Cindy Parlow Cone got her start in soccer growing up in the Memphis, Tennessee area. She had a poster of Mia Hamm on her bedroom wall and playing in the yard with her bigger, older brothers no doubt contributed to her remarkable rise in the game.
She graduated from Germantown High School early to play for the University of North Carolina and was called up by the U.S. national team at age 17. At training camp, she was assigned to be roommates with none other than Hamm. At first, she was nervous, but Hamm put her at ease. As teammates, they went on to win Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004 — the former was when Parlow was the squad's youngest player — and the 1999 World Cup title.
Between retiring in 2006 and becoming president of U.S. Soccer in 2020, Parlow Cone coached in college (she was an assistant at North Carolina, where Anson Dorrance has credited her work as a big factor in the Tarheels' 2012 national championship), the pros (she is the only female to coach a team to an NWSL championship, guiding the Portland Thorns to the 2013 title) and youth. In fact, Parlow Cone remains a coach and director of coaching at North Carolina FC Youth, one of the largest clubs in the country with revenues of almost $14 million in its last fiscal year. She recently finished a season with her U-19 girls.
Parlow Cone's bid for a full four-year term as U.S. Soccer's president is being challenged by Carlos Cordeiro, who endorsed her for vice president in 2019 and whom she replaced as president when he resigned on March 12, 2020. A day after Parlow Cone took the helm, Covid-19 was declared a national emergency.
"If you look back to the federation I was handed in March, 2020," Parlow Cone says, "we had a toxic environment at Soccer House. We had no CEO [chief executive officer], no CCO [chief commercial officer]. At least half the country was angry at us. Our players were angry at us. Our fans were threatening to leave. It was a real challenge. And then you throw COVID on top of all of that. I've been able to lead the organization through that and right the ship."
We spoke with Parlow Cone nearly two years into her presidency, four weeks ahead of the election — which will take place on March 5 at the virtual National Council Meeting — and four and half years before the USA hosts the men's 2026 World Cup.SOCCER AMERICA: What have you learned as a coach that has helped you as you lead U.S. Soccer?
CINDY PARLOW CONE: "I don't think it's just my coaching experiences. It's all my experiences within the game and also outside of the game. One of the main things that I've been able to transfer to U.S. Soccer is the ability to build teams and to have people working toward a common goal. Bringing people together, inspiring people, challenging people, getting people wanting to work with me and for me.
"Coaching at pretty much at every level of this game — from youth to college, to pro, to some youth national teams — has given me a pretty good understanding of the landscape and all of its beauty and all of its challenges."
SA: Are there issues that players and parents at your club convey to you relating to things that U.S. Soccer can address?
CONE: "One of the things that hit really close to home during COVID is the mental health aspect. Especially coaching kids, who have gone through sports shutting down, school being virtual, and just the mental health aspect of sport in general. How can we do a better job to support athletes and their families to navigate mental health? I think Dr. George Chiampas has done some great work in this area for all of our members."
SA: What do you gather are the concerns in youth soccer at clubs smaller than yours and in different areas of the youth game? And what can U.S. Soccer do to address them?
CONE: "I've coached at a small club and now I'm at a bigger club. One of the things U.S. Soccer can do is address the fracturing of the youth game at the kind of elite-level landscape. Bring the groups together and come up with guiding principles of competition.
"At the grassroots entry level, U.S. Soccer can work at U-6, U-8 and U-10 age groups in equipping the moms and dads with a framework, a toolkit to help them be successful coaches. That's also an opportunity for U.S. Soccer to encourage more women to get into coaching. I feel many times culturally the dads raise their hand even though they don't necessarily have any more expertise or experience in coaching than the moms. Use this as an avenue to get more women into the game.
"Referees: We're reaching a crisis moment with the referees and a lot of challenges around the treatment of referees at every level of the game. Which leads to challenges of retention and recruitment. I think U.S. Soccer can do a lot of work with our members to improve the numbers and improve the quality, but most importantly, work to improve the experience of the referees."
Cindy Parlow played all six games in the USA's run to the 1999 Women's World Cup title. Her two goals included a fifth-minute header in the USA's 2-0 semifinal win over Brazil.
SA: Upon announcing that he wanted to once again be president of U.S. Soccer, Carlos Cordeiro criticized U.S. Soccer for abruptly shutting down the Boys and Girls Development Academies ...
