One of the leading practitioners of U.S. foreign diplomacy is a guy who schedules soccer games.
We’re not totally kidding, either. For the past 20 years, a genial Brit named Tom King, U.S. Soccer’s managing director of administration, has been the man in charge of arranging all the U.S. national team friendlies, including the men's one on Tuesday against Ireland in Dublin (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
It’s a job that requires all the skills of a top diplomat—extreme organization, smart relationship-building, shrewd negotiating acumen—with the exception that in soccer the U.S. isn’t a global superpower but rather an emerging regional heavyweight. In a complex, sometimes chaotic world of friendlies where not even FIFA keeps careful track of who’s playing whom, it’s King’s task (while consulting with U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann) to find the best possible opponent in the best possible location with the best possible commercial terms for U.S. Soccer.
And he does this knowing that until there’s a signed contract, teams can (and do) back out of verbal agreements. Why, just last month the Croatian federation publicly announced a friendly against the U.S. at London’s Craven Cottage for last week. U.S. Soccer didn’t announce anything, though, and Croatia ended up playing Argentina elsewhere in London last week, while the U.S. arranged a game instead against Colombia at Craven Cottage and only announced it once the contract was signed.
In other words, it’s just like diplomacy. Countries may say one thing privately and another thing publicly, and it’s hard to know what’s really going to happen until you sign a treaty (i.e., a contract).
Fortunately for King, there is one thing providing at least a semblance of order: The FIFA calendar, which sets aside dates for national team games—either one or two in each window—for which clubs have to release their players and most of the world’s leagues refrain from scheduling any games. (MLS and the Mexican and Brazilian leagues are three that don’t always shut down during FIFA windows, but that’s a story for another day.)
“We’re looking at the next four years, not just at 2015,” says King during a lengthy interview from U.S. Soccer’s headquarters in Chicago. “We do scheduling in a four-year, almost eight-year cycle now. We know the fixture dates all the way to the World Cup in Russia [in 2018]. We know which dates are set aside for friendlies and for World Cup qualifiers.”
As King points out, there are 33 fixture dates from the start of 2015 until World Cup 2018 in Russia. Of those 33 dates, 16 are needed for World Cup qualifiers, which means he has only 17 opportunities over the next four years to schedule home and away friendlies. What’s more, those dates are front-loaded, with eight friendly dates in 2015, two each in 2016 and 2017 and five in 2018 before the World Cup (if the U.S. qualifies).
“There really is quite a disparity between Year 1 of the quad and Years 2 and 3, going from eight games to just two,” King says. “So in the years we have only two, the pressure is on to make sure there are really big-name teams—and for commercial reasons as well.”
When you’re a journalist, it can be tough trying to break the news of a U.S. friendly game that hasn’t yet been officially announced. The news almost always comes out first from the country of the opponent. Sometimes those federations are less disciplined and leak it before the contract is signed. And at times the greater competition among journalists in those countries forces out the information.
Sometimes that information turns out to be correct; sometimes it doesn’t. Making matters even more difficult, FIFA’s official website occasionally publishes erroneous information about games that don’t end up happening. For example, a couple months ago FIFA’s site had the U.S. playing Colombia in September in San Antonio, which had been reported in some U.S. and Colombian news outlets but was never publicly confirmed by either federation. The game fell through, and the U.S. didn’t end up playing on that fixture date.
For an organization that’s constantly denying press reports in other areas, FIFA’s policy of running on its website with sometimes shaky news reports of friendlies seems a little strange.
“FIFA’s information on upcoming international matches does not stem solely from official information from the associations or confederations, but also from third parties (media, private individuals),” a FIFA spokesperson wrote to SI.com. “FIFA can therefore not vouch for the accuracy of the data in every case (especially regarding friendly matches). However we make it our duty to constantly verify unofficial data.”
It’s also true that U.S. Soccer runs a tight operation with a strict two-part philosophy. “For us there are really two absolutes,” says King. “One is never to announce a game until we have everything completely counter-signed between the two associations, regardless of what may be said on the other side from the federation that we’re working with or perhaps the agency we’re working through that represents that federation. Sometimes things get posted to the FIFA [web]site that haven’t been 100 percent confirmed.”
“That would help explain why some people say: 'How come that game has been announced and U.S. Soccer hasn’t said anything yet?'” he continues. “It’s just simply that we haven’t received a signed agreement. Or if it’s a home game, then we either haven’t received the signed agreement, or we have but we haven’t got all the ticketing and stadium information ready to go to announce as one full package.”
And the second absolute for U.S. Soccer? “The second thing is we feel very strongly in scheduling that it’s about a relationship,” King says. “It’s about two organizations trying to come together on some common ground with regard to economic conditions, technical decisions and the best possible dates to play. These relationships have been built up over many, many years. And our philosophy is that if things go wrong in the negotiations or if any federation reneges on something they had perhaps previously agreed, or we had an agreement to play in principle but it didn’t come through, we always take the high road.”
“We never want to make our counterpart federation look bad from a public perspective,” King explains. “We can have private discussions with them about how we feel we’ve been treated … The reason why we do that is it’s just good business practice, and it also maintains that long relationship we want to have with all federations across the globe. We have enough challenges and parameters working against us to get games, so the last thing we need is to have a bad public relationship with any of the federations that we also want to play.”
