The Timbers/Polo saga—what did we learn?

On June 3, 2021, a woman who wasn’t sure whether to pursue misdemeanor harassment charges against her husband sat in her home with two people pledging to help, along with a good friend who was serving as translator.

In an audio recording of the session, the two visitors come across as kind and compassionate, trying their best to solve her interconnected problems. She’s dependent on her husband financially and otherwise. She needs to get her kids to school. She wants to go to school herself and get a job. All of these things are difficult, and the visitors offer solutions.

Here’s the problem … 

The husband is Andy Polo, then a player for the Portland Timbers. The two visitors are Jim McCausland, a retired Portland police detective now serving as the Timbers’ director of security, and Christine Mascal, a lawyer retained by the Timbers to represent Polo. McCausland and Timbers executive Gabriel Jaimes also raced to Polo’s home May 23 while police were still on the scene gathering evidence, having been called to investigate a report of a man hitting a woman. 

Anyone who has listened to the June 3 recording would agree that the friend and translator is a saint. But she is not a lawyer. And she is not a social worker sitting there on behalf of a government agency.

So the advice Génessis Alarcón received for dealing with this dire predicament came from two people who, well-intended or not, were representing parties Alarcón would later sue — Polo and the Timbers.

The Timbers are free from that suit, thanks to an undisclosed settlement in late March. Polo, not the Timbers, is the primary target for Alarcón and her lawyers in the United States and Peru, where Polo returned after his dismissal from Portland in February. 

The club also won’t face any further punishment from MLS, which turned to Proskauer Rose to investigate the Timbers’ actions. The law firm, which counts MLS as a frequent client, said the team didn’t induce Alarcón to forgo pursuing charges. MLS fined the Timbers a pittance of $25,000 for not realizing they were supposed to report the Polo incident to the league under the MLS Constitution, as improbable as that seems for a club that employs a general counsel as well as an HR staff. 

But this isn’t going away so easily. 

Start with Madison Shanley, who has frequently sung the national anthem before Timbers for more than a decade and for their wildly popular NWSL team, the Portland Thorns, since the women’s league launched in 2013. On April 3, she sang while wearing a T-shirt with the message “YOU KNEW,” directed at the organization over its handling of the Polo incident and of the case of Paul Riley, the former Thorns coach who was allowed to leave the club and sign elsewhere without anyone revealing that he had been accused of abuse and inappropriate behavior. Last fall, two players came forward to accuse Riley of sexual coercion. 

Shanley has since said she won’t sing the anthem again until she’s satisfied the club has made solid institutional changes. At the Timbers’ April 22 home game, supporters made it clear that they support Shanley and not team management. 

The club did indeed release a list of changes, including community initiatives and anonymous reporting lines. Those changes, though, don’t address the circumstances that put the Timbers in such a terrible situation in the first place. 

Nor do we see any reason to believe the Timbers or any MLS club — for that matter, any employer anywhere — learned a lesson about when and when not to intervene when police show up at a player or employee’s home while a spouse or partner is pleading for help. And to understand why, we have to ask a few questions about the Proskauer Rose report, which reads more like a list of excuses than the result of an exhaustive investigation. 

The Proskauer Rose report had no contact information, and a media spokesperson for the firm did not return an email. The Timbers declined to comment beyond what is publicly available.

To be sure, the Timbers did a few things right. The club had been helping Alarcón adjust to life in a new country well before the May 23 incident. When McCausland and Mascal visited June 3, they urged Alarcón to seek more help from the Department of Human Services and/or Catholic Charities.

But the Proskauer Rose report takes these actions as proof that the Timbers didn’t offer a quid pro quo for help. That might be literally true, but anyone looking at the situation from Alarcón’s perspective might have felt underlying pressure to back off. Mascal points out in the June 3 meeting that Polo could face a year in prison. She may not have meant that as an implied threat. But would anyone blame Alarcón for hearing “one year in prison” and thinking that if she pursues charges, she’ll lose her financial lifeline?

That’s one of several head-scratchers in the Proskauer Rose report: 

“Ms. Mascal explained to the investigators that she had not been provided with a copy of the police report from the May 23, 2021 incident, and therefore wanted to talk to Ms. Alarcon to better understand what had happened from Ms. Alarcon’s perspective.”

Reporters have a copy of the police report. Mascal couldn’t get it? 

Also, Proskauer Rose said its investigators spoke with six Timbers employees (including the CEO), Mascal, Polo and Alarcón while also checking out Alarcón’s audio recordings and “text messages, emails, and other relevant documents provided by the Timbers.” The report says nothing about speaking with the police or the DA. 

(Worth noting: Mascal resigned from the board of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center in 2019 for what was seen as a “victim-blaming” approach to representing sexual abuse defendants. One sample question she asked in court: “You don’t bring up threesomes with someone you just met, or is that who you are?”) 

“Mr. McCausland and Ms. Mascal each provided credible reasons for being present at the [June 3] meeting.”

Fine, but again, what was the “credible reason” for proceeding with no one representing Alarcón but a good friend who was translating?

The Proskauer Rose investigation was limited to (a) whether the Timbers tried to induce Alarcón not to pursue charges and (b) the Timbers’ failure to report the incident, so it didn’t cover the reason for Alarcón’s since-settled complaint against the club. That document shows another thing from which the Timbers and anyone similarly situated simply have to learn a lesson.

Polo didn’t go to jail May 23. He was given a citation and a June 23 court date. Police were satisfied that Alarcón’s friend and the Timbers staff could keep the couple safe. And that meant, Alarcón’s lawyer argued, that the team assumed responsibility for the situation. 

“Mr. Polo was permitted to be released to his household in part because of the safety plan that was promised by the Portland Timbers,” the complaint read. “Ms. Alarcon and law enforcement relied on the promises above made by the Portland Timbers management. The Portland Timbers failed to honor their responsibilities and duties outlined above, and further abuse and incidents and domestic disturbances occurred within the household after May 23, 2021, causing Ms. Alarcon continued pain and discomfort and significant emotional harm.”