CONE: "COVID forced us all to make really hard decisions about programming and about personnel. Every organization, whether you're a sports organization or not, every industry had to make really hard decisions. For me and the group of experts that we had, along with our internal staff at U.S. Soccer, we looked at our financials and there was really no choice. We weren't going to cut national teams. We weren't going to cut youth national teams.
"In terms of getting out of youth programming, we have our members who actually do youth programming and could take up the slack. ... Since then we've had several different organizations in the so-called elite youth realm with the GA, MLS Next, ECNL and now the [US Youth Soccer] Elite 64. I get he may think that, but decisions had to be made that were really tough and hard."
SA: It seems that there's an advantage for the federation not to run youth leagues because it put you in the middle of the turf war, which wasn't working out so well.
CONE: "Yeah, it was challenging because we were competing against our members. There were a lot of good things about the DA, but there were also a lot of challenging things about the DA and you hit on one of them: that when you're in competition with your members there's always gonna be a pushback."
SA: Carlos Cordeiro's path to the presidency includes convincing youth membership to vote for him while he doesn't have the background and experience in youth soccer that you do. How involved in youth game issues was he when he was president? How do you convince the youth vote that you're the better choice to guide the youth game?
CONE: "People need to also remember U.S. Soccer is a nonprofit membership organization. It's not a cutthroat financial institution. Soccer people running soccer just makes much more sense. I think I've led the organization through unprecedented challenges and demonstrated my competent leadership and business acumen. I think everyone knows my soccer acumen. And it's time for us to look forward, not backward. Things are moving in a good direction now.
"I'm not going to pretend that I know all the answers to everything in the youth game or the adult game or pro game. I don't. But I do live it every single day. So I understand the issues and the pain points in the youth game. I will continue to work on the different aspects and see where U.S. Soccer can help our youth members."
Cone took over as president of U.S. Soccer on March 12, 2020, after Cordeiro resigned following the backlash into the filings by U.S. Soccer in its lawsuit with members of the U.S. women's national team that contained sexist and misogynistic language and that argued that women's players didn't have the same skill, ability and responsibility as the men.
She was one of three board members along with Patti Hart and Tim Turney named to a litigation committee tasked with overseeing the federation's legal cases. After the filings in U.S. district court were made public and Cordeiro resigned, Cone said she had not read them. Seyfarth Shaw, the federation's law firm that submitted the filings, was fired and replaced by its long-time law firm, Latham & Watkins, which submitted revised filings. U.S. Soccer was granted partial summary judgment in the case, which is now on appeal before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
U.S. Soccer chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke resigned amid an investigation by an outside law firm into the circumstances of the filings. That investigation has not been made public.
"Carlos was the only board member to get the report," said Cone, "so I thought that myself, Tim and Patti should have received it, but apparently Carlos didn't put in the proper processes into place to make sure that that happened. So it was basically left up to our general counsel. We had no CEO at the time. So the CEO wasn't making decisions either. We had been without a CEO, I think, for like two years at this point, so none of us received it."
SA: Did you or the other members of the litigation committee consider resigning?
CONE: "We did not receive [the filings]."
SA: Given the history of Seyfarth Shaw as an aggressive anti-union firm and the direction of some of the questions in the depositions, were you at all concerned how the direction of the litigation was going?
CONE: "I'm concerned that there's even litigation so I'm concerned about all of it because I don't think that this litigation is good for U.S. Soccer or soccer in the U.S. All I can tell you about the filing is I didn't see it. When I did read it, I was horrified that someone would even write that much less that it would come from U.S. Soccer and I found it deeply concerning that it wasn't read by the people that were responsible for it."
At the 2021 National Council Meeting, Cone announced plans to convene a Governance Task Force to propose amendments in U.S. Soccer's by-laws to comply with a new federal law requiring that athletes’ representation on National Governing Bodies (voting membership and board and committee composition) increase from 20% to 33.3%. It was a politically charged process for the federation: Cone, the Athletes' advisor in 2018 when they swung the president election in Cordeiro's favor by their unanimous vote for his candidacy, was leading the process to give the Athletes even more power.
That task force met through the summer in an attempt to reach an agreement. In October, the National Council approved sweeping changes, increasing the Athletes' share from 20% to 33.3% and reducing the shares of each of the other three councils (Pros, Adults and Youth) from about 25% each to 20%. A compromise was reached on the new board's composition under the terms of a sunshine provision that will need to be revisited in 2023. The task force exposed the distrust that exists among members of different councils, and criticism of Cone's handling of the process has fueled intense opposition to her candidacy that exists in the Adults and Youth ranks.
