I just played the biggest game of my life, and I lost.
It was not a game I was supposed to win, but in a way that was always going to make me more likely to suit up. As the youngest of four boys, bad odds have never deterred me—I was born into them. Being the underdog has always driven me, but I don’t consider this a special quality in myself. It makes me quite ordinary in the world I come from. Spending my life around other elite athletes, I know the trait you will find in all of us is an insatiable competitive drive. Although I consider it one of my greatest characteristics, sometimes it can feel like a curse—like in those rare moments I ruin pleasant social outings by upping the intensity of a casual game of charades to that of a World Cup final. So when I boarded the plane to Orlando for the U.S. Soccer election, I had to keep reminding myself that winning isn’t always about getting the highest score.
Once we were on our way, I sat quietly in my seat, headphones snug in my ears to tune out the world as I mentally sifted through hundreds of hours spent on the phone and in person with members of the U.S. Soccer Federation. These are the people on the ground around this country who have been growing the game for decades and are charged with picking a leader. One of my first calls at the beginning of my campaign had been with the leader of a State Association, of which there are 55 across the country acting as branches of U.S. Soccer at the local level. I remember him saying to me: “Kyle, I got involved in this because I was the only one who raised my hand. I’m not a soccer person, but I love this game and am just looking for some help so I can make this game fun for our kids.”
Another call that stuck out was one from the day after Thanksgiving, where an entire board of an association got on the phone with me: “Kyle, we don’t feel the Federation is there for us, so we have grown on our own in order to make our membership feel supported. As others lose participation we have actually grown it by focusing on the recreation level—it is the foundation of our game and we don’t feel the Federation understands that.”
Or this similar call: “Kyle, I think the Federation is only concerned with the national teams and the professional game. I don’t think they realize these kids aren’t having fun anymore. Actually, I know they don’t realize it because they just passed a rule, without asking us, that separates best friends at 8 years old. If they would have asked us, we all would have said don’t do this—it’s bad for soccer.”
These people, many of them volunteers, have given so much to this game. And while it had been an exhausting few months trying to speak with and meet with as many of them as possible, that time had also been invaluable in changing the way I see our soccer landscape and crystallizing in my mind the most significant challenge we, as a soccer nation, face: redefining our approach to youth soccer.
Culturally we will always be fixated on winning a World Cup and producing world-class talent, but we forget World Cup winners, MLS MVPs or Hermann Trophy winners all start at the same place: the bottom. Every player given the honor of representing the U.S. on the field or lucky enough to sign a professional contract is introduced to the game by volunteers—the organizers, the educators, the facilitators that make the local game possible. These people across the 55 State Associations (a few states are divided into two) are integral to the health and growth of the game, not just because they help develop the talented few, but because they inspire and encourage the vast majority who are destined to just play the game for fun.
Therein lies the crux of the epidemic we face now, and I don’t use that word for hyperbole. I use it because one of my heroes did. Mia Hamm, who is coaching youth soccer in Southern California (how cool is that?), uses it herself to describe what she sees on the field. It’s an epidemic summed up with a simple idea: “the kids aren’t having fun anymore!”
Declining participation numbers corroborate what Mia and others are recognizing. The professionalization of the game at younger and younger ages is driving costs up and players out. Knowingly or not, the Federation had created a system that was slowly suffocating our sport.
When I was coming up as a player, youth development was largely up to the State Associations. It was their job to design the infrastructure, nurture the players, and educate the parents. Without much help or guidance from above, they did their best, and we produced some great players this way. The youth soccer space was imperfect but functional, and, most importantly, the kids were having fun.
But over the last decade, there’s been an increasing drive to produce world-class players without the required vision and guidance from the Federation on how to accomplish this. This has led to a fractious youth soccer landscape, where clubs compete for players and parents are left anxious about whether they’re doing enough for their kids. The State Associations have been sending out distress signals for years, with no Federation lifeboats in sight.
