In the latest news on the U.S. Soccer presidential campaign trail, candidate Kathy Carter announced on Twitter Thursday that she had received endorsements from two key groups, the Eastern New York State Soccer Association and the New Jersey Soccer Association.
And therein lies a story.
It involves Carter, the on-leave president of Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm; Sunil Gulati, the longtime but outgoing president of U.S. Soccer; and Don Garber, the MLS commissioner.
And it involves a dinner event on Tuesday night at Scaletta, a swanky New York City restaurant, attended by Carter, Gulati, Garber and representatives of the New Jersey and Eastern New York associations. One of the attendees was Eastern New York’s president for more than three decades, 76-year-old Sal Rapaglia. A proud supporter of Gulati going back to the 1980s, Rapaglia was disappointed that Gulati had decided not to run again, but now he was going to consider endorsing someone new.
“I never saw the girl in my life [before this week],” Rapaglia told SI.com about Carter.
Two days later, Carter had the endorsement of Rapaglia and his state association in the eight-candidate election.
Let’s rewind for a second. On Dec. 2, multiple sources told SI.com that Gulati was strongly considering not running for reelection in February after 12 years as president and might support Carter, a new candidate, instead. Two days later, Gulati told ESPN.com’s Sam Borden that he was not going to run for reelection. The day after that, Carter announced she was joining the presidential race.
Questions have been raised over time over 1) whether the lucrative relationship between for-profit Soccer United Marketing, owned by MLS’s owners, and non-profit U.S. Soccer is too cozy, and 2) whether Carter is the handpicked choice of Garber and Gulati to try to install as Gulati’s replacement in the U.S. Soccer presidency. Multiple sources told SI.com that Garber and Gulati had pushed Carter hard to enter the race and were not just supporting her but also lobbying voters to do so. But in an interview with SI.com, Carter flatly denied that Garber and Gulati had urged her to enter the race.
On Dec. 9, Gulati told reporters in Toronto: “I haven’t endorsed anybody, and I haven’t said I have a preferred candidate. This is all real-time over the last few days, so let’s see where things go … I’ll certainly think about it, but I haven’t made a decision on that.”
On Dec. 8, Garber told ESPN.com’s Jeff Carlisle that MLS would nominate Carter, but that was where the league’s support would end. “Clearly MLS is going to support her and we will nominate her,” Garber said, “but she’s not going to be able to get the support of the [state associations] or the support of the athletes or the support of the other pro divisions without earning it. The narrative is something that she’s going to have to do on her own without the strength of MLS behind her. It’s in her best interests to do that on her own.”
There’s nothing in the election rules that prevents Garber and Gulati from lobbying voters and campaigning for Carter, so there is nothing corrupt or illegal about their actions. But according to Rapaglia and accounts from other sources who attended the restaurant meeting on Tuesday night, Gulati and Garber are, contrary to their public statements, using their influence with voters who don’t know Carter at all and making it clear that they want those voters to support Carter in the election.
Rapaglia said Garber didn’t directly lobby his group at the dinner to support Carter, but Rapaglia did say the support of Gulati and Garber for Carter was obvious to him.
“Let’s put two and two together,” Rapaglia told SI.com. “So they support her, naturally, which is good. She’s got a big help. If she’s in trouble, Sunil could help her, you know. … They [Gulati and Garber] help her, and we’ve got everything going. We [the state associations] just vote.”
Garber disagreed. “I vehemently deny doing anything at that dinner to try and persuade anybody there that they should support Kathy,” he said in response to the assertion. “And if anybody says that, they’ve misconstrued my presence. I appreciated being invited to the dinner, and I would attend an invitation from any state association that wanted to invite me to dinner. And if other candidates were at that dinner, I’m sure if it was fitting my schedule I would attend that dinner as well. Nobody should construe—Sal or John [Zangrilli of New Jersey] or anybody there—that my presence at that dinner was to persuade them of anything.”
How did Tuesday’s restaurant meeting in New York happen? Rapaglia told the story this way:
“We’ve been supporters of Sunil since the inception,” Rapaglia said in a 30-minute interview on Thursday. “We’re talking about many years now, into the ‘80s. At that time he was a young man. Then with president [of U.S. Soccer], we supported him 100%. He did a great job. He took a $2 million business and now there’s $150 million. Good job. All right?
“Then he made up his mind [not to run in 2018], which I disagreed with 100%. But everyone makes his own decision. And then he says, you know, we heard about this girl from Don Garber. You know, marketing, whatever. And she approached us and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ New Jersey got the same call. And the New Jersey and [Eastern] New York delegations, we had a meeting with her. And we ask a few questions, and we are supporting her.”
Rapaglia said he was impressed that Carter had not just worked on the business side, but has also played soccer in college and in one of the leagues in his association. “She played soccer,” he explained. “She’s not just a housewife.”
John Zangrilli, the president of the New Jersey Soccer Association, did not respond to calls and a text message.
“Listen, let me give you my opinion,” Rapaglia said later. “We have three or four kids. I say kids. I’m 76 years old. That’s why I say kids [Kyle Martino, Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri, Hope Solo] that want to be president. Ex-soccer players, just played soccer. Then we have a couple lawyers that have been involved with the game [Steve Gans and Mike Winograd]. And then we have this lady here [Carter]—47, 48 years old. How can a kid 30 years old, that just finished pro soccer, have the ability to run this thing? This thing is a big job. I’ve been president of my state association over 30 years, and I see that it’s a big job. You’ve got to put in people that can do the job.” (Note: Martino and Solo are 36; Wynalda is 48; Caligiuri is 53.)
