Commentary

John Motta on building a pyramid at top of amateur game, launching Women's Open Cup and taking position on U.S. Soccer presidential race

John Motta, the president of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association, has been involved in soccer in an administrative capacity longer than anyone currently serving on U.S. Soccer's board of directors.

Motta, now 64, was 18 when he was appointed the secretary of the Bristol Sports Club in Bristol, Rhode Island. His father was one of founders of the club, the social club for Bristol's largely Portuguese community, in the 1960s. The club no longer has a soccer team, but it was one of the members of the Luso American Soccer Association, which had clubs all across New England and thrived into the 1980s even as the traditional ethnic leagues waned.

After college, Motta went into his father's business as a Dunkin Donuts franchise operator and moved to New Hampshire to build the business. His four grown children are all involved in the business, which operates 32 Dunkin Donuts stores in New Hampshire and the Tidewater area of Virginia.

When he first moved to Nashua, New Hampshire, Motta didn't have time for soccer except to regularly watch the local high school team in the fall. The president of the New Hampshire Soccer Association approached him one day and asked who on the team was his younger brother.

"I have nobody I know," Motta said. "I just love watching the game. He goes, 'Really? So you really like soccer? We need to get you involved with the New Hampshire Soccer Association.'"

Motta first got involved in U.S. Soccer politics as the president of the New Hampshire Soccer Association. He ran against and defeated Sunil Gulati for U.S. Soccer vice president in 1998. Two years later, Motta faced off against Gulati again, and Gulati won and became president six years after that.

Motta is currently the president of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association with 220,000 registered players and chairman of U.S. Soccer's Adult Council. He talked with Soccer America at the United Soccer Coaches' convention in Kansas City about issues the Adults are facing and his view on the U.S. Soccer presidential race.

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In Kansas City, Motta brought together representatives of five national leagues affiliated with U.S. Adult:

• NPSL, founded in 2003, with 92 members in 2021 and 13 expansion teams announced for 2022. Following the demise of the NASL after the 2017 season, the NPSL explored the possibility of starting a league with professional teams but it never came to fruition.
• UPSL, which started in Southern California in 2011 but has grown to more than 300 clubs across the country. It was purchased by a holding company, ELP Brands, in 2020.
• NISA Nation, the new national amateur league started by NISA with 10 teams in 2021. It has 24 teams signed up for 2022 and was given provisional status as a national league by U.S. Adult Soccer in January.
• WPSL, formed in 1998, making it the oldest national women's league with 135 members. In 2012, it operated the pro-am Elite League that served as a bridge between WPS and the NWSL.
• UWS, another national women's league, started in 2016 with 11 teams. It has grown to more than 90 teams operating in two divisions.

These aren't the only national amateur leagues. The United Soccer League, which affiliates directly with U.S. Soccer, operates USL League Two (the former PDL) and is relaunching a women's league, the USL W League, in 2022. The USSSA's National Soccer League operates divisions in Florida, Texas and California and has a smaller women's league. In addition, NISA Nation has seven regional leagues under its umbrella.

Interest in forming adult programs has been the rage in recent years, among both adults returning to the game after college, within immigrant communities and by youth clubs seeking to add an adult component to their offerings. But with multiple leagues that operate private businesses, the competition to attract new clubs is fierce and charges of poaching rampant.

On the men's side, Motta said the obvious next step is to examine the feasibility of a tiered national league operated by the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.

"I threw it out there," he said. "I threw the bomb. 'All you guys are doing the same thing pretty much. Would there be an appetite to organize a pyramid with USASA running the top league?' I threw it out there because I knew it is elephant in the room. There was no negative feedback that came back. There was nobody jumping up and down with the idea. But at least I think they were open to getting into a room and furthering that discussion."

Former U.S. Adult president Richard Groff has returned for a two-year term as the organization's vice president and will be chairing a task force to discuss ideas that came out of the Kansas City meeting.

"We're a big country," said Motta. "We've got to take that into consideration. If there was one top national league -- let's call it Division 4, which doesn't exist right now -- and then the next level, which we could call Division 5 and would be more regionalized leagues, and then after that, we could get our strong state leagues as Division 6, they could all go up and down [with promotion-relegation]. It's a monumental task to do this. Nothing's impossible, but it's gonna take serious people in a room to have that discussion, but at least I planted the seed, and they're not objecting to it. They definitely said it's worth more discussion."

Motta is realistic about the challenges that exist:

"If we really want to put adult amateur soccer on the map, I think that's efficient, that's what we should be looking at. Those are huge obstacles because [the leagues] are privately owned. I'm not the owners, so I don't know how they feel. That's why we need to put them in a room and let them talk amongst themselves and see what they come up with."