In fact, instead of recognizing this deteriorating situation and taking responsibility, the Federation decided to become one of the competitors by creating the Development Academy, a “league” comprised of a mixture of independent and MLS-affiliated clubs. The DA became yet another product in youth soccer for parents to choose between. This is not to say that DA soccer doesn’t provide many great benefits to its players; it’s just that adding it to the system placed the Federation in direct competition with its members, putting State Associations under threat. Running these state organizations, many on a shoestring budget, was becoming more and more challenging as the “Prep School of Soccer” drew children of parents willing to pay and travel for the prestige. Instead of lowering the cost of “paying to play” and making the game more enjoyable, U.S. Soccer created a model that in many ways does the opposite.
Fixing this mess was, to me, one of the most critical issues of the campaign, and coming out of the United Coaches Convention in mid-January, I could tell that my focus on it was resonating with many of the State Youth Associations. At the end of the convention, U.S. Youth Soccer took a straw poll behind closed doors, and I came out the winner 2-to-1 over Carlos Cordeiro. The challenge was that, after subtracting the share of votes controlled by large organizations like U.S. Club Soccer, youth soccer state representatives comprised only slightly more than 20% of the total vote, and mobilizing the majority of a very fractured electorate required to win on a single (or even a handful of) important issues has historically proven near impossible. It’s one of the reasons there hadn’t been an open election for president in 12 years.
Even still, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of optimism when call after call confirmed that helping reinvigorate the youth game was the most important issue for many voters. But that optimism would be tested once I hit the ground in Orlando.
This was my first AGM, but the unprecedented nature of an eight-candidate election seemed to transform veterans into first-timers. Trepidation filled the atrium of the Renaissance Sea World as members poured in. But my own tension relaxed as I got to see the faces and shake the hands of the people I had spent so much time on the phone with over the previous months. It was gratifying to hear that the tone I had set for my campaign was appreciated and that my vision for soccer in the country was resonating. I was overwhelmed by the support I was feeling from the members. I was even invited to play in an impromptu game of pickup out behind the hotel—now that’s my kind of electorate! There was only one feeling of doubt that kept bringing me back to reality, and it was rooted with the voters I knew best: the athletes.
Any path to victory depended on securing a large amount of support from the Athletes Council, which represented a combined 20% of the total vote. From even before I announced my candidacy, I’d frequently been on the phone with members of this group. We spoke the same language, we had history and those initial conversations fueled my confidence and resolve in the early challenging days. But I also knew a vote from this group was far from assured. They would not push the button out of nepotism; they needed to believe in me. I sensed many of them wanted to believe an athlete was finally ready to lead the Federation but weren’t sure if that time was right now.
In the week prior to the vote, I knew that I’d made it to their final three—it was me, Carlos, or Kathy Carter—which confirmed I had given myself a chance to win this election. Everyone in the race knew that if the Athletes and Pros voted together (comprising nearly 46% of the vote), that would virtually decide the race, but I felt pretty sure that the two groups would go their separate ways. As it turned out, I was right. I just didn’t anticipate that the athletes would go the way toward the only candidate who hadn’t played the game.
I don’t have many regrets, but my biggest is failing here. This is the one thing from this election that will take me a long time to reconcile. I made an irresponsible assumption that being an athlete gave me an advantage, that having seen the game at every level would lead them to vote for someone, like me, who had done the same. They knew me best; I had taken the field with or against some of these people. And for those that didn’t know me personally, I figured a phone call from someone they’d played with or a glance through Twitter to see the number of athletes publicly supporting me would be enough.
I thought all of that would equate to support, and it did. It just didn’t mean a vote, and not recognizing the difference is what separates winners and losers when the game is politics. The hard truth is I had done enough to earn the trust and belief of this group, but I hadn’t done enough to move them off their safe choice, and I failed to see what they saw in him. My relationship with and understanding of Carlos was a few weeks old, and because of that I disqualified him as not being “one of us.” Of course, the athletes who voted for him don’t look at him this way. They see an incredibly successful man, with an inspirational backstory of having gone from immigrant to Goldman Sachs partner, a kind and respectful person who has been on the inside for a decade working hard for our game.
