A battle for the soul of U.S. Soccer

A battle for the soul of U.S. Soccer is underway. And the sides are so firmly entrenched that this weekend’s Annual General Meeting might not resolve anything, even if the battle lands the Federation in hot water with the overseeing U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) -- and Congress.

Tugging in one direction is the notion that the Federation exists primarily to split its money between its senior national teams (men’s and women’s), professional players and promoters. That notion is tied to the lead weight of lawsuits, especially the one in which the U.S. women’s national team seems unwilling to relent in its claim for more money than U.S. Soccer is projected to have on hand in two years. Like the WNT, the NASL also has suffered setbacks in court, but its case is still dragging on and on.

(It has to be noted that the same lawyer, Jeff Kessler, is involved in both of those suits and another flailing legal action by Relevent Sports, now modified to go over U.S. Soccer’s head and drag FIFA to court. Twenty years after he led an ill-advised lawsuit by MLS players, he continues to chase the great white whale of a victory over the federation.)

Tugging in the other direction is the notion that the Federation should be as it was before the national teams and pro leagues took off – an organization in which adult amateur leagues ruled the roost.

The lawsuits have been covered in great detail, and they’re cited as part of the reason U.S. Soccer’s projected resources in two years will be $22.6 million rather than the projected $50 million the federation long intended to have on hand after the windfall of the Copa America Centenario and years of commercial growth gave them opportunities to invest in the interrelated areas of infrastructure, coaching development and player development. The other major factor in the federation’s slumping finances is, of course, the scourge of COVID-19.

A quick reminder: One year ago, the U.S. women’s expert economist pegged the team’s back pay at more than $66 million, most of it in World Cup bonuses many times in excess of what FIFA paid the fed.

The pull toward the “amateur” associations is newer, and it’s a defensive maneuver in the wake of legislation passed not in a U.S. Soccer meeting, but in Congress.

Bodies such as U.S. Soccer have long been required to have “athlete” representation of 20%. That number has been bumped up to 33.3% as part of a broad overhaul of the antiquated Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act, an effort taken in the wake of horrific sexual abuse scandals in gymnastics, swimming and a few other Olympic sports.

The U.S. Adult Soccer Association and several state associations aren’t interested in giving up any more of their power than they already conceded over the last 50 years.

The Adult Council currently gets roughly 25% of the vote in the Annual General Meeting, and it has two spots on a 15-member board – same as the Youth Council and the Pro Council. The Athletes Council gets 20% and three board spots, both required to meet the pre-2020 Stevens Act requirements. (The rest of the board: a president and vice president elected by the general membership, as will happen at the Feb. 27 meeting, three independent directors, and an “at-large” member elected through a byzantine process designed to give ancillary constituencies a say.)

So if you can’t beat the Athletes Council vote, the adult organizations reckon, join the Athletes Council.

The argument seems silly at first glance. The Youth Council represents the future, from those who will replace Megan Rapinoe and Jozy Altidore  on national teams to millions of future supporters. The Pro Council also represents athletes who may also be on national teams, and its clubs help to develop the sport’s supporter base. So why should the Adult Council – with all due respect to amateur leagues’ history, the least consequential of the federation’s major bodies – have the same say as the much larger Youth Council and higher-profile Pro Council, let alone more than the Athletes?

But the USASA and the states have a clever argument, encapsulated in a series of by-law amendments they have introduced for approval at Saturday's National Council meeting to expand the definition of "Amateur Athlete."

Even after the 2020 revisions, the Sports Act has a terrible definition of “Amateur Athlete”: “an athlete who meets the eligibility standards established by the national governing body or paralympic sports organization for the sport in which the athlete competes.”

Later in the Act, the definition is further muddled. The USOPC is required to have representation for “amateur athletes who are actively engaged in amateur athletic competition or who have represented the United States in international amateur athletic competition.”

The USSF adult constituencies are harping on the first part of that: “actively engaged in amateur athletic competition.” Congratulations, dude who plays in an over-30 league. You’re now at the same level of representation as Christian Pulisic and Becky Sauerbrunn, the latter of whom serves on several USSF committees.

The Act is still somewhat vague on the definition of “athlete” in terms of meeting the 33.3% requirement. It specifies 20% must be composed of athletes who currently represent the USA in international competition (Olympics, World Championships, similar competitions) or have done so in the past 10 years. The wiggle room the adults may have would be the undefined 13.3% for “athletes” but not necessarily “current or recent national team athletes.”

