Blog, Blog Post, Leagues, Major League Soccer, United States

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For the first time in more than a decade, the election for the presidency of the U.S. Soccer Federation will be contested.

The reason why is simple math. In the past, Sunil Gulati had votes from the Pro Council, Athletes Council, life members and board members locked up, getting close to the threshold needed to win. It never required much more support to push him into an unassailable lead; not so anymore.

In the wake of the failure by the men’s national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Gulati’s base of support has eroded within the USSF National Council, the group that will actually vote in the election. Just how much remains to be seen, but it has created an opening whereby candidates have stepped forward to challenge him.

Here’s the latest on a fluid field.

The incumbent: Sunil Gulati

In the wake of the failure by the U.S. men to qualify for the World Cup in Russia and manager Bruce Arena’s subsequent resignation, Gulati has become public enemy No. 1. Given the reported USSF surplus of $130 million, the financial side looks to be in good shape, but it is Gulati’s judgment on the playing side — in particular his hiring of coaches — that has been called into question.

As such, Gulati is keeping something of a low profile. At last weekend’s candidates forum in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Gulati once again declined to state whether he would run for a fourth term. He also didn’t take part in the candidates’ forum, preferring to meet privately with regional leaders of the USASA.

That approach has — quite understandably — increased the ire of some members of the U.S. fan base who wish to see Gulati held accountable for the failures of the men’s national team. But the reality is that the public isn’t voting and, being a deft political operator, he prefers to engage with voters in smaller meetings.

Gulati has until Dec. 12 to state his intentions. If he steps aside, look for USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro to take his place. But even if Gulati does decide to run, the race is the most wide open it has been for more than a decade.

Chances of winning: 35 percent

Assuming he runs, Gulati knows how to win elections, and has an entrenched base, especially on the Pro Council, as well as elements of the USSF Board.

Incumbent president Sunil Gulati hasn’t yet decided if he’ll run again in February.

The firebrand: Eric Wynalda

Wynalda has long been the U.S. soccer community’s resident gadfly, willing to say just about anything, regardless of who it might offend. That persona has tended to obscure some of his ideas about the game and without question, he is taking a populist approach to his campaign.

“We have a culture problem,” he said in an interview with ESPN FC. “If you look at the Federation itself, it’s a dysfunctional family. The Federation has forgotten what its purpose is, and that’s to serve and help people facilitate soccer. They’ve decided that they are the only voice and they are dictating a game of telephone across the country that isn’t translating to the masses at all.”

Wynalda is a staunch advocate of promotion/relegation, though by his own admission, he admits it doesn’t fit within the current system: “These are conversations that need to be had. The financial benefits [of pro/rel] need to be explained.”

Wynalda has said he will “tear up” the recently agreed CBA between the USSF and the union representing the women’s national team in a bid to give them equal pay. His proposed changes for MLS involve moving to a fall/spring calendar in line with that of Europe, as well as a media-rights deal for all divisions similar to what MP & Silva proposed in September.

Pitching ideas is one thing, but implementing them is another given that it involves buy-in from plenty of stakeholders. The pro/rel proposal seems like a non-starter, for example. As for changing the calendar, MLS has explored that before but Wynalda said he plans to present his idea to MLS commissioner Don Garber and the league’s owners in the coming weeks.

Wynalda’s lack of business experience is also something he’ll need to address, which in part explains his praise for current USSF CEO Dan Flynn. The establishment and other candidates would be wise not to underestimate Wynalda. He’s charismatic and passionate and will no doubt fire up a public already seething with anger over the World Cup qualifying failure.

Chances of winning: 20 percent

Wynalda’s name recognition alone gets him in the running, but he’ll need to sell his ideas — and temperament — to constituents, who might be concerned by what he’ll do to the system.

The businessman: Steve Gans

Gans boasts a strong business background having been a COO as well as a lawyer, who has advised youth clubs and Premier League sides on various aspects of their business. He engaged in what he calls a “listening tour” of people associated with the youth and amateur game and said he has found a great deal of dissatisfaction.

“People need to feel included,” Gans said in an interview with ESPN FC. “They feel marginalized. Every single segment of this sport matters.”

Among his ideas is to use the USSF surplus to address the pay-to-play issue in youth soccer. Gans is careful not to categorize that approach as a “magic bullet,” but part of an overall solution. He has also said he will work to make the youth soccer landscape “less fractured” and as the parent of two Development Academy players, he has seen it up close.

Gans has also vowed to improve the working conditions of the U.S. women’s national team, who even after agreeing to a new CBA, have been subjected to playing games on artificial turf.