In another action with unfortunate optics, MLS, under pressure from the MLS Players Association, paid his contract in full even though he was terminated and set free to return to Universitario de Deportes, his first pro club in Peru. You’d think that would mean Polo has plenty of money to hand over to Alarcón, but even though Universitario originally said he had to sort things out with her before making his debut, reports from Peru say he turned down one deal and hasn’t settled anything

“We have more than a decade of outstanding work in the community and off the pitch of which we are extremely proud,” read a Timbers press release when the investigation report was made public. “However, we are not perfect and will make mistakes occasionally. When that happens, corrections will be made, and we will learn from them.”

Those corrections can only be made if the mistakes are fully understood. From all available evidence, that is not yet the case. 

When it comes to legal liability, the Polo case may be closed. But it’s not going away.

MLS, the Timbers and all soccer clubs need a serious rethink of what they can and can’t do to assist players’ families, particularly when their relationships turn abusive. If they don’t learn from the past, they’ll be condemned to repeat it.

And then we’ll see more supporters groups holding “YOU KNEW” banners.

Cross-posting to beaudure.medium.com

US Soccer money (and bylaws!), 2022 edition

With the settlement of the WNT lawsuit (pending CBA) and the upcoming AGM, it’s time to CYA and BYOB and too many abbreviations.

Let’s try that again …

The women’s lawsuit is over as long as they can finish up their contract. Also, the Annual General Meeting is coming up, where the big event will be the alliterative presidential election between Cindy Cone and Carlos Cordeiro, but other orders of business include some intriguing proposals.

How to digest this?

First: Read my Guardian story on the lawsuit settlement and why there’s still a lot to do it. I won’t rest easy until the CBA is signed.

Second: Check out the women’s pay resource page, which has a lot of analysis that gives the lawsuit’s history and an analysis of why the suit was doomed. I’ve added a tl;dr high-level summary.

Next: Dig through the updated financial numbers as best you can. They’ve completely changed the way they report the numbers in the AGM book this year, so I just punted on that part, but you can still compare 990s and Audited Financial Statements for the last … many years.

Observations on those numbers:

  • There’s a case to be made that the Cindy Cone/Will Wilson cuts were too drastic. Yes, revenues fell by more than 50%. But so did expenses. Funny how that happens when the national teams aren’t playing.
  • The answer to the “will sponsors pay less in the COVID year?” question is “Yes,” though not as much as you might think. SUM paid $22.2m, down from $30.25m. Nike paid $17.644m, down from $22.65m.
  • Jurgen Klinsmann is, at least, no longer on the federation’s books. But others such as former executive Brian Remedi got severance packages.
  • Former CEO Dan Flynn and former WNT coach Jill Ellis are now listed as “ambassadors” making considerable sums of money. Where’s the embassy?
  • The legal bill in FY 2021 was barely half of the FY 2020 bill. I’m guessing it’s because fewer things were filed. The WNT case had the summary judgment. The NASL case has been on hold like a caller trying to reach the cable company.
  • One massive line item cut in FY 2021: Travel dropped from $34.1m to $5.2m.
  • Aside from that, it’s the wrong year to draw any conclusions.

And some notes from the AGM book

  • The Athletes Council has put forward a bylaw proposal to pay the president $125,000 a year. That has pros and cons, but the primary rationale is that there are only so many people who can do the job for free. Maybe they don’t want to have so many economists running the fed now.
  • A couple of longtime board members/life members are pushing for stricter term limits.
  • The UPSL is applying for recognition as a National Affiliate. As far as I can tell, its peer organizations are not, but they might not be in enough states. The UPSL is now in 38 states.
  • I don’t see non-Para players on the Disability Soccer Committee. It’d be nice to see someone from the MNT or WNT take an interest.
  • Nicole Barnhart is on a couple of financial committees now.
  • Becky Sauerbrunn is on the Rules Committee, which reviews the bylaw and policy proposals and comes up with polite ways of saying “you seriously can’t expect this to be passed.”
  • John O’Brien continues to be the only member of the Sports Medicine committee without “Dr.” in front of his name.
  • Lori Lindsey and Oguchi Onyewu are co-chairs of the Technical Development committee.

Cordeiro, the states, sexism, the WNT, etc.

First order of business: It is vitally important that you read my story for The Guardian on Carlos Cordeiro’s surprising candidacy for US Soccer president.

Done? OK, let’s move on …

You read a lot about the Cordeiro record in that piece. To wit …

  1. Business relationships turned sour.
  2. He failed to assemble a management team and left a void, which may partially explain how the legal brief that forced him to resign got through. You could make a case that the USSF president, an unpaid volunteer, should be more focused on vision-setting than day-to-day work like reading legal briefs. But Cordeiro didn’t delegate well, according to many of my sources, and even if he wanted to, he didn’t have people in place to help out.
  3. His public statements were tone-deaf. When he was vice president, that wasn’t an issue. But the presidency is a public-facing job. Maybe the federation doesn’t want another outspoken person like Sunil Gulati, but the president has to be able to communicate with the masses.
  4. He didn’t settle any part of the lawsuit with the women’s national team. Cone did.
  5. According to the US Soccer Foundation, he picked an unnecessary fight with them that wound up in court. And he didn’t settle it. Cone did.

So you may still be wondering why state associations are supporting Cordeiro.

First, let’s give credit where it’s due. State associations train coaches and refs. They run player development programs. They run TOPSoccer for players with disabilities. They maintain lists of suspended coaches and players. All of this is important, and it’s only getting more complicated as other organizations come in with competing programs, the vast majority of which are designed for the “elite.” My experiences with Virginia’s youth association have been overwhelmingly positive, as have my conversations over the years with representatives from other states.

So when they complain that their needs aren’t being met, those complaints deserve a hearing. Whether Cone is hearing them is difficult to judge from afar.

But what I can tell you is that some misinformation is affecting some states’ judgment, and I’m a bit confused in some cases about what the states want.

The states

Grant programs: The Innovate to Grow program is relatively new. It started with $467,303 in FY 2018 and grew to $3m annually.

Dave Guthrie from Indiana Soccer says that program was cut. Cindy Cone says it was redirected to COVID relief and is now back in place.

Either way, one thing to consider is that if sponsors bail, programs like this will be more difficult to fund.

General programming: Spending on players, coaches and referees increased under Cordeiro. But this was planned before Cordeiro took office — in fact, he mentioned it during the 2018 campaign.

