The Howler survey of candidates for president of the US Soccer Federation

(Mohammad Farhan Noor)

Over the past month, as the American soccer public came to grips with the failure of the US men’s national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the upcoming election for the presidency of US soccer has emerged as the first mile marker on the road to recovery.

Howler reached out to every candidate who has declared his candidacy—so far no women have announced they are running—for USSF President to examine this failure and answer questions about where US Soccer goes from here.

Three of those candidates—Paul Lapointe, Steve Gans, and Kyle Martino—chose to participate, and we present their unedited answers below in the order in which they got back to us.

And on the Nov. 9 episode of Dummy, George speaks with all three men about their views. It’s not a rehash of their answers in written form but rather an opportunity to go deeper and challenge them on certain points.

1. What should be the role of the US Soccer Federation in youth player development?

Lapointe: In regards to solely supporting a pathway to our national teams. We need a new defined local, state and regional identification program administered by the USSF, technical staff ,coaching and education departments that would be no charge for USSF recruited players. The role of the USSF for our youth in- town, club, travel, elite, ODP, MLS academies and DAs is to support an open system backed by a player registration reimbursement process to give the power back to clubs who wish to see the player move to higher levels and financially benefit from it. The USSF can administer this and keep them flying in the same flight pattern.

Gans: As a former Board member of and advisor to a Development Academy club and parent of two Development Academy players, I have been in the trenches. US Soccer must stop dropping uninformed, knee-jerk and naive edicts from 30,000 feet above, the results of which are often counterproductive. For instance, while some of the DA makes sense, some of the rules and strictures are utterly ridiculous and ruinous to producing players who play with joy and confidence. There should be emphasis on players from U9 to the DA playing in a serious yet fun environment (yes, all the way through the DA), so that we may produce creative, confident players, and not robots.

We simply need better coaches at the youth level. If clubs are going to be the primary source of youth development, then US Soccer needs to advance the idea of “teaching the teachers”. Potentially good coaches must be identified and coach education must be stressed. Similarly, we need to have more competent US Soccer scouts around the country so that potentially great players in inner cities and in rural areas are identified.

There has to be an effective identification process at an early age so that players with great potential are fast-tracked and receive additional training. With my technical advisors (former National Team and other team players), we will consider the establishment of regional training centers, similar (but not mirrored) to that employed in other parts of the world.

Some of the US Soccer surplus should be used to defray pay to play (scholarships) in specific instances to provide opportunities to players who otherwise might be shut out of the system. It is both the right thing to do ethically and practically so that underprivileged kids can get into the playing system. Small sided fields in urban areas of the type used throughout England should be constructed to provide further playing opportunities.

A top-notch National Technical Director should be hired to work with the youth national coaching staff, the DA (as well as the DA policy setters) and club DOC’s.

MartinoFirst and foremost we should be the door openers. Too many kids in this country are either never getting involved with or dropping out of our game for financial reasons. We have to make our game more inclusive by making it more affordable. US Soccer, together with its strategic partners, can do more to subsidize a good soccer education in this country to ensure we stop missing out on so many promising young athletes. On the other end of the spectrum there are many parents more than willing to pay the high premium for a good soccer education but aren’t getting what they are paying for. US Soccer should be using its network and our resources to create a more standardized high level coaching curriculum that can be applied at all ages. A touchstone for coaches before they add their own personality to the training of our youth. This is not to say there isn’t great youth coaching out there, I’m a product of it. It’s to make sure that we raise the level to match the few who do it well. And for those offering the best level of training for the youth I want to ensure that (whether it be with solidarity payments, training reimbursement, or grants tied to performance) they are rewarded for their work in ways that lower their overhead making it possible to offer their expertise at lower cost to families. That would incentivize others to not let profit motive get in the way of progress. I would also look to remove the “win” motivation at the youth level so we can encourage player development over team results.