SA: Were you surprised at how difficult it was for the Governance Task Force to try to come to a resolution on the restructuring?
CONE: "No, I really wasn't because I get where the members are coming from. No one likes to lose their percentage of vote, regardless of who you're losing it to. The governance process was really hard, but it was something that needed to be done. And I think a lot of good came out of it. We had members who were communicating and working together with each other who historically haven't ever worked together.
"Were there hard conversations? Absolutely. Was it challenging to take percentage points away from different members? Yeah. But I think we landed in a good place, taking equal percentages from the Adults, Youth and Pros. So everyone was affected the same to come into compliance with the congressional mandate."
SA: In retrospect, is there anything you think you would've done differently in terms of leading the process?
CONE: "I don't know. I think it was going to be a hard process and I don't think there was a way around it. The only other possibility would be if everyone just accepted the board recommendation early on. But we knew that that wasn't going to happen. Our members wanted to go through this process, which I don't think was necessarily a bad thing."
SA: What can you do going forward to alleviate the concerns of a lot of the Youth and Adult people that you are the Athletes' representative and will represent them and not other members within the federation?
CONE: "I think it's moving in the right direction. This was another thing that the Governance Task Force was good for is that the membership actually got to interact with and talk to the different Athlete Council members, because they were on the Governance Task Force as well. And to see how engaged they are and how much they care about soccer at every level.
"I think there was this perception that they only really cared about it at the professional and international level, which anyone that's interacted with members of the Athletes Council know that that's not true. They care about soccer at every level. So I think that's one step.
"But it needs to continue. To continue to have our athletes engage with our members, whether it's on the field showing up at their events, or off the field, in terms of communicating about different topics that are important to both groups. I think that we're moving in the right direction and we still need to do more on that. From the federation standpoint, we need to have more touch points with our youth and adult members.
"I think this is one mistake that I've made as president, as I've relied so much on their representatives on the board to bring me their viewpoints. Through this process, I really learned that they really want to have that direct relationship with the federation, and not go through their board members. Moving forward, that's one place where I will do a lot more work and make sure that I'm reaching out directly to the members and having my team reach out directly to the members more often."
SA: How long do you expect before the Sally Yates investigation into the NWSL will be finished? Will it revisit U.S. Soccer's 2018 investigation into Dames and will it extend beyond the NWSL to abuse at the youth level?
CONE: "We've given Sally full rein and full autonomy to take the investigation wherever she thinks it needs to go. We've given her all the resources, access to any documentation that we have. I'm not in direct contact with Sally.
"We put a group together that's communicating with her, so I know no more than you do. [That group is headed by the federation's independent directors.] Everyone on our board pretty much is conflicted except for independent directors."
SA: The adult amateur level has blossomed in the terms of the number of clubs competing in national leagues in recent years. But without an organized national pyramid, that has resulted in charges that leagues are stealing clubs from each other and from state amateur leagues. What is the federation's role to help guide them so they work together to grow the game?
CONE: "I don't think it's too dissimilar to what we're seeing in the youth landscape. One, I think it's great that our teams are coming about and growing the game. But the fracturing is challenging in one respect. In another respect it creates competition. But I do think that there needs to be some ground rules around competition, because the stealing of teams from one league to another, I don't think is OK. We need to bring the groups together and set up some competition guidelines, principles that we can all follow for the good of the game."
SA: Carlos Cordeiro's argument is that he's better suited to help lead the federation from 2023 to 2026 in terms of the organization of the World Cup. And there are people like USASA president John Motta who say you don't have the business experience to do that. How do you see your role and the federation's role over the next four years?
CONE: "The lobbying for votes is over for World Cup 2026. Now it's leadership. And it's going take innovative leadership to make sure we meet the moment and use this moment to exponentially grow our sport and make sure that the World Cup has a positive impact. Not only in the host cities but in all 50 states.
"It's going to be connecting with all of our members, every state association, all of our pro leagues and really working with them. We've put a framework together of a comprehensive Road to 26 program, that will focus on legacy, promotion, participation and fandom with the clear goal that everyone who loves this game will benefit.
"We've already put the framework together. It's going to be working with a different individuals because what works in one place isn't necessarily going to work in another state. For the host cities, it's a major investment on their part, but the returns are pretty amazing. The chance of hosting the equivalent of multiple Super Bowls in one city during the World Cup.
"For us at U.S. Soccer, our focus is on helping these host cities, helping our members and being good partners and creating these legacy programs so that we have the Road to 26, we have the event, and then we have the the tangible legacy projects that we leave behind in every community."