Among the eight presidential candidates certified Wednesday by the U.S. Soccer Federation, Carlos Cordeiro is the only one who currently sits on a board that’s served for the past dozen years under the leadership of the incumbent Sunil Gulati. Cordeiro joined the USSF as an independent director in 2007 and has been its treasurer and executive vice president, among other things. And for a long time, his proximity to Gulati appeared to represent Cordeiro’s short, easy runway to succession.
As Cordeiro unveiled his campaign platform, however, he tried to make the case that his time at U.S. Soccer has informed his candidacy and leadership style in ways the public might not expect. Rather than seek to emulate a president who could’ve been a model or mentor, Cordeiro told SI.com he’s following an alternative path.
“We can’t have more of the same. I think when we talk about change, ultimately, we need to ensure that we have very open, inclusive, transparent leadership if we are to achieve the growth we want,” Cordeiro claimed. “It can’t be about one person making every single decision. It can’t be an organization that focuses on only some members … I’ve worked very hard to get the board more engaged, and not just have it there as a rubber stamp—that may be too strong a word—but just to ratify things. We need a board who are engaged. That means they’re deeply involved in strategy, making critical decisions about expenditures. Those boards are, by and large, the best boards to have.”
Cordeiro, a long-time Goldman Sachs executive, publicly broke with Gulati six weeks ago, announcing his run for U.S. Soccer’s presidency before Gulati decided whether he’d seek a fourth term. Multiple sources indicated that Gulati wasn’t happy with Cordeiro’s decision, the timing of which now seems shrewd. With the beleaguered Gulati opting to stand down and the election two months away, Cordeiro is in position to proclaim himself a candidate of change with significant, hands-on federation experience and established connections abroad (he sits on the CONCACAF Council for example).
Whether or not that’s attractive to federation members, it’s a unique calling card among the candidates.
Cordeiro has witnessed U.S. Soccer’s growth and then what he believes is a “plateau.” He argued that the presidency as currently constituted has limited the influence and impact of the board and certain federation constituents, and that increased inclusion will drive improvement on the field and on the bottom line. One begets the other.
“If we want to grow multiples from where we’re at, we have to get our governance right,” Cordeiro said. “We’re already too big now for one person to be doing more and more of the same.”
The USSF is a complex organization responsible for everything from the high-profile senior national teams to coaching education and referee administration. During his tenure as executive VP, Cordeiro said he’s helped create four board-level committees designed to generate additional oversight (three are released to USSF finances and the fourth handles governance and nominations). If elected, he aims to form two more that may be of more interest to the American soccer public—a technical committee and a commercial committee. The former will be chaired by a former athlete and the latter by an independent director, Cordeiro said. And they’ll interact and advise U.S. Soccer’s paid, full-time CEO as much or more than the president.
Even as Gulati exits, the process of recruiting and hiring national team coaches has become a source of contention (it was discussed at the Dec. 10 board meeting in Toronto). The pursuit, appointment, retention and cost of Jurgen Klinsmann, who finally was fired 13 months ago, is regarded by critics as an example of the excessive power Gulati wielded as president. Cordeiro believes it was too much for one person.
Cordeiro’s platform calls for the new technical committee to advise the CEO on the hiring of two “general managers” (for lack of an official title). They’ll be the highest soccer officers at the USSF and there’s no current analogous position, although it’s somewhat common abroad. One GM will direct men’s soccer and the other will be in charge of the women’s game, and Cordeiro said, “I would think so, yes, it should be a woman,” when speaking of the latter.
The GMs will report to the CEO, not the president, and ideally they’ll be long-term appointments charged with shaping the direction of the country’s junior and senior national teams and player development initiatives. And that includes hiring and firing coaches.
“Responsibility has to be vested in people who have the expertise,” Cordeiro said. “The GM won’t work in isolation. He or she will have a team of people. Ultimately, it’s the GM—reporting to the CEO—who would be making the [national team coach] recommendation. When you’re talking about the senior coaching position, they come back to the board for approval either because of their contracts, the visibility, the importance and so on. It’s collective, collaborative management. But holding the people accountable who are responsible. And I don’t think that responsibility should be that of any one board member, including the president.”
Cordeiro continued, “By and large, the more sophisticated federations—the large ones we look to as competitors—they all absolutely formalize these sorts of decisions with people who are housed more on the technical side, not the political side … You’ll find that whether they call them technical directors, general manager for soccer operations—people have different names—these are highly experienced people who are full-time executives of the federations they work for.”
