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Amid complex times and growth, U.S. Soccer faces perception problem

After a number of incidents and events on and off the field, U.S. Soccer has a growing perception problem, writes Brian Straus.

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Anyone wondering whether all publicity really is good publicity might want to check in on the folks at the U.S. Soccer Federation. They administer and govern a sport that doesn’t hit the pop culture mainstream too frequently, and they’d normally be thrilled with hearing their name and seeing their new logo on a program like The Daily Show. Tuesday’s segment, however, was meant to skewer rather than celebrate. And host Trevor Noah dispensed with the nuance and went for the jugular.

“Even those children that make iPhones are like, ‘Wow, that’s unfair,’” Noah said while discussing the wage discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the U.S. women’s national team. “Not only have the U.S. women’s soccer team proven that they’re the best in the world, they’ve made America feel like they’re the best in the world. I know you can’t put a price on winning and national pride, but maybe you should try.”

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The federation and its all-conquering women already were engaged in a legal battle over the existence and duration of their collective bargaining agreement. And they’d jousted over equal treatment and field conditions, culminating in the team’s refusal to play a scheduled December friendly on a substandard surface in Honolulu. Then came the EEOC complaint, which pitted the talented and telegenic world champions against their corporate overlords.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘deserve’ in any of this,” U.S. Soccer president and Columbia University economics lecturer Sunil Galati said about the women’s national team’s pursuit of equal pay. “I’d reverse the question. Do you think revenue should matter at all in determination of compensation in a market economy? If we look at the track record of teams, a lot of different things go into the compensation for the players. Part of it is based on revenue. Part of it is based on revenues that accrue from international competitions. Part of it is based on incentives and the performance of the teams.”

Well, that sounded pretty corporate. And whether it’s correct or fair or not, the public doesn’t want to hear about “compensation in a market economy” when it comes to treatment of their heroes. Spreadsheets are boring. What we know is that the men just lost to Guatemala while the women earned a ticker tape parade and still get a per diem that’s somehow 20% less. And that makes it easy for The Daily Show to compare U.S. Soccer with the managers of a Chinese sweatshop, even if the federation spends more on the women’s game than anyone else in the world.

But Noah let the federation off lightly compared to Paul Gardner, the Soccer America curmudgeon-in-residence who’s the country’s longest serving active soccer writer. On Monday, he penned a shocking column comparing U.S. Soccer’s tagline, “One Nation. One Team,” with a popular slogan that emerged in 1930s Germany: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”.

Gardner called for a change and wrote, “I have total faith in the slogan-makers ability to quickly conjure up alternative banalities.”

But should he? While there’s no chance that anyone affiliated with the USSF or Nike intended to link American soccer to 20th-century fascists, the derivative slogan does fail to reflect the fractured state of the domestic game. In 2016, it’s anything but harmonious.

How did U.S. Soccer, a non-profit organization established to grow and govern the game in the 50 states, reach the point where it’s being mentioned—even in lazy and absurd satire—alongside child laborers and Nazis?

The answer certainly may lie between a misstep or two, but it’s more likely simply an uncomfortable symptom of soccer’s growth.

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For so many decades it was a foreign game, popular only in specific regions or ethnic enclaves located a million miles from the mainstream. But its rise over the past quarter century has been meteoric, fueled by the youth soccer boom, globalization, cable and satellite TV, video games, viable and expanding professional leagues, a men’s national team that’s been to seven straight World Cups and a women’s juggernaut that’s won three.

There’s now money to be made in soccer, and money made inevitably leads to competing claims. American soccer’s fiefdoms, especially at the youth level, no longer have the autonomy they once enjoyed. Well-funded by TV networks and sponsors, the USSF has become more professionalized while bringing an increasing number of facets of the sport under its control.

When there’s growth, and that growth rubs up against old boundaries and spheres of influence, friction inevitably ensues. On one level, those are good problems to have. Being an American soccer fan, player, administrator or coach (or journalist) is far more fruitful today than it was 30 years ago. But with prosperity comes increased visibility, higher stakes and deeper scrutiny. More people are interested and more people want a say. Accelerated growth can be painfully awkward. Anyone who knows a middle schooler can tell you that.

So, pick your controversy or source of frustration. We can start with the women. They may have a strong case for more compensation and better working conditions, but they’ve made a few unflattering headlines as well. Goalkeeper Hope Solo’s legal issues are well documented. Recently retired forward Abby Wambach, the national team’s all-time leading scorer, was arrested for DUII in Oregon last weekend and admitted in court documents to using cocaine and marijuana earlier in her career. One of her sponsors, Mini USA, has pulled ads featuring the former star.

Meanwhile, the men have struggled recently. Jurgen Klinsmann is being paid more than $3 million per year and was promoted to technical director in 2013, but his team has failed to demonstrate much progress.

