ORLANDO, Fla. – After months of debate about which candidates for U.S. Soccer president qualified as “a soccer person,” the voters with the heftiest soccer résumés effectively determined the winner.
And ironically enough, their choice was the only candidate of the eight running who didn’t play the game at an international, professional or collegiate level.
The Athlete Council, the body of current and former national teamers who represent the interests of players in a range of federation affairs and hold 20 percent of the presidential vote by federal law, continued their tradition of voting as a bloc and in doing so crowned Carlos Cordeiro as the fed’s new leader.
“One of our goals as the Athlete Council is to have an athlete in a high position,” retired U.S. men’s national team player and leading council voice Stuart Holden said in the wake of Cordeiro’s victory Saturday at the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld. “[But] it just felt, at this moment in time, that Carlos was the most qualified across the board and felt like the right person.
“A number of these athletes brought some phenomenal ideas and their passion really shone through, and that’s why I hope a number of them stay involved in the federation, get involved in some of these board-level [positions], potentially run for vice president — and then in four years [when the next presidential election takes place], that would be a completely different story. I just think we felt we had an opportunity to unite behind a candidate that at this moment in time, was the right choice.”
"We got a candidate we can unify behind."
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 10, 2018
It was a long and tortuous path to reach that unity.
The Athlete Council spent somewhere in the vicinity of seven hours locked in often-intense private discussion on Friday.
First they held a meeting in the afternoon that ran past its scheduled three-hour span. Finding agreement elusive, they then broke to take part in a U.S. Soccer Foundation community event and eat dinner before reconvening to suss out the differences of opinion among the 14 or so members present and others taking part via conference call.
Holden estimated that the process finally wrapped up around midnight.
“It was very much a group effort to get to a consensus,” said retired USMNT player Carlos Bocanegra, now technical director of MLS club Atlanta United. “But the most important part for us is we wanted to show our strength as a solid unit, our 20 percent.
“It was more about the general consensus of who was going to do the best overall for us going forward and not leave people behind … And there was a little bit of compromise, not everybody agreed always on everything, of course. But for the greater good of the game, we thought this was the best way to go forward and help with the change that is needed.”
Cordeiro said he didn’t know he had the Athlete Council’s support until the vote. The rest of the candidates were more concerned about a bloc vote for the other frontrunner, Kathy Carter, who 2 percent of Cordeiro on the first ballot but lost support in subsequent ballots.
Steve Gans’ team thought retired MLS and U.S. men’s national team player Kyle Martino had the best shot at the athletes’ bloc vote if the group didn’t splinter, distributing their individual votes – which counted as much as 20 times more than other delegates’ under the weighted voting system – among multiple candidates.
“Everyone expected they would be splintered, unless it went to Kyle,” Gans’ campaign manager, veteran political strategist Scott Ferson, told Pro Soccer USA.
Candidate Michael Winograd said the athletes were in a difficult position on election day and probably did what they thought was best.
“That eventually dictated the outcome of the election, which I thought many people knew in advance,” Winograd said. “I think people understood that if the athletes voted as a bloc, they likely would determine the outcome of the election.”
Not everyone approved of the council’s approach, starting with presidential candidate and former U.S. women’s national team star Hope Solo. She and retired U.S. players Martino, Paul Caligiuri and Eric Wynalda never seriously threatened frontrunners Cordeiro and Carter. It appeared only Martino ever received serious consideration by the athletes.
“I am very disappointed in the Athlete Council. I think all of us are. But I’m not surprised, because they’re under a lot of pressure and I’ve seen athletes time and time and time again crack under pressure, crack under fear, start to behave in a way that’s very much a group-thinking mindset,” Solo said after the election, reiterating her accusation that MLS and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, leaned on the council to pick one of the two “establishment” candidates.
“The Athlete Council, they were under extreme pressure from the federation. And change is very difficult for people,” she continued. “They are the beneficiaries of many opportunities Soccer United Marketing, as well as the federation, gives them with appearances. Many of them make money doing these appearances, so of course it’s very difficult. You have somebody like Carlos Bocanegra, who probably will be on the World Cup  organizing committee – they don’t want change. But they have to realize that they represent all athletes of America, ages 6 all the way up to 60 and above. They represent everybody and they failed many of us.”
Solo went on to criticize council members who she said did not conduct sufficient research and did not attend the election in person, alluding to Orlando City SC defender Jonathan Spector, who took part in some of Friday’s talks but had to play a scrimmage for his club team Saturday morning.
Bocanegra, Holden and Spector bristled at Solo’s accusations.
“It’s ridiculous to me. I don’t know what to say to that, besides no, it didn’t,” Bocanegra said. “I’m done with the politics, man.”
Said Holden: “I’m downright insulted that anyone in this election would question the integrity of the Athlete Council, because I think that’s something that we’ve held as a core value from the beginning of our careers and how we competed. I’m proud to sit here and talk to you guys, knowing that I can stand at the mirror and be proud of myself and how this entire council conducted themselves over the past couple of months.”
Holden, who’s been on the council for seven years, then rattled of facts shared earlier in the day about how more people and more athletes attended the annual general meeting than ever before.
“If everybody can maintain this level of engagement going forward, the sport’s going to be in a better place,” he said.