The restaurant, Scaletta, owned by the former New York Cosmos player Fred Grgurev, is located on the Upper West Side near the American Museum of Natural History. It serves northern Italian fare and hosts a lot of soccer-related events due to the owner’s relationships and history in the game.
“We invited them and we rented the restaurant for 15, 16 people,” Rapaglia said. “I invited the presidents of the biggest leagues we have. New Jersey did the same. I never saw the girl in my life. Then we took some pictures. Look at the other possibilities. It’s like a lottery: eight, nine people running! We’ve been friends with Sunil for years. And we believe in his ability, and he’s a great guy for the game. Believe me.
“Look at what those two guys do for the game: Sunil and Don Garber. I said to them that night, because I ran the meeting. I said to them, ‘I saw so many people, rich and poor, try to make the game important for the entire country. Do you know how many times I saw people fail in my time here? Since 1975 as the president of the Italian-American soccer league and then from 1979 until today as president of the state association … I don’t know how you did it, but god bless you. Now all the kids in this country, schools, high schools, universities, colleges, everybody plays soccer.”
Rapaglia did not mention Carter’s name once in the interview with SI.com, but he referred to her regularly.
“If I was her, I’d try to do the same job like Sunil did,” he said. “I asked Sunil to set up a meeting and get the New Jersey people, and let’s have a meeting and talk about it. I still said to him that night, ‘Sunil, come on [and run].’ This was before the girl came in. He came around 6:15, 6:20. He said, ‘Everybody knows I’m not running.’ So now we have this girl. So let’s see. It would probably be the only one in the world where a girl runs the federation. Which is good, right?” (There have actually been a handful of federations run by women.)
“I’m sure a lot of people are going to support us to put this girl there,” Rapaglia concluded. “If I was in the position of Sunil, I’d want a friend of mine to take my place. I’d want a guy who could do the job.”
SI.com contacted Carter, Gulati and Garber to get their responses.
Carter released a statement on Friday that reads in full:
“Since announcing my candidacy, I’ve spent every single day meeting with and calling members of the federation from around the country. I’ve asked a number of people to make introductions for me and I appreciate the opportunity to make my case. My job in every meeting and conversation I’ve had is to share my vision for the game, earn respect and trust, and ask for support—that’s on me. Every member then makes their decision based on my experience, qualifications, and passion for making soccer the leading sport in this country.”
Reached by phone in Utah on Friday, Gulati said he was at the dinner on Tuesday “as a guest. In this case, the Eastern New York association invited me to a dinner and said it would have more people than normal because it was kind of a celebration or thank you in that I wasn’t running again.”
Asked if he had changed his stance stated on Dec. 9 that he had no endorsement or preferred candidate, Gulati said: “I haven’t endorsed anybody. I may do that soon, but I haven’t yet. And I’m not going to discuss my preferred candidates.
“In this case at this particular dinner,” Gulati continued, “I was the invited guest. Kathy has asked me a couple times to introduce her to the New York association folks. When I got invited to the dinner, I told them we might have a surprise guest. Kathy came to part of the dinner, and actually Don stopped by as well. I’d mentioned to him if he wanted to come by for a drink [he should], and he’s done that in the past at some of these dinners as well. So I may choose to endorse someone in the near future, but I haven’t yet.”
Reached by phone in New York on Friday, Garber was asked if he is lobbying on behalf of Carter to other voters who don’t Carter or know her well.
“No, I am not,” Garber said, “and not at this time. But I said then and I’ll repeat it again, that I believe Kathy is one of the most experienced soccer people in the country, and as a former player and administrator I think she’s really qualified to lead the federation. And I will support that effort. But again, she needs to do the work to convince the majority of the membership that she’s the right person for the job. And I have been consistent there. I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to think that Don Garber is not going to support Kathy Carter as president of U.S. Soccer.”
Garber added two other things:
• “I have met with every candidate who has requested a meeting," he said. "We represent a voting constituency, and I have a responsibility to Major League Soccer to ensure that we’re going through a proper process. And I have introduced or encouraged certain candidates to meet with members of the MLS board, and they’ve done so. This is a member-based election. No person or constituency can deliver a victory. People have to make their decisions on their own based on the assessments of the candidates who they’ve met with and what they stand for. So I feel there is this view that this can be steered by one person or another. There are four councils. All four councils have an obligation to do their homework. And MLS as a member of the Pro Council is going to do its homework as well.”
• “This shouldn’t be a contentious election, and it seems to be turning into one,” Garber continued. “It should be about a campaign about vision and ideas. And I am really surprised by some of the negativity I’m hearing from some of the candidates. That’s likely because either they don’t believe they can win without it, or they don’t have a real plan or a positive platform. Ultimately, I think the membership is going to see through it and they’re going to select a candidate that they believe can effectively lead the federation during what’s going to be the most important period for our sport. And all this stuff that’s going to happen between now and then seems to me to be focusing on things outside of the real vision and platform that candidates should be putting forward.”
SI's Brian Straus contributed to the reporting of this article.