I haven’t spoken in-depth with any of the members of the council since the election except to say thank you for the sacrifices they continue to make for the game, but I imagine if I asked they would also tell me one reason they went with what felt safe is that they didn’t feel real change and an inside perspective were mutually exclusive—and maybe they aren’t.
Failing to recognize my athlete support slipping away, I spent most of Friday answering questions from youth and adult voters and attempting to assuage last-minute concerns of voters who were on the fence between me and another candidate, especially Carlos. I spent a lot of time with youth soccer folks, because I believed I had strong support from this group, and during the afternoon the hotel was buzzing with the news that earlier in the day the board had voted down a proposal supported by the State Associations to roll-back membership fees, with Carlos abstaining.
For a few hours, this seemed like a pivotal moment in the election. Our team began to believe we could pull off the impossible. I continued to furiously make my way around the hotel to meet with State Associations. In the middle of one of these meetings one of the youth soccer voters looked at his phone and said: “you’ve got to be kidding me!” He’d just received an email blast sent to the 55 State Associations from the U.S. Youth Soccer Board announcing their endorsement of Carlos for president. It was hard to tell exactly how much sway this endorsement would have with the generally independent-minded associations, but this definitely wasn’t helping my chances. My best path was going to be through the support of at least a reasonable number of athlete votes.
I raced through the lobby, pretending to be on my phone as I scanned the crowd for members of the Athletes Council, and then I anxiously began calling one after the other. No answer. The election was 12 hours away, and I couldn’t get an athlete on the phone. I told myself this was just a fluke, but I knew deep down what it meant: change had lost. This was confirmed when I discovered that the reason I couldn’t reach them is they were planning and then attending the closed-door meeting that would ostensibly decide the election. By morning, rumors were circulating that Carlos would take all 20% of their vote. Our only hope was that the athlete bloc would split up on subsequent rounds, but we also knew that MLS, committed to Kathy Carter in the first round, would never let that happen—that they’d inevitably switch to join the athletes and pick the next president of U.S. Soccer.
I was eventually able to confirm what we all feared: the athletes were voting as a bloc for Carlos. I knew I had to share this news with my team, so I met them right outside the ballroom moments before the election. Looking into a half circle of faces beaming with excitement and cautious optimism, I informed them the athletes were voting for Carlos. Watching the excitement and belief drain slowly from their faces was one of the harder things I faced the whole election. These are people who had taken hundreds of hours away from their jobs and families because they believed in me. We had been doing a nightly “progress call” for months. Babies crying in the background, teeth chattering as some paused their social lives to talk in the freezing cold outside bars and restaurants. (The two leaders of my campaign were named Mark, they were basically the campaign version of the 2 Robbies, and one of them coined us "Team Martino.") Imagine training for months only to find out as you were taking the field that you had already lost the game—and you had to break the news to the rest of your team. Tough moment for Team Martino.
WATCH: Kyle Martino's U.S. Soccer election speech
I sat quietly next to the other seven candidates waiting for the first round results to appear on the large screen next to the stage. When the first numbers finally came in, they showed Carlos and Kathy each with a large bloc of support (Athletes for Carlos and Pros for Kathy), with Eric Wynalda and then me trailing behind. You could hear the surprise of the crowd come in a wave of uncoordinated gasps as the rest of the room realized what we already knew: The Athletes not only voted together against the odds, they did so away from the Pros. The “athlete candidates” circled up to discuss possible last-minute strategy, but we quickly sensed there was nothing to be accomplished together, at which point we dispersed to our corners. I made my way to the hallway to speak with my team. Since the first round went basically how we anticipated, there wasn’t much to discuss. We knew that in subsequent rounds I’d pick up some support from associations that had voted for other candidates, but we also knew that I couldn’t win unless the athletes decided to break their bloc vote at some point in the process. Everyone made their way back into the room for the second round.
