After many months of ardent campaigning and intense pressure from those inside and especially outside the American soccer system for the implementation of serious, fundamental change at all levels of the sport following the USMNT’s horrifying World Cup qualification disaster, voters in the U.S. Soccer presidential campaign had a golden opportunity to carve a new path for soccer in this country. Unfortunately, in light of the result of the election the future of U.S. Soccer is looking a lot like its past.
On Saturday, Carlos Cordeiro won the election to become president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. In the field of eight presidential hopefuls, Cordeiro was one of two establishment candidates, owing to his membership on U.S. Soccer’s board of directors for a little over a decade. During the last two years of his time in U.S. Soccer, Cordeiro served as departing president Sunil Gulati’s VP. None of which seems to bode well for the prospect of significant change in a federation that desperately needs it.
During the election, Cordeiro sought to position himself as a sort of middle ground between the status quo, as represented by Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter’s candidacy, and those agitating for radical change, best exemplified by former USMNT forward Eric Wynalda’s bid. Those who supported Cordeiro made mention of his deep ties to the game already—domestically and internationally—due to his long tenure in U.S. Soccer, his business experience (he used to work at Goldman Sachs), and his stated openness to voices other than his own.
As an election strategy, this positioning proved a sound one. Carter’s status as the establishment’s handpicked choice (her candidacy had the backing of Gulati and, even worse, MLS commissioner Don Garber) and her leadership position in the intentionally opaque and conflict-of-interest-laden Soccer United Marketing made her a completely untenable candidate for anyone serious about real change. (Unfortunately, the fact that she came into election day as the favorite tells you everything you need to know about the powers-that-be’s appetite for change.) Wynalda’s campaign called for too many structural overhauls of the entire system to ever make him a feasible candidate, not when there exist so many conservative voters who don’t really want anything to be done differently. In the end what won Cordeiro the election was his riding that middle road as a candidate open to change yet also one close enough to the establishment not to rock the boat too hard.
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Both sides of the sporting aisle—on one side are those who are fine with the carefully managed, risk-averse, MLS-privileging path U.S. Soccer is currently on, World Cup hiccup aside, and on the other are those who demand revolution—believe Cordeiro will prove the man for them. Which side is closer to being right, and whether this will be good or bad for soccer’s progression in this country are open questions that on the surface don’t seem to have easy answers. Still, we do know enough about Cordeiro, and about what he wants to do, to make a reasonable guess as to how this will go.
Cordeiro’s vision is to make U.S. Soccer a technocracy, where the president is less a hands-on, all-powerful President and more of a CEO who delegates authority on specific matters to hired experts in the fields in question. His proposal that the men’s and women’s games should be overseen by two “general managers” has already been approved by the board, and it is the men’s GM who will hire the next USMNT manager along with their duties setting the direction of the men’s game’s overall development.
But this vision of his makes the same mistake as most attempts at technocratic leadership do by pretending things like efficiency and expertise can supersede things like philosophies and principles. The big questions facing American soccer aren’t ones that can be resolved through savvier execution of U.S. Soccer’s current strategies; they’re ones that require a philosophical rethinking of the kind of soccer country we want to be and how we can get there—a re-evaluation of the game’s foundational principles. It’s not a matter of doing the things we’re already doing, just doing them better; it’s a matter of coming up with an entirely new way of doing things. Promotion and relegation won’t just happen overnight because some accountant crunched the numbers and his calculator spat back a projected income level higher than the previous year’s. It’ll take a serious, iconoclastic leader to propose and enforce things like that, and decisions on that level are the kinds we’ll need if we’re ever to become a top soccer nation.
Ideally it would be the U.S. Soccer president who would have this vision for a new and improved American soccer system and with their mandate go about effecting the changes they see as necessary for the sport’s advancement. Cordeiro, however, didn’t run on any broad philosophical platform, and apparently doesn’t see the need for any serious rethinking of the status quo—hence his hands-off, technocratic campaign. In fact, his whole plan is to minimize the position of the presidency altogether. This would further empower the U.S. Soccer board as the true force driving the sport, with the non-ideological president and his GMs merely serving to best implement the practices the board favors. And something tells me—as evidenced by the presidential voting itself, which overwhelmingly favored Cordeiro and Carter, the two establishment candidates—that the board’s preferred future doesn’t include much in the way of seismic shifts to the existing soccer structure.
Ultimately, all we can do is wait and see. Cordeiro could be the agent for change he claims to be, though there’s no real reason to believe it sans any hard proof, not after he’d been Gulati’s right-hand man for years and never pushed through any of the kinds of changes he now claims to support. More likely is that he’ll be a president much like Gulati, one widely popular with the contented figures at the top of U.S. Soccer and not the visionary we need to prioritize the game’s development over empty financial growth.
If there is any hope for soccer’s future, however, it’s that the American fanbase has finally awoken to the fact that the current trajectory of American soccer is far short of the path we should be on, and that it will take new ideas for this country to realize its enormous potential in the sport. That candidates like Wynalda and Kyle Martino and Hope Solo got as far as they did and engendered such fervent support from fans does prove there is a very real hunger out there for significant alterations to how soccer is coached and played and developed and structured around here, which is a legitimately heartening sign even if the majority of those inside U.S. Soccer think things are fine as is. So while Cordeiro looks like he’ll probably be more of the same, it’s incumbent on the rest of us to continue to make it clear that more of the same will not cut it.