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The senior squad finished fourth at the 2015 Gold Cup, it’s worst showing in 15 years, then lost to Mexico in a match that sent the winner to the 2017 Confederations Cup. Last week, it faced a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Guatemala, its fate hanging in the balance more than two years before the tournament kicks off. But while Klinsmann’s team was trouncing Los Chapines, the U-23 side was losing its Olympic qualifying playoff to Colombia.

The American men will miss the Olympics for a second straight time. And neither the U-23, U-20 nor U-17 team even reached the final of its most recent CONCACAF championship.

Once considered a savior, or at least a breath of fresh air, Klinsmann now is the subject of frequent analysis and criticism. He’s blamed his own players, referees or MLS for some of the national team’s misfortunes and has questioned U.S. fans’ soccer knowledge—none of which went over well. His methods remain confusing and opaque, and perception of the team hasn’t been good.

Friction between the national team coach and the country’s most prominent league may not be ideal, but the relationship between his employer and MLS on a corporate level also rubs many the wrong way. SUM, which is MLS’s marketing and promotions arm, works closely with the federation and handles many of its sponsorship, promotional and broadcast rights.

The league and federation are intertwined, and that gives Gulati, who’s run unopposed in the two most recent USSF presidential elections, and MLS commissioner Don Garber an enormous amount of influence. They’ve grown the game considerably, but that sort of concentration of power makes some uncomfortable. The second-tier NASL, for example, has threatened legal action over the possible implementation of rising league standards that would make it harder to achieve first-division sanctioning. The perception that the USSF is protecting MLS from competition because of their financial relationship is not the best look.

All of that leads to the scandals and indictments that have wracked FIFA and CONCACAF over the past year. While the USSF remains unblemished, its relationship with indicted and convicted executives like Chuck Blazer is unfortunate. The scandals drew the interest of the U.S. Senate, which, like The Daily Show, doesn’t typically pay attention to soccer. It held a hearing last summer that touched on corruption, the Qatar World Cup and pay inequity, among other troubles facing the sport.

USSF CEO Dan Flynn testified and admitted to a “level of discomfort” when working with some of soccer’s more unsavory characters. Meanwhile, Gulati has been successfully swimming with sharks. He’s emerged as a key player in FIFA politics—look no further than his effective work lobbying for eventual winner Gianni Infantino in last month’s presidential election. Naturally, Infantino wound up defending himself this week when he was linked to contracts signed by UEFA and indicted Argentine promoters.

The grass roots are just as volatile. The USSF’s effort to improve player development naturally has ruffled feathers throughout the youth soccer community. Whether it’s varying standards across the Development Academy and its prohibition of high school soccer, controversial new age and birth-year mandates, issues over heading and concussions or more potential legal action over U.S. Soccer/MLS’s withholding of solidarity payments and training compensation to youth clubs that produce pros, there’s plenty of drama and disagreement that might be further from the headlines but still is vital to the future of the sport. It all may be necessary, but that doesn’t make it comfortable.

Shortly after news of Wambach’s arrest broke, U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and forward Jozy Altidore took to Twitter. They did not offer their support

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But wait, aren’t they One Nation, One Team? Bedoya, the son of Colombian immigrants, didn’t think so. He referenced comments Wambach made in December, when she called for Klinsmann’s dismissal and said, “The way that he has brought in a bunch of these foreign guys is not something I believe in wholeheartedly … It seems to me there are too many egos in our men's program right now, and the bigger ego of all of them is the one who is leading the charge.”

Altidore, the son of Haitian immigrants, responded with a joke about the incident in January 2015 when Solo’s husband was arrested for DUI while driving a USSF van during a women’s national team camp. The goalie, who was a passenger, was suspended.

Perhaps those tweets reveal something akin to sibling rivalry. Or perhaps it’s time for a new slogan.

At the 2014 World Cup, Nike sold T-shirts in Brazil’s yellow and green reading “One Nation. One Soul. One Team.” During last year’s Rugby World Cup, the #OneNationOneTeam hashtag was used by Namibia. Apparently the Toronto Blue Jays think they’re Canada’s de facto national baseball team. You can buy “One Nation. One Team. TOgether” apparel at MLB’s official shop.

Gardner was right about one thing. U.S. Soccer is trying to put its best foot forward by relying relentlessly on a “fatuous catchphrase.” It’s marketing speak conjured by MBAs and not something that accurately reflects this juncture of American soccer history. The U.S. is comprised of many soccer nations, many teams and many interests, and those entities are coming into conflict.

The USSF, along with MLS and the other pro leagues, should be proud of its trajectory. American soccer is unrecognizable compared to what it was just a few years ago, and that’s exciting, compelling and fun. It can’t be easy to manage, and there’s nothing wrong with benefit of the doubt. After all, if there’s fighting over money, that means there’s money to fight over. That’s preferable to the alternative.

But recent months illustrate the dark side of prosperity. If “One Nation. One Team,” isn’t an authentic representation of the current state of affairs, maybe it’s an ideal—a goal. And if that’s the case, then there’s a lot of work still to do.