Promotion/relegation propaganda/reality, Part 3: U.S. Soccer

There’s no organization in the world quite like U.S. Soccer.

That’s not a compliment. That’s not an insult. It just … is.

U.S. Soccer is unique among major U.S. sports federations in that its mandate goes beyond organizing national teams and developmental programs. It’s responsible, by FIFA fiat, for regulating professional soccer competitions. (Or, in the case of the U.S. Open Cup, running those competitions outright.)

ussf-purpose

U.S. Soccer is unique among soccer federations in that the nation it serves is a massive economic power on a giant land mass in which soccer is not the most popular sport. The USA isn’t the only country that has its own indigenous offshoot of “football” that rivals or exceeds soccer in popularity — see Australia and, to a lesser extent, Ireland — but it’s the only one that has multiple team sports that garner more attention. As far as I know, it’s the only soccer federation in a country that has been openly hostile to the sport for generations.

And to my knowledge, it’s the only federation that was charged by FIFA with getting an honest-to-goodness professional league running in the 1990s. Every other major country already had one.

The most important election in U.S. Soccer to date was in the summer of 1990, when Alan Rothenberg unseated Werner Fricker. Rothenberg was under a bit of pressure to run. From 1994, here’s Steve Berkowitz, then of The Washington Post and later a demanding but fair editor who made some of my USA TODAY stories a lot better:

Rothenberg said FIFA officials, familiar with him because of his involvement with the 1984 Olympic soccer competition, initially contacted him about chairing the World Cup organizing committee. When he said he was interested in doing so, he was told that he also would have to become USSF president. He agreed, and lo and behold, Rothenberg unseated Fricker in August 1990.

And so Rothenberg went to work on getting FIFA’s cash cow, the World Cup, up to speed. He also had to fulfill U.S. Soccer’s other promise to FIFA, a pro soccer league. Rothenberg needed a plan, and so he went about hiring people — including economist Sunil Gulati and attorney Mark Abbott, on loan from Rothenberg’s law firm, Latham & Watkins.

Abbott sat with me for an interview when I was writing Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer (please note: I did not choose that subtitle). Here’s what he said about Rothenberg’s unusually sprawling role:

At that time, there were very stringent procedures that were put in place to ensure that although Alan was the head of the soccer federation and leading the effort to make a presentation with respect to the league, he had been recused from the decision-making system in U.S. Soccer. There was a big meeting in December 1993 where we made our presentations. Alan was not part of the Federation board in making that decision. Also, and I think this gets overlooked, FIFA in awarding the World Cup to the United States did so very expressly for the purpose of using it as a springboard for a professional league. That’s what he was supposed to be doing, using this event to help start the league.

Still, the federation’s board voted to decide which of three bids would be awarded Division I status. In addition to Rothenberg’s group, the existing Division II-ish APSL put in a bid, as did Jim Paglia on behalf of League One America, which would take the old NASL’s Americanization of soccer rules to new extremes. (Jim, I know you’re out there — if you still have the video of the test games, I’d love to see them.)

The vote wasn’t unanimous. The tally was 18 MLS, 5 APSL, 0 League One America.

More from my book (because I can’t find Hersh’s story online):

Veteran national-team defender and U.S. Soccer board member Desmond Armstrong, who cast a ballot for MLS in the Division I vote, said his decision was strictly on merit. “I don’t have any love lost for the federation,” Armstrong told the Chicago Tribune‘s Philip Hersh. … “It wasn’t a matter of playing favorites, but of getting the best proposal out there so we can have jobs. I voted for Alan’s plan because it had all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted.”

The APSL grumbled a bit and for a short time was a legitimate competitor to MLS, signing quite a few players who were clearly good enough for the top tier but balked at the salary structure.

The next year (1994), Rothenberg ran for re-election. It got ugly, but he won.

The election was close in 1998. “Dr. Bob” Contiguglia defeated Larry Monaco 57.6% to 42.4%. Even closer was the race for executive VP, in which John Motta defeated … Sunil Gulati, then serving as MLS deputy commissioner. That was 372 (50.8%) to 361.

Maybe that was a rebuke of MLS officials gaining too much power in U.S. Soccer (though, note, this was before MLS hired Don Garber and well before MLS formed Soccer United Marketing). But such sentiment didn’t last long. U.S. Soccer then started staggering the terms of its top board members, and Gulati came back two years later to win the seat from Motta. And Gulati was able to point out in Fraser v MLS testimony that U.S. Soccer didn’t just rubber-stamp whatever MLS wanted.

Then Gulati succeeded Dr. Bob as U.S. Soccer president, and elections have come and gone with little fanfare or fire since then. The 2016 vice-presidential election was contested in gentlemanly fashion, with longtime independent director (board member) Carlos Cordeiro ousting Mike Edwards. Gulati hasn’t been opposed.

(This is an image of a Google search. Don’t click.)

gulati-votes

Wait, wait … you’re saying. What does this have to do with promotion and relegation?

Nothing. Because it wasn’t an issue.

We’re about the have the next biggest presidential election in USSF history. Is pro/rel an issue now? Or is it more about general arrogance and an unwillingness to push Major League Soccer to be more open, whether that means pro/rel or a looser salary cap? Or perhaps the historical view that the close ties between USSF, MLS and Soccer United Marketing that may have been necessary for survival in the mid-2000s are no longer necessary and perhaps harmful?