Development Academy: Guthrie also pointed to the DA as something that was cut with no warning and left states in a lurch. The communication angle of it is worth questioning. Cutting the program — to me, at least — was a no-brainer. It wasn’t working on the girls’ side because the ECNL was already so firmly entrenched, and having a big program for boys without a comparable program for girls … well, that’s not going to fly.

And the DA undercut a lot of other programs and added to a plethora of “national” leagues and tournaments — which, coincidentally, I just wrote about. (Not yet published.)

Voting power: This is a case of misinformation and mistrust, and Alan Rothenberg said he thinks Cordeiro is tapping into resentment over something that was forced by Congress via the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Athletes need to have 33.3% of the vote. Congress still hasn’t updated archaic language referring to national team players as “amateur athletes,” and I have indeed encountered some people who think “amateur” means “over-30 player for the Milwaukee Bavarians” rather than “recently retired women’s national team player” or “Paralympian.” In any other context, yes. In Congress, no.

Let’s run through USOPC bylaws, shall we?

p. 4:

ee) “10 Year Athlete” means an athlete who has represented the United States in a Delegation Event, World Championships, or another event designated by the USOPC (together with the AAC) and the relevant NGB (together with that NGB’s athlete advisory council) as an elite-level event for purposes of this definition, within the previous 10 years; and

ff) “10 Year+ Athlete” means an athlete who has represented the United States in a Delegation Event, World Championships, or another event designated by the USOPC (together with the AAC) and the relevant NGB (together with that NGB’s athlete advisory council) as an elite-level event for purposes of this definition, but not within the previous 10 years.

p. 42

i) Athlete representatives will equal at least 33.3% of all NGB boards of directors, executive Boards, and other governing Boards.

a. At least 20% will be 10 Year Athlete representatives; the remaining will be either 10 Year or 10 Year+ Athlete representatives

p. 2

“Delegation Event” means, individually or collectively as applicable, the Olympic Games, the Olympic Winter Games, the Paralympic Games, the Paralympic Winter Games, the Pan American Games, and the Parapan Am Games;

So there’s no wiggle room to define an “athlete” as you or me (unless you’re a former national teamer, in which case, hi and thanks for reading).

Yes, there’s some squabbling over the remaining 66.7%. For the National Council, the main voting body, the Youth Council, Adult Council and Pro Council were equally whacked, down to 20% each.

Some states would be happy to cut the pros down a bit more. I think that’s a hard case, though you could (and the progressive association in West Virginia did) make a case that the men’s and women’s Division 1 leagues should have an equal share of that vote.

The elephant in the room, frankly, is the Adult Council vote. Barring a Vardy-esque ascension from the UPSL to the national team, no elite-level players will come from this group. Elite players come from the youth ranks, as do the lion’s share of recreational players. Registration revenue from the various youth associations runs roughly five to eight times that of the adult associations.

So why does the Adult Council have an equal vote to the Youth Council? Why don’t state associations have 40% of the vote, allocated to each association (whether youth, adult or combined) according to number of registrants?

But I digress. There are two more quotes from Guthrie I’d like to share:

On whether some issues were more of an issue with the CEO, or lack thereof: “The President of U.S. Soccer sets the vision, the strategy, the plan and the priorities. A lot of members are very frustrated with Cindy because she’s basically ignored us. We don’t seem to be part of her vision. She clearly doesn’t see us as a priority. Just look at how she cut the DA and gutted grants for youth and adults. Even worse, in the debate over the board structure, we were made to feel like we didn’t belong. We deserve a president that includes us, and that’s why we’re backing Carlos.”

On whether sponsors would bail if Cordeiro is elected: “Actually, we should thank Carlos. He was the one who created the Commercial Committee under an independent director, which ultimately recommended that the commercial rights be brought back in-house. That means 2026 will bring huge opportunities for the Federation. We believe that, given his business background, Carlos is the best person to drive our commercial strategy over the coming years. I haven’t heard of a single sponsor getting involved in this election and, frankly, I don’t think it would be appropriate for them to get involved. The decision of who is our president belongs to the voting members. Our Federation is bigger than any one person, and all of us—including Carlos—are focused on one thing: making sure 2026 is a huge success.”

Women’s national team and sexism

Is sexism playing a role here?

It’s difficult to dismiss, especially when states that supported Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino are suddenly saying USSF needs someone with “business acumen.”

Is resentment toward the WNT playing a role here?

Obviously, no one’s going to say so publicly. Maybe some voters have done the math and are concerned that their programs will suffer more cuts if the federation has to shell out a massive settlement, or they’re concerned that they’re already being cut because the federation has to pay for lawyers to face off against the armada of lawyers the women have assembled.

But this much is clear: The WNT does not hold sway over the rank-and-file of US Soccer. If it did, no one would’ve called Carlos Cordeiro to come back.

The media

Cordeiro has never been at ease with the media. I’ve certainly seen it first-hand. I had to work pretty hard to get comments from him for my story, and I’ve seen complaints elsewhere that he hasn’t talked with other reporters.

That said, I got no response whatsoever from the women’s national team’s players association or a PR rep from an NWSL team. None. We’re talking about people whose job it is to respond to such queries. And this was an opportunity for these people to tee off on Cordeiro. (Or to surprise me and say they suddenly support him.)

Bottom line: People in soccer are getting more and more brazen about choosing sympathetic, unquestioning audiences. It’s one thing to do that when you have deeply personal stories to tell, and you’re more comfortable telling someone who can more directly empathize for reasons of age, gender or any other commonality. It’s another when it’s your job to be held accountable.

Finally, FIFA

Cordeiro touts his relationship with FIFA — he’s FIFA’s senior advisor for global strategy and governance — and how that would help with the World Cup. Rothenberg argues that Cordeiro is essentially FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s right-hand man, and that’s more of a conflict of interest than an asset.

Cone says her priority is wrapping up the selection of host cities, which she expects in the second quarter this year, and then working with those host cities on the goals of growing the game. FIFA is taking a more active role in overall organization of World Cups than it used to, regardless of the host.

On Twitter, advocacy, hostility and objectivity

My Dad was an intellectually rigorous man. He majored in philosophy, racing through college so he could lead a platoon in Korea, then returned from the war to get his doctorate in the emerging field of biochemistry. He remained in the Marine Reserves, rising to the rank of colonel, and was a stern but beloved faculty member at the University of Georgia for more than 40 years.

