Interviews

Who is Kyle Martino? Get to know U.S. Soccer's presidential candidates

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most recognizable names in the race says USSF's leader should be paid - and shouldn't make unilateral decisions.

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

[Editor's note: FourFourTwo is profiling each of the declared candidates in the U.S. Soccer presidential race. For the latest updates, check our guide to the election, which links out to each person's profile.]

Kyle Martino declared in October that he would not run for U.S. Soccer president, an announcement he hoped would direct focus to others more interested who might consider a campaign and perhaps prod them to step into the fray.

Instead, the former Major League Soccer midfielder was deluged by calls urging him to change his mind, which he did. After heartfelt conversations with his family and employer, Martino announced in early November that he was taking a leave of absence from NBC Sports to pursue the position.

“I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I didn't step forward and try to stand up for soccer in this country right now ...,” Martino told FourFourTwo. “I'm willing to give up my dream job to become U.S. Soccer president.”

His is one of the more recognizable names in the race, owing to a six-season MLS career and nearly a decade as one of the sport's top television analysts in America, until this hiatus in that “dream job” as studio analyst for NBC Sports' coverage of the English Premier League.

“What concerns me is in the aftermath of Trinidad and Tobago, we have a president that was pointing to bad bounces in the matter of inches and thinking that's our soccer problem when all of us who have been in the game for a long time know that the problem starts at the bottom of the pyramid,” he says. “So this is a 24/7 job, not only to get the structure of U.S. Soccer right and finally connect the bottom of the pyramid to the people in the Soccer House and to the decision-makers at the very top, but also to get out and sell this game.”

Martino is among seven candidates who have declared their intention to challenge three-term president Sunil Gulati, who ran unopposed in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and has not yet announced an expected re-election bid. The vote will take place Feb. 10 at U.S. Soccer's Annual General Meeting in Orlando, Fla.

Let's take a brief look at Martino and his thoughts on the most important issues.

Who is he?

Martino, 36, is a former attacking midfielder with the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy who played for the U.S. at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship, the U-20 World Cup, in Argentina and won eight caps with the full national team. He was Gatorade National Player of the Year his senior season at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., and was an All-American at the University of Virginia, leaving following his junior season to sign a Project-40 contract with MLS.

Martino was with the Crew from 2002, when he was MLS' Rookie of the Year, through 2006, when he was traded to the Galaxy. Injuries forced his retirement before the 2008 season.

He worked in finance after leaving the field and has since 2008 served as an analyst on soccer telecasts for ESPN, Fox Sports and NBC Sports.

Qualifications?

Martino played the game at every level -- from the earliest reaches of youth soccer through high school and club, college and PDL, and into the national team system and professional ranks -- and has been among the keener observers of the U.S. and international game since joining ESPN nearly a decade ago.

Why me? Well, we've gone through an era of a businessman running U.S. Soccer and maybe unilaterally making decisions no one should make.

As studio analyst of NBC Sports' EPL coverage, he's among the most visible and respected announcers covering the game in America, and his time working in the New York financial world provided a solid business base to his résumé. He is also involved in management, as an investor in Spanish club Real Mallorca tandem in partnership with Steve Nash and Stuart Holden.

Martino describes himself as a “visionary” who believes the primary responsibility of U.S. Soccer's president is to expand America's soccer culture.

“[All levels of the game in the U.S. are] responsible for getting kids to fall in love with this, for keeping adults in love with this sport, and for growing a soccer culture,” he says. “Focusing on the top of the pyramid doesn't grow a soccer culture. You grow a soccer culture from the grassroots. So now we need a president with a vision to do that.

“Why me? Well, we've gone through an era of a businessman running U.S. Soccer and maybe unilaterally making decisions no one should make. ... But the reason I need to be the one to lead U.S. Soccer forward is because we need a soccer visionary. We don't have a business problem, we have a soccer problem.”

Which issues are most important?

