by Beau Dure
(Well, as I see it, anyway.)
The old saying that crisis yields opportunity could hardly be more applicable to U.S. Soccer than it is today.
After winning a contentious election in 2018, Carlos Cordeiro had a brief run as U.S. Soccer president that ended in the wake of a legal filing by the Federation’s lawyers claiming women didn’t have the same skill or produce the same effort as the U.S. men, which didn’t help the Federation in court and hurt it immensely in the court of public opinion.
New president Cindy Parlow Cone has a better resume than anyone who ran for the presidency two years ago. She’s a Hall of Fame player and an NWSL championship-winning coach who knows the pro game at all levels, from fragile leagues to the realities of dealing with concussions. She’s a coach and administrator at the grassroots level. And she has done her time working within U.S. Soccer on various committees.
Cone served as vice president to fill out the last year of Cordeiro’s term after he was elected president, and she won re-election last month. But her service in that post doesn’t mean she’s in position to take significant blame for the Federation’s missteps. The U.S. Soccer board of directors is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the Federation, which is a nonprofit like other national governing bodies. It works with staff to make the budget. It sets the general vision.
And it can hire or fire the CEO -- coincidentally, a position Cordeiro couldn’t manage to fill and now falls to Cone.
The presidency is powerful. Under Sunil Gulati’s long tenure, very little happened at the Federation without his stamp of approval, if not his direct initiative.
So while Cone has less than a year before the next election and doesn’t have absolute authority, she can accomplish quite a bit between now and then, just when the Federation has a lot to accomplish.
Here’s a quick list of what should be on her agenda, all domestic-related (the U.S. organization of the 2026 World Cup that Cordeiro oversaw is an entirely separate issue) and all with the proviso that we won't know for a couple of months how U.S. Soccer will be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic:
1. Hire a CEO.
This might take some time because this isn’t the most appealing job in sports right now. But the lack of senior leadership has surely played a role in some of the Federation’s current woes.
2. Settle the U.S. women’s national team lawsuit.
The suit has always been a PR nightmare for U.S. Soccer, particularly given that most people don’t know the complexities -- the women having salaries while the men don’t, the men and women playing in competitions that are not analogues of each other, the vast disparity of FIFA prize money, and the fact that the much-hyped “equal pay” deals in Norway and Australia only give the same percentage of FIFA prize money, not the same amount.
(The Federation would gladly make the same deal, but there’s no way the U.S. women would go for it. Not when they’re tossing around the number $66 million, which would include a sum for the 2015 World Cup that’s more than 1,000% of the $2 million prize FIFA paid to U.S. Soccer.)
And in retrospect, the 2017 women’s CBA looks petty. The base pay for a men’s player in a friendly is $5,000. The base pay for a non-salaried women’s player is never higher than $4,250. It’s one thing to argue about FIFA prize money; it’s another to have a small but significant difference in a rare apples-to-apples situation.
Of course, a settlement can only be made if both parties agree, and the players’ intransigence is to blame as well. Cordeiro accused the players of refusing to meet, and players’ spokesperson Molly Levinson didn’t exactly deny it.
The Federation could probably win in court. The abhorrent legal argument that women may deserve less money because they’re physically weaker and don’t produce the same “effort” -- the former may be true, but the latter certainly is not -- was only a small part of the Federation’s argument. The players are desperately trying to squash expert testimony from the Federation’s economic witness, and their lawyers are simply trying to redefine what soccer competitions actually are.
Players’ lawyer Jeff Kessler used this tactic in the Major League Soccer players’ lawsuit of 2000, when he tried to play “gotcha” with Gulati and leave everyone confused about the relationship between the Premier League and the tier then called the First Division. The spectacle of MLS players going on the witness stand and hemming and hawing when asked about the existence of promotion and relegation in England was a nadir for U.S. soccer, and the judge and jury were not convinced.
But as a former player and coach, Cone may have better luck bringing the women to the table, saving them a loss in court and saving the Federation more bad publicity. Maybe they can even kick all the lawyers out of the room and get Cone across the table from women’s players association president Becky Sauerbrunn, one of the more level-headed players in the women’s game. (When the U.S. women wore jerseys with the names of women who inspired them in place of their own names, Sauerbrunn chose Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)
At the same time, Cone needs to be cognizant of the next item on her agenda …
3. Don’t destroy the Federation’s development efforts.
Between several years of growth and the lucrative Copa America Centenario, U.S. Soccer amassed assets of more than $160 million. Its revenue is also typically in the nine digits. But the countries the U.S. aspires to emulate turn over much more than that. In 2018, England’s FA brought in £375.5 million ($461 million) and spent £127.5 million ($156.5 million) in various “investments into the game.” Germany’s ambitious “Das Reboot” plan after one dismal performance placed hundreds of training centers across the country.
Money doesn’t solve everything, but imagine if U.S. Soccer had that kind of reach.
The men’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was a wake-up call. But the women have had wake-up calls of their own. The senior team crashed out of the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinals. The under-20 women’s team won the World Cup in 2012 but failed to make the podium in the next two editions and didn’t advance past the group stage in 2018. The under-17 women’s team hasn’t advanced past the group stage in the last five World Cups and failed to qualify twice.
