Are some things more important than optics, even to a federation that could really use a PR win right now?
That would be the explanation for the hire of Will Wilson as U.S. Soccer CEO, which may or may not be the right decision in the long run but may not sit well with federation critics in the short term.
It’s not that Wilson lacks the resume for the job. A federation struggling with outreach to Spanish-speaking U.S. residents can’t complain about getting a guy who earned his MBA from the Tecnológico de Monterrey Graduate School of Business (EGADE) in Mexico and oversaw NFL operations in Latin America. Beyond that, he seems to have done everything there is to do in sports business.
But U.S. Soccer could’ve used a daring new voice in the mix. A woman, perhaps -- though the Federation will have Cindy Parlow Cone as president for the next 11 months. (Cone, to the surprise of some people, didn’t rule out running to keep the office in 2021 in a Tuesday teleconference.)
Then there are those three letters on Wilson’s resume.
Soccer United Marketing.
Between his tenure at SUM (and MLS) and his previous work with the NFL, Wilson’s hire almost seems designed to troll the trolls.
Of course, U.S. Soccer can’t make its decisions based entirely on the thoughts of people who still think MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who has held his position for two decades, is some sort of NFL plant. Much of the criticism of SUM is off target as well -- no one suffers financially from wayward national-team performance than SUM, which is on the hook for financial guarantees, and U.S. Soccer revenue hasn’t exactly trended downward in the years since SUM came into being.
But the concern over SUM’s influence within U.S. Soccer was big enough to upend SUM president Kathy Carter’s candidacy for the Federation presidency in 2018. As beneficial as the SUM agreement has been to this point, how thorough will the review be when that contract ends Dec. 31, 2022? Parlow Cone also pointed out that she asked MLS commissioner Don Garber to recuse himself from discussions of whether to hire Wilson even though Wilson hasn’t worked at MLS or SUM for eight years.
This hiring was an opportunity to shake things up and present a fresh face to the country. That’s not what U.S. Soccer has done.
That’s not to say hiring from outside the box is a bulwark against criticism. USA Gymnastics has struggled to keep CEOs since Steve Penny was pushed out in the wake of the organization’s sexual abuse tragedy in 2017. Other Olympic sports have cleaned house, only to find that the new bosses are on the firing line from the get-go.
Besides, soccer is a multi-headed beast, and the same critics who lambaste SUM also complain about a lack of “soccer people” in charge. Their definition is often a tad constrained, but a hire who had never worked in soccer might not have soothed any nerves.
“I think my [SUM] experience will be a big asset to the process,” Wilson said. “You know it’s a complicated game, all the various tournaments, all the various competitions and the way leagues work. It’s a complex landscape, and I think my time there will be a benefit.”
The most recent item on Wilson’s resume might encourage the players who are at the federation’s throats. He worked on the labor side of negotiations at Wasserman, albeit with clients who were talking about nine-figure deals from a for-profit organization rather than shares of FIFA prize money at a nonprofit.
He’ll have to rebuild trust on that front in a hurry. Tuesday’s teleconference shed light on a little-known Litigation Committee on the U.S. Soccer board that includes independent director Patti Hart, youth council representative Tim Turney … and Parlow Cone.
Even before Carlos Cordeiro resigned and handed Parlow Cone the presidency, she distanced herself from the recent legal filing that argued the men’s national team requires a higher degree of “skill, based on speed and strength” than the women’s team, as did other board members. Parlow Cone insists she didn’t see that particular argument before it was filed but raises the question of who was supposed to oversee the lawyers while the CEO position sat vacant and what was the committee told about the direction of the strategy in light of the depositions both sides were taking related to “speed and strength."
Parlow Cone and Wilson will have to work quickly to change the narrative at the very least. The “skill, strength and speed” argument was just one of scores of points U.S. Soccer’s legal team has raised among the volumes of documents filed in this case, but that’s the only one journalists outside (and, in some cases, inside) soccer have noticed.
Through unhappy accident, Wilson will have some additional time to get up to speed. Soccer stadiums and courthouses may not be open for a while.
Critics, though, work 24-7, virus or not. So does the women’s national team’s media machine. And grassroots coaches who have raised a succession of complaints over the year no longer have games and practices to distract them.
This job was never going to be an easy one, no matter who took it. It’s like being named fire chief while a city is ablaze. We’ll see how quickly Wilson can muster the support to extinguish the fires and build anew.