At one family holiday gathering, he demanded to know everyone’s views on abortion. The answers ranged from the biological (we had one doctor in the room) to the theological (one Episcopal priest) to the anecdotal. For the most part, he was impressed.

So what was his position? “Oh, I still don’t know,” he said.

Dad was certainly opinionated about some things. In other cases (abortion, Israel, etc.), he saw a difficult balance of legitimate views. The common thread was the process.

The point of the story: I was raised to believe in the Socratic method of asking questions, sometimes taking it to the extreme. Journalism was therefore a logical (but frustrating) career choice.

It’s also a misunderstood career, especially these days.

Granted, objective journalism isn’t really in vogue these days. In sports, more journalists are embracing homerism. In journalism at large, Jay Rosen has raised pointed questions about the legitimacy of the “view from nowhere,” which is unrealistic. In my experience, blind adherence to airing “both sides” is ripe for abuse. Sometimes, one “side” is telling the truth and the other is lying, and it’s a journalist’s job to say so.

In my own work, I’ve certainly felt emboldened to be a little more opinionated in the last seven years or so. One reason: I think we’re in danger of losing the war on bullshit, so we need to be a bit more aggressive in challenging the liars. Another reason: I left USA TODAY, where the management of the time wanted to rock the boat as little as possible, and I found freelance clients (bless you, The Guardian and FourFourTwo) who offered a bit more freedom. And getting older gives everyone a bit more freedom to speak up.

But at heart, I’m still someone who likes to get to the truth. That sometimes means challenging people with whom I’d usually agree. I questioned the women’s soccer national team in their labor dispute over a few misrepresentations and lack of clarity — their lawyer refused to say anything beyond “equal pay for equal play” in comparison with the men’s team, even though the men don’t draw salaries and play different competitions.

A lot of people don’t get that. Anyone who asks questions must be the enemy. Scorn them. Mock them. Attack their credibility.

And, of course, some people are just jerks.

My default on Twitter is to engage. I do learn a lot from the discussions, and they help me get my thoughts in order, like an ongoing rough draft.

But I’ve spent too much time in the past year engaging with jerks. Or people who just don’t get it.

https://twitter.com/DanLoney36/status/943600245434404865

I’m actually going to do the opposite. I’m going to declare a Christmas amnesty and unblock a lot of people. Not all. I blocked an “Infowars” guy, and I’m not going down that road again.

We’ll see how long it lasts. If I had eternal patience, I’d run for a soccer board position.

Upcoming coverage/career plans

Mid-major announcement to start with: Ranting Soccer Dad now has its own site. I’m not married to the design yet, but it should stabilize in the next few days. This site and podcast will be my top work priority for some time to come. I’m even planning a related book. Stay tuned.

Ranting Soccer Dad deals primarily with youth soccer, but it ties into everything in the soccer world — U.S. Soccer politics, the national teams, the pro leagues (men and women), etc. Even if you think you’re not interested in youth soccer, check it out. You’ll find some interesting guests.

I’ll still be freelancing on occasion for The Guardian and Four Four Two, and I’m open to other suggestions. You may be a little less likely to get random pitches from me for the foreseeable future.

What about women’s soccer? 

These days, there’s less of a place for me in terms of NWSL and WNT coverage. Part of that is simply where my reporting has carried me (huge stories elsewhere), part of it is the ongoing decline of the news media (it’s nice to get paid every once in a while).

But I’ll still want to have a lot of female guests on the podcast, and we’ll certainly talk about every level of the women’s game. When I see youth soccer leagues in our area, I see a lot more boys than girls, and that concerns me. Farther up the ladder, I frankly was not impressed with the quality of play in the NWSL this year, and I’m not sure whether that’s a coaching preference for a “physical” style of play or a lack of quality coaching in clubs and college. (Probably a bit of both.) We’re going to address that at Ranting Soccer Dad, and I’d love to talk with a lot of people who can diagnose the problem better than I can.

I’m also going to be a bit of an agitator for more and better coverage. Equalizer Soccer is a great resource, and SB Nation’s various blogs are generally great at giving the women their due. Elsewhere, coverage is lacking, and I’m not just talking about the News & Observer‘s inexplicable decision to ignore an NWSL semifinal that took place in its backyard. ESPNW ramped up a bit for the NWSL playoffs, but I wouldn’t say they were a vital WoSo news source throughout the year. Other large sports sites give irregular coverage.

On all the politics around WoSo — I had good advice yesterday to “amplify” good reporting and analysis. I think I can do that. I’m going to avoid rehashing old debates. In the past 18 months or so, I’ve dealt with three primary groups of people — people who’ve made good points and engaged in actual discussion, people who may mean well but come across as condescending know-it-alls who don’t listen, and people who are simply reprehensible. If the last group takes over WoSo fandom without challenge, the sport will suffer.

But I’ve learned a lot from the discussion, and I intend to keep learning without being as active a participant as I have been. This is a starting point:

And yes, learning is a lifelong process. Even if most of us think we know everything at age 21. (Hey, I did too!)

So I’m not quite giving up WoSo. But I can’t really justify taking up a season credential at Spirit games and coming home to write about it without a significant outlet, and I’m not really shopping myself around to find a significant outlet. You’re probably more likely to find me on Spirit Hill next season than in the pressbox.

I’m very happy with what I’ve done in WoSo — everything from covering W-League games in the mid-2000s with maybe 200 people in the stands to the 2008 Olympic final and the 2011 Women’s World Cup opener. I’ve covered labor disputes and the WPS implosion, and I’ve covered a lot of good soccer and good soccer players. I hope someone coming out of college today gets to have all those experiences. (Maybe not the WPS implosion.)

What about MMA? 

I enjoyed writing for Bloody Elbow this year, and I really should finish my Cageside memoir at some point. There’s just too much going on in soccer right now.

What about Olympic sports?

I’ll update the Perpetual Medal Count at some point, and I’ll do one for winter sports as well. And I’ll do the occasional post. Most likely on curling.

What about music?

Once a month at Popdose and occasionally at Mostly Modern Media, where I’ll also periodically skewer political bullshit in all forms. And economists.

What about everything?