2. In your opinion, why did the US men fail to qualify for the World Cup?

Lapointe: USSF structure, USA Pro system, USA youth system, USA coaching and education system. The concentration on the money of soccer rather than the development of the player, coaches and staff. It all starts with a president that has the qualifications and expertise to deal with all sectors of the sport.

Gans: The failure against Trinidad-Tobago was symptomatic of the larger systemic youth development and decision-making problems I have been talking about for months. The fact is, given the relative size of our country in comparison to others in CONCACAF (as well as the number of qualification slots), it simply never should have come down to a last game. The entire qualification process was troubling.

I never would have originally hired Jurgen Klinsmann. In my opinion, the current President does not have the qualifications to pick or assess National Team coaches, as he never really played the game, and otherwise has little basis for picking such coach(es). Though I played at a high level (college and signed a pro contract), I would never be so arrogant as to say that I was the sole decision-maker. Rather, I would convene several former National Team and other top players on a selection committee to help advise and decide on the coach(es). I never would have given Klinsmann a 4 year contract extension before a World Cup cycle. The $6.2 million in severance payments is damaging to US Soccer (a non-profit organization), and I would have done everything to structure the contract in a manner so as to have avoided that.

We need a better and smarter youth development system. We need a solid and deep pool of approximately 50 players in each National Team, so that players can push each other to make each other better.

But it goes back to the current youth development system. I have been on the Board of and advised a Development Academy club, and my two sons have played in the Development Academy (one who played throughout in the DA, and one who left the DA). There are too many uninformed and foolish strictures in the DA which create uninspired and unhappy players. This is a significant issue. You can’t be a great player if you don’t play with joy and you are not a happy player. Period.

MartinoI’ve heard all sorts of reasons from poor managerial decisions, aging players, bad bounces and phantom own goals. A confluence of uninformed decisions can explain why we will watch the World Cup this summer without the USMNT in it but if people believe failing to qualify is the problem instead of the symptom of whats wrong with our soccer nation we are destined to repeat this low point. We have a problem with our Women’s and Men’s National Teams at the top because we haven’t been focused enough on the bottom. We say we are a country of 300 million but in reality we are a small soccer nation. Some of that is out of our control due to our unique cultural challenges but most of it by our own making. We’ve turned soccer into a rich kids game and I can say that from experience being a rich kid myself. If my parents gave me the bill for soccer education I wouldn’t be able to afford it now. We have created financial impediments which have shrunk our player pool and worse we have failed to raise the training standard in this country. And that goes for the very top all the way to the very bottom of our pyramid letting them down with substandard training.

3. If money were no object, which five names would be on your dream shortlist for USMNT head coach?

Lapointe: Coaches teach the game, leaders develop champions.

Gans: There are certainly some names – both domestic and international – that would in my mind be attractive candidates for the USMNT job, but again, this would be a choice and decision (even who to interview) that I would make with the advice and consent of technical advisors. I do understand well the respective presumptive positives and negatives of a domestic and an international coach, and that would factor into my evaluation of each potential candidate. The presumptive weakness of an American coach is that he/she would not have a track record of international success at the highest level, but the positive would be that he/she would understand the mores of America, the demands of playing here (e.g., travel, artificial turf, etc.), and the American spirit and heart. Conversely, an international coach might be attractive because of his/her success on the international stage, but lack of familiarity, understanding and or embracing of the American spirit and psyche, as well as those unique mores and unique playing demands, would be without more a presumptive negative. Again, these matters would be carefully evaluated as to each prospective candidate, with a team of technical advisors.

MartinoI would rather not list coaches because I think you could get Guardiola and it would not fix what’s wrong with our program. First no one person should be selecting our head coaches. That’s what’s happened in the past and can never happen again. I’m one of the most qualified people in this country to select a coach and even I shouldn’t have that authority.

4. How would you invest the USSF’s nine-figure budget surplus?

Lapointe: Inner City, Youth soccer, Women’s equal base pay, Futsal, Deaf, Paralympic, beach, coaching/education. The list goes on.

Gans: I have been on record for some time as saying that some of the surplus will be used for scholarships for players who otherwise cannot afford to play and are therefore shut out of the system.

