Meet Steve Gans, Sunil Gulati's first challenger for the U.S. Soccer presidency

Henry Bushnell
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has not yet announced whether he will run for re-election, but if he does, he will, for the first time, have competition.

Steve Gans can’t recall the exact moment when he decided to run for United States Soccer Federation president. The Boston-based attorney can’t remember the first time the thought penetrated his mind. But for over a year, he says, various members of the American soccer community were in his ear, floating the idea of a campaign.

At first, he politely declined. Then he began to sense dissatisfaction growing.

“People came back, and said, ‘Look, not only is change necessary, but this is, in some people’s minds, dire,’” Gans told Yahoo Sports.

So he has decided go for it. What he describes as a summer “listening tour” confirmed his suspicions that “people want change.” He has declared his U.S. Soccer presidential candidacy, five months before the federation’s 2018 election.

He has not yet officially filed necessary paperwork, in part because USSF has not released to him the list of delegates. USSF plans to have that list ready for distribution around Oct. 1.

But Gans considers this his official declaration. He will be incumbent president Sunil Gulati’s first challenger, ahead of what would be the current president’s fourth and final term. In February, at U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Meeting, the federation will hold its first contested presidential election since 1998 – that is, assuming Gulati runs for re-election; he has not yet announced his intentions. A U.S. Soccer spokesman said Gulati would not comment on Gans’ candidacy or his own.

The vote will be in the hands of hundreds of delegates from the youth, adult and professional ranks. Those three groups will carry equal weight, and, along with U.S. Soccer’s board of directors and others, represent 80 percent of the vote. The other 20 percent falls to an athletes council.

Gans says he will appeal to all four main constituencies. He argues that his wide-ranging experience – from Boston’s successful bid to host 1994 World Cup games, to the boards of U.S. Development Academy clubs, to consultant roles with professional European clubs – will allow him to balance the best interests of all four.

And he does not shy away from criticizing Gulati, who ran for the presidency unopposed in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Gans cites the Jurgen Klinsmann “debacle,” the $6.2 million severance paid to the German manager, Gulati’s failure to appear at a 2015 congressional hearing in the wake of the FIFA scandal, his publicizing of “Project 2010” back in 1998, and USSF’s general lack of transparency as “examples of bad judgement.”

On a more fundamental level, Gans claims that Gulati’s focus on the national teams has left people in all other constituencies feeling “ignored or marginalized.”

“Youth soccer only generates $4 million in registration fees to U.S. Soccer,” Gans says. “That’s a small fraction of U.S. Soccer’s revenue. But in my opinion, you don’t just look at the financial contribution, youth soccer is as important as any other constituency. Because it’s about giving them the proper respect. It’s about ethics … but also it’s just smart practically, because it’s about retention, player development, avoiding attrition. And in particular, the youth scheme needs a lot of fixing. There’s a lot of dysfunction in it.”

Under Gulati’s watch, the federation has flourished financially. Its audited statements show that total revenues reached $125.3 million in 2016, a more than threefold increase since 2006. And the North American 2026 World Cup bid, which Gulati is leading, could bring even more profits.

“Soccer is robust and growing,” Gans says. “You definitely can’t begrudge the revenue generation related to the national team or tournaments.”

But his qualms are with the reinvestment of that money. “The question to me is, what do you do with that surplus?” he asks. “And that’s where I feel like there should be more focus on the issues of diversity, and inclusion, and addressing issues related to pay-to-play.”

The issue of pay-to-play – the American system that requires children to pay registration fees to join elite clubs, a departure from many European systems – is a major hindrance at youth levels. It deters kids from low-income families, and therefore shrinks the player pool.

That’s why Gans talks about using U.S. Soccer’s surplus to increase diversity. “You can’t eliminate the pay-to-play model in America,” he concedes. “It’s been set up. There are no turn-key, automatic solutions. But … the fact that deserving kids who can’t afford to play are shut out, that’s more than ridiculous, that’s sad and tragic. So I would use some of that surplus that’s generated by all that money-raising and corporate sponsorship, and I’d earmark it for ameliorating some of these very important issues – lessening some of the burden of pay-to-play, inviting young players who otherwise could not afford to be involved.”

Gans says he wouldn’t “eliminate” the Development Academy – the network of elite youth clubs established in 2007. But he “would change a lot of how [it] is run.”

Another thorny issue is promotion and relegation in the U.S. It is craved by a passionate sector of the fan base, but likely implausible in the near future given Major League Soccer’s current structure. Gulati has explained why. On this, Gans won’t take a side – though he doesn’t like the term “non-committal.”

“To be in the soccer world and completely reject the concept, well that wouldn’t be proper, because it is a concept that’s implemented all over the world,” he says. “But to completely adopt it, given the structure of American sports in this country – it’s different. And the tradition of the fan bases of soccer clubs are different than they are in the rest of the world. So it’s an extremely complicated issue, and there’s not a one-paragraph answer to it.

“I understand the value, all things being equal – I embrace promotion and relegation, the value of it. But to divorce yourself from the reality of the structure of professional sports in this country would be to deny reality too. So what else can I say at this point? It’s an extremely complicated issue that needs to be looked at and considered.”

Gans has put together a steering committee and a group of strategists that will help lead his campaign, but much of the campaigning, he says, will be “grassroots.” He will talk to delegates. And he’ll talk to those “that don’t vote to get a sense of shaping the issues.”

He realizes he is fighting an uphill battle. Gulati has done a lot of good for U.S. Soccer. And, as Gans says, “It’s not easy taking on someone who’s entrenched, and who wields so much power.

“But I hear every day from people who think it’s time,” he says. “And I think I’m the person to do it.”

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.