During the 2018 election, candidates and critics charged that the Federation wasn’t doing enough to solve this and other problems. Making a dent in “pay to play” youth soccer was one of the biggest concerns, though that also would require some youth soccer executives to put aside their egos and play nice. Youth soccer registration has been stagnant, and the Federation has long faced questions over its outreach to Spanish-speaking players. Other ideas included more investment in the U.S. Open Cup and a new emphasis on coaching development.
Such noble intentions have disappeared. Some of the same people who urged the Federation to address these issues in 2018 are now suggesting U.S. Soccer can unilaterally settle this case no matter the sum it pays, and they care little about initiatives such as a new grant program.
The women have presented an economic report saying they’re due more than $66 million in back pay, a figure that doesn’t even include a future raise. The Federation already plans to spend its assets down to $42 million. Something has to give.
4. Review all spending.
We can’t assume the plan to spend assets down to $42 million is sound. The Fed also has been rather top-heavy, with former CEO Dan Flynn getting more than $930,000 in total compensation in fiscal year 2019, with longtime deputy Jay Berhalter (brother of U.S. men’s coach Gregg Berhalter) getting more than $815,000. They’ve also added many new positions -- a plan to hire a men’s technical director and women’s technical director morphed into three positions, with Earnie Stewart puzzlingly getting oversight over women’s director Kate Markgraf, who’s perfectly capable of doing that job on her own.
Some of the initiatives are sound. Several basic coaching education programs have gone online, reducing the travel costs and scheduling concerns that prevented many coaches from taking them. Investing in technology doesn’t seem like a bad idea on the surface.
5. Go public with spending plans.
U.S. Soccer’s financial documents -- Form 990s required of nonprofits and audited financial statements -- are online, as are the Annual General Meeting books that include budget breakdowns and the budget presentation made at the National Council meeting. But they’re difficult to comprehend, and they’ve vague. (Members do get a chance to ask questions at the budget presentation at the Annual General Meeting.)
Cone has an opportunity to explain U.S. Soccer’s enigmatic five-year plan to the public in plain English, perhaps in a colorful video such as the one the International Gymnastics Federation made to explain its confusing Olympic qualification system. As it stands now, U.S. Soccer gets little sympathy in a media landscape that has little idea what the Federation is doing besides going to court. Cone can change the narrative.
6. Take a hard line on the men’s collective bargaining agreement.
Even if the Federation is able to talk the women’s soccer team down to a reasonable settlement or win in court, the pile of assets is going to drop. Meanwhile, the men’s national team has suggested the women’s team should be paid three times as much -- which would, of course, trigger a similar raise for the men, who are currently playing on an expired CBA.
By all available evidence, most other national teams simply aren’t paid anywhere close to the sums U.S. players receive. Their federations spend on development, not players who’ve already made it to the top.
A substantial raise for the men would necessitate a substantial raise for the women on top of whatever back-pay settlement is paid. The millions in assets would disappear quickly, as would development programs.
7. Change the culture and make U.S. Soccer a better place to work.
Federation staff, posting on the networking site Glassdoor and speaking with The New York Times, referred to the atmosphere at the Federation as “toxic.” Flynn and Jay Berhalter absorbed the brunt of the criticism, likely halting Berhalter’s expected ascension to the CEO role as Flynn retired. Berhalter has since left U.S. Soccer.
Another factor: Cordeiro and Stewart insisted on centralizing U.S. Soccer operations in its headquarters in Chicago, a move that didn’t sit well with coaches.
8. Do a better job on diversity.
U.S. Soccer had a diversity task force that mysteriously went dormant in the last few years, and the new youth task force formed several working groups that failed to include a Latino man. The Federation also struggles to bring along female coaches -- Jill Ellis, who coached the U.S. women’s soccer team to two World Cup wins -- is the only woman to earn the Federation’s Pro license.
9. Prod youth soccer organizations to solve their problems together.
Most countries have their youth players in either a professional club’s academy or a low-cost local competition. The USA has a strange middle tier called “travel soccer” that often emphasizes “travel” over “soccer.”
The main issue is that several different organizations and tournaments are fighting for “elite” status. The net result is that a team that may have a competitive game 10 miles away instead travels to play a non-competitive game 200 miles away.
The new youth task force was one of Cordeiro’s campaign promises. It has made progress on coaching initiatives and is continuing its work, though the coronavirus will certainly halt any in-person meetings. (On the other hand, coaches currently have no one to coach, so perhaps they’ll have time for teleconferences.)
10. Help the NWSL land more sponsors.
Sponsors jumped in to give the U.S. women an added bonus after last year’s World Cup, and sponsor pressure played a big role in forcing Cordeiro out. When will they put their money where their mouth is and support the league that gives women’s soccer a foothold in several cities and gives scores of players a chance to remain in the talent pool?
The U.S. Soccer president is the public face of the Federation. Sunil Gulati understood that role. The signs that Cordeiro did not were apparent in the election, when he was the only candidate who didn’t do an interview session at the United Soccer Coaches annual convention.
As president, Cordeiro came across as aloof, speaking only through vague platitudes on Twitter and the occasional “open letter” to explain the Federation’s position in dealing with the women’s team. Those letters usually landed with a thud.
Cone is more personable. More qualified. If she can’t set things right, maybe U.S. Soccer can’t be fixed at all.