Until I have had an opportunity to analyze from top to bottom where improvement needs to made, as well as systemically regarding why we did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup, I will withhold specific commitments, but it seems clear that some of the focus should be on:

  • Facility/training development
  • Player development
  • Coaching education
  • Referee programming and development
  • More money into the women’s side of the game (USWNT, NWSL and youth)
  • Hiring of a top notch National Technical Director to oversee youth development

MartinoI would first meet with our CEO Dan Flynn, should we be lucky enough for him to stay on for more years, to get a sense of where we are spending money now. Important to make sure there is no waste or inefficient investing currently. The 3 areas I would want to make substantial investment from our surplus are: 1. Staffing. We are understaffed and this has been stressed internally for years. We need to promote/hire more experts in core areas of development as well as promote/hire more women to executive positions. 2. Subsides youth “elite soccer” we must make our sport more inclusive by first making it more affordable. 3. Build 4 Centers of Excellence where our most promising young players can get the best possible soccer education, for free. Obviously we don’t have enough surplus for all these initiatives so it would mean asking our strategic partners to match our investments for the mutual benefit of growing our game.

5. What further reforms (if any) would you like to see FIFA enact?

Lapointe: New bylaws that better define and enforce conflict of interest levels that spread throughout the very system we belong to.

Gans: I have no ties to FIFA, and I will be a true FIFA reformer. FIFA needs a true Conflict of Interest policy with teeth. The FIFA Ethics Committee needs to be real, and members must be able to serve with protections and independence. It is troubling to see the number of respected people who have either stepped down in protest or have been removed. FIFA also needs to be a better global partner and social justice participant. The reported slave labor issue relating to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is an issue in which FIFA must get involved.

MartinoHow much time do you have?

6. What is your view on promotion/relegation?

Multiple choice options:
A) There is no need to scrap the current system
B) A good idea, but it would be too difficult/disruptive to implement here
C) Implementation should be an immediate priority for American soccer
D) Implementation should be a long-term goal for American soccer

Lapointe: Implementation should be an immediate priority for American soccer.

Gans: [Declined to select from answers above.] Promotion/Relegation is a complex issue indeed. Pro/Rel is an inherent and exciting part of the sport worldwide. We all tune into the last day of the Premier League season with fascination to see who will stay up and who will go down. A healthy point has been made by Pro/Rel advocates in the wake of the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup: namely, players who play in leagues which have promotion and relegation may develop more of a cutting edge, because they are literally fighting for survival every day. That all said, Pro/Rel must be considered within the context of the economic structure of sports in America. I remember 1985-1996 when we did not have a top flight league in the US—there was little opportunity for fans or players. I don’t want to go back to those days. Again, it is a complex issue that needs to continue to be studied.

MartinoImplementation should be a long-term goal for American soccer.

7. What is your view on pay-to-play in youth soccer?

Multiple choice options:
A) There is no need to scrap the current system
B) A good idea, but it would be too difficult/disruptive to implement here
C) Implementation should be an immediate priority for American soccer
D) Implementation should be a long-term goal for American soccer

Lapointe: Implementation should be an immediate priority for American soccer.

Gans: [Declined to select from answers above.] The pay to play system is of course not ideal, but it is not going to go away any time soon. I have been on record as saying that some of the US Soccer $130-$140 million surplus will be used to provide scholarships to youth players who are otherwise shut out of the system because of financial reasons. It is both the right thing to do ethically and pragmatically.

MartinoThere is no need to scrap the current system. [Follow-up:] I know my answer to the pay to play question will raise some eyebrows, especially with my answers above the multiple choice seeming contradictory. The fact is you will always have some level of pay to play so I’m not sure how you scrap that even if you want to—you just need to do everything you can to eliminate inequality and financial barriers. We have to find ways to make elite soccer training free where we can and more affordable where we can’t.

