Carter Makes it Eight and Changes Everything. Or not.
More politics of soccer politics.
EDIT: I posted this about 15 minutes before I saw the news that Gulati was not running for re-election — had I had my act together and written it yesterday the piece might have been prescient, had I waited until tomorrow the take would have been ‘now what?’ Timing, as they say, is everything.
The news that Soccer United Marketing (SUM) president Kathy Carter is likely to run for president of the US Soccer Federation — and that incumbent president Sunil Gulati likely will not run — adds a twist to an already interesting race for the top office in soccer’s governing body in the United States. First reported by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, Carter’s candidacy will reportedly be supported by both Gulati and Don Garber, the Commissioner of Major League Soccer (the top US men’s professional league). Carter is a former college player and has spent her career on the business side of the sport.
For those late to this party the US Soccer Federation, often called US Soccer, is the “governing body of soccer in all its forms in the United States.” Headquartered in Chicago, it is more than 100 years old and has a budget of more than $100 million. The president and vice president are volunteer positions elected by Federation members (more on that below). Most people know US Soccer as the folks behind the Women’s National Team, which has won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, and the Men’s National Team which somehow managed to not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The next election for president of US Soccer is in February. Potential candidates need to file formal paperwork and nominations from three members of the Federation by December 10th. As of this writing there are seven announced candidates; Carter would make it eight.
Anyone who needs to be told any of the above doesn’t matter. Don’t feel bad if you’re one of those people — I don’t matter either. Very few people get to vote for president of the Federation, and not all of those votes have equal weight. The best explanation of the process remains Anthony DiCicco’s Who the hell votes in the US Soccer presidential election? As I’ve noted elsewhere, the US Soccer election looks more like the Democratic presidential nominating process than it does a race for mayor.
With the caveat that political professionals are notoriously poor political prognosticators, here’s my take on what Carter’s candidacy means.
First: Gulati isn’t running because he doesn’t think he can win (at least not easily). Better to go out a successful leader who helped soccer in the US make great strides, rather than someone who struggled and failed to hold on to power in the face of World Cup qualification failure. Should Gulati not run he likely will be asked to play a prominent role in the US/Mexico/Canada 2026 World Cup bid, and ideally the tournament itself. Should he run and lose a contentious race it is less likely that the eventual winner will be gracious.
Second: Carter’s candidacy is bad news for Carlos Cordeiro. Cordeiro is Gulati’s vice president. If Gulati and Garber endorse Carter she becomes the insider-closest to Gulati-who-isn’t-Gulati, the position Cordeiro was occupying as a candidate. It’s a bit like President Eisenhower telling a reporter “if you give me a week I might think of one” when asked for a major idea that was adopted from his vice president and then-presidential candidate, Richard Nixon.
Third: Carter’s endorsement by Gulati and Garber, and her experience at SUM, are mixed blessings. On one hand Gulati and Garber are probably liked and respected by many of those whose opinion matters (former players, professionals, and other soccer insiders — remember the election is about those who vote and how much those votes matter, not what those of us on Twitter think). The downside is that the endorsements could look like the insiders trying to keep it inside, and SUM doesn’t have a golden reputation. Carter told ESPN FC that Federation needs “new ideas” and a “fresh perspective,” but her saying that and voters believing it are two different things.
Fourth: On paper Carter’s candidacy combines the strength the former players bring and the strength the insiders bring. Eric Wynalda, Kyle Martino, and Paul Caligiuri are running as soccer guys arguing the federation is fine financially; it’s the development of soccer players that needs help, and that requires a soccer person to be in charge. Carter’s college career cuts against this argument. She also has soccer business and management experience which cuts into the strengths the non-players bring, thereby solving the business and sports challenges in one person.
Fifth: Carter’s gender matters. She would be the first woman to head the Federation. All of the candidates have to one degree or another, some quite forcefully, talked about the need for the Federation reflect and fully respect the women’s game. Carter’s election would be a symbol of that respect. If voting members of the federation are torn between Carter and other candidates, the importance of putting women in the top spot could tip the scales in her direction (on the other side, I really hope and want to trust that misogyny won’t cost Carter votes).
Finally: The underlying dynamic of the race has not changed. It remains insiders representing the status quo with some tweaks, versus outsiders who think the status quo needs shaking up. Carter has a unique set of experiences and skills, but she’s an insider and that matters for better and worse.
Final prediction here — not all of these candidates will be on the ballot in February. All might not submit the nominations and paperwork to run, and of those some may drop out before the election. If that’s correct, the jockeying for endorsements (and various commitments made in exchange for those endorsements) will be fun to watch.