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USSF taking its time to regroup

Monday 18th December 2017

The one good thing about failing to qualify for a World Cup is you have four years to sort matters out, then get it right. In club football, there are only a few weeks to assess and adjust before a new campaign is upon you.

It’s not much of a silver lining. There’s also four years of hand-wringing angst over whether you’ve made the correct assessment and adjustments. Meanwhile, you must sit on the sideline watching hated rivals have all the fun while reaping the financial benefits.

In any event, time should be used wisely whether you have precious little or a seemingly endless amount. The United States Soccer Federation seems to be adhering to that advice, though what is going on behind the scenes may be an entirely different story.

When the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup, manager Bruce Arena immediately resigned. It took some time for long-serving USSF president Sunil Gulati to announce his 12th year in office would be his last. After a large field announced their eagerness to supplant him, it seemed Gulati had accepted it was time for change.

Soon after he recused himself, however, the USSF board of directors announced the job description would be altered. The new president’s power would be reduced, Gulati's successor serving as a chairperson rather than a CEO. As well, a general manager/technical director’s position would be created to oversee at least the USMNT, if not all the national teams. Gulati had often made executive decisions unilaterally, Especially hiring team managers. He may have been forced out.

Given the USMNT debacle, it’s hardly a surprise.

Alongside Mexico, the US is one of its region’s two powers. A ticket to Russia should have been a formality. Concacaf offered its top countries the easiest route to the final tournament of any confederation. The final qualifying round, aka the Hexagonal, presented an almost 60% chance for success. Six nations compete. The top three progress directly to the tournament. The fourth must first play a tie against the fifth-best Asian side.

In Oceania, the Kiwi cocks of the roost were only 50% to make the big dance. After crushing their enemies, driving all the tiny South Pacific island nations before them, and hearing the lamentation of their women, they still had to beat the fifth best South American side, which, from the outset, had a 45% chance to push on. The 12 nations in Asia’s final round had a 42% chance to advance. Each of the 20 African countries competing in CAF’s five final groups had exactly a 25% chance. Although UEFA receives the most World Cup slots, its hopefuls face the longest odds. Each European country had a less than 25% chance to claim a berth, as only eight of the nine second-place group finishers competed in a playoff.

Such extremely favourable odds, even before every Concacaf member’s respective talent pool’s size and quality are taken into account, factors which further enhance a disproportionately wealthy and heavily populated nation’s prospects, demonstrate how monumentally the United States failed.

It’s no wonder then the USSF is restructuring.

The board at least had the presence of mind to realise time was on its side. While several former players, including USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo, quickly threw their hats in the ring, other figures who have worked off the pitch also joined the fray.

Each of the nine announced candidates was required to submit three nominating letters by 12 December.

[Coincidentally, that was my birthday. I’m a little bummed nobody nominated me. Ah well, life goes on.]

When the deadline passed, eight candidates had met the criterion. Although the USSF did not announce who had complied, or had not, an educated guess can be made.

Nominated candidates must also undergo a background check. Any conviction or no contest plea to a felony or “crime of moral turpitude” disqualifies the nominee. Solo has been embroiled in an ugly domestic violence case, as the accused, since 2014. Her latest appeal to have the case dismissed was overturned at the end of November. While the charge is not a felony, and she has not been convicted nor pleaded nolo contendre, the sordid accounts of the incident definitely border on moral turpitude.

Solo has also been involved in other controversies, publicly disparaging her competition for the number one shirt, and claiming former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter sexually harassed her onstage during an awards presentation. Her fiery, reactionary personality isn’t the type to lead a large governing body. Please don’t tweet me, Mr Trump; cooler heads are needed to resolve this crisis. Most likely, Hope is the candidate who has not gotten out of the gate.

The other eight candidates include Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing, MLS’ commercial arm. Given technical decisions have been removed from the next president’s authority, Carter’s business experience makes her a strong candidate to become the first female to head a major national federation.

USSF VP Carlos Cordeiro, UPSL regional director Paul LaPointe, and Massachusetts attorney Steve Gans are the other three executive candidates. Former players in the running include Paul Caliguri, Kyle Martino, Eric Wynalda, and Michael Winograd, who is now a practicing attorney.

With the new president exerting less influence over coaching matters, three of the former players seeking office become less compelling candidates. Gans’ football experience derives from organising the summer International Challenge Cup friendlies in the United States. Carter, La Pointe, and Cordeiro all have inside experience. As corporate boards tend to be conservative, rarely pushing the envelope, the latter trio probably have the inside track.

On the other hand, both Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer proved very effective as presidents after their playing careers. Platini was heavily involved in organising France’s 1998 World Cup before becoming UEFA president. Beckenbauer was Bayern president, DfB VP, and headed the German federation’s  2006 World Cup organising committee. Perhaps their respective playing roles as trequartista and libero helped them develop the necessary skills to excel. Both created opportunities for those around them (as well as themselves).

If particular playing skills translate well into the boardroom, former USMNT number ten Wynalda might warrant consideration. He was the United States' first outstanding number ten. His post-playing career has been in broadcasting rather than business, however. Second-guessing is easier than initiating action.

Martino was also a playmaker before moving into the booth. Yet, he was far less effective, eventually moving into the number nine role to salvage his career. He should stick to second-guessing.

Caliguri serves on the USSF board as an athlete representative. The former defensive midfielder is heavily involved in youth development both within the organisation and in his local community. The US needs to significantly improve its youth program, but it’s unlikely the board would allow a grassroots champion to diminish its emphasis on the far more lucrative senior sides.

Winograd is the darkhorse outsider who brings everything to the table. A corporate lawyer involved in multi-million dollar business deals, the 47-year-old played professionally in Israel, coached and directed at the college and youth levels in America. If the USSF isn’t too focused on electing an insider, the Manhattan attorney may be the ideal choice.

All the candidates have time to present their cases. The election isn’t until February.

It has also been disclosed the search for a new USMNT manager won’t begin until a new president and GM are installed. The former will likely have input regarding the latter, meaning the USSF won’t settle into its new organisational structure until spring or summer.

Given the 2018 MLS season begins in March, with Orlando City and Atlanta United coaches Jason Kreis and Tata Martino deserving long looks, fans shouldn’t expect a new boss to take the reins until fall, or possibly after the season ends in December.

When 2019 arrives, Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski will be 36, Tim Howard nearly 40, and Jermaine Jones 38. Some difficult decisions will not have to be made. Then again, others will. Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron will be 32, Brad Guzman 34, Jozy Altidore 30. By and large, however, a new generation will have space and time to grow. The USMNT could very well be Christian Pulisic’s team when the new boss arrives. That’s a good way to start.

Time is definitely on the USSF’s side, but only time will tell whether it has been well used.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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