8. What is your view on solidarity payments for youth clubs whose players become professionals?

Multiple choice options:
A) There is no need to scrap the current system
B) A good idea, but it would be too difficult/disruptive to implement here
C) Implementation should be an immediate priority for American soccer
D) Implementation should be a long-term goal for American soccer

Lapointe: Implementation should be an immediate priority for American soccer.

Gans: [Declined to select from answers above.] The current conflict between non-MLS youth club teams and US Soccer et al is but another example of the current leadership of US Soccer not dealing head on with an important complicated issue of some importance, with the result quasi or full litigation. I am come from a non-MLS Development Academy club, and I am sympathetic with the plight of these clubs in many of these cases. I also believe that MLS would like to work this out. My belief is that all sides should come to a presumptive negotiated settlement around practical and sustainable business terms, while also evaluating the legal enforceability of such terms.

MartinoImplementation should be an immediate priority for American soccer.

9. It’s the summer of 2020. The US U-23 men have qualified for the Olympic Games AND the senior team has been invited to participate in the Copa América. Which tournament should receive priority in terms of roster selection?

Lapointe: Olympics

Gans: The Olympics captivate and inspire our entire nation, but of course, the Olympic soccer competition is restricted pursuant to FIFA rules. As the Copa America offers better competition and preparation for the 2022 World Cup, I would all things being equal opt for the Copa America.

MartinoCopa América

10. Should the US men’s and women’s national teams receive equal pay, equal travel arrangements, and access to the same training and gameday facilities? YES OR NO?

Lapointe: Yes

Gans: [Declined to give yes-or-no answer.] I believe in equal pay for equal work. The USWNT just agreed to a new labor agreement based on their economics, which I would want to learn more about. The working conditions of the members of the USMNT and USWNT should be made equal immediately! Per diem, field conditions must be equal. The artificial turf issue as to the women is to me a huge issue. I hate artificial turf and view it as a necessary evil in certain parts of the country. I always hated playing on it (can’t play into space, more injuries, etc.). My older son played 31 of his 32 games as a U15 in the Development Academy on artificial turf, and at the end of that year he had a bulging disk in his back and he faced major surgery. I am sure there is a correlation between playing so much on artificial turf and that injury. The artificial turf issue must be addressed right away for the women, as it is an issue of fairness and safety.

MartinoYes

11. In your time working in soccer, what is the achievement of which you are most proud?

Lapointe: Developing staff, coaches and players from U3 to the Pros. The rest of my achievements in soccer speak for themselves.

Gans:

  1. Helping to successfully turn around the Boston bid effort to be a host site for World Cup ’94. When I was asked to get involved, the quality of the Boston bid preparations was ranked 29th and last of those American cities bidding to be a host site. I worked for 3 years on the project, and was most proud that Boston was ultimately chosen as one of 9 American cities which hosted World Cup ’94 matches;
  2. Coaching my two sons (and their teammates) in youth soccer. I must say that coaching those boys was the most meaningful and rewarding thing I did during the decade in which I was a youth coach;
  3. Coming back from many college injuries and signing a pro contract with the Baltimore Blast in 1984, and helping the Blast as an executive in the front office from 1982-84 become one of the most successful teams business wise in American pro soccer; and
  4. My international work in soccer. I believe that the exposure that the Premier League has had in this country has helped grow the game in the US, and has inspired many fans and young players.

MartinoRepresenting my country.

12. Is it a conflict of interest for US Soccer and SUM to share board members? Yes or no?

Lapointe: Yes

Gans: [Declined to give yes-or-no answer.] I need to learn more about the specifics here. There are standards of non-profit and for-profit corporate governance (such as disclosure, recusal, etc.), and at a minimum those must be followed.

MartinoYes

13. Is it appropriate for the USSF to mandate that players stand for the national anthem? Yes or no?

Lapointe: Yes

Gans: [Declined to give yes-or-no answer.] I don’t think there’s a reason to change USSF current policy on standing for the Anthem. I believe in free speech, and I generally support the right of those who desire to speak about issues of social justice.

MartinoNo