ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s entirely fitting that the U.S. Soccer Federation’s presidential election will take place Saturday in a hotel with clear views of Sea World’s rides and roller coasters.
The description of the hyper-coaster Mako – “high speeds, deep dives and thrills around every turn” – could certainly apply to a campaign with eight candidates scrambling to succeed a long-standing leader whose uncontested races over 12 years were the equivalent of tubing down a lazy river.
There’s Kraken Unleashed, which describes contender Eric Wynalda, the former national team star who has roiled the race with blunt comments about the federation and dark forecasts about the sport in this country, should one of the so-called establishment candidates prevail.
New in 2018: Infinity Falls, an apt ride in the wake of the failure of the men’s team to qualify for the World Cup after seven consecutive appearances.
By the time a winner is declared, the hundreds of voters representing state associations, leagues and other groups are going to need a serene ride on those flamingo paddle boats.
“Everyone involved,” outgoing president Sunil Gulati said, “will be glad when this is over.”
Orlando is also an appropriate backdrop because it was here last fall that the soccer clique was last truly happy. (Well, relatively happy, because there is always someone complaining about something in the fractured world of American soccer.)
On an October night, the national team pounded Panama, 4-0, at Orlando City Stadium to move to the brink of a World Cup berth. All it then needed was a draw on the road against last-place Trinidad and Tobago – or a series of favorable results in the other group matches – to begin practicing Russian phrases.
Instead, the Americans lost, their group competitors won, and what promised to be another uneventful election – and fourth term for Gulati – escalated into a campaign free-for-all.
Complaints about USSF leadership had been percolating for years. Youth and adult associations felt ignored. The world champion women’s squad has complained about gender inequity. Observers questioned the business relationship between the federation and MLS’s marketing arm. Many involved in the sport felt the federation has neglected the Latin American community and, in general, has failed to develop world-class players.
None of those issues were going to go away, whether or not a World Cup berth was secured. Had the U.S. team clinched, though, Gulati would’ve run for reelection and almost certainly won. In the wake of the defeat, amid growing discontent and calls for his resignation, Gulati announced he would stay on the job for the last few months and not seek another term.
Steve Gans, a Boston attorney with a long history in the sport, had announced well before the Trinidad and Tobago fiasco that he would challenge Gulati. U.S. qualification would’ve probably left him as the only other candidate.
But after that historic setback, the challengers came forth: Wynalda, now a coach and pundit; Michael Winograd, a New York attorney; Hope Solo, the sensational but controversial goalkeeper; Paul Caligiuri, a former World Cup player; Kyle Martino, an ex-player and NBC Sports commentator; Kathy Carter, the head of MLS-owned Soccer United Marketing; and Carlos Cordeiro, Gulati’s vice president.
Carter has emerged as the favorite. Cordeiro is a serious contender. Wynalda and Martino have the most support among fans – they’ve won the Internet – but those fans don’t vote.
The voters represent state youth and adult associations, the pro leagues and about a dozen players who form the athletes’ council. A complicated formula is in place, with each of the first three groups having an equal share of the votes and, by federal law for a national governing body, the athletes getting 20 percent. (A small group of board members, fan representatives and others will have some impact, as well.)
To win, a candidate must receive 50 percent plus one vote. With eight candidates involved, it’s likely to go to a second (and perhaps third) ballot.
“Other than Carter, it’s impossible to tell where everyone else is,” said Scott Ferson, Gans’s communications specialist, who was once press secretary for late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and has worked on several political campaigns. “It’s unlike other elections where you at least have polling.”
Carter and Cordeiro have the edge because most voters seem to want someone with a business background. Carter, a former goalkeeper at Robinson Secondary School and William & Mary in Virginia, traces her soccer marketing experience to the U.S.-hosted World Cup in 1994. Cordiero is a former Goldman Sachs partner who has been involved with the USSF since 2007.
The others have tried to portray Carter and Cordeiro as the “status quo” candidates. Fearing one or the other was going to win, perhaps on the first ballot if Carter won majority supporter from the athletes’ council, the six “change” candidates reached consensus to join forces, in some unclear manner, to thwart Carter and Cordeiro. No one was expected to drop out before the election, but an arrangement seemed to be in the works if additional ballots are necessary.
Meantime, the nastiness of the campaign has continued.
In Philadelphia last month, a video attacking Carter and Cordeiro played on the side of a truck parked outside the convention center hosting the annual national coaches’ event.
Solo, who recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Olympic Committee about the way the USSF operates, used her address at a candidates’ forum last month to go after Carter and Cordeiro. Gulati used a speech at an awards gala to “fact-check” claims, most notably by Wynalda, though he didn’t name him directly.
Social-media platforms have been littered with scurrilous attacks, mostly on the front-runners. Candidates have questioned the way the USSF will conduct the election; attorneys are on standby.
Gulati, who supports Carter, and Bob Contiguglia, USSF president from 1998 to 2006 and a Cordeiro supporter, have been dismissive of most candidates. In a Yahoo! Sports story, Contiguglia said Wynalda is “unfit to be president” and Solo is “fragile.”
It remains to be seen whether all of the losing candidates go quietly into the central Florida sun. Not likely.
The line for the flamingo ride isn’t too bad this weekend.