U.S. Soccer, Again, Is at an Inflection Point; Will it Learn From Past Failings?

Over the last two-plus years, change has been demanded of U.S. Soccer and necessitated by its actions. Some has transpired, but more is needed. Is the transition to Will Wilson and Cindy Parlow Cone the answer?
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Saddled with self-defeating institutional inefficiency and/or incompetence, the U.S. Soccer Federation has bungled its management of the senior national team, leading to anger and frustration among fans and stakeholders and, ultimately, costing the organization’s president his position.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

There are echoes to this month’s implosion at Soccer House, which began with an insulting and infantile legal filing that degraded the world champion U.S. women’s national team (and all female athletes) and concluded with the resignation of president Carlos Cordeiro.

Two and a half years ago, it was the American men who helped take down a USSF president—three-term incumbent Sunil Gulati. Their humiliating failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup cast a bright and unflattering light on the federation’s power structure. Emboldened by nearly two decades of entrenchment, Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn enjoyed almost unfettered command. High-level, international technical matters weren’t their area of focus or expertise. Yet their decisions to hire and extend Jurgen Klinsmann, then to delay in firing him, then to appoint Bruce Arena, essentially went unchecked. The October 2017 catastrophe in Couva, where the USA was stunned by Trinidad & Tobago, fell as much on their shoulders as on the MNT managers and players.

It’s so easy to connect these two federation faceplants. There are key ingredients in common beyond the headlines, from what certainly looks like some measure of institutional arrogance, to the lack of clarity regarding job descriptions and confusion over the role and responsibility of the USSF’s neutered board of directors. Yet the presidential downfalls (it’s nearly impossible to imagine Gulati not running for another term if the U.S. men qualified) and subsequent PR fallout still don’t tell the full story of a tumultuous stretch for the federation.

The WNT’s discrimination lawsuit isn’t the only case burdening U.S. Soccer’s personnel, finances and reputation. The antitrust action brought by the NASL, in particular, highlights what many perceive to be significant conflicts of interest inside the USSF, anchored by its lucrative relationship with MLS’s marketing subsidiary, Soccer United Marketing. The emergence last year of withering employee reviews on Glassdoor that slammed the environment and culture at Soccer House was another black eye. The year under an interim MNT coach, then the lengthy delay in naming Flynn’s successor, made the USSF appear at times to be a company that couldn’t hire anybody and at times a company for which nobody wanted to work. And former chief commercial officer Jay Berhalter’s candidacy for the CEO job checked off several problematic boxes.

Connect Couva and Gulati to the filing and Cordeiro, and it isn’t tough to see why some believe U.S. Soccer is a governing body that can’t govern.

Yet just because the federation finds itself on familiar ground this month, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken a step or two forward. If there’s a silver lining to the legal filing fiasco, it’s that several seeds of change were planted after Couva. Trauma catalyzes transformation. And if that trend continues—Tuesday’s comments by new president Cindy Parlow Cone and new CEO Will Wilson regarding the WNT’s lawsuit were an indication it may—the gears of governance could start turning more effectively in Chicago.

U.S. Soccer CEO Will Wilson and president Cindy Parlow Cone

The people who oversaw the 2018 qualification failure, as well as many who failed to oversee it, are gone. That’s saying something in an organization where power isn’t often dislodged. There were just four presidents from 1990 through 2019, and only two CEOs. Gulati opted not to run for re-election in 2018, and Flynn announced his decision to step down early last year. Berhalter left the federation last month when he was denied the CEO promotion. And among the 16 board members in office when the USA was eliminated from the World Cup, 10 are already gone.

The qualification failure spurred engagement—not only publicly, but among those who hoped to enact change from within. Whereas Gulati ran unopposed in three consecutive elections, there were eight presidential candidates in February 2018, including some genuine outsiders. And Gulati’s preferred successor, SUM president Kathy Carter, finished tied for second.

