Despite the recent on-field success of both the men’s and women’s national teams, it hasn’t been a great summer off the field for the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF).
At the end of May, one of the organization’s former high-ranking executives, Chuck Blazer, was confirmed to have pleaded guilty in 2013 to tax evasion, bribery, money laundering and racketeering -- although, to be clear, none of the charges levied against Blazer came while he was working for U.S. Soccer. Instead, they came while he was general secretary of Concacaf, the regional organization which the USSF reports to, and later as a member of the FIFA executive committee, which is the main decision-making body inside FIFA.
As we know, Blazer turned FBI informant after he learned the FBI and IRS were monitoring him tax evasion. He is a key cooperating witness behind the indictment of nine current and former FIFA execs as well as five sports marketing execs, who were arrested in Zurich and Miami in May. While several of the execs arrested in Switzerland are still fighting extradition, former CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb has landed on U.S. soil and will be brought to the appropriate authorities.
Shortly after the eruption of the latest FIFA scandal, came the revelation on the eve of the U.S. Women’s World Cup opener against Australia that goalkeeper Hope Solo was once headed to trial over a domestic violence dispute. Solo, 33, was arrested last summer for allegedly assaulting her half-sister and her son, who was a minor. In an open letter to U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) castigated the USSF for failing to conduct its own internal investigation of the incident and suspend Solo in the midst of the charges against her. Solo went on to play every game of the Women’s World Cup, which the USA won.
Then, later in June, USA captain Clint Dempsey was banned for six games or two years (whichever proves to be longer) by the U.S. Open Cup committee for tearing up referee Daniel Radford’s notebook during an Open Cup encounter between the Seattle Sounders, his club, and the Portland Timbers. Despite its rules, MLS, which falls under U.S. Soccer’s jurisdiction, deemed Dempsey’s offense to be “referee abuse,” as opposed to the more serious “referee assault”, which would have ruled the USA No. 8 out of the currently underway Gold Cup through the quarterfinals. Following the incident, USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann stripped Dempsey of the captaincy, but the Sounders forward has nonetheless featured in every game, scoring three goals in three games to become the tournament’s joint-top scorer so far.
Finally, on Wednesday, a panel of U.S. Senators asked U.S. Soccer to testify at a hearing tasked with examining corruption inside FIFA and its confederations, which include Concacaf. However, since FIFA declined to send anyone to the hearing, and most of Concacaf’s top brass is under indictment on corruption charges, the subcommittee focused mostly on the extent to which U.S. Soccer had knowledge of corruption going on inside either Concacaf or FIFA. It was an awkward day, to say the least.
Instead of sending its president, Sunil Gulati, who is also a FIFA executive committee member, the USSF sent CEO and general secretary Dan Flynn, apparently to the chagrin of just about everyone at the hearing. Why, because throughout, Senate panel members and witnesses alike repeatedly referred to the fact that Gulati was not present. When pressed, Flynn said the organization’s counsel advised it not to send its president, and that moreover, Flynn "had more knowledge of the day-to-day events" than Gulati.
In its description of his testimony, The New York Times noted that Flynn, who was not under oath, “fumbled at times and once paused to consult with an adviser sitting behind him in the hearing room.” The report added that Flynn repeatedly sought to distance the USSF from FIFA, noting how his organization had lobbied for greater transparency inside FIFA, and had not voted for departing president Sepp Blatter, who was reelected in May.
Flynn went on to describe -- and this is where it gets really vague -- the “discomfort” he had begun to experience at some of what he saw going on inside the game’s governing bodies. He called the discomfort a “general feeling” about possible problems in how the game is run. The time period given for when this discomfort began is “longer than a few months” before the aforementioned U.S.-led indictments but “shorter than a few years.” And when his discomfort became too much to bear, Flynn said he would “not participate” in related soccer activities.” He did not elaborate further.
British investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who has written extensively on alleged corruption inside FIFA and its confederations for many years, told the hearing that U.S. Soccer chiefs “had to know” about the involvement of the likes of Blazer and former Concacaf chief Jack Warner in the illegal activities they are charged with and which Blazer has already pleaded guilty for. Warner, who is from Trinidad & Tobago, is one of the men currently fighting extradition to the U.S.
So: what did the Senate panel have to say about all this?
Senator Blumenthal from Connecticut, who as we mentioned has been critical of U.S. Soccer before, struck the heaviest blows. He said that Flynn and the USSF in general should have acted on its discomfort with FIFA and Concacaf: “There had to be either willful ignorance or blatant incompetence on behalf of many of the members of this organization -- that's true of U.S. Soccer as well,” Blumenthal said, adding that he hoped the American organization would conduct an internal inquiry in addition to complying with investigations by the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Blumenthal remarked further that there has been "a mafia-style crime syndicate in charge of this sport," which he said was "almost insulting to the Mafia ... because the Mafia would never have been so blatant, overt and arrogant in its corruption."
The reports from the Times and others certainly don’t paint a pretty picture here for U.S. Soccer. It certainly feels as though the organization is hiding something. Flynn’s painfully vague testimony and the fact that the head of the USSF, who is also a FIFA Exco member, declined to appear, both support that. Gulati surely would have had to answer far more pointed questions about the inner workings of FIFA and its relationship with U.S. Soccer and Concacaf -- which he formerly served on its executive committee -- but, as just about everyone pointed out, he wasn’t there.
Of course, as we noted before, Flynn was not under oath and this was not a trial, but with former Concacaf chief Webb being extradited to the U.S., and possibly, Warner following soon thereafter, we may soon know a lot more about the extent to which U.S. Soccer was involved or not in this ever-widening FIFA scandal.