For the first time in a dozen years, the United States Soccer Federation has a new president. Carlos Cordeiro succeed Sunil Gulati in three rounds of voting at U.S. Soccer’s annual general meeting in Orlando on Saturday morning, ultimately winning in a landslide.
A vocal portion of the national teams’ fan base demanded radical change in the sport’s new leader. After working his way to the top of the federation over the course of two decades, Gulati took the helm in 2006 and oversaw exponential growth. But he also watched the men’s national team fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — the first one missed since 1986 — before deciding not to run for a fourth term.
In Cordeiro, fans hardly got the big shakeup they wanted. Because the actual voters, an eclectic mix of youth, amateur and pro soccer representatives and a band of administrators, went for Cordeiro, the closest thing to a Gulati facsimile as could be found.
Like Gulati, he has a business background. While Gulati teaches economics at Columbia University, Cordeiro is a retired Goldman Sachs executive. And in his decade or so within U.S. Soccer, Cordeiro rose from an independent director to executive vice president and Gulati’s de facto right-hand man.
Indeed, Cordeiro (rightly) gave a nod to Gulati in his brief victory speech. “This is incredibly humbling,” he said. “I want to thank all of the candidates for a spirited campaign. I’d like to thank Sunil, who introduced me to the game.”
While Cordeiro, like all candidates, campaigned on change, and argued that he’d been a force for renewal within the federation, he is the ultimate establishment candidate. The electorate, in other words, felt very differently about the direction the federation should go than the fans did.
They opted for a man with extensive experience in the federation, rather than one of the six candidates who were either former players or lawyers — none of whom had any significant experience in soccer administration. The final candidate, Kathy Carter, runs Soccer United Marketing and was also seen as an establishment candidate. She ran a close second behind Cordeiro in the first two rounds, underscoring the electorate’s desire for a proven commodity.
Cordeiro emerges from this bruising election a somewhat tarnished president. That’s the nature of contentious campaigning among an unruly troupe of candidates. This was a free-for-all, and nothing was out of bounds in the pursuit of furthering your own chances. The point of the process is to weigh the merits and flaws of those applying for the job. Yet nobody was entirely convincing, just as nobody was entirely unqualified.
Meanwhile, the mud-slinging grew rampant as the date of Saturday’s election drew nearer. At one point, on the eve of the big day, there were even reports of confabs between various campaigns nearly coming to blows.
Cordeiro now takes control of an unwieldy federation, understanding full well that he isn’t the sort of leader the fans wanted. He takes on a difficult job.
Allegiances had become so frayed toward the end of the campaign that the enmity may linger for years, if it ever lifts at all. Which is to say nothing of the many masters — and voters — across the fractured American game the president must somehow serve simultaneously at the best of times.
Cordeiro also takes on a federation that has grown enormously in the last two decades yet somehow also finds itself at a nadir. As laid out in this New York Times article, the unpaid president manages an annual budget of $125 million and cash reserves of $130 million with a full-time staff of 160 and well over 4 million registered players.
Yet there is a men’s national team coach to be hired at a time when the job will hold little interest to any man — or woman — with the sort of name and resume that would appease a disillusioned fan base. After all, there is no World Cup to compete in until at least 2022 — and, currently, the vogue is to prefer club jobs over national team positions for any manager with serious ambitions anyway. And U.S. Soccer also plans to appoint technical directors for both the men’s and women’s programs.
Meanwhile, the simmering animosity over the women’s national team’s wage disparity with the men hasn’t yet died down, even though the gap was nearly closed in the most recent collective bargaining agreement struck by Gulati. And the federation faces a myriad of legal assaults. Several leading women’s national team players still have an outstanding federation complaint over wage discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hope Solo, one of the presidential candidates who was a part of that filing, has also pressed a complaint with the United States Olympic Committee.
Then there are the suits over sanctioning of the leagues below Major League Soccer and the challenge with the Court of Arbitration in Sport arguing that the United States Soccer Federation doesn’t have any legal authority to make those determinations at all. The very essence of what U.S. Soccer does is being put to question before a series of outside arbiters.
Oh, and there’s the fact that attendance for men’s national team games — a major revenue driver — has been waning since the last World Cup, especially in friendlies.
And lastly, but certainly not least, the all-important joint-bid for the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada is due at FIFA in a month or so, with a vote taking place in June. A positive outcome to that process, after the 2022 edition somehow slipped away to Qatar back in 2010, could alter the course of the game in America, just as the 1994 World Cup here awakened a nation to the sport. Failing to land a second consecutive World Cup would instantly reduce Cordeiro’s presidency to a calamity.
All of that falls onto the plate of the new president the day Cordeiro steps into his new office, just as soon as he locates one. Currently, there is no actual office. Gulati worked out of small work space at Columbia.
“I will work very hard to bring us all together as one U.S. Soccer community,” Cordeiro told the delegates. “Let’s all leave this room with that in mind.”
Good luck with that. Sincerely.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.