Good song to end this:

The best post-T&T pro-promotion/relegation argument

Predictably, Soccerocalypse has brought out the usual arguments from the promotion/relegation crowd:

  1. Youth development will be so much better!
  2. Players will be under constant pressure!

If anyone could turn their attention away from Twitter long enough to read something longer than 280 characters at a time, they would have seen this addressed in the pro/rel series — both pros (and alleged pros) and cons.

The short versions:

Youth development: European clubs that have good academies have them so they can sell players (and yes, solidarity payments/training compensation is a legitimate issue with legal potholes I can’t fully comprehend). Chelsea’s inability to develop a first-team player from within is legendary, just one example of a “broken” academy system in the birthplace of soccer.

MLS has actually made progress in youth development because its clubs know they can avoid the boom and bust of pro/rel. They feel confident spending millions to create what wasn’t there before. Then they have a pathway, via their oft-derided relationship with USL, to send promising 17-year-old players to the first team via the USL bridge.

And then MLS teams can play their youngsters because they know they’re not going to be relegated. That’s one reason why MLS has developed so many players who turn around and beat the USA in CONCACAF. (I have heard arguments that MLS needs to impose stricter limits on international players. Then I’ve heard arguments saying MLS needs to spend more on international players to raise the level so that any U.S. players who make that first team will be more appropriately challenged.)

Pressure: Yes, we know. Someone in a German locker room threw a shoe at Eric Wynalda.

shoe

First of all, the idea that you’re “playing for your job” at every training session in Europe but not in MLS is inflated. European clubs aren’t going to cut people mid-contract. You can lose a starting spot, sure, and then you can regain it the next week. That’s not unique. If you want to see job insecurity, watch the NFL, where a kicker can miss once or twice on Sunday and be unemployed on Monday.

Second: Bobby Warshaw tells a different story of playing for a relegation-threatened team. His teammates in Scandinavia all just wanted to wash their hands of it and be gone.

And it’s not as if pressure always makes diamonds. Sometimes, it makes dust. In this clip, Woody Harrelson is Trinidad and Tobago. Wesley Snipes is the USA.

The USA didn’t lose because the media and supporters are too nice to them. They played tense. Cautious. Trinidad and Tobago did not.

After Prince died, Saturday Night Live ran a tribute. Jimmy Fallon told a story of being at a party where he was on stage wondering if he could get Prince to come up and play. Then he saw the crowd parting and Prince basically floating to the stage. Prince came up to Fallon and gave him a look that said, “Yeah, I got this.”

That’s what the USA needed. Not overconfidence. But that sweet spot between confidence and complacency in which they say, “I got this.” Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the same CONCACAF wars (or relegation battles — see Altidore, Jozy) as his teammates, played with that attitude.

But let’s say there’s a benefit to playing in a league that’s more intense than MLS — though, if you were ever in a locker room with Taylor Twellman or Dom Kinnear after a game, you know things can get pretty intense. Why is Germany more intense than the USA? Why is Germany more intense than Scandinavia?

It’s because Germany has a deeper soccer culture.

Same reason Mexico and the big Euro leagues are more intense than MLS or Scandinavia. For all the progress made in the USA since Paul Caligiuri took a wild shot in Trinidad in 1989, this country is still a good bit behind everyone else. Youth soccer participation plateaued and then started dropping, and while a lot of those kids turn up wearing Messi or Rooney jerseys, a lot more never watch soccer on TV or in person.

So if you want to make a good argument for promotion/relegation, try this:

Pro/rel will help deepen the soccer culture in this country.

And I believe that. Most of what I’m saying here on pro/rel is the same stuff I’ve been saying for 15 years, no matter how much it’s been misrepresented by the PRZ on Twitter. But this is an argument that I can’t remember hearing before. Maybe some people made it, but it was drowned out in all the “PRO/REL WILL OBVIOUSLY MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER BUT MLS/SUM/USSF/STEVE BANNON ARE CONSPIRING TO KEEP THE NFL BIG” nonsense.

This is your argument. This is something you can present to people who have money on the table — not the Monopoly money Silva and company threw at MLS so they could create the narrative that MLS turned down a gazillion bucks to institute pro/rel now.

Is it enough? I don’t know. The other realities still exist. We have a Division I soccer league now where we didn’t in 1992, and it’s because people were enticed to invest in a scheme that reduced the risk from “might as well burn your money” to “there’s a small chance this might work.” If you’d told people in 1992 we’d have a soccer league that consistently drew 40,000 people in Atlanta and Seattle, people would’ve laughed at you. (Especially Atlanta. I grew up in Georgia, and I’m astounded.)

But if the pro/rel crowd is willing to drop the nonsense, along with the conspiracy talk and nonsensical legal actions, maybe there’s a chance to win the argument.

If I were elected USSF president (no, I’m not running — there’s a reason a lot of sane, qualified people from Peter Wilt to Julie Foudy aren’t interested), I’d do the following:

  1. Divisions 2 and 3 go pro/rel next year. I’m torn on whether the USL brand name should stay. The NASL brand name should not. It has a history of incompetence, and even the glory days of the late 70s were built on non-traditional glitzy Americanized soccer. Besides, given the existence of Mexico, the “North American” part of the brand name never rang true. Keep the clubs — to start, put the clubs on the soundest financial foundation in D2 and the others in D3.
  2. Division 4 becomes the top amateur division (semipro clubs are allowed to compete, but it’ll be mostly amateur, as these leagues are now) for the top tiers of the major amateur leagues — PDL, NPSL, UPSL, Cosmopolitan, GCPL, other USASA Elite Amateur Leagues. Clubs that finish in the top three of these leagues can apply for D3 status — for the foreseeable future, only a few clubs will do that. (At this point, I don’t think we can or should relegate clubs from pro D3 to amateur D4. If D3 gets too big, start a pro D4, more or less mimicking what England has recently done with its fifth tier.) Have a D4 national championship if it’s feasible, replacing some of the existing and sort of redundant national amateur cups.

Two reasons to this. First, it’ll make the lower divisions much more interesting.

And it just might demonstrate to the powers- and purseholders-that-be that there’s a benefit to expanding the pyramid and building a soccer culture.

Or, you know, just yell and scream and sue. That’s working so far, right? And competition between uncooperative leagues worked so well that we’re about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ASL, right?

