ORLANDO, Fla. — It was a small sign, perhaps, but it may have been indicative of what’s to come from Carlos Cordeiro, who was elected as the new president of U.S. Soccer here on Saturday after three rounds of voting and a historic and contentious eight-candidate campaign.
Not long before he was scheduled to take the podium by himself for his first press conference as president, Cordeiro asked U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn to come to the stage with him and take questions side by side. Many inside U.S. Soccer think Flynn has been the federation’s most important figure for years, the guy who runs the day-to-day business and has built a $150 million surplus, but Flynn has always kept a low public profile during the 12 years Sunil Gulati was president. They almost never did side-by-side press conferences.
Cordeiro is different. “My campaign was all about being more collaborative, inclusive, working on teams,” Cordeiro said of the style he will use as federation president, the chair of the board of directors. “You will see a very different leadership [from Gulati’s] going forward.” And so Flynn was on the podium with him.
Cordeiro freely admits he is not a soccer expert and will soon be part of a collaborative process to hire two U.S. Soccer general managers—positions newly approved by the board, one for the men’s side and one for the women’s—who will oversee technical decisions and report to the CEO. Those decisions include the hiring of coaches; the U.S. men’s job needs to be filled, though that may wait until after this summer’s World Cup.
Under Cordeiro, who has served as the federation’s vice president for the last two years and as an independent board member for nine years before that, the federation president will have less power than Gulati did. Not only will the new general managers oversee technical matters on the soccer side, but the board itself and members of the Athletes Council, among other entities, are set to be more engaged in decision-making.
One of Cordeiro’s biggest challenges will be to convince those inside and outside the federation—including fans—that even though he was seen as Gulati’s right-hand man for a decade, he will bring about real change now that he is president in a way that Cordeiro did not fully push for (publicly, at least) as vice president. And even though Cordeiro split from an angered Gulati by announcing his candidacy before Gulati had exited the race, that process of convincing everyone will take time for Cordeiro.
Yet Cordeiro won on Saturday—defeating the slight favorite, Kathy Carter—by convincing enough voting blocs that his promises of reform were real. Cordeiro was the only one of the eight candidates who had been through the federation election process before, having won a contested vice-presidential election two years ago. That required him to build relationships with the voters, which include youth and adult state associations around the country.
While other candidates were spending more time speaking to the media, Cordeiro kept a lower media profile and focused more on traveling to spend time with the voters. In some weeks he visited as many as 10 different states.
“I’ve been back and forth across the country for the last three months on a weekly basis,” Cordeiro said on Saturday. “I’ve been to places and states and cities I’ve never visited before.”
While Cordeiro was viewed as one of two “establishment” candidates, it’s also worth noting that Cordeiro defeated the preferred candidate (Carter) of MLS owners and the two most powerful figures in U.S. Soccer (Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber). This election was swung, in the end, by the 20-member Athletes Council, which is required by U.S. law to have 20 percent of the overall vote.
Everyone knew coming into Saturday that the Professional Council, which includes MLS, the NWSL, USL and NASL, was almost unanimously in support of Carter, giving her 24.1 percent of the overall vote. But the Athletes Council was undecided, and its typical desire to vote as a unified bloc meant it could play the kingmaker as long as the athletes involved reached a consensus on a candidate.
That consensus took time. It reminded more than a few participants of serving on jury duty. A three-and-a-half hour closed-door meeting on Friday afternoon by the Athletes Council didn’t achieve consensus, and the group returned for another session late Friday night after dinner. The council was considering three candidates: Carter, Cordeiro and Kyle Martino.
“It’s not easy when people feel passionately about certain candidates to build that consensus,” said Athletes Council member Stuart Holden afterward. “It took a number of hours.”
Finally, not long before midnight, the Athletes Council decided to throw its entire support behind Cordeiro. Had it chosen to do so with Carter instead, Carter would have won the election in the first round with 54.6 percent of the vote. Instead, Cordeiro had 36.3 percent in the first round with Carter at 34.6 percent, sending the election into Round Two with no candidate having a majority. (Cordeiro himself didn’t know he had the bloc support of the Athletes Council until Saturday morning.)
Why did the athletes go with Cordeiro and not, say, a former athlete? Holden said: “Getting behind Carlos Cordeiro as a candidate, we felt [better] with his skill set to be able to change some of the governance, to be transparent, to be open to working with different groups and still have international relations and the business side.” Holden added that he felt Cordeiro’s inclusiveness—that term again—would be “empowering” to the athletes.
“I was just impressed by Carlos’s ideas,” Holden continued. “And I loved that he was vulnerable in saying that he’s not the smartest soccer guy in the room and he wants to find the smartest soccer guys. To me that resonated strongly.”
Round Two didn’t create a majority winner either, but Cordeiro’s support went up 5.3 percent (to 41.8 percent) and Carter’s support went down 1.3 percent (to 33.3 percent). The writing was on the wall for Carter. In Round Three, MLS and the Pro Council switched from Carter to Cordeiro, giving him 68.6 percent and the victory.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Cordeiro can win over the public. In my Twitter poll conducted in late December that had more than 12,000 votes, Cordeiro got just 4 percent of the vote when users were asked to choose among him, Martino (44 percent), Eric Wynalda (41 percent) and Carter (11 percent). In a vote among the American Outlaws supporters group last week, Cordeiro finished dead last among the eight candidates, receiving just 1.3 percent of 904 votes.
What the public thinks doesn’t matter in the election, however, and when the time came on Saturday for the voters to decide, Cordeiro convinced enough of them that he was the candidate who would be best for the federation. Now he’ll have four years to convince the public that he’s the right person for the job.