At length, some of the shrouds around the election for president of U.S. Soccer in late February are lifting.
On Wednesday, the federation winnowed the field from the nine aspiring entrants, since one didn’t have the required three letters of nomination. But the completion of background checks held up the release of the eight approved candidates.
They are, in no particular order: Steve Gans, Michael Winograd, Paul Caligiuri, Kyle Martino, Eric Wynalda, Hope Solo, Carlos Cordeiro and Kathy Carter.
Gans and Winograd are lawyers with connections to the soccer industry. Caligiuri and Solo are longtime players of the men’s and women’s national team, respectively. So are Wynalda and Martino, both of whom have built second careers in soccer broadcasting. Cordeiro is the current U.S. Soccer vice president. Carter runs Soccer United Marketing, the profitable marketing division of Major League Soccer.
The odd man out was Paul Lapointe, an administrator in the fifth-tier United Premier Soccer League who couldn’t produce the necessary nomination letters.
It was perhaps a tad surprising that Solo passed the background check. After all — leaving aside her historically volatile relationship with the federation, which suspended her on several occasions during her playing career — her name is on a complaint against U.S. Soccer with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed by a handful of women’s national teamers over wage discrimination. A ruling has not yet been made. And it constitutes an obvious conflict with the job she is now pursuing.
While Solo was twice charged with domestic violence, the lack of a conviction or guilty plea kept her eligible in the background check stage.
The beleaguered incumbent, Sunil Gulati, is not seeking a fourth term, in spite of the outsized impact his 12-year administration had on the arc of American soccer’s growth. And his potential successors have been vocal about their plans and visions, to FC Yahoo and others.
The process of weeding through the talent pool for the unpaid (for now) position is a useful one. But to the voters, a broad constituency of various U.S. Soccer members in the professional, amateur, youth and player representative categories, the choice will boil down to the sort of leader they wish to see.
There is an obvious chasm in the group of candidates. Four are administrators or somehow tied to the organizational side of the game; four are former national team players.
This begs the question: What is more important in the job of overseeing a vast sport? In the role of U.S. Soccer president, you not only handle the visible side of the game, the senior national teams. And there’s more to it than controlling an operating budget of over $100 million and a reported $140 million in cash reserves. You’re also in charge of a grassroots base of some 4 million registered players nationally, across the various affiliated organizations.
The choices for president are between administrators with no high-level playing experience or former high-level players with no administrative experience. Wynalda has dabbled in pro-level coaching but has mostly been a broadcaster. Martino has only been a broadcaster. Caligiuri has been a coach at the college, youth and semi-pro level. The 36-year-old Solo, best as anyone can tell, isn’t technically retired yet, but it’s been almost a year and a half since she’s appeared in a game of any sort. She’s been suspended and recovering from shoulder surgery.
Among the four candidates with no playing histories, none even have a Wikipedia page. They are known only to the insidiest of insiders. Gans is a lawyer and consultant who sometimes deals with soccer clubs. Winograd is a corporate lawyer and long-time coach who apparently had a brief professional career in Israel. Cordeiro was Gulati’s right-hand man almost a decade, including during the failed bid for the 2022 World Cup. Carter basically runs MLS’s business side.
So even in that faction, there is a clear distinction. Those new to the highest level of the sport — Gans and Winograd — and those so deeply embedded in it — Cordeiro and Carter — who can only be labeled part of the sport’s establishment.
There’s no telling which way the voters are leaning because it’s hard to work out who they even are. There are 534 delegates drawn from the youth, amateur and professional councils, the athletes’ council and lifetime federation members, according to this exhaustive breakdown on SB Nation.
What, exactly, those 534 people are looking for is anyone’s guess. Chances are they want very different things. Most of the non-voters — i.e. almost all of us — with an opinion about who should win tend to take a fairly narrow and national team-centric view of it. The big gripe about Gulati is that he hired the wrong senior national team coaches, or stuck with them for too long.
Yet that was only a small part of his job. (And other than Jurgen Klinsmann on the men’s side and possibly Tom Sermanni on the women’s, his other senior team hires ranged somewhere from sound to outstanding.) What Gulati’s remit amounted to most of the time was representing the federation to the regional and global governing bodies, CONCACAF and FIFA. And it entailed steering a nine-figure budget in the right direction while leading an unwieldy multi-million person membership.
Which is all assuming the role of president doesn’t change drastically, as has been reported.
But are the tasks as the job exists now best carried out by a former player, a newcomer, or a soccer industry veteran? And what if it changes and the president becomes more of a figurehead than a manager? What does the ideal profile of a president look like then?
And in either case, is this job about vision for the future? Or a steady hand for the tumultuous present?
Now that Gulati is out of the picture — who was the towering favorite for reelection in spite of his unpopularity with the fan base, thanks to his decades-old relationships within the sport — those questions will decide the U.S. Soccer presidency. And given the obscurity of the voters, there’s hardly any telling which way it will go.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.