U.S. Soccer's problems call for a CEO from the outside

The blame for the U.S. soccer world’s woes can be spread over many parties -- players, coaches, lawyers, etc.

But eventually, some of it has to go up to the top.

U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro didn’t start the war between the Development Academy and the ECNL. Chief commercial and strategy officer Jay Berhalter wasn’t responsible for the U.S. men’s complacent, uninspired performance in Toronto. (How much blame should go to another Berhalter is a separate question.) Neither man is responsible for the historical and cultural forces that made the United States a difficult place to run a soccer league or a federation. (There’s a book on that topic making the rounds right now.)

The status quo, though, has a few glaring flaws at all levels from youth to the national team, and many of the staffers who might have been able to fix such things have either left Soccer House or left anonymous comments that speak ill of the federation. Longtime CEO Dan Flynn has successfully harnessed national team successes and a general rising interest in soccer to a much stronger financial base than the federation had 20 years ago, but in the wake of his departure, U.S. Soccer has problems with staff, youth development and public image.

That’s why the next CEO of U.S. Soccer has to come from outside.

It’s not simply a question of the optics of elevating Jay Berhalter to the CEO position while his brother is the men’s national team coach. It’s not even a question of all the anonymous fingers pointing at Berhalter as the source of many of the federation’s ills. It’s simply time to get an outside voice.

Dan Flynn, who announced his retirement in February, left his post as U.S. Soccer as CEO in September.

Perhaps U.S. Soccer’s board realizes the problems, and that’s why Berhalter hasn’t simply been promoted. If you serve a long time as the top executive’s right-hand man, and everyone knows that top executive is about to retire, you’d think the decision would come quickly. But discontent with Berhalter is evident, and the Washington Post’s Steven Goff reported in June that Cordeiro was hesitating to make that hire.

Another longtime executive, Brian Remedi, is more or less in charge on an interim basis since Flynn’s long-expected retirement. But U.S. Soccer hasn’t given him the job, either.

Finding an outside person might not be easy. Grant Wahl reported in September that the rash of lawsuits has had a chilling effect on finding good candidates. Again, some of the blame here goes to lawyers -- a couple of these cases are flimsy. But some aren’t.

That’s hardly the only problem the fed faces. A youth task force -- desperately needed to address the stagnant participation numbers, spiraling costs and sputtering development pipeline (boys and girls) -- has been diversity-challenged, though it’s starting to make some progress and may soon roll out some recommendations. The lower divisions of professional soccer are still going through some upheaval, though that might not be solved until the NASL’s lawsuit winds its way through court sometime in the 2020s. Rollouts of coaching and referee education programs have had a few hiccups and technical issues.

The good news is that the finances are in good shape, thanks in large part to the Copa America Centenario and Flynn’s conservative budgets over the years. (No, they’re not solely the result of the U.S. women’s national team winning two straight World Cups. Check the 990 forms.)

Some of U.S. Soccer’s problems can be ameliorated by throwing money at them. The federation would surely avoid paying the full freight of the women’s team’s back-pay demands if they go to court, but coming up with a number to make the suit go away would solve a lot of problems. They can always use more scouts and regional outreach programs.

But it’s also important to understand the CEO’s job. The CEO must have the economic background to work through budgets, and she or he must have the managerial skills to deal with programs ranging from referee and coaching education to the new women’s beach soccer team. We’re not talking about a coach here.

And in the long run, the public focus on the national team pay might backfire. I’ve found no evidence that either national team is underpaid in comparison to other countries. (Players associations are welcome to provide it.) A typical successful federation is more likely to funnel its prize money and national team revenue back into development. Once the Centenario surplus dwindles, the federation will still need to spend more on the next generation and growing the game in general. We’re not going to miss the next Christian Pulisic or Rose Lavelle because the current Pulisic and Lavelle are making a few thousand less than they’d like on their six-figure paychecks. How many Pulisics and Lavelles are we missing because we have inadequate scouting and a chaotic, expensive youth soccer system?

So the new CEO may need to be more flexible than Flynn, Berhalter and former president Sunil Gulati have been -- many of the inequities in men’s and women’s pay fall at their feet and could have been easily avoided -- without spending the surplus all in one place.

A new hire won’t please everyone. Major League Soccer general managers probably have the resumes, but the Soccer United Marketing conspiracy theorists won’t like that. Some state federation managers may also have applicable experience, but they’ll be accused of being insiders. An outsider may be accused of not being a “soccer person.”

We can only hope U.S. Soccer is talking to a wide range of candidates, including women and people of color. (Worth noting: In the past two years, the federation has added two people of color to upper management -- Cordeiro and Earnie Stewart. That’s not enough to excuse the federation from looking for a diverse group for its most crucial hire in years -- yes, even more crucial than Gregg Berhalter or Vlatko Andonovski.)

And if U.S. Soccer has dragged its feet on the CEO search this long without talking to qualified candidates from outside -- which we don't know -- what does that tell you about the state of the fed?