The “pillars” of Martino's platform are transparency, equality and progress -- the means to repair fractures throughout the federation, provide opportunity for everyone who wishes to play, and expand the growing soccer culture in the U.S. -- but the most vital issue concerns the job itself.

It is, he says, imperative that U.S. Soccer's president be a full-time employee. The reasons are twofold: Too many qualified potential candidates “just can't afford to run” because they need to make a living, and splitting time on the job with one's work duties elsewhere -- as has long been the standard -- does American soccer a disservice.

“We need to salary the position so that there's accountability and there's transparency, but I'm also making it much harder for myself if I become president to get reelected after my first term, because there's going to be great candidates that come into the race to challenge me,” Martino says.

We can't have our women athletes retiring in their prime because there aren't opportunities to make a salary as a professional soccer player or only being able to go overseas to find those opportunities.

And that's only if the U.S. men make it to the 2022 World Cup. Martino says he'll resign if the Yanks fail to qualify for Qatar.

Ending the volunteer status of the top post is just a starting point. Martino would hire an independent company to conduct an audit of how U.S. Soccer does business and make transparent how things are done at U.S. Soccer House in Chicago. There's a need, he says, for “better checks and balances.”

“We know who is responsible for what aspects. U.S. Soccer has seven departments now, and you can find out who leads those, but it's not clear what the decision flow-chart looks like and where the power of the board begins and where it stops. It's just not clear how it's being run.”

Martino wants to see greater equality in the game, in several respects. He believes the federation should subsidize the cost of participation for players from lower-income families, build more facilities across the country, and more greatly embrace the country's Hispanic culture, including an outreach for Spanish-speaking coaches and executives. And U.S. Soccer's $100 million-plus surplus should be invested back into the game.

What does the men’s national team need?

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, the process of how a new coach is hired is more important than who gets the job.

He plans to create a “captain's council, an advisory board of experts across the spectrum” of American soccer, to create a shortlist of potential hires, which would then be vetted, with finalists presented to the board. The decision would require some sort of consensus.

“It shouldn't be one person chasing around a coach for eight years, hiring that person, and then giving them a contract extension, which never happens in the world game, before a World Cup,” he says. “I mean, that's like getting your degree before you take the final. And that happened here and was a massive, massive mistake. That's separate from whether you thought that was the right coach or not. No one should have that individual power to hire such an important role in the soccer structure.”

Martino says he has already reached out to gauge the interest of Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner, the German-born former U.S. national-teamer, “and right now that's not something he's ready to talk about.”

Who will succeed Bruce Arena might be the most pressing issue, but the most vital is that “the pipeline into the men's national team needs to be better,” that the there be dramatic advances in the soccer education provided to young players so that kids who want to be the best don't believe they must look to Europe.

What does the women’s national team need?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. women's national team and its players are taken for granted, Martino says, when they should be rewarded for their fine work.

“U.S. Soccer thinks when they say our women are winning World Cups and winning [Olympic] gold medals, that the women like to hear that,” he says. “I promise you that they don't. What upsets them is that their success is used to paper over cracks. Our women are the Germany or the Spain or the Argentina of the women's game, but the rest of the world is catching up with them and surpassing them, because we're not putting resources into growing the game at a youth level and a grassroots level in the women's game.

“We're not creating a good, efficient pipeline so that we can build the next Michelle Akers, the next Mia Hamm, the next Julie Foudy, the next Abby Wambach, the next Kristine Lilly, the next Alex Morgan. We're not doing enough to ensure they continue to be the beacon of success.”

Providing pay and working conditions that mirror what the men's national team sees is “a good place to start,” but attention must be paid to growing the National Women's Soccer League, which is administered by the USSF, and on improving youth development.

Martino says the federation needs to “really get strategic” about prodding the NWSL forward.

“We can't have our women athletes retiring in their prime because there aren't opportunities to make a salary as a professional soccer player or only being able to go overseas to find those opportunities. But we also can't have our women's players dependent on the national team for their livelihood.”

NEXT: On youth soccer, pay to play and promotion/relegation