The USOPC, though, eliminated that possibility in its own bylaws, reserving those extra spaces for any athlete who has repped the USA at all, 10 years ago or longer. (See Section 8.5.3.) A lawyer may try to spin it differently, but it seems unlikely anyone could argue that U.S. Soccer could approve these bylaw amendments without running afoul of the USOPC – which, like it or not, is the parent body of U.S. Soccer.

Indiana’s association has a bolder idea, proposing to increase Athletes Council representation to 33.3% by eliminating some representatives, including both Pro Council reps! The Adult Council would keep one of its two representatives in addition to its players’ new status on the Athletes Council.

The Board of Directors, which voted overwhelmingly (12-2) not to recommend the “amateur athlete” redefinition, unanimously voted not to recommend the Indiana proposal. Instead, U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone and 10 other Board members have proposed to keep it simple and add three athletes to the board, giving them six places on a board of 18. This proposal received 11-3 support of the board.

In a peacekeeping effort, Cone wrote a letter asking that all the by-law amendments, including the one with her name on it, be withdrawn or tabled for now, with a special meeting to follow at some point after the staff, board and membership can come up with something palatable. That’s not likely to happen. The USASA and state association proposals may or may not continue with their proposals, which surely won’t get the two-thirds support required to pass. And there’s no guarantee the rest of the board will go along with Cone’s request to punt for now.

Even if Cone’s suggested delay comes to pass, it will merely put off the inevitable. Cone’s letter indicates that any discussion beyond this weekend will be less of a seminar and more of a lecture. She warns that the USOPC and Congress, which assumed more direct oversight in last year’s Sports Act revision, could move to decertify U.S. Soccer if they don’t move quickly to give athletes their required representation.

“Although the Board has been educated on these issues since October 2020, it has become apparent that there is a lack of understanding among the membership surrounding the recent amendments to the USOPC Bylaws,” Cone wrote.

Imparting that understanding is surely a matter of when, not if.
In other AGM business, the Board of Directors also isn’t interested in a West Virginia proposal to split Pro Council votes equally among men and women -- surprisingly, the vote to recommend against it was unanimous, even though it seems like a good way to demonstrate more of a commitment to gender equity. Nor is it signing off on a Metropolitan D.C.-Virginia Soccer Association policy proposal to slash registration fees – youth player fees would drop from $1 to 10 cents, adults from $2 to 25 cents.

This year’s AGM, which will be held virtually, also includes a couple of elections stemming from Carlos Cordeiro’s resignation as president in March. Cone was elevated from vice president to president at the time and is running unopposed to fill the remaining year of Cordeiro’s term. The election for the remaining three years of Cone’s vice presidential term has drawn four candidates -- longtime U.S. national team player Cobi Jones, Idaho youth soccer president Bill Taylor, longtime U.S. Soccer board member Tim Turney and Metropolitan DC-Virginia adult association president Jim Sadowski.

And the board is already changing thanks to sweeping change in the Athletes Council. A group of young athletes who banded together under the “Next Gen United” banner was elected after a strong social media campaign. The surprise was that three of only four holdovers running for 10 spots lost their re-election bids, most notably Lori Lindsey, the council’s vice president and one of the athletes’ representatives on the U.S. Soccer board.

So U.S. Soccer is changing, bit by bit. Athletes, particularly young athletes, will have more say.

Meanwhile, the adult amateurs pushing back on the changes will need to answer some questions. Why should they have as much say as the millions of youth players? Why do we even have separate “Youth” and “Adult” factions instead of encouraging clubs and therefore associations to have complete pathways from the smallest ages up to amateur teams?

Then everyone will be on the same page for the biggest challenge facing U.S. Soccer in the 2020s -- paying legal bills.

An earlier version of this story included U.S. Soccer’s projected registration revenue for FY2021 from several organizations. Though those figures were taken from the Annual General Meeting Book of Reports, US Club Soccer has reported far higher numbers -- around 490,000 youth players and 16,000 adults, which would put their registration revenue around $525,000. 

18 comments about "A battle for the soul of U.S. Soccer".
  1. Bob Ashpole, February 23, 2021 at 7:41 a.m.

    The requirement is for amatuer athletes, not athletes. An amateur athlete is an individual, not a council, even if it represents amatuer athletes. If USSF doesn't want to be an organization dedicated to promoting amatuer athletes, then it should give up its legal status as such.

  2. Beau Dure, February 23, 2021 at 10:22 a.m.

    Not sure I follow. 

    Note that the Sports Act definition of "amateur athlete" is not one anyone else would use. 

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, February 24, 2021 at 12:23 a.m.

