On Feb. 10, at the U.S. Soccer Federation's annual general meeting, an era will come to an end. The 12-year reign of president Sunil Gulati will conclude, and the organization will elect a new leader.
The race features eight candidates, a list that includes former U.S. men's international and collegiate head coach Paul Caligiuri, current Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter, current USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro, attorney Steven Gans, former professional and current NBC broadcaster Kyle Martino, U.S. women's international goalkeeper Hope Solo, attorney Mike Winograd and former U.S. men's international and current Fox Soccer broadcaster Eric Wynalda.
The race to succeed Gulati has captivated the broader U.S. soccer community, sparking endless debates on social media and elsewhere, especially in the wake of the failure by the U.S. men's national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Yet unlike last year's election for U.S. president, the opinions of rank-and-file fans matter only to a point. What's more important are the members of the USSF's National Council who will cast their votes, and even more critically, what issues will drive their vote.
So, who votes?
It's expected that more than 500 members of the National Council who will cast ballots on Feb. 10, and nearly every delegate will fall into one of four primary constituencies. There is the Youth Council, which comprises representatives from the various state youth soccer associations, as well as national organizations like U.S. Club Soccer and American Youth Soccer Organization. Then there is the Adult Council, which overseas the amateur game, and like its youth counterpart, its representatives hail mostly from the adult state associations. There is the Professional Council, representing the professional leagues for both men's and women's soccer, and then there is the Athletes Council, representing the interests of the athletes on various national teams including men, women, beach soccer, futsal and Paralympians.
The Youth, Adult and Professional Councils will have their votes weighted to account for approximately 25.8 percent of the vote. As mandated by the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, the Athletes Council takes up 20 percent. The remaining votes -- approximately 2.6 percent of the entire vote -- will be taken up by national associations and affiliates, board members, life members (up to 12 votes) and two fan representatives.
But to paraphrase George Orwell, the weighted nature of the voting means that some votes are more equal than others.
The Pro Council has 16 votes, with nine controlled by Major League Soccer, three for second-division United Soccer League, three for the National Women's Soccer League, and one for the North American Soccer league, which is currently suing the federation on antitrust grounds. That means MLS -- which has publicly thrown its support to Carter -- will control 14.5 percent of the entire vote.
Meanwhile the total number of voters in the Youth and Adult Councils will reach into the hundreds, yet still account for a quarter of the overall vote. For those two councils, size matters, with the states having more registered players getting more votes.
As for the Athletes Council, comprises 20 members. But even if less than 20 members show up in Orlando, the Athletes Council still gets 20 percent of the overall vote, so its votes will weigh heavy on the outcome. Historically this constituency has voted as a bloc in a bid to maximize its influence. So the conventional wisdom is that all roads to the USSF presidency lead through the Athletes Council, though it's probably fairer to say winning this constituency requires less groundwork. It's easier to convince 20 athletes to vote for you than it is 110 state associations.
(Anyone wanting a more detailed breakdown can read Anthony DiCicco's excellent write-up here.)
What are the issues for voters?
As much traction as issues like promotion/relegation and the fate of the national teams get on social media and elsewhere, they are not the first items listed as important by actual delegates. Every council has its pet issues, which explains in part why the support for individual candidates appears to be so fragmented at this stage.
The complaint heard over and over again from Adult Council voters is that this constituency feels forgotten by the USSF. This has led to the broader question of what exactly the USSF does for this organization and its members, especially with two dollars of each player registration going to the USSF.
"All of my members feel that we're not part of the federation anymore," said U.S. Adult Soccer Association president John Motta. "We're not inclusive, it's like we're outcasts, they do nothing for us. I hear that a lot from my membership. Years ago we felt like we were part of the family, part of the organization. Today we just don't feel that anymore."
Several Adult Council members said they'd like to see the fee reduced to one dollar per player, same as the youth. This is even more of a pain point given that according to Motta, the USASA was hit with two lawsuits regarding player injuries, resulting in a sharp increase in insurance costs.
"It's a $6 million tax," said former USSF treasurer Richard Groff, who will serve as an adult commissioner at the election for the Adult Council.
Scott Eisenbraun, the president of the North Carolina Adult Soccer Association added, "For our smaller state associations, a few thousand dollars doesn't sound like a lot, but it would be a big help."
With more money and attention, the hope is that more leagues and players currently operating outside the purview of the USSF can be brought into the fold.
Transparency is also an issue within some segments of the Adult Council. According to California Soccer Association North president Ric Olivas, too often policy changes were dictated from on high with little to no debate. These included policies related to the election. He spoke of how when Gulati dropped out of the race, his letters of nomination were released just days before the filing deadline.