He stressed that he would be a very different kind of leader than Gulati, saying he would use a more expansive and collaborative approach, especially when it comes to hiring a new men’s national team manager. Meanwhile, on the third-rail issue of promotion/relegation, Gans is cautious.

“I applaud and agree with the enthusiasm for pro/rel as a principle that makes soccer great worldwide, but I’m not going to divorce myself from the reality of how sports is structured in this country. That can’t be ignored,” he said. “It’s a complicated issue. It’s going to be discussion for a long time, but I’m going to be responsible about it.”

On the business side, Gans said he wouldn’t change much, noting that he things there are a lot of good people working for the USSF already.

“I’d give people the benefit of the doubt until there’s a reason not to,” he said.

Chances of winning: 15 percent

If Gulati doesn’t run, Gans will likely be viewed as a safe candidate given his business background.

The wild card: Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan is arguably the U.S.’ greatest player. But does he have a future in soccer administration?

At this stage, it’s not even clear if Donovan will run; he said as recently as Tuesday that he was still mulling his options. At last weekend’s mid-year meeting of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association, Donovan was rumored to be speaking at the candidates’ forum, but did not take part.

Donovan certainly won’t lack for name recognition. He’s easily the most famous name on the list of presumptive candidates. From the outside, it looks as though Donovan’s presence could siphon away support from Wynalda, given his playing background, as well as the fact that he would carry far less baggage into the race.

The vulnerability in a prospective Donovan candidacy is that he’s barely a year removed from his playing career and with little business experience. In his few public statements, he has admitted as much. Meanwhile, he’s also made no public statements on what specific changes he would make to the USSF.

That said, he is hugely respected in the game and may be the kind of compromise candidate voters could get behind.

Chances of winning: 15 percent

Donovan would be looked upon as the anti-Wynalda, but his lack of business experience will be something he’ll have to address in more detail.

The heir apparent: Carlos Cordeiro

If Gulati doesn’t run then Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs executive and current USSF vice president is expected to take his place. His candidacy would offer advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, he’s not Gulati, but his close association with him as a current member of the hierarchy means he’ll have to explain how he would do things differently.

Cordeiro has been heavily involved on the business side of the USSF, serving as the organization’s treasurer since 2008 and on the budget committee. He joined as an independent director a year before that.

But he has no known experience in terms of dealing with the playing side of the house, and with that being a particular point of emphasis in this election, it’s difficult to see how he’ll overcome that gap in his resume.

Chances of winning: 5 percent

Assuming he runs, his ties to Gulati will be tough to shake.

The lifer: Paul Lapointe

Lapointe has a long history of playing in various indoor and outdoor leagues, then working in the game at youth and amateur levels. He is currently the Northeast Conference manager of the amateur UPSL. In his professional life, he has worked in the automotive industry, owning car dealerships and tire stores after working for Goodyear.

“Nobody can tear apart a profit/loss statement like I can,” he said via telephone.

In terms of his talking points, Lapointe strikes a middle ground between Gans and Wynalda though he seems more in alignment with Wynalda: “A part-time USSF president gives you part-time results, and things slip through cracks.”

Easily the biggest plank in Lapointe’s platform is his idea for instituting promotion/relegation at every level except MLS.

“Everybody that I’ve talked to wants a clean sweep,” he said. “It’s not going to happen. MLS was established in 1995, it’s been in business a long time. So you address a defined system from NASL and USL on down, work out the kinks and only then do you go knocking on the big castle walls of MLS. I think the process is going to happen naturally.”

In terms of youth soccer, Lapointe would like the path to the national team to be more clearly defined. When asked if the Development Academy was supposed to satisfy that aim, Lapointe responded by pointing out that the DA doesn’t reach enough kids to provide a pathway for everyone: “What if that academy is five hours away? Some players can’t afford to be there.”

In terms of the women’s game, Lapointe believes that having a women’s version of the U.S. Open Cup would be a way to further market that side of the sport.

Overall, his biggest challenge will be convincing voters that he has more to offer than Wynalda and that his experience at lower levels of the game will translate to running the USSF. His candidacy seems a long shot, but he remains undaunted.

“I know there’s going to be some bridges to cross in the good old boy network,” he said.

Chances of winning: 1 percent

It’s difficult to see how Lapointe elbows his way ahead of more recognized candidates.

(Yes, that still leaves nine percent left. So why is there a gap? Sources have said that other candidates may jump in before December’s nominations deadline and there is a chance, however slim, that they could prevail.)

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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