"We realize you have a choice in sessions," Hickey said. "So thank you for choosing U.S. Soccer."
The joke deserved a wider audience. But on Thursday in the sprawling McCormick Place convention center, it was an ironic comment on the sparse crowd. Most of the convention-goers, in fact, exercised their choice in sessions to go elsewhere.
Hickey was the second presenter in a three-part series, spread over the first full day of the United Soccer Coaches convention, called "The Future of Soccer in the United States." The reality was that this was a sales pitch for U.S. Soccer, taking advantage of the convention being within a mile of U.S. Soccer House.
And the name didn't really fit the presentations. Hickey, like fellow presenters Barry Pauwels and James Bunce, was presenting the present, putting forth a friendly face to represent a federation eager to demonstrate that it's innovating and listening.
That's all well and good. But the future of all the wondrous ideas on offer is something that we, as the Magic 8-Ball would say, "cannot predict now."
Hickey, Pauwels and Bunce are all European and relatively new at their jobs in U.S. Soccer. Hickey, from the Netherlands but a longtime U.S. resident and coach, moved from girls' Development Academy director to club development director in August. Pauwels, formerly in the FA in his native Belgium, has been the federation's coaching education director for about a year. Bunce was hired away from England's Premier League, where he had been head of sport science and then head of performance, to serve as High Performance director in 2017.
Pauwels, who went first among the trio, was particularly enthusiastic. For 30 minutes, his presentation looked like a Positive Coaching Alliance seminar, complete with a heartbreaking video of a young player slumping into his seat in the car while his dad berated him for his performance in practice. Pauwels sought to draw a contrast to the possibility of creating a wonderful, fun and productive training environment.
And Pauwels put an interesting twist on the USSF mission statement, in which the federation defines its goal as making soccer "the preeminent sport in the United States." To Pauwels, it's not just about having the most viewers or players. It's about creating the best environment in comparison with other sports.
The segue between the positive coaching and the aspirational goal was the new U.S. Soccer coaching pathway, which makes grassroots coaching licenses more accessible. Every player, Pauwels said, deserves to be coached by a licensed coach.
In another session, not billed as part of the "Future" series, Director of Talent Identification Tony Lepore talked about the need to build a more expansive player pool, which they hope to accomplish in part with a new license specifically for scouts.
But hidden in each of those presentations was a major obstacle -- the federation is not yet devoting the resources to make all this happen.
Pauwels wants to have 100 B-license courses across the country each year. But they're not there yet. Maybe in a few years.
And the prerequisite for the Talent Scout license is ... a B license in coaching.
So the resources are an issue. Carlos Cordeiro has convened a task force since taking over as president in early 2018, but we don't yet know if the federation is diverting some of its surplus money to boosting these programs that really could help develop and scout a much larger talent base.
And for all the friendliness the panelists presented, the bureaucratic buzzwords and incomprehensible wheels, arrows and doodads that purport to explain U.S. Soccer's goals and organizational structure were still very much in effect.
Then there's the last and perhaps biggest obstacle for the federation -- lingering resentment from heavy-handed, poorly communicated directives from on high. Some of the attendees clearly view U.S. Soccer to be as cold as the Chicago winter outside the convention center's doors.
Hickey, unfortunately, took the brunt of it. She wrapped up her presentation in a swift 25 minutes and opened it up for questions. But the people in the room were bitter. One ran a mid-sized club and complained that the local Development Academy was simply grabbing his players without any communication.
And the mandates from a few years ago still fester. A discussion of the birth-year age group mandates demonstrated that the federation really allowed clubs to organize its rec leagues by school years, but the mixed messages from the federation on the subject left several associations forcing their kindergartners and first-graders to split up.
Hickey had nothing to do with such things. But she was there. The people who imposed such things were not.
The crowds, small as they were, weren't completely dismissive. But the sessions showed the past and present of U.S. Soccer have been problematic. The future will require more sales pitches as U.S. Soccer did Thursday. And more importantly, the resources to deliver on their goals.