 

Here’s what WON’T help U.S. Soccer

snake-oil“That’s right, folks! Step right up and get your miracle elixir! Cures everything from chronic flatulence to an inability to qualify for the World Cup or Olympics from CONCACAF!”

Doesn’t work that way. The problems have deeper roots. A dash of snake oil isn’t going to make the U.S. men’s team (or women’s, which has some similar issues and some very different) magically better.

Among the pet programs that won’t make the USA follow France’s path from qualifying failure to World Cup champion in four years:

Ramping up “pressure”: Consider how Trinidad and Tobago played in their cozy, bumpy stadium with the soothing hum of generators or pumps or whatever created what little “atmosphere” existed last night. They were loose. They were having fun. Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the battles of his teammates, played with any flair to match what the home side brought to the marshland of Ato Boldon Stadium.

If anything, the U.S. players seemed too tightly wound. Michael Bradley, the captain, was raised in a family that lives for competitive pressure. Jozy Altidore has dealt with the wrath of the global soccer media in the midst of a relegation fight, and yet he was probably a lot better before all that, back in the 2009 Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifying that year.

Which brings us to this …

Promotion/relegation: I dealt with this in the pro/rel series. Pro/rel doesn’t magically turn every club into Barcelona. It doesn’t make clubs run awesome academies — in fact, you might end up with some major gaps as major cities’ clubs lose Division 1 status and have to cut funding.

And can we cut the nonsense that players in MLS clubs aren’t playing for their jobs? North America is littered with MLS washouts. (Some of whom turn around and score against the USA in CONCACAF play.)

Dismantling MLS: The league needs improvement, sure. But it’s worth noting that the goals that eliminated the USA — from Panama and Honduras — came from guys with plenty of MLS experience.

Costa Rica is going back to the World Cup. MLS players scored 11 of their 14 goals in the Hexagonal.

And the oft-derided MLS-USL partnership has created an alternate pathway to the oft-derided college game. Go to an MLS academy. If you’re ready to go pro at age 17 or 18 but not quite ready for the first team, play for the reserves in USL. Then up to MLS.

Clubs have made these investments because they’re financially secure. They feel confident that they’ll be in the top division for the foreseeable future. Any change to that structure needs to be made very carefully.

Let’s put it this way: If you dismantle MLS, you’re also dismantling most of the free academies that exist in this country. How is that supposed to help?

Having the “passion” to hurl rotten fruit at players when they return: Sure, let’s make the notion of being a professional and international soccer player less attractive in a country that has a ton of sports options. That’ll work.

Along those lines …

Telling people how to live their lives: Remember when everyone was telling Landon Donovan to abandon his family and move to Europe for our own satisfaction?

Two issues with that:

  1. That’s not going to inspire future athletes to devote themselves to soccer and international play.
  2. Couldn’t the U.S. men have used a Landon Donovan last night, no matter how many years he spent in MLS instead of the Bundesliga?

Hiring a savior: One guy isn’t going to turn around the men’s national team, let alone change the entire culture in this country. Jurgen Klinsmann had no idea how to change youth soccer other than the vague imposition of things he knew as a child in Germany.

The people working to change the culture are working at the U.S. Soccer Foundation (different from the federation) and other organizations trying to make the sport more accessible.

Turning the sport into a job for which only the elites may apply: Eastern Europe in the Cold War had a bunch of sports machines that culled the top sports talent at an early age and herded them into camps. Brazil and other countries thrive on street soccer. Which group has had more success?

Reading too much into one World Cup, either 2002 or 2018: Was Bruce Arena a genius in 2002? Somewhat, but it helped that Portugal collapsed and the ref didn’t notice John O’Brien’s handball against Mexico. Was he suddenly an idiot in 2018? Somewhat, but it helped that Panama scored a phantom goal and Honduras (and T&T) got a couple of flukes.

Wins amplify good decisions. Losses amplify bad ones.

* * * *

Here’s what WILL help:

“Incremental changes at multiple levels”:

Reducing the “travel” in travel soccer: Even if you have tons of scholarship money, explain to me how a kid with two working parents who don’t control their own schedule are going to get that kid to every practice and game all over a five-state region?

Related to that …

Ending the turf wars: We have an arms race. Club A is in the Development Academy, so Club B has to be in the ECNL. Then Club C has to travel to multiple showcases everywhere from Disney World to that massive soccerplex in Indiana that’s hosting everything these days.

Remembering that we’re still competing for players and fans: Quit telling 9-year-olds that the stuff they’re doing now will pay off when they’re 16-year-old pros. Quit pretending we can drive people out of the sport as children and expect them to be paying customers when they grow up.

If soccer was so deeply ingrained in the USA that we would put up with all this, fine. The truth is that we’re still fighting attitudes like this:

And that is a Democratic Congressman. His voters surely include a lot of immigrants and a lot of soccer fans. And yet he feels secure in bashing soccer. In 2017.

Education: I’ve had the chance to see more than 100 paid coaches at the U9-U12 level. Maybe 20 of them are people I’d be happy to have coaching my kids. Another 20 or so seemed OK. The rest are screamers, joystick coaches and assorted cretins.

I’ve also worked with about 100 parent coaches. Some of them are trying to learn what they can and apply what they’ve learned. Some can’t be bothered to do the two-hour online F license.

Listen: Everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. Not just on Twitter. Also in Chicago, where the most basic questions about the Development Academy or anything else get brushed off and ridiculed.

The USA has a lot of smart people. Not just one, not just a small group. And as Steve Gans found on his “listening tour” before declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Soccer presidency, they’re not being heard.

Maybe we should all do a listening tour.

And then keep some perspective. No one died here. That’s happening in Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. We’re talking about a sport, one in which the better team doesn’t always win. The USA probably wasn’t one of the top eight teams in 2002, and they probably aren’t outside the top 32 right now.

Let’s not set up an East German-style sports machine. Let’s not take the fun out of this sport and assume good athletes are going to want to play anyway.

Embrace diversity — in all senses. Embrace accessibility. Calm down and think.

And then we can do the same thing next year when the women don’t qualify for France 2019.

RSD 14: The next U.S. Soccer president?

The problems in U.S. Soccer run deeper than the water that flooded Ato Boldon Stadium in Trinidad and Tobago before the U.S. men’s anemic performance and shocking exit from the World Cup on Tuesday night.

