I’ve remarked often how similar the world of American politics and American soccer are. Part of that is due to the overlap in individuals with interest in both arenas, and the similar contrasts in constituencies and global views. Following,
- The shocking elimination of the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) from World Cup qualifying,
- The potential relocation of the Columbus Crew SC an original Major League Soccer (MLS) team, and two relocations of National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) clubs
- antitrust ligation filed by the North American Soccer League (NASL),
- A Court of Arbitration on Sports (CAS) claim filed by Miami FC and the Kingston Stockade FC to implement a system of promotion and relegation for clubs(something inherent in football leagues across the globe outside the USA, Australia and partially in India though the later two are likely to change)
- A continued open CAS claim on the US’ lack of solidarity payments to youth clubs (another system that inherent in world football but lacking in the United States),
the 2018 USSF Presidential race attracted nine candidates and saw the long-time incumbent Sunil Gulati drop out. The race has also attracted the type of media attention domestic soccer rarely receives because in large measure it is so interesting and different than the self-contained world of American sports which generally doesn’t have comparable structures to the governance sport or democracy abroad.
Much of my absence these last two months from these pages have had to do with the daily grind of covering this campaign for other outlets – in fact I’ve watched Florida politics AND actual soccer matches less than prior to October 10, when the USMNT elimination led to an open and vibrant Presidential race. In the paragraphs below I will attempt to liken much of what is happening in this election to what takes places in US political campaigns.
The election will be held in Orlando the weekend of February 8-11 at the US Soccer Federation (USSF) AGM. Voting is much like in the Florida Democratic Party where those eligible through some status, cast what are essentially weighted votes. In the coming weeks, I hope to interview one-on-one each of the candidates for various publications I contribute to. But before that here is an overview from my perspective as to how the race and its current candidates reflect similarities to American politics.
The issue of crony capitalism is the number one defining talking point of this race. Critics of US Soccer claim the federation, which is responsible for governing the sport at the professional and amateur level in this country as well as fielding men’s and women’s national team as well as national youth teams has become a repository for cronyism. The most notable criticism, and one I share with those wanting a massive overhaul in the governance of the game in this country is the relationship between Major League Soccer owned Soccer United Marketing (SUM) and the USSF. The USSF has without a real RFP or bidding process outsourced media and marketing efforts to SUM. Many including the lawyers for the NASL allege this constitutes an improper subsidy of a pro league, a league whose closed structure (using a single entity construct) prevents innovation and accountability thus leading directly to the failure of the USMNT. Allegations of kickbacks and a failure of US Soccer to invest in development programs including those to help lower-income girls and boys play at elite youth clubs dominate this discussion. My assertion would be that in no other major western country do you see such a close relationship between the governing federation as a business and its top men’s pro league. In fact, the divergence of interests between those two entities in other nations prevents the type of collaboration we see in the United States. But the US is a nation built upon crony capitalism and one where a lack of accountability and aversion to risk tends to characterize the most entrenched business. The innovation of the Amazon’s and Silicon Valley firms isn’t matched by the old industrial order, and the battle in US Soccer very much resembles these differences.
SUM has become the punching bag of this race. That’s why many found the decision of longtime President Sunil Gulati, the embodiment of the status quo and marrying of interests between the USSF and MLS to step away but anoint Kathy Carter, the President of SUM and one of the founding employees of MLS in the mid 1990’s as an attempt to maintain the hegemony of SUM and MLS using Carter, a women and a fresh face as a way to consolidate support for the status quo which given the points I made above was beginning to wane. Carter has come out of the box showing a Hillary Clinton-like ability to try and placate both sides but in fact dig in with the status quo by paying what amounts to dismissive or patronizing lip service to actual reform . It’s no coincidence as the establishment of US Soccer and the PR firm Carter has retained have close ties to the Democratic Party and Clintonian wing of the Democrats. The followers of the establishment of American soccer also tend to be rank-in-file Democrats more than being conservatives, progressives or anything else politically.
Those who support Carter tend to be those taking the path of least resistance or people/entities profiting off the current system. Like Clintonians they pay lip service to the idea of change, but in reality have too much invested economically and personally to want to see any sort of wholesale change.
