1994 U.S. Soccer presidential
First ballot: Alan Rothenberg (48.9%), Richard Groff (46.9%), Hank Des Bordes (4.2%)
Second ballot: Alan Rothenberg (53.6%), Richard Groff (46.4%).
He served as commissioner of the American Professional Soccer League as well as president of the United States Adult Soccer Association and on U.S. Soccer’s Board of Directors. He was named winner of the U.S. Soccer Werner Fricker Builder Award in 2014.
Groff says he supports incumbent Sunil Gulati as U.S. Soccer president and will not comment on rumors that he may run if Gulati does not.
First, let’s get people up to speed on your soccer background. What was your first contact with the
I played soccer as a 10-year-old on a team through my Mennonite church. Just that recreational soccer at my church got me started. I played soccer in the fall, did cross-country and track and field. I even tried gymnastics but I wasn’t particularly good at it.
I played soccer in high school and college [Lafayette] and on Sundays. In fact, the Lafayette JV team that I coached just got inducted into the Lafayette Hall of Fame.
You were in Port of Spain in 1989 when Paul Caligiuri’s goal propelled the U.S. into the 1990 World Cup and went to Couva last month when a 2-1 loss dropped it short of qualification. There’s been incredible progress during that span but what is the state of the game and the federation with that failure in place?
I can talk about the incredible up and excitement of 1989 and I can talk about the loss and feeling down in the same country in 2017. I was not happy a few weeks ago.
I can understand the fans are angry and upset, but if you look back on it, no one expected that we’d have to make a coaching change. We did make a coaching change and I thought the change was a viable change and that worked very well for a while, and on the last day we lost.
That’s what the sport is all about. You don’t win every game and we have to do better.
At the same time, our under-17s and under 20s are performing better than they have in the prior five years. The women appear to be performing extremely well. I would say there’s at least a dozen high-level academy programs in the country and that’s a positive. There was none of that 30 years ago.
But finishing fifth of six teams in the Hexagonal? Isn’t that a sign that something is seriously wrong?
You have to admit that Mexico and Costa Rica are two quality teams. We got outplayed very badly in Costa Rica [4-0 loss]. I thought the team performed well in Mexico [1-1 tie]. If you looked at the Hexagonal, we were bumped by Panama and Honduras. What was the goal differential with those teams home and away? I don’t think those teams were superior. We beat Panama, 4-0, and Honduras, 6-0, at home.
It’s always tough to play away in Concacaf. I’ve been to many of those matches. We started out poorly against Mexico at home and Costa Rica away. That was a bad start. I can’t tell you how positive I feel except for one match in Trinidad & Tobago in a little 10,000- seat stadium that I sat in, in 2001 for the FIFA U-17 [World Cup]. Same one.
You’ve been to a lot of away games in Concacaf. What are you most vivid memories?
Other than Trinidad, my most vivid memory is a match I went to against Honduras in San Pedro Sula [in 2001]. The stadium was packed like I’ve never seen it before, I mean absolutely packed and we came out with a 2-1 win. I just sat there and said, ‘Wow, that was pretty remarkable.’
I was a little nervous when they played the [U.S.] national anthem but everyone was very supportive. it was a great night and a great win. We had no problems leaving and met with Bruce [Arena] and the players and had a great time. A perfect evening.
I’ve been to so many to Mexico City, which is tough because of Azteca. I’ve been to games in Costa Rica, in the old small [Ricardo Saprissa] stadium where you took your life in hand being so close. I was at the match in [Mazatenango] Guatemala [in 2004] they played in middle of the jungle in a stadium that holds about 8,000 people.
It’s what Concacaf is fantastic for: creating a tough atmosphere for the visiting team. We used to do the same thing in Columbus but it appears we don’t do that any more.
I would prefer to play in Columbus instead of Red Bull [Arena] against Costa Rica [2-0 loss Sept. 1].