The WPSL and UWS are advocating for a Women's Open Cup, like the Men's Open Cup U.S. Soccer organizes. Motta said discussion about starting a Women's Open Cup predates the launch of the NWSL in 2013. The issue then was trying to get women's pro soccer on a strong footing before adding a new competition.

"I don't think they're still that strong," said Motta in reference to the NWSL, which will enter its 10th season in 2022, "but saying that, I am going to go to the Open Cup committee after this meeting and tell them they need to take a look at a [Women's] Open Cup once again because there is strong desire from the amateur ranks."

Motta, the former Open Cup committee chairman, says that if the federation doesn't want to launch a Women's Open Cup and subsidize travel costs like it does on the men's side, the discussion is that U.S. Adult Soccer will start an Open Cup.

"Pre-MLS, U.S. Adult Soccer ran the men's Open Cup for many years," he said. "So they see that as -- you guys did it with the men, let's do it with the women. At least get it off the ground."

U.S. Adult Soccer has organized a Women's Amateur Cup, like it organizes the Men's Amateur Cup, which the Lansdowne Bhoys won in 2021 to earn automatic qualification into the 2022 U.S. Open Cup.

"We try every year," Motta said of the Women's Amateur Cup. "We did one last, but I'll be honest -- it was half-ass because three of the regional teams that won the regions that were supposed to go all dropped out. And at the last minute we had to like beg teams to come to the final four. Region One was the only team that was a true winner at the nationals."

Motta said U.S. Adult Soccer would like to resurrect the Michelle Akers Cup, which is similar to the Hank Steinbrecher Cup, which brings together champions of the different amateur leagues and will be expanded to five teams to include the USSSA champion in 2022.

"We have another proposal to let the regions do their own competition and the winner goes on to the champions of champions," said Motta. "The teams don't have the finances to travel to these events. The federation does subsidize the Steinbrecher Cup today. If we can get the Michelle Akers Cup back on track, they're going to have to subsidize it as they do the men."

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Clashes between national leagues and national leagues and state associations over the poaching of teams have increased in recent years. As each new national league is sanctioned, the others complain that it is taking their teams.

"We are bound by federal law," said Motta. "The Ted Stevens Act says you cannot deny membership to anyone. If somebody wants to be a member of ours and they meet our criteria, we give it to our rules committee. If they check all the boxes and the rules committee says that they meet all the criteria, it can give provisional status and we cannot say no. [The national leagues] understand, but they would like us to include strict rules. You can't poach, you can't do this, you can't do that. But then again, it's an open market, right? It's like me [at Dunkin']. I can't tell people, you can't go to Starbucks. People are free to go where they want. And what I tell everybody is, you got to create the best mouse trap out there."

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U.S. Adult Soccer is at the crossroads. In the days before the late 1960s when soccer took off, the state associations ran soccer in the United States. But in the 1970s, the growth of the youth game led to the formation of state youth associations under U.S. Youth Soccer.

More and more states now have joint associations following the merger of the adult and youth associations, a concept that Motta supports and that existed in New Hampshire when he was the state association president.

"There's good and bad," he said. "The good is the youth have the infrastructure, the resources, the offices, where we can't do that. The negative part is the adults become the stepchild of the state association."

The federation's three councils -- Pros, Youth and Adults -- have held the same voting power. It used to be one-third each, but that has been diluted under federal law as the Athletes were given 20 percent of the vote and this year their representation was increased to one-third.

U.S. Soccer's Governance Task Force met in 2021 to hash out changes to its by-laws to comply with the changes to the federal law. The Athletes' share of the vote on the National Council increased from 20 percent to 33.3 percent, while the Pros, Youth and Adults saw their share drop from about 25 percent to 20 percent each. Such was the discord between the councils that no permanent changes to the composition of U.S. Soccer's board of directors was approved, and the board is operating under sunshine provisions in place until 2023.

"Throughout the whole governance process, USASA had the largest target on our backs," Motta said. "They were after us during that process. And one of the messages I got loud and clear was we don't have big numbers. We got 220,000 players. Compare that to the youth -- U.S. Club has got half a million or U.S. Youth has got 3 million. They really didn't think that we deserved the same strength as they did."

Motta says more than just the number of registered players should be considered.

"When there was no federation years ago," he said. "who ran the federation? We did, the old-timers. Who ran the Open Cup when the federation didn't do anything with it? We kept the Open Cup going. So there's a lot of historical value to USASA. Nobody really puts into consideration that without the amateur game there's nowhere for our referees to get into the pro game. That's where they cut their teeth. They become really good referees in the amateur game, they don't get it at the youth game. So you take the amateur game away and there's really no training ground for referees in this country to become professional referees."

