The eight U.S. Soccer presidential candidates were all under the same roof in Philadelphia last week, and despite the opportunity to separate from the pack, we're left just as uncertain as to how the upcoming election will shake out.

By Grant Wahl and Brian Straus
January 23, 2018

Every candidate in the U.S. Soccer election was present in Philadelphia last Thursday through the weekend as part of the annual national coaches convention, and with the Feb. 10 decision day approaching, it provided a chance for all of the eight to make a statement. But instead of having the opportunity to debate against one another, the candidates participated in individual panels and a group forum, where they answered direct questions, touting the familiar campaign slogans we've been hearing for weeks.

With the outgoing president, Sunil Gulati, also in the building at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and thousands of coaches across the USA's soccer landscape in attendance, the same talking points continued to be batted around–some of the same ones that Gulati called "nonsensical" as he discussed the vibes emanating from the campaign trail. And while the general public doesn't vote on the election, and private conversations not privy to the public could go a long way in determining the outcome, the appearances in front of some of the voting constituents left a feeling of wanting more. 

We discussed the field of eight candidates and the impressions they left on the most recent episode of the Planet Fútbol Podcast. You can listen to the whole conversation in the podcast below (beginning at the 18:00 mark) and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here (the conversation has been edited only for length and clarity).

For more election coverage listen to our previous podcast interviews with some of the candidates here: Eric Wynalda | Kathy Carter | Steve Gans | Kyle Martino | Michael Winograd.

GW: Bruce Arena and Sunil Gulati both spoke at this convention. They both had sessions in which they were interviewed by people, and I almost felt like they were on something of a “defiance tour” as I called it in trying to respond to what happened with the U.S. failing to qualify for the World Cup—especially in Arena’s case but also in Gulati’s case, and Gulati talking about how he felt about this U.S. Soccer presidential election that will replace him with one of eight different candidates. Was that the sense that you got? Was this a defiance tour?

BS: I have called them both defiant in the past and they have been defiant. I think, maybe Sunil was a little more defiant. Bruce was, it was certainly the most enlightening and candid that Bruce has been since the Trinidad game. … Then there was Sunil talking about wanting to debate all eight [candidates]. He has so little respect for the eight candidates in the race that he said he asked the convention organizers if he could debate all eight simultaneously, which would’ve been the greatest thing of all time. Whether or not you like Sunil or whether or not you think he made mistakes—I obviously think his control of the technical side of U.S. Soccer was poorly done and is the reason he shouldn’t run again—but he would’ve won that debate pretty easily. The eight candidates … there’s not a ton of inspiring substance coming from that side of the room.

GW: That kind of reminds me, the idea of Sunil Gulati debating all eight candidates, of like when the world chess champion plays 50 10-year-old kids at the same time.

BS: Right! Now they do these videos of where they have three pro soccer players against 100 kids. He’s sharp. Whether or not you think he’s good at hiring coaches, he’s a sharp dude.

GW: I really wish there had been a debate, in real debate form, with the eight candidates in Philadelphia as was previously planned until about a week before the convention, [when] we learned that no, it was just going to be a candidate forum where the candidates would come out one-by-one and answer questions from the legend, J.P. Dellacamera. And that’s what they ended up doing on Saturday.

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BS: There were a lot of slogans and weirdness and awkwardness from the candidates. There was some sweating because of these lights … There were a couple things that jumped out: obviously Wynalda claiming that the 2026 bid was jeopardy because of our noncompliance (with FIFA statutes). He made a good point though, too, which was talking about—and I agree with him—that our lack of participation in an open player market is a hindrance. And Wynalda’s point about opening up the league would be that our focus on development would include more markets than just the 18 or whatever U.S. markets that are in MLS. And that’s worth considering, and that could be solved [partially] with things like solidarity payments and an open transfer market and things of that nature.

A lot of the other stuff about trying to mend the fractured youth landscape. There are so many youth soccer organizations. It’s so hard to keep track of. If I was a parent or a player I would be so bewildered. We had USYS travel leagues and ODP when we were kids, and that was it. And that system produced the 2002 World Cup team—the quarterfinalists—and that system produce two Women’s World Cup champions. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t entirely a hindrance. A lot of the candidates had ideas. Paul Caligiuri, for example, suggested that all high school coaches should be ODP scouts because obviously high school soccer gives you access to players you wouldn’t otherwise have in the academy system.

Steve Gans also talked about the idea that the prohibition on playing high school soccer robs players of certain benefits, certain pressures, certain scrutiny, certain on-field responsibilities you might have as an elite player, that kids aren’t getting in what he called the sterile development academy environment.

There were definitely some points that were interesting in addition to all the nonsense. Carlos Cordeiro wants to start a fund. There’s all this talk about the $150 million surplus. About $60 million of that came from the Copa América Centenario, kind of a one-time thing, and Cordeiro said operating the programs as they exist now would take $100 million off that surplus. So he was talking about starting a fund that would generate the revenue needed and how England and Germany—we have $150 million and England and Germany are spending $500 million—and the differences in financial wherewithal and heft.

Each of these people has an area where they know something and where they might be able to help, but certainly none of them jumped out as the person who has enough experience and enough good ideas to kind of run everything. And I think that’s been Sunil’s point—and Sunil obviously failed on the technical side—so maybe the perfect candidate doesn’t exist.

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GW: They obviously have their strengths. They have their weaknesses. I find it interesting that you have a pairing almost of candidates. Carter and Cordeiro are two of the business candidates. You’ve got the two lawyers, Winograd and Gans. You’ve got the two former players who I think have a shot of winning, Martino and Wynalda. And then I think you have the two former players who don’t have a shot at winning in Solo and Caligiuri. I find that part interesting. I think it’s crazy that we actually are up with eight candidates in the end, because I don’t know if that’ll ever happen again…

It didn’t surprise me that the two TV folks, Wynalda and Martino, probably came off as the most polished. I do think Winograd—and I interviewed him last week on this podcast—who maybe of all the candidates has gotten notice and maybe increased the interest in himself during this campaign based on how he’s presented himself during the different candidate forums … Do I think that’ll be enough for Winograd to make himself a contender? Not totally sure about that.

BS: He proposed something that I think is along the lines of the German model with the state technical centers, which I thought was interesting. Start to accept that player development isn’t something that can be sort of legislated from the top down—a lot of them were making that point—but Winograd was talking about investing in these state centers. It’s an office, it's a field complex, it’s a well-paid state technical director who sort of connects the state apparatus…to the federation. That was interesting.

I forgot to mention the most interesting thing about the election stuff at the convention which was a brief moment during both Hope Solo’s and Eric Wynalda’s individual forums, which I was able to attend … Hope blamed the media, which was awesome. A lot of the problems in American soccer are our fault. So that was cool. But the same thing happened in both sessions … they both at one point during conversations about Soccer United Marketing turned to the audience and asked people to raise their hand if they knew what Soccer United Marketing was. Not an opinion—but like, do you even know what this is. There were maybe 300-400 people in Hope Solo’s session and 500-600 in Wynalda’s. Let’s say we’re close to 1,000 people combined in these two sessions. Think about all the time we spend talking about SUM, interacting or looking at the Twitter bubble about SUM. All of the consternation. Obviously it’s a big part of the lawsuit between the NASL and USSF. And I would say of the 1,000 people—and maybe people knew about SUM didn’t raise their hand—but combined, about maybe 10-12 people raised their hand. Out of 1,000! At the grassroots—these are coaches and administrators and people involved in youth and college and high school and club soccer around the country. Most people have no idea what this stuff is. It’s just not part of their daily experience and interaction with the game … It just kind of blew me away.

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