There’s an arrogance throughout the federation. There’s chaos in youth soccer, where the costs keep spiraling upward with no tangible results.

My guest on Ranting Soccer Dad: Episode 14 is out to change that. He’s Steven Gans, and he’s challenging Sunil Gulati for the presidency of U.S. Soccer. The election will be at the federation’s Annual General Meeting, Feb. 8-11 in Orlando.

He believes he can get better results from the country’s national teams. But he wants to devote a lot of effort at the bottom — youth soccer and the various volunteers he sees as being neglected and ignored today.

The interview took place Monday, when the U.S. men’s qualification campaign seemed to be in good shape.

Women in U.S. Soccer leadership

No, it’s not a blank post.

The Guardian recently posed the question of whether a woman could be elected U.S. Soccer president, focusing on one of the more likely candidates (we think) — Julie Foudy. The response from Foudy? “It’s not realistic.”

But it’s not because a good female candidate couldn’t win.

Foudy also says that most women are unable to even consider running for the position because it is an unpaid role with a high workload.

“How much work does Sunil do for a volunteer position?” Foudy says. “There’s no pay for the president so what woman who needs an income or is raising kids is going to say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be able to volunteer 30 or 40 hours a week that take me away from family and my real job’. It’s not realistic. The position itself needs restructuring if you are going to get more women engaged in it.”

That might also explain why we don’t see many women heavily involved on the U.S. Soccer board. Here’s a quick history:

In the mid-2000s, U.S. Soccer followed the lead of other sports federations and reduced the size of its board from 40 to 15 voting members (plus two non-voting — the immediate past president and the CEO/Secretary General, the top paid USSF employee). The bylaw was approved in 2006, the same year Sunil Gulati was elected president for the first time. Let’s look at who has occupied each seat since then:

President, vice president: Sunil Gulati, Carlos Cordeiro. Gulati was unopposed in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Not in 2018. Cordeiro, formerly an independent director (we’ll get to it) won the vice presidency in 2016, ousting incumbent Mike Edwards (who replaced Gulati as VP in 2006). (Yeah, I’ve already written about this.)

In short — no women here as far back as I can trace.

Athlete representatives: Chris Ahrens, Carlos Bocanegra, Angela Hucles. USSF is required to give athletes at least 20 percent of the vote, which means three out of 15 in this case. There’s no official rule saying the reps must be one Paralympian, one MNT veteran and one WNT veteran, but that’s how it’s worked out since Jon McCullough joined the board in 2008. The 2012 Paralympic torch-bearer passed away in 2014, and Ahrens took his place on the board.

Linda Hamilton was on the board after the 2006 re-org. Her seat has since gone to Amanda Cromwell, Danielle Fotopoulos, Danielle Slaton, Cindy Parlow Cone and now Hucles.

Pro Council: Don Garber, Steve Malik. Bylaws say these seats are for the Pro Council chairperson and an elected rep. MLS commissioner Garber has been on the board for the whole century so far. WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci had the other seat for a year or so. Malik, who runs North Carolina FC (and the NWSL finalist Courage), replaced USL CEO Alec Papadakis, who replaced another MLS/NWSL owner in Merritt Paulson.

So that’s one woman, briefly (bad timing for her departure).

Adult Council: Richard Moeller, John Motta. As on the Pro Council, these seats are for the chairperson and a rep. Motta defeated Gulati in a close race for vice president in 1998, but Gulati won a rematch in 2000. Motta is exploring a bid for the presidency. I can’t find any women who’ve held these seats since the 2006 re-org.

Youth Council: Jesse Harrell, Tim Turney. Also chairperson and a rep. Evelyn Gill was on the board for four years.

At-Large Representative: John Collins. The election process for this spot is insanely complicated. Read Bylaw 413, section 3. In any case, no women, at least since 2006.

Independent Directors: Donna Shalala, Val Ackerman. These positions were added to the board in the 2006 re-org. They’re officially elected, but in practical terms, the board seeks out people with some clout in the worlds of sports business, general business and politics. The board also has used these spots to find people other than white men — Cordeiro, Fabian Núñez, Shalala and Ackerman. Shalala recently made news as the alleged independent director who fell asleep during the presentation of Rocco Commisso on behalf of the NASL’s Division II sanctioning application, which Commisso thinks is an indication of the board’s prejudice but more likely an indication that Shalala might not be young enough to sit through an NASL presentation.

So as it stands now, is the best path for a woman to the USSF presidency might be through the independent director seats? Let’s compare it to the other pathway — through the various constituencies …

Adult Council (basically U.S. Adult Soccer): The one woman out of eight here is Shonna Schroedl, who has run for the Council’s elected spot on the board. (Note to self: Interview Shonna Schroedl.)

Youth Council: This is a little more complicated. Four organizations are represented — U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Club Soccer, AYSO and SAY Soccer. How many women are on their boards?

Pro Council: If the NWSL ever names a commissioner, maybe they’ll have some female representation?

Actually, the organization with the most women in leadership is the Organization Formerly Known As NSCAA. That would be United Soccer Coaches, where Amanda Vandervort just wrapped up a one-year term as president and Lynn Berling-Manuel is the CEO. Including the ex officio members such as Berling-Manuel, five of 11 board members are female.

U.S. Soccer also has committees and task forces that have a few women involved. The giant Appeals Committee includes Kate Markgraf (also one of two women on the Rules Committee), Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday, Lori Lindsey, Heather O’Reilly, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsay Tarpley and several more women. Siri Mullinix pops up on the small Credentials Committee. Gill, Schroedl and Lauren Gregg are on the Disability Soccer Committee. Mary Harvey is on the Life Member Task Force. Sandra Hunt is among the women on the Referee Committee. Finally, the Technical Committee is a 50-50 split that includes WNT coach Jill Ellis, April Heinrichs and Carin Gabarra.

(Lydia Wahlke, listed as a staff liaison on several of these committees, is a U.S. Soccer general counsel.)

Here’s the one that aggravates the Ranting Soccer Dad in me: The 12-member Task Force on Youth Issues has ONE woman — Hucles.

So would U.S. Soccer have some viable presidential candidates here? Perhaps.

Would it help to get more women involved on these task forces and then perhaps on the board? Definitely, and not just because that’ll increase the likelihood of having a female president one of these years.