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Motta says he is supporting former president Carlos Cordeiro against current president Cindy Parlow Cone in the U.S. Soccer presidential race that will be decided at the National Council Meeting on March 5 in Atlanta.

In 2020, Motta lost to Cone (73.8%-26.2%) in the race for U.S. Soccer vice president. A month later, Cone was elevated to president, following Cordeiro's resignation in the aftermath of the federation's contentious filings in its lawsuit with members of the U.S. women's national team.

SA: How would you say Cone has done? What do you agree with? What don't you agree with?

JOHN MOTTA: "I'm very honest and transparent. I think she stepped into the role of president a little bit over her head. She's very smart, but she stepped into a role where she had really no experience, and we are where we are today."

SA: Are, you surprised is that Cordeiro is running again?

JOHN MOTTA: "No."

SA: Do you feel he should run, given the fact that he resigned?

JOHN MOTTA: "Absolutely."

SA: So was it a mistake for him to resign?

JOHN MOTTA: "I respect what he says. He was the president. Somebody screwed up. It's his responsibility and he took the sword for everybody. That's honorable even though he had put people in place to make sure nothing slipped through the cracks and it slipped through the cracks."

(Motta is referring to U.S. Soccer's litigation committee on which Cone was one of three members. Cone said no one on the committee read the reply brief in which the federation's attorneys at the time argued the women's national team players did not have the same physical abilities or the same responsibilities as the men. U.S. Soccer's chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke was placed on administrative leave and later resigned. The findings of the investigation into the internal processes that led to the filings going out without review remain a mystery.)

"I'm a businessman and I look at it through a business lens. We have a multi-billion-dollar event coming here in four-plus years, multi-billion, right? That's no laughing matter. Again, no disrespect to Cindy, but she's never run a business, has no business experience. She's a great athlete, great coach. But if I look at it through the lens of what's best for soccer, Carlos with his contacts around the world and his business experience and Cindy? It's an easy decision.

SA: Four years ago. Did you support Cordeiro?

JOHN MOTTA: "No. And he hated me for it. I supported Eric Wynalda, and I told Carlos from day one I supported Eric and never wavered off of that."

SA: What would you say is the state of the race?

JOHN MOTTA: "I think it's even, pretty much, right now."

Photos: Robin Alam/ISI Photos

7 comments about "John Motta on building a pyramid at top of amateur game, launching Women's Open Cup and taking position on U.S. Soccer presidential race".
  1. R2 Dad, January 25, 2022 at 12:57 a.m.

    "You can't poach, you can't do this, you can't do that. But then again, it's an open market, right? It's like me [at Dunkin']. I can't tell people, you can't go to Starbucks. People are free to go where they want. And what I tell everybody is, you got to create the best mouse trap out there." Maybe it's time to not run the leagues like gambling/marketing sideshows?  This Wild West/smoke-and-mirrors approach to operations might have been OK 40 years ago. Don't we deserve better?
    No disrespect to this guy, who has spent his life in the sport. I had always hoped soccer could avoid the divisive ownership dynamics of the other professional leagues like the NFL & MLB. 50+1 anybody? 

  2. Harry Oei, January 25, 2022 at 12:58 p.m.

    I was wondering why there hasn't been a women's Open Cup.  I realize that money is a huge factor, but I would have thought some version of it would have been created by now.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, January 26, 2022 at 5:26 a.m.

    I never knew that the "open" cup was restricted to men's teams. Even if women's teams are not allowed to compete, typically men's teams may have male and female players. (Women's teams may not have male players.) A men's open cup is not the same as an open cup.

    I find it strange that Motta supports Cordiero over Cone because she has "no business esperience", but he supported Wynalda over Cordiero! Appears sexist, but perhaps he just holds a grude for losing the VP election co Cone in 2020.

  4. Harry Oei, January 25, 2022 at 12:59 p.m.

    Also, interesting comments about Cone and Cordeiro.  Hmmm.

  5. James Madison, January 25, 2022 at 2:39 p.m.

    People who are in it for the politics are a major factor in holding back the development of soccer as a recreation activity in the United States.

  6. Ric Fonseca, January 25, 2022 at 2:59 p.m.

    I am sujrprised at the legth of this article and tha amount of ink devoted to this candidate.  Hmmm, did Ms. cone receive equal treatment, e.g. length of article?  

  7. John Hofmann, January 25, 2022 at 6:44 p.m.

    At this point I don't lean towards any candidate for U.S. Soccer president.  Interesting, though - Mr. Motta indicates appears to indicate he holds Carlos Cordeiro in higher regard for that position because inpart Cindy Parlow Cone "has never run a business, has no business experience...".

    And yet Motta previously supported Eric Wynalda against Cordeiro.  After looking at Wynalda's experience, he appears to have a background more similar to Cone's.  Hmm.

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