Cordeiro wasn’t exactly an outsider. He’d been Gulati’s vice president and a board member for more than a decade. But he still represented something of a departure, lacking Gulati’s presence, ambition and leadership style. Although the idea wasn’t his, Cordeiro helped set in motion the most significant change at the federation in years—the hiring of general managers for the men’s and women’s national teams. No longer would businesspeople be making the soccer decisions. It took more time than everyone would’ve liked, but eventually Earnie Stewart was installed, and he hired Gregg Berhalter—Jay Berhalter’s brother—as the men’s coach. Stewart’s promotion to sporting director followed last summer, and Brian McBride and Kate Markgraf came aboard.

Not everybody will agree with every appointment. All are insiders, to a degree—former U.S. players some might accuse of having limited global experience or a pro-MLS bias. But no technical or coaching hire is met with universal acclaim. At least there are soccer people now empowered at U.S. Soccer. Gulati is an economist. It was an obvious move, yet still somehow historic.

Cordeiro also was at his post when the late but correct decision was made to deny Jay Berhalter the promotion to CEO. He’d been the subject of too many of those Glassdoor reviews and, as CEO, could influence Stewart and McBride and, therefore, his younger brother, the MNT coach. Considering U.S. Soccer’s past, there were some who thought Jay’s ascension was inevitable. The fact that it wasn’t represents overdue progress.

None of this comes close to excusing the federation’s terrible handling of the WNT lawsuit (not to mention the conditions that led to it), from Cordeiro’s ham-fisted public statements to the inexplicable failure by chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke and the board to step in the moment outside counsel lost the plot during player depositions. And so sponsors went public with their disgust, Cordeiro paid with his job and the federation’s lack of proper communication channels and processes was exposed again.

Parlow Cone and Wilson are aware of all of this, and they know that a spotlight brightened by Couva and the WNT’s championship Q rating is shining on them both.

“I think there’s definitely things that need to be addressed—there’s no question—a lot of them very public,” Wilson said Tuesday when asked about the recent turbulence. “What I would like to try to address really is trying to create a culture, a work environment that makes U.S. Soccer an admired place to work, where everyone feels valued and wants to continue to move forward. Because everyone there loves soccer and takes a ton of pride in what they do and in the national teams. We want to develop a very positive culture going forward.”

He continued, “Yes, there are issues. That's obvious. For me it was the fact we had to address those, find resolutions, attack the culture, create a place that people want to be and work and really support our members in growing the game.”

Parlow Cone said she was never angling for the presidency, and she wouldn’t even commit to running next year to officially finish out Cordeiro’s term. The office and responsibility have been thrust upon her. Her lack of personal ambition, but eagerness to confront U.S. Soccer’s problems and seek out a settlement with the WNT, were refreshing.

“I think a lot of damage has been done and I think we’re going to have to rebuild that trust and rebuild that relationship [with the WNT],” she said. “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 [WNT] players but with our fans and everyone engaged in the sport.”

She acknowledged that it took too long to hire a CEO, and that, “there was a fundamental error in our processes” that led to the last WNT legal filing slipping through. Just like Couva exposed the federation’s lapses on the technical side, this episode highlighted the issues in governance, communication and empowerment that need to be addressed. Recognition has to happen first.

One could make a case that Parlow Cone and Wilson also represent part of the lingering problem. Parlow Cone has been part of the USSF apparatus for years, serving on the board, the Athletes Council and on various committees over the past two decades. She was also part of the “special litigation committee” that never saw the filing that led to Cordeiro’s resignation. And Wilson’s lengthy sports business career includes four years at MLS/SUM, where he was the executive VP of international business and special events. It’s fair to wonder where he stands on the federation’s relationship to SUM.

“The business has grown a lot. The programs around the federation have grown a lot. They've put a lot of things in place that have helped the sport grow in this country,” he said Tuesday. “The things that have not been done well, if you want to call it that, are the issues that have been addressed many times over the recent weeks and months, are things that have to be addressed—communication and engaging folks, trying to find solutions. That's not to denigrate what happened in the past. It’s more of a direction going forward is what we need to focus on.”

The old guard is gone. U.S. Soccer has hit bottom, then hit it again. But after Couva, it also demonstrated the capacity for change. It remains to be seen whether Stewart, McBride and Markgraf are the right people for their positions. But the positions—and the will to create them—were necessary. It now falls to Parlow Cone, Wilson and the board to ensure another failure isn’t wasted.