By not burning bridges, the U.S. can gain some benefits in the long term—and even in the short term. Instead of having any public rancor with Colombia after the San Antonio friendly didn’t work out, both sides kept quiet in the public sphere, and then they were able to reach an agreement on short notice to play each other in London last week.
There are a lot of moving pieces in a negotiation for a friendly. King compares the process to sales, not least because U.S. Soccer has to initiate contacts to set up a friendly far more often than it’s receiving calls.
“We have to pursue a lot of the opportunities that we want to bring to the U.S. or have an invitation extended to us from a European team,” he says. “The places we’re going to in March  we haven’t announced, but those are two countries that we had to aggressively pursue. It’s not just answering an invitation. It’s a more complicated process.”
As part of that process, King freely admits that at any one time he can be speaking to three different federations about playing a game on one specific FIFA date.
“If we have a preferred one,” King says, “and we tell one of the three teams you are the preferred, the way we handle that is we’re honest with the other two: 'Look, we’re in discussions with another federation, that’s our first choice. However, if they decide to go in a different direction, we’d be delighted to host you, and these are the economic conditions we’re proposing.' Every single date, we have to think in the back of our minds what happens if they don’t sign the deal.”
If the U.S. is arranging a home friendly, it has to sign two separate contracts: One with the national team it’s playing against, and one with the U.S. stadium that will stage the game. When it comes to a signed agreement with the visiting opponent, U.S. Soccer will occasionally provide one all-encompassing match fee to the federation, which then makes all its travel arrangements on its own.
More frequently, though, U.S. Soccer will agree in the contract to provide the visiting team with the following: All the ground accommodations for a negotiated number of nights, either three or four, for anywhere between 35 and 50 members of the visiting delegation; all the ground transport; a good place to train; a chance to be on the field in the stadium for an hour on the night before the match; television, radio and Internet rights for the visiting team’s country only (the USSF retains domestic rights and those for any other countries where the game may be broadcast); and a match fee.
“The match fee is a negotiated amount heavily predicated on where that particular team stands within the FIFA rankings or their marketability within our domestic territory,” says King, who preferred not to comment on the range of fees paid to opponents. “Then in some cases there might be a stipend or it may be a question where we have to cover the cost of the air tickets for the entire delegation coming into the United States.”
King says about 35 to 40 percent of the U.S.’s friendlies are arranged through an agency that represents the scheduling interests of another country’s federation. It’s very rare, though, he adds, that he ever deals with an agency that he hasn’t worked with before.
More and more, King says, the U.S. is trying to secure reciprocal agreements in friendly contracts.
“That’s something we’re really pushing harder, because there are so many limitations on available dates as we move forward, particularly with European federations with this Nations League tournament that’s being contemplated for after 2018. So when we’re dealing with a big-name association for an away game, it’s becoming a standard part of the discussion to include the possibility of a reciprocal game back in the United States within the next eight years.”
Another question is this: If you schedule a home friendly against Argentina, can you mandate in the contract that Lionel Messi play in the game? Not exactly. King says contracts almost always state that teams will bring their strongest available squad, which provides wiggle room, since he doesn’t want the commercial and scheduling guys to force the decisions of a national team coach. Sometimes, King says, an agreement will state that a certain percentage of a team’s traveling squad must come from the most recent World Cup qualifying roster.
At what point does Klinsmann come into the discussion for setting up friendlies? Well, sometimes he’s intimately part of it, as when the U.S. arranges games against Germany, Klinsmann’s birth country. (The U.S. is playing Germany again next June, according to the German federation.)
“One of the key factors in scheduling is the better the opponent, the better the development of our team and program,” says King. “So we always want to play really good teams. Jurgen is heavily involved in that process, where we share with Jurgen the potential teams that would be available over certain dates and we pare that down based on his preferences and also come up with the final team that we’ll end up playing … He’s very good to work with on this, and he understands there are other parameters we have to look at: the commercial terms, with regard to the restrictions of teams that could or couldn’t be available over certain dates. It’s very much a collaborative process.”
The U.S.’s game against Colombia last Friday, a 2-1 loss in London, was a rare occasion in which U.S. Soccer hosted a friendly that didn’t take place on American soil. It wasn’t the first example: In 2006, U.S. Soccer organized a game against Poland in Kaiserslautern, Germany. But it made sense given the circumstances.
“We were faced with a situation when Croatia backed out and we contacted Colombia straight away and said, ‘Look, could you meet us in Europe?’ Because we’re not going to move our location away from Europe. We have to play in Europe on the first double-date in November, because we’re already committed to playing in Ireland.” Colombia agreed, and through a connection to Fulham’s American owner, Shahid Khan, “we hired the stadium, so to speak, for the night,” King says.
Sometimes U.S. friendlies can end up having all sorts of logistical twists and turns. When violence erupted across Ukraine earlier this year, the U.S. pushed to have the venue changed for its away friendly at Ukraine. The game ended up being moved to Cyprus, but then there was movement on the Ukrainian side to cancel the game altogether.
“It was 4 in the morning and our baggage truck had to leave the hotel [in Frankfurt] at 4:30 to advance to the charter going to Cyprus,” says King. “Then at 4:30 we got the official communication saying the game was back on.”
By comparison, the U.S.’s game at Ireland this week was totally straightforward. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Ireland,” King says. “We’ve played there. Every few years they have come here.”
The U.S.’s top soccer diplomat sounds almost relieved as he describes the situation. Sometimes it’s good to have a low-maintenance partner.