ORLANDO, Fla. – Who will be the next president of U.S. Soccer?
Representatives from hundreds of soccer organizations from across the country have gathered near the gates of SeaWorld Orlando for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s annual general meeting, which began Thursday. The cornerstone of the event is Saturday’s National Council Meeting, where the organization’s membership will vote to decide which of the eight candidates in the race will succeed longtime president Sunil Gulati.
It’s been a wild, weird campaign up to this point, and even now, just hours away from the vote, no one is quite sure what will unfold in that ballroom. What traditionally has been an obscure position and process was thrust onto center stage the past few months, fuelled by the U.S. men’s national team’s spectacular failure to qualify for the World Cup, an emotional relocation drama swirling around MLS’ Columbus Crew SC and the folding of founding NWSL club the Boston Breakers.
Throw in an array of long-simmering, hot-button topics — promotion/relegation, the U.S. women’s national team’s concerns about equal pay and treatment and the tangled relationship between the federation and its MLS-owned media arm, Soccer United Marketing — and you have a perfect storm of anger, angst and argument around the presidency, an unpaid position.
As with so many other elections, this one at times devolved into name-calling, inflated promises and allegations of impropriety.
“I would never have imagined the election would have taken this shape and form,” presidential candidate and current federation vice president Carlos Cordeiro said at a US Youth Soccer-sponsored forum in Philadelphia last month. “But I think it’s good that we have an open discussion.”
So here’s what you need to know.
WHO’S IN THE RACE?
Heading into the AGM, the frontrunners appear to be Cordeiro and longtime SUM and MLS executive Kathy Carter. Former MLS and USMNT players turned television analysts Kyle Martino and Eric Wynalda also are in contention.
It looks like longer odds for Steve Gans and Michael Winograd, both lawyers with lengthy resumes of involvement in the sport at multiple levels. Retired greats Hope Solo and Paul Caligiuri, two of the most recognizable candidates in terms of their on-field achievements, struggled to build a base of support in the crowded field despite some good ideas and headline-generating statements.
HOW THE ELECTION WORKS
U.S. Soccer’s constituent organizations participate in the vote, which is conducted as a secret ballot via electronic keypad managed and monitored by an independent accounting firm. The first candidate to earn a simple majority of votes is the winner. If no one does so on Saturday’s first ballot, multiple ballots will be held until someone gains a majority.
There’s no runoff process to winnow the field, unless a candidate elects to withdraw themselves. Votes can only be cast in person, and by delegates “authorized in writing to serve as a delegate by the governing body of the organization Member,” according to the federation’s bylaws.
Not every vote carries the same heft, however, due to a weighted system that seeks to apportion equal power to the youth, adult/amateur and professional spheres.
As for the member bodies themselves? There’s a lot of them:
- 91 state associations – 55 youth state associations and 54 adult associations, of which 18 are “joint” organizations with youth and adult under the same umbrella.
- The pro game is represented by the Professional Council, which holds slightly more than 25 percent of the overall vote. Each of the pro leagues – MLS, NWSL, NASL and USL – gets a vote, but under a weighted system that apportions significantly more (nine voting delegates worth a combined 14.5 percent of the overall vote) to MLS by virtue of its size and level. NWSL and USL each get 4.8 percent of the total vote and the NASL gets just one delegate, or 1.6 percent of the total vote.
- The Youth Council represents the three largest national youth soccer organizations: AYSO, US Club Soccer and US Youth Soccer. Like the pro council, it carries slightly more than a quarter of the total vote.
- The Adult Council also carries 25.8 percent of the vote. Its sole member is the U.S. Adult Soccer Association, which represents a bevy of state associations as well as amateur leagues like the ASL, PDL, UPSL and WPSL.
- The Athlete Council represents current and former national team players – not just the senior men’s and women’s teams but also the national paralympic and beach soccer teams. By federal law (the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act), it holds 20 percent of the vote. Its current membership is listed here.
- The remaining 2 to 3 percent of the overall vote consists of the board of directors, past presidents of the federation, “life members” (an honor granted “in recognition of long-time service and distinguished contributions to soccer in the United States”) and other delegates.
The federation’s full rundown of the voting process can be found here.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
Beyond those mentioned above, the campaign’s discourse revolved around several main topics:
- The cost, structure and inclusiveness (or lack thereof) of youth soccer in America.
- The inefficiencies within the country’s player development system.
- The perceived instability and imbalance found at the professional level.
- The leadership style of the federation and its president.
Many candidates actually share similar outlooks on these issues. Most pledged to open up greater opportunities for children from marginalized communities, to hire general managers to oversee the men’s and women’s national teams and to run the fed with a more consensus-oriented approach.
Wynalda staked out the most radical platform based on imposing a sweeping set of changes to the pro game, most notably promotion/relegation and a switch to the fall-spring calendar used in most of Europe.
Sensing a general air of frustration among the soccer community, all eight professed themselves to be change agents. The overwhelming perception, however, is that Carter and Cordeiro are “establishment” candidates, with the other six meeting on Thursday night to craft a united message intended to underline that.
— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) February 9, 2018
Six "change" candidates for USSF president are seeking to unite in effort to defeat Carter/Cordeiro. Drafted a statement of solidarity but couldn't reach consensus. Talks continue here at Orlando hotel, where election will take place Sat
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) February 9, 2018
WHO WILL WIN?
Anything can happen in the final hours leading up to Saturday’s vote, but it will be a surprise if someone other than Carter, Cordeiro or perhaps Martino wins.
Most observers believe the Athlete Council will play a decisive role. In past years it voted as a bloc to maximize its influence, but it may be more difficult to get full buy-in on that strategy this time.
With the firm backing of MLS – and Gulati, it appears – Carter can count on most of the Professional Council’s support, which puts her around 20 percent of the total vote. The question is whether she can augment that with enough other constituencies of support to reach a majority. She’s the most likely to win on the first ballot. But if she does not reach a majority on that first vote, it could set in motion a series of vote-shifting and alliance-building that would set the stage for an upset.
Armed with his knowledge of the landscape as vice president, Cordeiro quietly worked behind the scenes to build a base of support. Despite his insider ties, he seems to have less controversy attached to him than Carter and impressed some voters with his person-to-person interactions.
The fed’s voting populace trends older, and Martino is perceived by many as young and inexperienced. He’s a charismatic and energetic campaigner, however, and may turn out to offer a slightly more moderate alternative to Wynalda’s insurgent persona, which inspired many hardcore soccer purists but did not translate quite as well to the specific demographics of this electorate.
The National Council Meeting, which will be streamed live on ussoccer.com, kicks off at 8 a.m. ET and the presidential vote is expected to take place in the 10 to 11 a.m. range.
So, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens on Saturday.