"We're the members, and we should be given the information honestly and above board," said Olivas.
And yes, promotion/relegation did come up, with Eisenbraun a big supporter. "I think [promotion/relegation] and giving clubs a chance to grow is a big, big piece of the popularity of the sport in this country," he said.
If the Adult Council feels forgotten, portions of the Youth Council feel overburdened by mandates imposed from above, from the change to birth year registration to field sizes to the much ballyhooed Development Academy, and its insistence on not letting kids play high school soccer. Then there is the way the youth game is structured, with U.S. Club Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer and the USSF Development Academy at times competing with one another. The costs of course are an issue as well, though there is skepticism as to how much can be done.
"People are looking for the silver bullet, talking about things like pay-to-play, things that are just too big to tackle in the election of a president," said Brian Smith, president of the Utah Youth Soccer Association. "The structure is so horizontal, so spread out. How is the USSF supposed to go out and see the best kids when they're all over the place? It needs to be more of a vertical structure and let the state associations be what they are and then let everyone report into one unit that is the USSF. It's a bit of a mess right now, an octopus fight."
Kevin Payne, the CEO of U.S. Club Soccer added, "We would love to see the federation develop a broad strategy that includes all of its members, in an undertaking to improve the quality of experience for players and parents and clubs at every level."
There is also a strong push to make the coaching courses put on by the federation more affordable and accessible.
"It's almost a national emergency," said Payne about improving the ranks of coaches. "This is one of the few areas where I actually think we can achieve results relatively quickly by throwing money at it. The problem now is the federation has properly made their licensing more specific and more rigorous. But in doing that it's actually narrowed the pipeline for new coaches. It's made it more meaningful to get different levels of licenses, but it's really constricted the pipeline."
As its name suggests, the focus of the Athletes Council is on the players representing the U.S. at various levels. That means concerning itself with the collective bargaining process for the men's and women's national teams (the men's deal is up in 2018) as well as doing more for other, less-heralded national squads.
"We want the programs, from the women on down to beach soccer, to have more resources and be more respected," said Athletes Council chair Chris Ahrens, himself a Paralympian. "I'm not saying the beach and Paralympians should be given the same as the women, but if you wear the crest, you should be given every opportunity to succeed."
Ahrens said the Athletes Council is also looking for the next president to make sure the NWSL "continues to work and grow and thrive so our women for years to come have a league to play in."
The question does remain as to whether the bloc voting that has characterized previous elections will still be in effect in Orlando. Half of the Athletes Council is comprised of women, who may be inclined to throw their support behind one of the two female candidates, Carter and Solo, though to be clear those two candidates represent opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. At minimum, creating more gender diversity within the ranks of the USSF is a core issue for the Athletes Council.
"We want a president who is going to engage the athletes and have them be a part of the process going forward," said Ahrens.
The hot-button issues figure to have more resonance inside the Pro Council, though its votes are mostly spoken for. MLS controls nine of the Pro Council's 16 votes -- 56.25 percent -- and its support of Carter hints at a strong push to largely maintain the status quo as far as the pro game and its ancillary businesses are concerned, which includes maintaining a closed system.
The NASL has already thrown its support behind Wynalda given their shared desire for a more open system.
But the remaining votes from the USL and NWSL are still valuable. As for the NWSL, given its dependence on the USSF for its survival, their affinity for a candidate depends on the level of continued support for the league.
"Everybody wants sustainability; they don't want a league to fail, which has happened previously," said North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik, who also sits on the USSF board of directors. "At the same time, we all want to raise the standards for every aspect of it, from fan experience to technical ability to support, doing everything we can for these women to fulfill their talent."
Picking a candidate
Listen to the candidates' presentations long enough, and you begin to notice some considerable overlap on issues like making the youth game cheaper for everyone, to equality for the women's game to making governance more transparent and less dependent on one person to make decisions. Some delegates will have very specific goals that only one candidate can satisfy. But what if multiple candidates meet a given constituent's policy goals? What then?
"We've seen in politics of all sorts that words are one thing," said Malik. "You evaluate them on their experiences, their networks, people that they know and can help bring them into the equation. Just because the president has agenda items, there's many things that need board approval. So you need someone that can bring everyone along with them."
And what if the preferred candidate drops out? In that case, being a delegate's second or even third choice has more value than at first glance. But like any political race, the personal touch, regardless of how that is conveyed, matters, and that may ultimately be what nudges a delegate to vote in a certain direction.
"For me it will likely come down to personality and how they treated me during this process," said Eisenbraun. "Not that anyone has treated me badly, but some have been more forthcoming than others in terms of reaching out. That says a lot about them."