The U.S. Soccer Federation is many things to many people. And you can’t please all of the people all the time. (Mitch Hedberg: “And last night, all those people were at my show.”)
When U.S. men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann was dismissed last month, The New York Times felt compelled to point out that the man most responsible for hiring and firing him, Sunil Gulati, did not occupy a position from which he could be easily “fired.” He’s an elected official, like a school board chair or a member of Congress.
Because U.S. Soccer is a nonprofit body that oversees all facets of the sport in the United States — as opposed to a for-profit professional sports team or league — its most senior positions are elected posts held on a volunteer basis. Gulati’s primary job is being an economics lecturer at Columbia; on Sunday, in addition to weighing Klinsmann’s fate, he taught a makeup class.
Yes, there are procedures by which Gulati could be removed by U.S. Soccer’s board of directors, but such impeachments are highly unlikely and generally designed for situations in which a board member has done something illegal.
So that should make everything perfectly clear, right? “Stand Down Sunil” would be a much more apt rallying cry than … oh …
This display was, of course, not motivated by Klinsmann’s hiring or firing. Or the ongoing labor dispute with the U.S. women’s soccer team, for which I’ve been tempted to hang a couple of sheets saying “Someone answer my danged emails!” Or even the tension between the long-standing youth and adult state associations and these newbie professionals who have increased their power within the organization in the 20 years of Major League Soccer’s existence.
The second bedsheet gives the simple agenda: “PRORELFORUSA,” or promotion and relegation.
And the pro/rel folks are trying to get that issue higher up on the USSF to-do list, though “pay current and former coaches” and “figure out how to counter the 60 Minutes piece on the women’s team” are going to be pretty tough to top for the next few weeks, at least.
The current agitation over pro/rel is a result of the decline or possibly even demise of the NASL, the league that managed to pitch itself to pro/rel zealots even while (A) never taking any tangible steps toward even thinking about working in such a system and (B) reviving brand names of the least traditional professional league for which we have any records. The New York Cosmos of 2016 were the improbable banner behind which pro/rel fans marched. The New York Cosmos of 1978 played on thin artificial turf covering narrow fields, with ties decided by alternating 35-yard shootout attempts, little to no interest in traditional cup competitions (which today’s NASL fans ironically accuse MLS of neglecting), and league standings riddled with “bonus points.”
Yes, it’s a bit like Garth Brooks doing an album of disco covers. We’re not dealing with the most-informed set of protesters here.
All that said, with all the issues facing U.S. Soccer today — the women’s pay, support for the NWSL, the chaos of the men’s lower divisions, the Girls Development Academy vs. the ECNL, the shocking performances by U.S. youth teams, the poorly received youth soccer mandates, etc. — perhaps it’s time for a broader discussion?
To that end, I’m immersing myself in all sorts of U.S. Soccer arcania such as Annual General Meeting transcripts, which are mostly discussions of Robert’s Rules of Order, bylaw revisions, and long roll calls.
I did not attempt a screen capture of the 2003-04 showdown in which youth groups accused the pro representatives and the athletes (who are required to have at least 20% of any vote, per U.S. Olympic Committee rules) of voting as a bloc to deny them any ability to challenge anything. That went on for many pages, and that’s just in the approved minutes and transcripts of the meetings.
Here’s what I hope to find out:
- What can change within U.S. Soccer?
- What should change?
- How can that change be made?
I hope the final results will shed some light on an organization shrouded in mythology. The conspiracy theories are a bit silly; the issues are not.
In fact, we may on the verge of a real opportunity for pro/rel. If the USL takes Division 2 status, then maybe what’s left of the NASL teams can join a few others and start proposing Division 3 leagues that include pro/rel. Some people think the federation should simply impose pro/rel on all the existing leagues, which would be a good way to make sure every dollar spent on U.S. soccer in the next 10 years goes to someone’s law firm. Much better to come up with an actual, feasible proposal and force the federation to either support it or oppose it. (The USL did limited pro/rel way back when, but the league standards and the process for gaining the federation’s sanction have certainly changed since then.) And we’re starting to see reasonable people trying to find a way to make pro/rel work instead of just collecting funds for no defined purpose or shouting at people on Twitter all day.
Make no mistake — U.S. Soccer might be a difficult boat to rock, and perhaps some people should be careful what they wish for. Over the past 10 years, a lot of line items in the budget have roughly tripled — sponsorship, national team revenue and national team expenses. That’s a robust organization, quite a change from the days of irrelevance in the 60s, 70s and 80s. (Not coincidentally, the USA did not qualify for a World Cup in those decades.)
But this seems as good a time as any to peek into USSF governance. If you have any questions (or better yet, some answers), just holler. Please don’t hang any sheets outside my house, though — I like my neighbors.