The most fancied challenger to Carter and the establishment is former USMNT playing great, ESPN and FOX Sports analyst Eric Wynalda. Having worked with Wynalda in the past, I can attest to his drive and willingness to shake the system. Wynalda has embraced the idea of promotion and relegation, solidarity payments and shifting the calendar of American pro leagues to correspond as closely as possible to the top international ones. He’ll also change the way the USSF scouts and develops players. Wynalda is a genuine reformer, whose views about the sport match that of many fans disaffected by the domestic game, its corporatism and lack of correspondence with the way the sport is governed abroad.
However, for better or worse Wynalda’s candidacy has taken on a face that makes it resemble a combination of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. It may not be fashionable to say this, but Sanders and Trump supporters ARE similar in some key ways – suspicion of the establishment, resentment of those in power, anger toward elites and ultimately a distrust of the media. Wynalda has had a reputation for bombastic and provocative statements in the past, and while he has been more in control during this race, his supporters, many of whom hang on his every word have grown radicalized much like some visible Sanders and Trump supporters were during the 2016 US Presidential Election.
Supporters of Wynalda who are far more numerous on social media than that of other candidates have created an environment many find toxic online. Frequent claims of corruption or weakness have characterized this discussion. It’s become difficult to even express critiques that are nuanced or question the motivations of messengers (like former US Men’s National Team Manager Jurgen Klinsmann who if anything should have been dismissed from his job 12 to 18 months earlier than he was, and whom used trying to change the subject after his failings as an excuse to push the buck by making valid critiques of the system and sport’s governance, but who failed to meet the expectations he himself set for any occupant of the job he held for five and a half years) without being accused of being a shill, dishonest or part of the status quo. American soccer is rife with conflicts of interest, but that doesn’t mean everyone who doesn’t subscribe to the most aggressive reform agenda is compromised.
Suspicions of the media have led Wynalda supporters to harass and attack members of the media on social media. Ironically enough, few if any of these critics held Wynalda himself to the same standard when he was a media member, though it could be argued his most recent employer, FOX Sports, didn’t let him really speak out against the status quo. The members of the media often attacked by the most zealous Wynalda supporters are in fact in many cases the most objective and reform-minded in a group that I will admit often doesn’t speak out and lines up with the status quo. Again like Sanders and Trump supporters, they chase away the most natural ideological allies in the mainstream with over-the-top rhetoric and attacks. Paul LaPointe, considered by many a marginal candidate has also had a role in winding up those on social media seeking reform. Hope Solo who recently jumped into the race has a history of being outspoken. Solo, jumped into the race with fanfare a week and a half ago attacking SUM and the soccer establishment as she so often has in the past.
For the record, I do believe a fear of Wynalda in the status quo is driving some coverage of this race. But his most vocal and zealous online supporters cannot seem to distinguish between who is partaking in this type of coverage from those who are just being objective and honest. How Wynalda and his supporters handle the pressure in the next seven weeks will indicate whether turning the keys over to them is wise or a recipe for disaster.
For those looking for a more moderate yet reform-minded alternative to Wynalda several options are present. Kyle Martino, a former player who most recently served as an analyst for NBC Sports on its (English) Premier League coverage is appealing with his reform minded campaign and savvy demeanor. Martino is the son-in-law of one of America’s most prominent progressive celebrities, Susan Sarandon and like his mother-in-law he’s progressive politically and believes in reform. His critiques aren’t terribly different than Wynalda’s but his presentation is different. Additionally, lawyer Steven Gans, whose experience in the sport is extensive on both sides of the Atlantic, Michael Winograd a New York attorney and former USMNT player Paul Caligiuri are talking reform. All of these candidates have raised serious issues in how they feel US Soccer is governed. They may represent a safe landing spot for those electors who vote in a US Soccer election – stakeholders in the game who may want reform but don’t want the baggage attached to Wynalda and his most vocal supporters.
For those who might be wanting a safe pair of hands, Mitt Romney or John Kerry type technocrat, Carlos Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs executive and popular US Soccer board member is running. Cordeiro represents the status quo but importantly would put the interests of US Soccer first it appears, rather than using the federation as an ad junct to Major League Soccer and SUM. Those who have worked with Cordeiro tell me he is far more deliberative and consensus-oriented in his leadership style than Gulati who was critiqued for his arbitrary governing style, has been.
The race is intense and taking on the shape of a US Presidential Campaign, primaries, conventions and all. Even for non-soccer fans, this is an interesting process to watch.