The women’s team is also coming off a disappointing finish in the Olympics; elimination by Sweden in the quarterfinals. You were present for that game, too. How did you assess that outcome?
I go to a lot of these events and unfortunately I was there as well. That was a quality team that we sent to the Olympics, they played against a quality team in Sweden that had a very good coach, who coached it perfectly and it came down to penalty kicks. I can talk about the Italians in 1994 [World Cup final] and all kinds of people who have lost penalty-kick events.
It was disappointing but it happens. I wasn’t happy that day either. I’ve been to so many Olympics with the women’s team and they’ve done extremely well but that was not a good day.
I don’t think you can blame the president or the secretary-general. The team was very well supported, they had what they needed and the staff had what they needed. The financial backing was there for the team and the staff and the players. It didn’t turn out well that day.
Several ex-players have announced they will run for U.S. Soccer president. How do you assess their qualifications?
It’s great to see that our athletes from the early '90s and even more recently have matured to the point that they consider themselves capable of doing that task. I remember back in the '90s, we didn’t have many athletes qualified to be broadcasters, let alone leaders of the sport. It’s a testament to the development that they are all interested.
We have lots of coaches, we have a lot of broadcasters, and after a few years we have a few politicians who are ex-athletes. I’m excited that so many athletes have grown into a position that they can be excellent commentators, they can be excellent coaches, and now they think they can be president of the federation. That’s all positive.
I’m surprised that not one of the journalists have stood up and said they’re going to run for president.
Well, not yet. There’s still a month to go. Maybe we realize we’re better at finding fault than solving complex problems.
But certainly the journalists are equally qualified.
Well that probably means we’re not qualified at all. The ex-players may be. In any case, what is needed to not just run for the presidency but do a good job in that position?
It requires someone who has a passion for the sport and is willing to spend the time to understand how it functions, and has a life experience in the sport. They certainly have the background that they can want to run. I don’t see any of them as getting my vote, but we will see.
Who does get your vote?
I am hopeful that Sunil will announce that he’s running for president. I think he’s the most qualified candidate.
I think Sunil’s qualified because of his 30 years of experience, because of his contacts internationally, because he’s passionate about the sport, and he’s very intelligent on how to approach that. That’s why I’m supporting him.
Keep in mind it’s not just the president. U.S. Soccer is much better than it was in 1990 because of people like [secretary general and CEO] Dan Flynn and his staff. Dan Flynn has been remarkable in his entire tenure at U.S. Soccer. I’ve been saying it for 20 years. I’m so happy he’s been there. We are so lucky to have had the team at the top that we have had for the last 20 years.
We lost a match. Now everyone’s thinking that the end is coming and it’s not. We need to keep doing what we do well.
And what do we do well?
Organize soccer matches. Create a market. Develop players. It’s not a surprise to you, is it, that every year we have all these teams under Mr. [Charlie] Stillitano’s leadership come to the United States? Is it not remarkable that Mexico plays as many games in the United States as they do in Mexico?
We’ve built a market, we’re developing players, we have money in the bank, and we’re trying to get the World Cup for 2026. I see it only as a positive. Some of the candidates for president would think it’s the end of the world.
Regardless of who wins, what are the most pressing issues that must be addressed sooner rather than later?
There’s no question that the No. 1 priority each year is the national teams. Certainly we’re adding the 2026 World Cup. In 2019, we have the Women’s World Cup. We have to get the men’s Olympic team to qualify . Every year we have national championships. All those things are important. But at the same time we have to develop the grassroots and the pro game at the same time. The NWSL has to be supported. We can’t go away from that.
My opinion is we have to do all of those things. You can’t just say one’s more important and because we have to do one we can’t do the other.
Let’s start with the men’s U-23s failing to qualify for three of the last four Olympic tournaments. How much has that affected the senior program?
Take a look at two classic examples. Take a look at the [U.S.] team in 1992 and what impact that Olympic team had on the national team, and then look at the Olympic team in 2000 and what impact it had on the national team.