The banner was shown a lot during the game 🔥👍 📷 The 5 Points

A post shared by Pro/Rel FC (@prorelfc) on

Gulati has often been painted as ruthless — player testimony in Fraser v MLS certainly made him look like a tough negotiator, to put it nicely. In my experience, he’s a pragmatic idealist. He has devoted thousands of volunteer hours to making the sport succeed, and he has laudable intent (and action) on trying to diversify the typically homogeneous Federation. Whether he has handled every situation in his long tenures in various roles is up to everyone to decide.

Gans is pragmatic as well. He announced his candidacy only after going on a “listening tour” of various constituencies, and he’s concerned about youth soccer dysfunction and the decision-making that led the Fed to renew Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract and then fire him. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, his take on pro/rel is cautious.

That’s not far from what Gulati said on pro/rel earlier this year:

“It’s not the rules of the game that people came in on,” Gulati said. “When you buy into a particular structure, that’s what you expect the rules to be. … But if the leagues or a league wants to engage, we’re happy to be support that.”

Lapointe is more prone to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. His approach to Twitter, to which he’s still relatively new, resembles another president in the United States:

He recently proposed promotion/relegation in women’s soccer and a U.S. Women’s Open Cup. The Twitter reaction was skeptical, to say the least:

NWSL supporters on a lively Facebook group said “let’s get the NWSL in order first” and “technically, we have national Cups for women, but no one enters.” The latter point was emphasized by none other than John Motta, the former USSF VP who is now president of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.

And Motta is himself considering a run. So is Jerome de Bontin, the former president of French club Monaco and general manager of the New York Red Bulls who is now the chairman of the sprawling Rush Soccer youth organization (sadly, not named after Geddy, Neil and Alex — or Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny, though like Rush Soccer, they hail from Colorado).

So will any of these presidential candidates bring forth promotion and relegation?

It’s complicated.

Like the United States themselves, U.S. Soccer is a representative democracy. Not a dictatorship. The president must contend with the rest of the board, the general membership and perhaps even the U.S. courts.

And even Lapointe sees a need to phase into promotion and relegation, not just throw open the whole pyramid at once. That might not reassure the PRZ (Pro/Rel Zealots), who insist any incremental step suggested by me or Peter Wilt is simply doing the bidding of Evil MLS.

In any case, pro/rel may be the least of the next U.S. Soccer president’s concern. As mentioned many times in the past week or so, the NASL lawsuit calls into question U.S. Soccer’s legal authority to regulate professional soccer, and it’s not the first. But the bylaws clearly state U.S. Soccer’s firm belief that it can’t simply let someone else take over any aspect of the game.

ussf-autonomy

(Except, apparently, indoor soccer. The boarded version of the game is operating outside USSF right now. For a while, it was associated with an organization called the Federation Internacional de Futbol Rapido, whose acronym FIFRA was hilariously close to FIFA. And except, apparently, college and high school soccer, neither of which is governed by U.S. Soccer. But I digress …)

So the Federation, and its president, must walk some difficult political lines. Filip Bondy, a longtime soccer writer now contributing to Forbes, put it best when he described the presidency as “a job opening you might want to pass on.”

Summing up Bondy’s take — the president gets to:

  • Accept blame for national team downturns
  • Deal with men’s and women’s national team contract disputes and potential work stoppages
  • Deal with FIFA and other officials of potentially dubious credentials and ethics (to me, this might be the toughest — how long can you swim in the FIFA cesspool without starting to stink?)
  • Collect a salary of $0.

Oh, and you have to put up with the NASL and Stefan Szymanski. If you didn’t see my Twitter thread on Szymanski’s declaration in favor of the NASL tweaking U.S. Soccer, check it out. Allow some time.

And it’s not as if U.S. Soccer simply rubber-stamps everything the president wants. (Also in that link: Note that U.S. Soccer changed the way it runs election, asking candidates to declare in advance instead of just presenting themselves on the meeting floor, and it instituted term limits. If Gulati runs and wins re-election in 2018, he’s out in 2022.)

So who votes? Let’s see if we can sum up Bylaw 302:

  • State association reps, both youth and adult. Their votes are weighted by the number of people they represent. (In other words, New York East is going to have a more heavily weighted vote than Alaska.)
  • Athlete delegates. There’s usually only a few, but by U.S. law, their votes have to be weighted to count for 20 percent of the final tally.
  • Board members.
  • Past presidents.
  • Life members of U.S. Soccer (weighted so that they have no more than 12 total votes, which isn’t much)
  • Delegates from pro leagues, national associations, national affiliates, other affiliates, disabled service organizations, etc.
  • Adult Council and Youth Council administrative commissioners (I have no idea who this is)

Further weighting: The Youth, Adult and Professional Councils will all end up with equal votes.

Here’s how it broke down in 2015:

vote

You know what I don’t see in the bylaws? Is the election “first past the post” (top vote-getter is president, even without a majority) or a runoff system (top two hold a runoff)? In elections for the “at large” representative on the board (which is rarely of interest), the bylaws specify a runoff. I haven’t seen anything about a presidential race with more than two candidates.

And as I’ve been writing this, Eric Wynalda has jumped into the race. Maybe. His platform seems to be simple: Sunil Out. Yet even he suggests promotion/relegation needs to start in the lower divisions before going up to Division I.

So will any of this bring about pro/rel? I don’t know. How’s Trump doing on draining the swamp? Or building the wall? Or ending Obamacare while making sure everyone has access to health insurance?

president

Overthrowing a dictator is a fairly simple process. Overhauling a democratic organization is much more difficult.

 

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