U.S. Soccer's New Leaders Make Settling USWNT Lawsuit 'Top Priority'

Cindy Parlow Cone and Will Wilson both spoke in no uncertain terms regarding the federation's previous legal strategy in the gender discrimination lawsuit brought by the women's players.
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From a news perspective, the biggest headline coming out of Tuesday’s teleconference with new U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone and new federation CEO Will Wilson was clear: In the wake of a tumultuous month that saw previous president Carlos Cordeiro resign, U.S. Soccer wants to settle the gender-discrimination case with the U.S. women’s national team players as soon as possible before it goes to trial May 5.

“That's one of our top priorities right now,” said Parlow Cone, who won a World Cup and Olympic gold medal as a USWNT player. “I don't think a trial is good for either party or for soccer, both in this country or internationally. Obviously, our women's team is the best team in the world, and I'm hopeful that we can find a resolution before this goes to trial.”

“I would echo that,” said Wilson, who was announced Monday as the new CEO, the federation’s most important daily job. (Parlow Cone has an unpaid volunteer position.) “It’s a priority, and finding a solution would be the best way to go forward.”

A heightened tone of conciliation with the USWNT dominated the discussion on the call. Two weeks ago, it appeared more likely than ever that the two sides would go to court and be unable to reach a settlement. That situation came in the wake of a court filing in which the federation outlined a legal strategy that argued women were inherently lesser than men when it came to skill, ability and responsibility. But after an outcry from sponsors, Cordeiro’s resignation and his replacement by Parlow Cone, who had been vice president, a settlement looks extremely likely again.

What would that mean? U.S. Soccer will write the USWNT players a big check.

Molly Levinson, the spokesperson for the USWNT players, said in a statement: “The solution here is clear, simple and unequivocal: Equal. Pay.”

Parlow Cone said that while talks with the players are currently not scheduled, she’s hopeful that they can be soon. 

“I think it's challenging right now with the backdrop of coronavirus and because I'm a big believer in getting people in the same room and finding resolutions,” she said. “So in the meantime, we may have to settle with jumping on phone calls. So I’m hopeful this will be the case in the coming weeks.”

The new federation president added that there’s more to the situation than the part in court, however.

“Settling this dispute is only the first step,” Parlow Cone said. “But the next step is a long process. I think a lot of damage has been done, and I think we are going to have to rebuild that trust and rebuild the relationship, and it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take a lot of effort and time and energy from the U.S. Soccer side to rebuild that trust, not only with our U.S. women's national team players, but with our fans and everyone engaged in the sport.”

Here was the other significant news that came out of the conference call:

U.S. Soccer’s review of the legal-strategy process continues

How did the U.S. Soccer board of directors allow a legal strategy that Parlow Cone herself has called “troubling” and “hurtful” to go out publicly? She said an outside firm had been hired to review the board processes that allowed it to happen. Under Cordeiro, she added, the board had set up a special litigation committee that included Parlow Cone and board members Tim Turney and Patti Hart, but Parlow Cone said she, like the rest of the board members, had not read the filing before it went public.

A source with knowledge of the situation told Sports Illustrated that Lydia Wahlke, U.S. Soccer’s chief legal officer, has been put on administrative leave pending the result of the review.

Parlow Cone may not have read the March filing before it went public, but she and fellow U.S. Soccer board members said nothing three weeks earlier (on February 20) after a previous filing in which it became clear what type of strategy was being pursued in exchanges between federation lawyers and several players, including Carli Lloyd.

"Do you think that the team could be competitive against the senior men’s national team?" a U.S. Soccer lawyer asked Lloyd.

"I'm not sure," Lloyd said. "Shall we fight it out to see who wins and then we get paid more?"

When asked about the language in previous filings on Tuesday, Parlow Cone didn’t acknowledge the Lloyd exchange, saying: “I think it's one thing to argue that men and women play in different tournaments and play against different teams, and it's altogether a different statement to say that therefore the women carry less responsibility or have less ability.”

Wilson’s SUM/MLS experience is thought to be an asset, not a hindrance 

Wilson comes to U.S. Soccer as the CEO after spending 29 years in the sports business and the last eight years at the Wasserman agency on American football, but he also spent four years from 2008 to ’12 on the international business side of Soccer United Marketing and Major League Soccer. That’s a red flag if you’re a critic who has said there’s a conflict of interest with SUM/MLS having too much influence at U.S. Soccer.

But Parlow Cone and Wilson said his SUM experience is a good thing.

“I think that my experience at SUM actually will be a big assist to the process,” Wilson said. “It's a complicated game with all the various tournaments, all the various competitions, the way leagues work. Soccer obviously is the only sport in the world literally with infrastructure in every country. So it's a complex landscape, and I think my time there will be a benefit, quite frankly, getting on the ground running, able to assess issues and figure out ways forward on things that are important for us. And it is just a slice of my experience, and I do think my other experience also comes in there in this particular situation. I only see it as a positive.”

Added Parlow Cone: “He's had 30 years of experience in sports. And I believe it was four of those were at SUM and MLS. So he has a good understanding of the processes. I think soccer is a very complex game and a complex business. I think it would be very difficult for someone to come in from the outside not knowing that business to step in and hit the ground running.”

Parlow Cone said she did ask U.S. Soccer board member Don Garber, who’s in charge of MLS and SUM, to recuse himself from discussions on Wilson out of “an overabundance of caution.”

Parlow Cone hasn’t decided if she’ll want to run for president in the special election taking place next February

There will be an election to fill what was supposed to be the final year of Cordeiro's four-year term in February 2021 before a subsequent election for another full term in 2022. Parlow Cone, who admitted in her opening remarks Tuesday that she was never seeking the presidency, isn't thinking that far ahead.

“You can imagine, I didn't plan to find myself in this position,” she said. “So the decision to run for president would come in time. Right now I'm focused on on-boarding Will as quickly as we can.”

Wilson thinks it’s important for U.S. Soccer to do more to reach the U.S. Latino community and other demographics

“There's an old saying that demography is destiny,” said Wilson, who went to grad school in Mexico, has lived and worked there and speaks fluent Spanish. “There's no denying the census in this country, the population in this country, and we're doing a disservice to the soccer ecosystem if we're not communicating with all the nationalities who live in this country who love soccer. And clearly the Mexican demographic, the Hispanic demographic is a big part of that. So I think what you'll see from me over time is a very concerted effort to engage directly with all the demographics who love soccer in this country and find a way to unite these Bedouin tribes, if you will, behind the United States.”

With the USMNT operating without a collective bargaining agreement and the USWNT facing the end of its CBA next year, Wilson thinks he brings a skillset that can help in those talks

“I've been on both sides of the table,” he said. “I've been at the team and the league level and for the last number of years representing athletes. So I understand that athletes view the world differently. I think I've learned how to meet them where they're at, so to speak, the things that are important to them. Obviously, American football's a different sport than soccer, but I think there's a lot of common threads, if you will, on the things that concern athletes generally as it relates to their careers and things that are important to them going forward.”