The Pro and Athlete bloc held firm to no one’s surprise as votes began to migrate, with Carlos and I picking up support as others saw theirs wane. I hurried to the hallway to speak with my campaign team. The conversation only lasted a minute as we all agreed this was probably the round where one of two things happened: either the athletes bloc would break up, giving us our only chance at victory, or MLS commissioner Don Garber would take the Pro bloc over to Carlos. I spun away from my team and made my way quickly through the crowd outside the ballroom to scan for athletes. That’s when I saw Carlos Bocanegra making his way towards me with two others from the Council. Carlos was a teammate of mine with the national team. We have a good history on the field, but during the campaign it was clear to me that not only was he supporting a different candidate, he was also working to undermine my chances. When he saw me make my way through the crowd attempting to head him off, he made a slight route change to try and blow past me but I stepped right in front of him. My only words to him where simple and direct: “Are you staying with Cordeiro?”
“Can’t talk Kyle,” he replied, making his way around me. “We have to be getting back in there.”
I made my way back into the room to watch the rest of the show play out. As I did, Garber walked into the ballroom with an insuppressible smile and double thumbs up to a colleague. He knew he was about to press a button and elect the next president of U.S. Soccer, avoiding a future he fears for the wrong reasons.
Losing sucks. I don’t think I will ever get good at it. I mean who wants to, right? I can’t remember if it was learned or something innate, but I am hardwired to create win-lose scenarios and then obsess over ways to come out on top. I remember as a kid racing to leave the family room and try and clear the doorway before the next commercial started, a game I rarely lost. But those few times I did carried a much larger weight than all the victories. Somewhere along the line, in the manic world of constant competition, my ability to recognize the gift of failure atrophied.
Hating to lose is O.K. but not if anger and insecurity rob you of valuable lessons. In the days following the election, I began to recognize how anger and resentment were holding me back when I saw fans attacking athletes on social media. I understood and shared many of their frustrations, but I also saw how they were counterproductive. When you don’t like the score after a game, you can be upset with your team, but you can also commend them for their effort and passion. Right now, we should all be doing that for the Athletes Council. Regardless of whether you agree with their vote, by coming together as a bloc, they demonstrated a power and unity that can serve U.S. Soccer going forward. I admire nearly every person who sat in that room or on the phone until the early morning hours of Feb. 10 making sure they were together. I feel fortunate to know them, to be one of them and to have their support even if I didn’t get their vote.
I know fans are frustrated with the result of this election, but Carlos Cordiero is not the problem. The problem is a culture where people with special interests can push a button to elect against the wishes of the masses. Carlos is more than capable of doing this job well. Now that I’m out of “game mode,” I root for him. I want to see him succeed and will be here for him whenever, however he needs me. I was going to ask the same of him if I won, because I know this fight can’t be won alone. We should all be rooting for him, and should he fail to be different than what came before, fail to change the culture that made his election possible, then we will continue to stand together to protect the game we love.
This has been such an amazing experience, one that has ignited a fire in me that can’t be put out. We have created something that can’t be shut off, and it’s important not to lose that momentum. I just have to figure out in which direction to march. It’s flattering to be asked by many to run for vice president of U.S. Soccer and receive offers for other positions outside of the Federation, but my main focus after the election has been getting back to my NBC family and repaying the love and support they showed me.
Now that I am settled back into normal life, enjoying being back in the studio, I have had to time to figure out my next move: leading Street Soccer USA’s National Board. SSUSA is an organization addressing the most important issues I highlighted during my campaign–growing our soccer culture from the ground up, and I feel so fortunate they see the qualities in me to take them forward. In its 14 years, the organization has done so much to bring the game of soccer to underserved communities all across the country, delivering the beautiful game to those who need it most. As I said throughout my entire campaign, it’s time we recognize soccer is meant to be Everyone’s Game. And I look forward to helping make sure that’s as true in America as it is in the rest of the world.
See you in the streets ... bring your sneaks.