly for the U.S. futsal team.
He also has intriguing ideas. Caligiuri was talking about ODP before other candidates. He likes the Development Academy’s "more training, fewer games" approach, though he shares the concern that the DA can’t reach everyone. He saw kids cry when the birth-year mandate split up teams. He suggests using school facilities for some afterschool programs for which it wouldn't matter which club you're on. And he wants to enlist every high school coach as a scout.
What he's not is a polished speaker. Some of these ideas pop up without any context, and then he's back into something else. He seems to raise the volume of his voice at random times, emphasizing points that don't sound like they need emphasizing.
In smaller groups, he's very personable, with a sense of humor you might not expect from seeing him in large crowds. He’s just unlucky to be in a field with a group of accomplished public speakers.
Carter, on leave from her job as president of MLS-affiliated Soccer United Marketing, has a voting bloc in place. Departing incumbent Sunil Gulati may protest that he is not publicly endorsing anyone, but Carter is, for all practical purposes, his designated successor. That's a plus and a minus.
Her task in Philadelphia was to demonstrate that she had the benefit of experience but also the willingness to evolve into the post-Gulati era. But she was upstaged by Gulati himself, who held his own hour-long session and showed off his candor (perhaps a benefit of being a lame duck) and quick wit. Carter sounds corporate and calculated.
She did offer a glimpse of humanity a couple of times. In the forum, she got a laugh from a clearly skeptical crowd by comparing the format to speed-dating. And she got heated in her session when someone asked her if she had done enough for the women’s game and why she hadn’t scolded an association president who referred to her as “that girl” -- a question that came across as victim-blaming.
And she has been unfairly attacked. She was asked about promotion/relegation and whether the NASL champion San Francisco Deltas would have stayed in business had they been promoted. Carter said it's not really a sound business strategy to have to win to stay alive. She is absolutely right -- if winning a league is the only way to stay solvent, then only the league champion will stay alive.
She is also accused, not just by random social media trolls but by an open letter from the Wynalda campaign, of not being a “soccer person.” It’s a safe bet such an accusation would not be lobbed against a man who played high-level college soccer and adult soccer, which Carter has done.
But her ideas aren’t convincing. The morning before she was the first of the candidates to speak, Carter released info about an independent commission chaired by Casey Wasserman. In Philadelphia, that idea seemed about as popular as wearing a Vikings jersey around town. Cordeiro didn't mention Carter by name but easily scored points by telling state representatives at the forum that they, not outsiders, should have their say. And no one's impressed that a sports marketer is going to seek outside counsel from a sports marketer.
On the whole, she made a very convincing case to be president -- of Soccer United Marketing. She revealed that SUM has 50 employees devoted to the Federation. (Why this isn’t public -- or why SUM doesn’t have its own website -- is anyone’s guess.) What she'll gain from this process if she doesn't win are the tools she'll need to make sure SUM retains USSF rights when its contract expires in 2022 -- and as long as the bidding is open and the effects more transparent, few will object to that.
Cordeiro is the only candidate who has already run and won a general-membership election in U.S. Soccer -- for the vice presidency in 2016. And yet he’s still an enigma.
He was the only candidate who didn’t do an hour-long session in Philly. But he masterfully won over the room early in the all-candidate forum by refuting the notion that the Federation needed an independent commission when there’s so much knowledge in this room of state association reps. "You all are not part of the problem,” he said. “You all are part of the solution."
Even though he has been on the Board for several years and vice president for nearly two, he recognizes some things the Federation is doing wrong. He mentioned a new set of coaching licenses as an example of something being handed down from Chicago without enough input.
He had some good ideas as well. He floated the idea of making ODP free. He was one of the few candidates to get some applause during his appearance, in this case for pointing out the need for multiple player-development pathways, not just the DA.
So he made a good impression. Then he immediately showed why he still has some convincing to do. A small group of reporters approached him, and he refused to do a recorded interview because he didn't know the questions in advance.
A federation president will not have the luxury of declining such interviews.
Yes, he was noticeably sweating during the forum. In fairness, the room was sweltering.
And his supporters surely didn’t care. He has made a convincing case that he is both a front-runner -- the first candidate to declare, some clear signs of support -- and an underdog. He says he didn’t want to take donations until his campaign insisted. He spent three and a half days filling out his Athletes' Council questionnaire because he couldn't or wouldn't hire other people to do it.
His session -- whose attendance suffered from the scheduling conflict with the MLS SuperDraft -- was thoughtful. He twice cited Santayana -- those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it -- in talking about the need to be cautious when it comes to men’s and women’s professional leagues. He remembers talented teammates who played their entire pro career indoors because there was no pro league, and he recalled two prior failed attempts at professional women’s soccer.
The session also went into some interesting specifics. He wouldn't tear up the new-ish CBA between the Federation and the women's national team, but he would immediately seek to amend it to put more restrictions on artificial turf.
He can draw upon a diverse set of roles in the game -- player, coach, parent, club board member and deal-maker. He even wrote for Soccer America at one point in his youth. His session moderator was Rachel Wood, whom he represented during her professional career. He says he is representing an international club interested in lower-division U.S. soccer that realized promotion/relegation can't happen for a while.
Perhaps his most compelling arguments come from his role as a parent. His son played in the DA and lost his love of the game, which he recovered with a season of high school soccer.
Sweat aside, it’s hard to find a negative on his time in Philadelphia. Maybe the other candidates should’ve been sweating, too.