The Big Task Ahead for Cindy Parlow Cone as U.S. Soccer President

Cindy Parlow Cone isn't exactly walking into a cushy situation. Between the mending of fences, filling high-profile jobs and navigating multiple lawsuits, Carlos Cordeiro's successor has a heavy to-do list.
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The world is rightly focused on the coronavirus right now. I’m on Day 7 of my home lockdown here in New York, and I hope all of you are O.K. and doing what you can to hunker down if at all possible, which is what helps your community most.

But I’m also a soccer guy, and I want to talk about the U.S. Soccer Federation, which has been in meltdown. U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro resigned last week after widespread revulsion among fans and sponsors to the federation’s legal strategy in the U.S. women’s national team’s gender-discrimination lawsuit—a strategy that boiled down to arguing women’s players deserve to be paid less than men’s players because women inherently have less skill, ability and responsibility than men.

In a court filing late Monday, new U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone made her first public comments since taking over. She officially withdrew that legal strategy, calling it “offensive,” adding the federation will conduct an internal review quickly to determine the breakdown at the board of directors level that allowed that strategy to go through.

That’s a good start, but let’s be clear: Parlow Cone has a crazy-hard job right now. She’s an unpaid volunteer doing a job that should be paid in the high six figures, and she’s not a former Goldman Sachs partner like Cordeiro, who could afford this. She’s in charge of an organization that currently has no CEO, no vice president and no chief commercial officer. The people that have had the biggest influence on U.S. Soccer over the past two decades are now gone: ex-CEO Dan Flynn, ex-CCO Jay Berhalter and ex-president Sunil Gulati, who’s now no longer on the board (since he’s no longer the immediate past president).

Here’s what Parlow needs to oversee in the near term at U.S. Soccer: First, chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke needs to lose her job. That’s obvious, and it should have already happened. Second, the public needs to know exactly why the board of directors failed so miserably with this legal strategy—and exactly which steps the U.S. Soccer board will take to end its dysfunction that has lasted for decades. And third, U.S. Soccer needs to settle the lawsuit with the USWNT players as soon as possible. I’m told that several board members, including MLS commissioner Don Garber, had pushed Cordeiro to settle the suit and move beyond it, but that didn’t happen. It has to now.

Fourth, hire a new CEO. We’ve been waiting for months and months on this. Get it done.

Cordeiro was hardly the only person at fault at U.S. Soccer. I didn’t call for the resignation of the entire board of directors last week, because I know there are people on that board who disagreed with the federation’s legal strategy. But we only heard board members, including Parlow, speaking publicly against that strategy after sponsors had spoken up first. And the general public had known that was the strategy for three weeks before that.

In times of crisis, leadership is crucial. In the case of U.S. Soccer, that has to come from Parlow Cone. And that has to come from the U.S. Soccer board, which hasn’t shown nearly enough so far.

Parlow Cone’s challenge over the next year will be immense. She has to resolve multiple lawsuits, mend relationships and restore faith with the USWNT, fans, sponsors and federation members. She has to help guide a gutted organization through a complete reconstruction despite having bylaws that make it vulnerable. And she has to do it knowing that there will be an election for president and vice president next February–to see who will finish out the term to which Cordeiro was elected–and another one in 2022.

There is an opportunity now for U.S. Soccer to reinvent itself, to bring new leaders in from diverse demographics. But with a World Cup coming here in 2026, there’s also a danger that in a power vacuum the federation could be vulnerable to a takeover from potentially wealthy interests with an agenda. Think the Koch brothers for soccer.

The promotion-relegation crowd would say that such an influence already exists with the owners of MLS, who are also the owners of Soccer United Marketing—which goes to show how much division there is out there.

Unless strong leadership happens, the next two years in U.S. Soccer could make the uproar leading up to the 2018 presidential election look tame by comparison.