    The old act used the organization's (USSF) definitions of amateur athlete. USSF not only has a simple definition, but it keeps updated records of the status of every amateur and professional athlete registered with it.

    An athlete is a player. An organization and "councils" are not players.

    USSF has never used it own definitions and player records in determining who is an amatuer athlete.

    If USSF continues promoting professional sports and players over amatuer athletes, then it should give up its legal status as the US regulatory body for amatuer soccer. There are national organizations dedicated to amateur soccer that are excellent alternatives (and also members of USSF).

  4. humble 1, February 23, 2021 at 11:17 a.m.

    Not being in deep in these matters, lets be blunt, Youth in this case really means Clubs.  Clubs do not necesarily represent Youth.  This is probably part of the reason congress changed the laws.  The article could be more clear on exactly what is the makeup of each of the constituencies.  By chance, I heard the 5 candidates the Next Gen United put forth interviewed by Glen Crooks. Much of what they highlighted as their priorities are items that the so called 'Youth' members should be advocating, but have not, as thier main interest is perpetuating the anuity like hold in their particular regions and localities on youth soccer.  Would love to read an article that shows excatly who all the players are.  USSF has for a very long enjoyed their sort of opaque status.  I for one was surprised when I could not find a Mission Statement for the organization when I stumbled into soccer in 2010.  Look no further than the US Youth Hockeys American Development Model.  Look at the Croatian Federations publication called Soccer Curriculum book - available in English for crimeny sake.  Ask yourself - what the heck have these clowns in Chicago House been doing for the past 20 years?  Thank you and please do continue to shine light on these matters.

  5. humble 1, February 23, 2021 at 11:28 a.m.

    Not to go off track, but I like to point this out every chance I get.  US Hockey never had $100M in the bank, but 12 years ago in 2009, two years after USSF started the DA, they launched The American Development Model for US Youth Hockey.  They did it with very specific goals and objectives - and - to use a baseball quip - they hit it out of the park - by their most important measure - participation. You go to their website - it is crystal clear how it works.  No such program or information exists for USSF.  Long way to go.  Do ´youth´players really have represntation in USSF?  I submit they do not. 

  6. humble 1, February 23, 2021 at 11:36 a.m.

    So I submit one more point, what does it say about USSF when a nation of 4 million Croatia, comes out of iron curtain in 1991 and by 2018 reaches final of World Cup and their federation in 2020, publishes a book in English detailing their development program.  For me it says the USSF is not at all focused on, or accoutable for developing our youth soccer players.  Lest we forget, youth soccer is more than the sum of kids playing in Europe and MLS, its really about the sum of kids playing soccer all across USA, in High Schools and Colleges, too. We can do better, much better.

  7. Kevin Sims, February 23, 2021 at 1:15 p.m.

    From U.S. Soccer Bylaws:

    The purposes of the Federation are: (1) to promote, govern, coordinate, and administer the growth and development of soccer in all its recognized forms in the United States for all persons of all ages and abilities, including national teams and international games and tournaments (2) to provide for the continuing development of soccer players, coaches, referees and administrators; (3) to provide for national cup competitions; and (4) to provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of grievances

    Is U.S. Soccer focusing its energy and resources on these declared purposes?

  8. Kevin Leahy, February 23, 2021 at 1:24 p.m.

    It sounds like the people involved @ the national level are much like the rest of this country. They don't seem to care about anything but their own agenda's. People need to work together for the common good. The lawsuits will finish this federation if, they can't resolve them. Good luck!

  9. David Kilpatrick, February 23, 2021 at 1:26 p.m.

    Characterizing Kessler as Captain Ahab does a disservice to your audience, Beau, and merely fuels the fire of those who accuse you of biased reporting.


  10. Marty Apple, February 23, 2021 at 1:52 p.m.

    I feel like USSF has done the bare minimum to continue to receive the status they have. Why aren't the youth clubs all across the US using a development playbook everywhere.  Why aren't there measurements for every youth club to determine their 'success'?
    Many youth clubs struggle to manage the coaching of inexperienced youth coaches because they lack structure and a simple, consistent plan of how to teach youth for each age group.  The other end of the youth clubs seem to have developed their own 'flavor' of cirriculum that works for them. None have to adhere to any standards for how they operate. No measurements provided, so they use college committments as the marker. That works for <5% of youth. What about the other 95% of players? Why doesn't US Soccer care? I still can't get my head around what USSF is accountable for? Making sure leagues operate and provide funding is not a good measurement to me. I see this surge in talent and wonder how the US can do better. Many clubs are stepping up and working with the proper intentions, but only for their club, which is very local.