If I remember correctly didn’t Mexico win [the gold medal] in 2012? Therefore that became the basis of all we’re looking at today in Mexico. It’s a simple thing and as far as I’m concerned whoever becomes the new coach I hope he takes an interest in the Olympic team.
For me, the highest priority and it has been for the last 20 years, is the Olympic team, and the reality is for the Olympic team it’s harder to qualify for the Olympics than it is for the World Cup. We have two slots in Concacaf, that’s it. And our two slots – take a look at the record – do extremely well at the Olympic competition.
If I was in charge – and I’m not – but it’s something I’ve been saying to Dan and Sunil, I would say the first question for the new head coach of the men’s team is, ‘How do we qualify for the Olympics? What are you going to do to make sure we qualify for the Olympics in 2020?”
It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh we have to qualify for the World Cup and win it. I want them to say, ‘We have to qualify for the Olympics, and win it.’
Somewhat connected to that are all the issues of youth player development. You’ve cited the recent success of the U-17s and U-20s, along with the importance of the next level, the U-23s. What needs to happen in this area?
It’s expensive to have an academy program. The MLS teams are making an investment and it shows. Maybe that’s what the Foundation should be doing with its $60 million.
I think those [club] programs are very nice but they cost a lot of money. They spent a lot of money on themselves with their overhead. They Foundation should take at least a million dollars a year and just say to all of the academies, ‘If you can find a player who’s qualified and needs financial help, this money is available.’ It should be that simple.
I’m not asking [the Foundation] to not build fields and do what they do in the inner cities, but they need to have a more direct mission than they have at the moment. If U.S. Soccer can set aside some money to do the same thing we’re talking about funding 100 additional players in the academy a year who need the financial help. I think that’s a good thing.
So the toughest issue is how to spend the money?
We have plenty of money. If we need to hire staff to do that, we have to do that. Money is not a problem any longer. Money was a problem in 1990. It’s not a problem in 2017.
It has grown so quickly it doesn’t appear that we’re spending it too fast. You hear all the commentaries and they’re absolutely right. The qualified 12-year-old player needs to get into a quality development academy and he shouldn’t have to worry about whether he can pay for it or not.
Here’s another area: Are we developing enough quality referees? We have to concentrate on doing that better.
As a former president of the Adult Division, you have a different perspective from people involved in the youth and professional councils. What are the issues regarding that group?
The adult perspective is that we probably have as many leagues unaffiliated as we have affiliated. It’s just one of those things. You can have an adult, amateur soccer league and not be affiliated with U.S. Soccer, and we have to come up with a formula that makes it attractive for all of them, which we haven’t done yet. And I’m not sure it’s an easy thing to do.
You have adults who have a dream of still playing at a high level and you have adults who are playing for fun. They are both important to the system. I think the changes made to the Open Cup are a positive. Unfortunately, adults need fields, they need insurance, and they need organization, and U.S. Soccer could do a better job in helping to see those three things happen, and it’s probably time to do that.
I’m an adult player so I need to have a league in my neighborhood to go play in. We have exceptional local organizations and we have others that aren’t so exceptional that need to be developed and until U.S. Soccer stands up and says, ‘Look, these are basic, minimum standards and you need to meet them,’ whether it’s on referees or league management or the development of the state association, we don’t have that. U.S. Soccer does not have a quality control system at the moment.
It’s the responsibility of the federation to make sure that all of the state associations and all of the leagues are meeting that requirement, in my opinion.
Is all of this backlash and vitriol to one bad result indicative of an exponential increase in not just fans, but their incredible passion for the game in this country?
We went to the World Cup in 1990 and what did we have? 400 fans, total? And today, it’s totally different. We had 12,000-14,000 fans go to Brazil? It’s so remarkable what we have today compared to 30 years ago.
And of course, they got angry because we lost so they got on social media and everything is a disaster. But it’s not. It’s going to continue.