(Beau Dure's latest book is "Why the U.S. Men Will Never Win the World Cup: A Historical and Cultural Reality Check." He is also the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad,” and has been a longtime youth soccer coach and referee in Northern Virginia.)

12 comments about "U.S. Soccer's problems call for a CEO from the outside".
  1. Bob Ashpole, November 1, 2019 at 8:03 a.m.

    USSF needs 2 equal CEOs, one to manage the organization and one to manage soccer. The jobs are too different and difficult for one person to do both.

  2. frank schoon replied, November 1, 2019 at 8:57 a.m.

    You're exactly right Bob. My head is smoking reading about this 'catfights' between administrative  metro types. I can't find myself in this garbage , I need someone ,like you say, knows about soccer, who, in my perspective, knows what the grass smells like, has actually played at a high level and has a no nonsense personality about making soccer decisions and most important who LOVES the game.

  3. Wooden Ships replied, November 1, 2019 at 9:32 a.m.

    Two things they could do today is not require Chicago residency and not have to have an English Major. Additionally, to halt the false results of play to play, adopt training compensation. Or, should I say adhere to FIFA's standard which encourages development over won-loss resumes.

  4. Wooden Ships replied, November 1, 2019 at 9:33 a.m.

    Pay to play.

  5. frank schoon replied, November 1, 2019 at 10:02 a.m.

    Ships, good points....Let's get down and go back to the basics...

  6. Thom Meredith, November 1, 2019 at 10:19 a.m.

    Good piece Beau As lm sure you know your piece could have been 3x as long and not covered all of soccer’s problems and/or possible solutions. As someone who spent a total of 12+ years working for USSF  both in Colorado Springs & Chicago and  in pro soccer 10 years before that let me focus on one issue and whether it’s examination by this Youth Soccer Task Force is included TOGETHER with youth soccer’s issues will tell me pretty quickly if these folks ‘get it’. IF you don’t discuss and find solutions for BOTH the player development issues (which ALSO  means fixing the 800 lb gorilla called the  Parent Problem ) AND the equally challenging need for more and better referees on all levels then whatever solutions  this task force identifies will be incomplete IMHO. 

  7. Philip Carragher, November 1, 2019 at 11:17 a.m.

    If US Soccer's player development program can admit it needs a complete overhaul and needs ideas on how to do it, it need look no further than USA Hockey's player development program, called ADM, American Development Model. Today, USA Hockey's approach focuses on the introduction of hockey to kindergarteners and how to keep them playing. One successful tactic is to keep them improving and it's worked: the players keep coming back and they feed players into the highest levels with frequency. They even addressed the high cost of playing hockey in order to help recruit and keep families that couldn't afford it otherwise. Here is an article from 2015 that mentions how our country's amateur hockey organization, at the time of the Miracle On Ice, was unprepared for the increased interest in hockey participation. But they were better prepared when Wayne Gretzky showed up; shortly after Gretzky-fever began, USA Hockey introduced ADM:   I'm guessing that it'll be almost impossible to have the player development program we're wishing for without an overhaul and that also means not just finding one person for this position or that. Otherwise, maybe we should focus more on using soccer and player development as a means to develop healthy, active adults and stop wasting resources that we may, years from now, wish were redirected all the way back in 2019.

  8. Christopher Tierney replied, November 1, 2019 at 12:12 p.m.

    Love it Phil and how spot on you are.  The answers all already exist in other American sports.  Will those in soccer be willing to admit that they need the assistance?

  9. Christopher Tierney, November 1, 2019 at 12:11 p.m.

    Nice article Beau and congrats on the book....I look forward to the days when US Soccer brass recognizes that they can draw on the expertise of other sports in this country.  Working with USA Basketball to learn how to penetrate inner cities, working with USA Baseball and USA Hockey on scouting initiatives, etc.  Finally, partner with USA Basketball in development...there are so many crossovers in these two sports.  Broadly speaking, American kids cognitively understand movement without the ball, in is an area that is sorely lacking in soccer.  Use both sports to raise the bar.  We need to start doing things our way, we need soccer leaders to think outside of the box.  

  10. Alejandro Cabero, November 1, 2019 at 1:20 p.m.

    There is a low profile, successful former MLS player, with a Doctorate in Business, experience as Sport Director in MLS, conservative enough to fit and as minority to build empathy on a crucial issue for US Soccer: Chicago Fire/ USMNT / Colombian-American Diego Gutierrez. 

  11. R2 Dad, November 1, 2019 at 3:14 p.m.

    USSF's focus on control will eliminate any CEO candidate with a foreign passport. I think the best candidate will not come from the MLS ranks, but I don't see how that is politically possible--the whole SUM relationship/money is central to how USSF thinks about the game. Good article, Beau.

  12. Bob Ashpole, November 3, 2019 at 12:52 p.m.

    Beau, your timing of this article to coincide with the U17 debacle is amazing. Progress needs to start at the top.

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