U.S. Soccer House, U.S. Soccer's
headquarters since 1991, is actually two houses, both mansions.
The Kimball house and the adjacent Coleman-Ames house are located on Prairie Avenue, on what used to be Chicago's millionaires row, home to the great industrialists of the late 19th century.
U.S. Soccer moved into the Kimball house from its headquarters in Colorado Springs in December 1991 as it ramped up for the 1994 World Cup under then-CEO Hank Steinbrecher, who lived in Chicago suburb Glen Ellyn.
My first visit to the Kimball house was in early 1993 during the U.S. Soccer Summit the federation hosted in Chicago. All I remembered was that there was junk piled high in the lobby.
The lobby looked the pretty much the same when I visited the Kimball house in early December, nothing fancy. Only this time, the junk was gone. In its place was a giant Kimball piano. (The Kimball house's first owner was William Wallace Kimball, founder of Kimball pianos and organs.)
I had been told the conditions at Soccer House were so crowded that staff without cubicles sometimes sat down on the stairs, pulled out their laptops and worked from there. On a tour of the two connecting houses, separating the business and soccer sides of the organization, I didn't find anyone working on the stairs, but all the renovations going on underscored the effort to relieve the crowded conditions.
U.S. Soccer's workplace issues received national attention when just before the 2019 Women's World Cup a small number of reviews were posted on the employment networking site Glassdoor.
The reviews told a story common to those with strong opinions about their current or former employer on topics such as pay, hours, work space and communication. The negative U.S. Soccer reviews referred to working at the federation as a "dream job" -- a chance to work in American soccer at the highest level -- but addressed grievances directed at upper management in great detail about what several termed a "toxic" culture.
A current employee confirmed to Soccer America that the reviews, which picked up right after Memorial Day, had been a topic of conversation among staff around Soccer House for several weeks and "reflect the general feelings of most of the staff."
U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro dismissed the notion that the federation's working environment was "toxic" but he did say the Glassdoor reviews were a wake-up call.
Cordeiro's characterization of the reviews came after a presentation to U.S. Soccer's board of directors on Dec. 6 during which a good portion of the three-hour session was spent addressing workplace issues.
Brian Remedi, appointed the chief administrative officer in September while the search for a permanent replacement for retired CEO Dan Flynn goes on, updated the board on the hiring of a commercial real-estate firm to help the federation evaluate its need for and find new workspace.
But the star of the afternoon was U.S. Soccer's chief talent & inclusion officer, Tonya Wallach. As the HR chief, she outlined measures being adopted -- "modern work policies" was the title to the power-point presentation -- to cover the federation's growing staff.
They followed an engagement survey on workplace conditions -- a direct result of the Glassdoor reviews -- and 10 focus groups held in November to review the results of the survey and steps being taken to address issues related to communication, the management of the staff and the physical workspace.
Communication included how management informs staff, both formally in writing, and at all-staff meetings. Managing staff included revising work policies regarding work days, comp time and dress codes and developing a merit-based system that promotes the best ideas through goal-setting, appraisals and pay rewards.
"A merit-based organization is one where the best people and the best ideas win," said Wallach, "where all employees have a chance of succeeding and equal chance at the rewards available at the organization. That requires minimizing the effect that biases have, both conscious and unconscious. The way we do that is by establishing processes."
The challenges U.S. Soccer has faced are not unusual for a growing organization. Cordeiro said there were 50 employees when he joined the board of directors in 2007 as the first independent director. The latest head count put the federation's full-time staff at 172 -- 64 in sports performance (national teams), 37 in sports development, 39 in corporate functions and 32 in commercial.
"Ironically, it took Glassdoor to wake us up to the fact that our workspace was inadequate," said Cordeiro. "Of course, we knew that, but we merrily went and won world championships or another, forgetting that we had some great staff coming to work every day. There was no place to have lunch. No coffee room. The dining room doubles as a board room."
But the federation's issues went beyond just the distractions of winning back-to-back Women's World Cups in 2015 and 2019. U.S. Soccer was overwhelmed by a host of off-the-field issues, its management of the 2016 Copa Centenario following the indictment of the tournament's Conmebol and Concacaf organizers in 2015, the fallout from the USA's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, including the decision of Sunil Gulati, president since 2006, not to seek re-election, and multiple lawsuits, complex, highly publicized and costly, filed against it in the last two years.
Cordeiro said the federation is very focused on changing.
"You heard this story of lack of communication," he said. "That tells me the organization needs more formalized communication mechanisms so staff knows what is going on. I come out of a place like Goldman Sachs, where every day there is a memo from management about who's leaving, who's coming, what's going on. That wasn't happening. That was happening by word of mouth.
"Formalizing communication is one thing. Soccer House is another thing. It's a lovely old house, but it is not the most conducive to meeting. We don't have meeting rooms. We're taking rooms and cutting them into four and putting dividers up because we're running out of space."
The engagement survey conducted by the Leadership Research Institute was just a more formalized version of the Glassdoor reviews, and "some pretty telling stories came out of this," said Cordeiro.
"All the stuff Tonya talked about," he said. "Self-appraisals. My god, how can you not? Well, we didn't have self-appraisals. We didn't have formalized reviews. It is a little bit taking the federation into the 21st century and making it a little bit more corporate-like, recognizing employees are decent people. They need to be looked after. And they're not easily replaceable. You lose a valuable employee -- it takes years to rebuild all that. I thank Glassdoor, and I thank those who wrote, because it did provide us with a wake-up call. But I wouldn't take it to the other extreme and say this place is burning down."