  11. Ric Fonseca, February 23, 2021 at 3:36 p.m.

    Folks, what  rankles the mind is that the US Soccer dilemma has been on going for several decades.  When I first got really involved in the game during the late 60s and thereafter, whether playing, managing, coaching, officiating, organizing etc., and afterr attending several Federation AGM's, it became all too apparent to me (during the 70s) that there were several areas of contention, vis-a-vis control of not just the pursestrings, but control in general, from the very small league, clubs, affiliation vs non-affilication.  And I vividly remember attending an AGM when the ayso, threatened (and did) file suit in federal court demanding a piece of the action, e.g. getting to be full members of the US Youth Soccer component of the Federation, a suit that I believe was settled out of court.
    so, folks, if you think that this is only a US Soccer fisaco, you ain't seen or experienced nothing yet when it comes to trying to gain control of a team, club, league or association, the backstabbing fights, the egos, etc., all in the name of hopefully advancing our sport. So, since the late '60s to the present, the federation is indeed in a sad state of affairs and not much of anything has changed, oh, ok, maybe in name only but certainly not in substance.  PLAY ON???

  12. humble 1 replied, February 24, 2021 at 12:07 p.m.

    So true.  The case of the American, Chuck Blazer, is very revealing, in that he is basically the only one ever touched and was technically outside USSF in CONCACAF, but, as many of you know, he was very very connected within USSF.  Read between the lines.  Bottom line, root cause for what you correctly point out is - zero accoutability at USSF - has been a charactaritic of it´s entire existence.  If the issue of accoutability - i.e. oversight - is not resolved - likelihood of change - not high. 

  13. R2 Dad, February 23, 2021 at 5:41 p.m.

    As an outsider, it appears we've handicapped ourselves as a nation by making MLS the tentpole of USSF and everything else is ancillary. In most other countries, the leagues are the vessels that provide structure for club competition--they're not the owners of the clubs. There is too much conflict of interest at every level of the sport--player development is dead last instead of first. How can that be changed within the current structure? US players are succeeding despite USSF, not because of it.

  14. R2 Dad replied, February 23, 2021 at 5:45 p.m.

    I know a lot of old-timers are amazed and thankful for the development of the sport over the past 25 years. Yes, there has been improvement, but other nations have improved more over those years than we have. I'd be more content if I didn't have children in the sport to see first-hand how the sausage is made.

  15. Bill Dooley, February 24, 2021 at 8 a.m.

    The national governance of soccer is making that for boxing look competent. The "guidance" from government politicians has not been helpful.

  16. humble 1, February 24, 2021 at 12:22 p.m.

    As for the lawsuit part of the article, it is probably the case that when the lawsuits mentioned began, USSF was still sitting on $100M in cash.  Most federations around the world live hand to mouth, subsiding on strategic partnerships between gate revenue from games.  Hard to understand how in the world USSF sitting on that cash heap could not make the ladies happy.  Hard to swallow any explanation that does not include incompetense and lack of oversight and accountability.  The ladies are to be commended as they make so little but give so much.  In my town the head coach of the pro-basketball team hosted several of the lady pros - to help out.  I would not blame the lawyers in this case, from my perspective they are more like Robin Hood than Ahab.  Just more inexplicable incopetence from Chicago House.   

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, February 25, 2021 at 3:51 a.m.

    One has to wonder if USSF intentionally made itself cash poor thinking that claiming poverty would influence the judge. Under these circumstances no judge is going to be impressed.

    What is supposed to happen, accounting wise, is that a contingency is supposed to be set aside to cover the expected loss of litigation. For an organization that is never audited (an accounting review of a financial statement is not an audit), they can get away with managers saying that they have zero risk for the litigation and therefore don't need to reserve a contingency fund. It is just another way to cook books that are not audited.

  18. Philip Carragher, February 25, 2021 at 10:04 a.m.

    I think we've created such organizational mayhem that we've forgotten about the kid who just wants to play and the kid who started out just wanting to play that later wanted to learn more and to play against tougher competition. I believe we have lost the soul of soccer and based on this mess I don't have much hope we'll find it again. Humble noted where the improvement sits just waiting for one of these knuckleheads to simply pick it up and copy it: US Hockey's American Development Model. I haven't read the Croatian information but I bet its on target. A big part of the ADM comes from Canada's Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), a youth athlete development model that focuses on helping youth athletes complete their youth sports wanting to remain active in their adult life. None of this is rocket science.

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