The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) will Elect a new President on Saturday...and everybody is still wondering… WHAT ARE WE DOING?
The USSF election this Saturday will be the most important moment in US Soccer history. Earlier in the week, I made a fairly gruesome, far-fetched prediction that Gulati will somehow take the day (even though he is not even running). Jokes aside, the eight candidates find themselves duking it out over real issues and drama that could only happen in the Land of the Free.
For starters, the topic of SUM (Soccer United Marketing), the all-powerful business entity that everybody kinda sorta knows, deserves an entire textbook. If you don't know about SUM you are not alone. Even in the niche American soccer community few people truly understand what they do. At the United Soccer Coaches Convention Wynalda and Solo both asked during separate sessions to those in attendance if they knew what SUM was, and out of the nearly 1,000 combined in attendance at those talks, only a baker's dozen raised their hands. Incredible. Incredible because as more details about SUM are revealed, we learn how influential their business is to US Soccer and MLS. From a sterile economics perspective, SUM has been extremely effective at growing revenue for US Soccer, which now sits on a $150m surplus. In addition, the company assumes all financial risk for their partnership with US Soccer, which Garber and Gulati praise as the main reason USSF has remained profitable, despite the economic recession in ‘08, and the USMNT omission from World Cup ‘18.
If you don't know about SUM you are not alone. Even in the niche American soccer community few people truly understand what they do.
Regardless of SUM's business success, it's clear the candidates are incredibly suspicious of the company's role in US Soccer. Hope Solo rightly criticized SUM's distribution of US Soccer revenue towards the USWNT and USMNT, another topic that deserves its own in-depth coverage. Martino claimed that SUM directed the USMNT to play their World Cup Qualifying match against Costa Rica in Red Bull Arena, deliberately prioritizing ticket sales over the team's preference for home field advantage (the USMNT lost that match).
Another point of contention for the candidates and fans is Sunil Gulati’s "business first, soccer second" model. Most agree that there have not been enough "soccer minds" driving decisions in this country. Gulati, for right or wrong, has been the face of such contempt. He certainly doesn't ooze athletic or coaching prowess and has little street cred from former players. Yet, I think we have all come down way too hard on Gulati's body of work. The new president may quickly discover that many of their immediate problems would probably be best solved (or advised?) by Gulati, who has an economist's mind, with decades of organizational experience. Everybody now knows US Soccer has money to spend, but it's not so easy directing and defending where those dollars should go, and why. As much as this pains me to write, Gulati undoubtedly has been THE driving force behind growing the game of soccer in this country, and has put us in a much better place now, compared to 30 years ago. But it's clear we have plateaued as a soccer nation, and many of our current problems are soccer problems that need soccer solutions.
And this is where it gets truly complicated. Media deals and savvy accounting tactics are one thing, but fixing deep-rooted structural soccer problems is something else entirely. A "short" list of these challenges:
- Fixing pay to play - Connor and Ashley's parents shell out $5k a year to play. They still suck and we can't justify why we make 10 year olds travel hours to play in meaningless tournaments. There is a reason why we rarely produce a Christian Pulisic or Mallory Pugh; most kids are priced out of the game before they even start.
- Undefined leadership roles - Klinsmann was hired as both Coach and Technical Director, clearly that didn't work. Candidates have asked for clearer separation of roles, and additional general/business manager positions within USSF.
- Coaching badges are expensive, and the standards seem to change each year - If you want to pursue a career in coaching, or even a side-hustle, be ready to shell out thousands of dollars. It also doesn’t matter if you are a former college player or semi-pro. I remember making a wisecrack to one of the instructors during my "E" license training course (an all weekend event), saying something to the effect of, "so you guys are going to scrap this entire module as soon as they sack Klinsmann, right?" Bob, or whatever his name was, didn’t find that amusing.
- MLS is a closed system, and semi pro/amateur soccer is ignored - I want you to take off your American business cap for just a moment and try to logically argue why promotion/relegation is a bad idea... ok, caps back on. Pro/rel's immediate, complete implementation at every level of the soccer pyramid may be impractical right now, but that doesn't mean we should continue to do nothing with this topic. In fact, there are plenty of talented teams and supporters out there that embody the spirit of pro/rel, like some of our outstanding partners here at DSD. In addition, the U.S. Open Cup is by far the most entertaining and historical tournament in the country. Who wouldn’t want to get behind Christos FC, and watch an MLS team get knocked off by the little guy?
