A Noisy US Soccer Presidential Campaign is Going as Predicted

The election for President of the US Soccer Federation is in about three weeks, making this a good time to check in on the race to lead the governing body of soccer in America.

A quick review for those whose interest in politics runs more to Michael Wolffthan Josh Wolff: Soccer in the US is overseen by the US Soccer Federation, often called US Soccer. The organization is led by an unpaid president elected by members of the Federation. The election process is far from straightforward, a confusing dance party mashup of the Democratic National Committee presidential nominating process and the electoral college. The best explanation of the process comes from Anthony DiCicco, with additional details from Grant Wahl and others. The short version is that there are several interest groups represented in the vote, each of which gets a fixed percentage of the final tally regardless of how many people are in the group. As The New York Times puts it: “The votes are split among the federation’s youth, adult, and pro councils, which each get a 25 percent share; and its athletes council, which accounts for 20 percent. The remaining 5 percent is made up of board members, life members and a fan representative.” The winning candidate must get 50%+1 of that vote. Voting continues until one candidate receives a majority. In this structure not all votes count the same. Fans get less than 5% of the final say, regardless of how many fans vote and for whom they vote, while the 20-member athletes council accounts for 20% of the final tally. As such, what matters is what those whose votes count think, and how much those votes count. Twitter does not get a vote.

Several months ago I wrote that the race was shaping up to be an insider versus outsider contest, which in this context is administrator versus former professional player. On one side are several respected soccer executives and attorneys, the most prominent of whom is Kathy Carter. One of two women in a field of eight candidates, Carter is on leave from her position running Soccer United Marketing (SUM) and said she will resign from SUM if she is elected president. Carter has a long history as a soccer executive, and she was a collegiate goalkeeper. On the other side are a number of former US National Team players, all of whom have criticized the US Soccer status quo. World Cup winning goalkeeper Hope Solo is the other woman in the race and was a late addition to the field. The anti-establishment candidates getting the most attention are former Men’s National Team players Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino. The fourth former pro player is Paul Caligiuri.

Like most campaigns, this one has been filled with drama. There was a dust-up about a dinner and the level of coordination between Carter and outgoing US Soccer president Sunil Gulati and Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, questions about how candidates are funding their campaigns, and disputes over the role of SUM in selecting where the US teams play their games. A recent interesting report is that Wynalda and Martino are working a deal to ensure an outsider is elected.

Scrape away the noise and the race is going about as expected. Those following soccer politics assumed that Carter’s entry meant that Gulati was not going to seek another term, which turned out to be the case. The controversy about the dinner comes down to an insider candidate for president of US Soccer meeting with US Soccer insiders about her candidacy for president of US Soccer. Carter’s leadership of SUM was always going to be a double edged sword. Her campaign, and the campaign of others with a long history in US Soccer and soccer administration were always going to have to rely on a message that some changes to US Soccer are necessary, but that things are basically fine — the women keep winning and players like Christian PulisicWeston McKennie and Josh Sargent mean the men have a bright future after an embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 Men’s World Cup. The insiders were never going to get the fan vote, and are wisely focusing on the relative handful of insiders needed to win while largely ignoring everyone else. Carter and other insiders are certainly talking to the grassroots and may get some support there, but those audiences are not the prime targets of the insider campaigns.

Meanwhile outsiders are meeting with local soccer leaders, and are active on social media promoting a message that not enough attention is being paid to grassroots, inner cities, and players who could represent the US or other countries. Their case was recently strengthened by a promising young player named Jonathan Gonzalez deciding he would rather play for Mexico than the US — Gonzalez played on US youth teams, but his parents are from Mexico and he has dual citizenship. This group of candidates was never going to get Gulati loyalists, or at least not many of them. Their appeal is a more populist one: those of us working in the fields (in this case on the fields) are being ignored by elite insiders who have rigged the system against the people, and unless we act now the end is nigh.Some of these candidates are former teammates and old friends of insiders with votes, but their campaigns are not focused on the soccer establishment.

Also predictably the field is narrowing. While there are eight candidates, the favorites appear to be Steve Gans, Carter, Wynalda, and Martino.

With all of the above, the below is how the election might go:
 All eight candidates run on the first ballot. Given the number of candidates, no one gets a majority and the election goes to a second ballot.

The total votes for insiders compared to the total votes for outsiders on the first ballot should give a clear indication of the final result. If the split is wide (former players getting a total of 60% say), then a Wynalda/Martino alliance could seal the result on a second ballot (and if the other former players do not get a lot of support they might join the alliance making the outcome even more certain on a second ballot). Similarly, if Carter-plus the other insiders get a combined strong majority look for similar deals on that side.

If the first ballot is close then a couple deals might be struck but the field could still have four or five candidates, making the second round of voting closer but still denying anyone a majority and sending voting to a third round. With fewer candidates and the insider/outsider dynamic set, the third round could decide it. If not, the above logic repeats and the election should be over by the fourth round of voting. Given the tight time between rounds of voting, many deals will need to be struck in advance — agreements that “if the former players get a total of 60% or more, whichever one of us gets the most votes immediately endorses the other…” sort of thing.

All that said, political punditry of any sort is a dangerous game. Given the out-sized power of individual votes of those who likely know the candidates well, decisions could come down to friendships, rivalries, slights real and imagined, and who knows what else. It is also important to remember that the candidates are people — people who have put their lives on hold, quit their jobs, and in many cases are asking strangers for money to help get a position that doesn’t pay anything and that will likely be tremendously frustrating. This is also an incredibly competitive collection of people. All of the candidates played the game, four of the men at the highest level and one of the women was the best in the world. People like that don’t tend to bow out of a competition just because the odds aren’t obviously in their favor. Could be an interesting meeting in Orlando in February.

Look for Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for organizations from the world’s game this summer

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