Promotion/relegation propaganda/reality, Part 5: Cons

You’ve read about the pro/rel pros, the history of the U.S./Canada debate, and the major players in the U.S. (including U.S. Soccer).

Now it’s time to read about why promotion/relegation can be a bad idea.

Yes, promotion/relegation has pros and cons. That’s heresy in some quarters.

But what doesn’t have pros and cons? The U.S. sports system has pros and cons. Capitalism has pros and cons. Representative democracy has pros and cons. Going outside has pros and cons. We simply have to weigh them and decide what’s best.

Pretending that pro/rel makes everything better is simply dishonest. If you read all this and decide pro/rel is the best system in Europe (probable), the best system for U.S. amateur leagues (also probable), the best system for U.S. lower divisions (quite plausible) and the best system for the entire U.S. pyramid (more problematic, but not easily dismissed), that’s your prerogative.

So let’s take a look …

PRO/REL CONS: GLOBAL

Con #1: Can’t count on division status when planning long-term investment.

See Reading, which will expand … or not … well, maybe … if they can win their way into the Premier League.

“But smaller clubs will invest in their academies to produce players to compete,” we hear. Wrong. And if you’ve read Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, you know the federation had to force the 36 Bundesliga clubs (well, not all of them, but they felt compelled to impose the rule) to run academies. They weren’t all happy about it.

* * * *

Con #2: “Pure” pro/rel based on “sporting merit” usually takes a back seat to “other criteria,” anyway.

England is the birthplace of soccer and the birthplace of pro/rel. So take a look at what they’re doing with their women’s leagues: Top tier will go pro-only, second tier for semipros. And that’s perfectly legal under FIFA Statutes, Article 9, which a lot of PRZ (Pro/Rel Zealots) incorrectly cite as proof that the U.S. system violates FIFA’s holy word.

This isn’t something new. Consider how England did pro/rel between its amateur (“non-League”) and professional leagues for generations. The last-place team in the last League division stood for re-election against everyone who wanted in. Usually, that last-place team stayed in.

Then there’s the Netherlands. If someone can explain the contortions they’ve gone through in the last few years to try to institute pro/rel between the amateurs and pros better than Wikipedia has, please tell me.

And if you want to go back a ways, join Dan Loney for a deep dive into the erratic history of pro/rel in Brazil, which rather thoroughly refutes the Deloitte claim that no country with a “closed league” has won the World Cup. I’ll add one thing: Before you complain that Dan focused only on the state leagues, bear in mind that Brazil’s national league didn’t start until 1959.

* * * *

Con #3: People who have nothing to do with the soccer side of the business can lose their jobs.

Farewell, Aston Villa employees. Goodbye, Newcastle backroom staff. Have fun collecting unemployment, locals who sell food, merchandise, tickets, etc.

Sometimes it’s years of mismanagement than lead to relegation. Sometimes it’s a couple of injuries and one bad bounce. The flip side of that wonderful moment when the ball fell to the foot of Carlisle United goalkeeper Jimmy Glass is that Scarborough went out of the League, which in those days was a horrifying drop.

“But that’s capitalism,” the PRZ have argued over the years. Sure. And it’s why capitalism is regulated and constantly reformed. Look, we all went through our libertarian phase in high school or college, but at some point, you have to grow up and realize we aren’t in ancient Rome giving thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs for our morbid entertainment.

* * * *

Con #4: Pressure creates ugly soccer.

How do you make someone miss a shot in basketball? You ramp up the pressure. Even Woody Harrelson knows that …

What do you think of when you think of do-or-die situations in knockout tournaments and relegation battles? Beautiful plays? Or “grit”?

The latter. And yet the PRZ tell us over and over that the USA will suddenly learn how to play with skill and verve.

* * * *

Con #5: Clubs make “survival” their only goal.

Self-explanatory.

* * * *

Con #6: Clubs in relegation danger have little incentive to give young players a chance.

Again, the PRZ insist that pro/rel is the key factor in player development. But in which country are you more likely to see young players thrown into the fray and given a chance? England, where clubs live in constant fear of relegation? Or in the USA, where clubs near the bottom of the table can start building for next year?

* * * *

PRO/REL CONS: SPECIFIC TO THE USA/CANADA

Con #1: Lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits!

You think MLS owners who’ve made nine-figure investments (add up expansion fees for newer owners, capital calls for older owners, stadiums, academies, etc.) are going to go quietly if they’re told their investments are going to be at risk of being devalued?

* * * *

Con #2: The PRZ have poisoned the well.

Take a look, if you happen to be unfamiliar with the last 15 years or so of public discourse on the topic.

* * * *

Con #3: The USA and Canada have unique challenges with soccer fans spread over a giant land mass.

I’ll wholeheartedly agree with one thing in the NASL lawsuit — the notion that a second division has to be in three time zones is ridiculous. (The way they’ve argued it is hilarious — gee, you mean England doesn’t require teams in three time zones? — but that’s another rant.)

The USA was hostile to soccer for generations. Read … well, anything — David Wangerin’s booksOffside: Soccer and American ExceptionalismSoccer Against the Enemy, etc.

In some ways, it might be easier to build up pro leagues if we built them around pockets of soccer fans — Cascadia, California, the mid-Atlantic, etc. But then those leagues would struggle to get TV deals, and we’d leave nothing for fans in the rest of the country. If Kansas City can fill its stadium for MLS games, then Kansas City should have a danged team.

Pro/rel would put us in danger of removing a major market from the top division — Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington, etc. That’s not the case in England, where it’s virtually impossible to be more than 150 miles from a Premier League club unless you’re in Cornwall or unless you’re at the very fringe of East Anglia during a down period for Norwich and Ipswich.

* * * *

CONCLUSION

So do the pros outweigh the cons?

I’m on record as saying yes, with a whole lot of asterisks. I’m disappointed when MLS commissioner Don Garber — who is surely speaking for a strong majority of MLS owners — brushes it aside.

But any good system is going to have to account for as many of these issues as possible. Figure out a way to mitigate the financial risks, not just for unsympathetic oligarchs (not all of whom are horrible people) but also for people who work in MLS club offices. Come up with a format that adds excitement without leaving us with a bunch of grim, grinding soccer games.

Piece of cake, right? Especially when we’re having such rational discussions about it.