The second new committee, the commercial committee, would oversee the USSF’s marketing, sponsorships and TV deals.
“We don’t have that,” Cordeiro said. “In an organization this size, given all the potential conflicts of interest that you’re familiar with, we need some board oversight. It can’t be one or two people making deals.”
Much of the aforementioned federation business currently is conducted through Soccer United Marketing, the MLS investor-owned company whose contract with the USSF expires in 2022. The bodies’ relationship has been the source of some controversy, especially as the North American Soccer League points to SUM as evidence of the alleged collusion between MLS and the USSF that’s driving the second-tier league’s antitrust lawsuit.
That ongoing litigation (the U.S. Court of Appeals just conducted a hearing last Friday), along with a promotion-and-relegation complaint filed by the NASL’s Miami FC and NPSL’s Kingston Stockade to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, puts Cordeiro in a tough spot. Because he’s a board member with the defendant in both cases, he said he’s unable to discuss issues like pro league structure, sanctioning and support. They’re important, but off the table for the time being. The USSF election is in February. Meanwhile, Cordeiro’s platform calls for, “increase[d] support for professional leagues,” and it says he’ll be “working with all professional leagues, including the [NWSL] to help develop even stronger players, coaches and referees.”
On a broader level, however, Cordeiro maintains that clarity and oversight are part of better governance. His platform promises “open, inclusive and transparent leadership.” And better governance is the key component of a “virtuous circle” that will help U.S. Soccer catch up with its peers, he said. It doesn’t just trail on the field. Fiscal year expenses of around $110 million are “probably five times where it was maybe a dozen years ago,” Cordeiro claimed, but still way behind the game’s global powers.
“We need substantially more resources,” he said. “Germany or England—they’re over $500 million in annual expenditures. Even Spain, Italy and France are double or more where we’re at. They’re smaller economies, smaller populations, but it gives you a sense of the scope of those federations.
“By growing the [USSF’s] financial resources, you’re able to invest more in the federation’s activities, including all your members,” he continued. “That’s my fundamental point. To get to that next level, we’re going to have to transform this organization beyond where it’s at.”
Hosting the 2026 World Cup (along with Mexico and Canada) and then the 2027 Women’s World Cup is part of Cordeiro’s plan. Strengthening U.S. Soccer’s relationships with members and potential members is another. He said that while there are around 3.5 million affiliated youth players, there are “three to four times that many outside [the USSF] umbrella.” Connecting with unaffiliated or under-financed youth and amateur organization will increase membership and interest. And that, along with favorable demographic trends, will help the federation lift the value of its properties and sponsorships, Cordeiro argued.
“We’re the only sport that can transform itself in the next 10-20 years,” he said. “We need to change and we need to change right now, because I think we’re going through a period of history that will be unprecedented in favor of soccer. If you look at young people, the growth of the immigrant populations in this country—just the Hispanics alone, to name one large community—we haven’t been able to tap into those communities fully. To make soccer preeminent, one of the top one or two sports—not the top five—if we’re going to make the transformational job, we have the opportunity to do that in the next generation.”
He calls his plan Mission 26/27, targeting the two World Cups the USA should host and the approximate time he thinks it’ll take to grow U.S. Soccer to a $500 million organization. Then, he reasons, the federation’s potential is about more than the much discussed $100 million-plus surplus. According to Cordeiro’s platform, it’s about full-time federation employees dedicated to serving youth and amateur members. It’s about “scholarships and grants” for youth players, subsidizing coaches and licensing programs, investing in existing amateur tournaments, and “working toward equal pay” for the U.S. women.
“Women deserve to be treated equally and investing in our women’s teams is one of the best ways to grow the sport,” Cordeiro’s platform states.
Then, he says, it’s about making way.
“What I’m trying to do is put some structure into a large organization,” he said. “We—the board, the president—have a responsibility to make sure we have the right chief executive in that seat. Beneath the chief executive, there are director-level people [like the GMs]—experts in what they do—who should be an appointment, a hiring, by the CEO. The board needs to be involved, and maybe they board should have an opinion. That’s where the committees come in.
“If you have the right governing structures in place that are institutionalized and where the board members are meaningfully involved, you’re getting all the benefit of their advice,” Cordeiro added. “I don’t look at [president] as a job for life. It’s a huge job. Very challenging, even as a part-time person. Making these governance changes permanent is not something you do overnight. From there, I think the changes will flow.”