- Lack of USWNT and USMNT pay equity and transparency - Equal salary, one federation. Not that hard.
- Ineffective, under-employed scouting network - Last I checked we have one official US Scout, Thomas Rongen. ONE SCOUT for the entire nation! And that dude is on beIN sports every weekend, awkwardly demonstrating slow-mo soccer movements in his euro suit.
- Disconnect with Latino community (and non-vanilla peoples in general) - The loss of Jonathan Gonzalez hurts because who knows how many like him have been, and will be, picked up by our arch-rivals. You know this is a serious structural problem when guys like Hercules Gomez and Hugo Perez back the issue with their personal accounts.
- Crappy pro calendar - Like, I get it, Wynalda. We should switch to the FIFA calendar. But who is playing in Minnesota and New England in January? Until we reach a future like that in Minority Report, where we have domed soccer specific stadiums for every club, I don't see this playing out. However, we could definitely tweak the MLS calendar so that it's more relevant. Shorten the season to end by Thanksgiving weekend and eventually scrap playoffs all together (when pro/rel is implemented)? About the playoff system, we are soccer players and fans that have spent our entire lives following this game, so for us, we will watch it even if there is no seven game series at the end of the season.
- Youth development culture - I don't think the entire system is flawed but certainly the constant changes in our youth leagues and the archaic nature of ODP, high school, and college soccer has us moving in different directions. Pulisic was right: young American soccer players aged 16-18 have limited professional opportunities here, and that needs to change if we truly want to improve. I loved playing multiple sports as a kid, and who's to say late-bloomers/comers to the game won't become pros, but we need more teenage soccer players signing pro contracts and experiencing what it’s like to compete for a starting position EVERY SINGLE DAY.
And as if the issues up for debate weren't tricky enough, there has been plenty of drama throughout this election cycle that has left both candidates, fans, and players shaking their heads in disbelief.
Both Steve Gans and the NASL have voiced separate concerns over the Election process. Gans, in particular, has asked for independent observers on voting day. His reason? A number of "midstream" changes from US Soccer have given Gans the impression that the governing body is making up the rules on the fly. Similarly, the NASL has complained about their distribution of votes (which I described previously) within the Pro Council. One of four pro organizations in the council, the NASL barely garners any votes compared to the rest: MLS 57.4%, NWSL 18.05%, NASL 4.51%, USL 20.3%.
...we have never seen so many people, from different ages and backgrounds, care so deeply about the progress of soccer in this country.
In addition, the NASL has also filed an antitrust lawsuit against the USSF. And speaking about bold moves, remember back in summer 2017, when Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva - through his international media company MP & Silva - offered MLS a $4 billion media rights deal with the stipulation that they enact a system of pro/rel? Of course you do. And of course MLS balked at the offer due to their organizational set up with SUM/US Soccer, but damn that's a lot of cheddah.
Silva and the NASL have also provided some financial backing to Wynalda's campaign. I think by now we can see Wynalda and his supporters' agenda, but who cares? Everybody else, from the incumbent to the candidates, has an agenda too. And to that point, we have heard the current candidates regurgitate the same talking points for months now without having the chance to challenge each other in open debate. Apparently, during the most recent event hosted by United Soccer Coaches, the candidates were supposed to debate, but the organizers changed plans last minute.
And to add to his legend, apparently during the event Gulati was so visibly put off with the entire field of candidates that he wanted to debate all eight at the same time. Eye roll, this guy. It has been apparent that since the World Cup loss, both Arena and Gulati have taken a graceless, annoying defensive stance, which has played well for Wynalda's campaign.
The Next Steps
Regardless of the result on February 10th, one important takeaway from this entire circus is that we have never seen so many people, from different ages and backgrounds, care so deeply about the progress of soccer in this country. If anything, the bumps along the way provide identifiable pain points that the next president can target with certainty. The new leader can enact swift changes starting this year with regards to coaching, youth development, and adult/semi-pro outreach. As much as I joke about these people and issues, I want the same thing we all do: to improve the game of soccer in this country for the benefit of ALL Americans. It's my hope that one day instead of asking, "what are we doing?", we can say "this is how you do it". Unite & Strengthen.
Author: Sean Malvey