Ahead of the United States Soccer Federation presidential election on Feb. 10, ESPN FC asked the eight candidates running to succeed Sunil Gulati to address a series of questions, in 150 or fewer words per answer.
Here is what Steve Gans had to say.
The U.S. men have not only failed to qualify for the World Cup, but also the past two Olympics. What needs to be done to get the program back on track?
1. The next USMNT coach will be selected through a committee-based process, and the committee will include former national team players.
2. The duties of national team coaches and the technical director will be separated.
3. The in-fighting between sanctioning organizations will be solved, something that contributes to the 75 percent attrition rate at the U-13 level.
4. The Development Academy will be revamped, ridding it of the strictures that cause players to lose their joy.
5. We will study other soccer countries, but we will modulate to adjust for what makes America different. We will take the best of what we learn and modulate so it might have effective applicability here, rejecting the elements we know are unlikely to work.
6. A soccer nation cannot be great and fully successful if it does not have a robust professional landscape. I will throw great support behind our professional leagues, including MLS, NWSL, NASL and USL.
What makes you qualified to run an organization with 170 full-time employees and an annual budget of around $100 million?
This is not any old organization with 170 employees and a 100 million dollar budget: It is America's soccer organization that has those characteristics. The president's job calls for someone with a vast and continuous soccer background combined with deep business and organizational leadership experience, and I am proud to say that I am the only candidate with that background. As an executive (president and COO) and attorney (general counsel), I have led a complex company with 150 employees in a very competitive market. As an attorney at a law firm, I have counseled male and female professional players, professional teams and DA and other youth clubs, as well as billion-dollar companies regarding their legal matters. As a community volunteer, I have sat on the boards of many prominent nonprofit organizations of similar size to U.S. Soccer.
To what extent are outside sources financing your campaign and who is contributing?
I have funded my campaign by myself and have also received some limited contributions from personal friends who believe in me and would like to see improvement in the way U.S. Soccer is governed and run. I did not want to raise any money, but it appears that at least three candidates are independently funded such that they can fly to visit delegates each day if they so elect. (I can't do that.) My three largest donors are personal friends and soccer dads: One's son I coached and is now playing college soccer; one's son played college soccer and is trying to continue his playing career; and one's son played club soccer with my older son and is now in college but no longer playing soccer. Most importantly, there is no conflict of interest, as none of the three are in the game and have no interest before U.S. Soccer.
During his time as president, Sunil Gulati operated in more of an executive/hands-on role. The USSF Board of Directors is moving to make the position more of a chairperson role with less power. Do you agree with this move?
The president's position is akin to chairperson of the Board of Directors. Section 4.2 of the bylaws describes the president's responsibilities, and they are descriptive of a board chair (rather than a president). Any expansion of that role must have been done unilaterally. Also, that it is listed as an officer position (president) rather than a director position (board chair) does cause some confusion. The president position is not situated in Chicago with all the other day-to-day officers and it is an unpaid position: Full-time officers would be expected to work each day at headquarters, and they would be salaried for their efforts. Also, in normal corporate governance, a CEO is the top officer, so this would mean that the U.S. Soccer president role is below the CEO in this case. It seems that the USSF Board is confirming that the role is chairperson of the Board of Directors.
What can the USSF do to help create more Christian Pulisics? What needs to change on the youth development side and is it a problem if more players follow his lead?
I am the father of two boys who played in the Development Academy and a former board member of a DA club. The DA is producing players who play without joy. It does not matter how technically sound you are; if you don't maintain the passion for the game, you can't reach your playing potential. We will revamp the U.S. Development Academy, preserving what is right about the DA but eliminating the restrictions which create joyless players and are counterproductive to player development. Liberalization of the high school playing restriction will be explored. I know through my international work that we are not a respected soccer nation in the ways that matter. Until we are, players will continue to go overseas to find the best training and competition. We must continue to learn from other countries as we improve our systems, but also challenge our best to be the best.
How would you reform the youth system so that the cost to families, which often run into several thousand dollars annually, isn't so prohibitive?
The high cost to participate in youth soccer is a barrier to entry and sustainability. I will devote part of the U.S. Soccer surplus to support youth programming at all levels and provide scholarships for players who cannot afford to participate in pay-to-play. This will increase diversity and inclusion, and ensure that talented young athletes do not fall through the cracks. Solving the solidarity payment issue can also partially ameliorate pay-to-play. Moreover, making clubs be "honest brokers" to parents (not every parent of a U-11 player should be told their child will receive a college scholarship) might rein in fees. Using some of the surplus for inner city and rural field development will provide playing opportunities for many players. I also want to explore lower-cost, more-casual programming together with the state associations that keeps young players interested when there are circumstances that may prevent them from playing competitively.
There is a perception in some circles that many of the country's best athletes leave soccer for other sports. What ideas do you have for ensuring that more stick with it?
There is a 75 percent attrition rate at the U-13 level. Youth soccer is too fragmented. We will solve the counterproductive competition among sanctioning organizations. The crowded competitive schedule results in expensive travel, excess play at too young an age and burnout. Too often, the goal becomes winning over player development. We will bring organizations together to create a structure that works. We will create a unified competitive schedule. Player development over winning will be emphasized. Good housekeeping standards will be instituted so that there can be quality control within the youth club landscape. We will increase the number of licensed coaches so that youth players receive appropriate training and development. We will eliminate unnecessary restrictions at the rec level, which prohibit friends from playing together (i.e., the birth year issue). We will foster an environment in which players at every level maintain their passion and joy for the game.
What are your thoughts on promotion/relegation? Do you think it's viable given that MLS is against it?
Pro/Rel is an inherent and exciting part of the sport worldwide. We all tune into the last day of international seasons to see who will stay up and who will go down. A strong point was made by Pro/Rel advocates in the wake of the USMNT's 2018 World Cup failure: Players who fight for survival every day develop more of a cutting edge. That said, Pro/Rel must be considered within the context of the economic structure of sports in America, and it would be irresponsible to do otherwise. Unlike other countries where the sport is tribal and generational, pro soccer is not yet inculcated in our culture in that way. I remember the lost years it was for players and fans from 1985-96 when we did not have a top flight league, and I don't want to go back to that. This is an issue to be considered properly and carefully.
What other changes would you make to the pro game in the U.S. to foster growth and interest?
Each of MLS, the NASL and USL need to be supported in a thriving pro system, as not all players mature at the same rate, players need a place to develop and fans across the country need a place to watch the beautiful game in person. The NWSL needs further financial support in order to be the ideal league for all women and to which girls can aspire. Professional soccer will be robust, wherein pro clubs around the country (whether top or lower division) will be inculcated into their respective community cultures, providing a place for youth players and adults to attend high level soccer games and be inspired. Teams will not only be successful at the gate but television ratings and production values-wise, as well. American players will have significant opportunities to play and develop at the professional level within the American pro league scheme.
Do you think the domestic game should change its calendar to match that of the international game?
No. Pro soccer in this country faces a competitive landscape unlike any other in the world. As to team sports, pro soccer has to compete with baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey. The pro sports schedule is too crowded in the fall/winter/spring period, what with pro football, basketball and hockey in full swing (not to mention college football and basketball). In addition to competing for sports fans and gate receipts, soccer would need to compete for sponsorship dollars, media coverage, TV and other broadcast rights, etc. The current landscape having pro soccer compete with Major League Baseball seems more prudent. In particular in this regard regarding broadcast rights, rights fees in the current market are driven up when broadcasters are seeking (and have a dearth of) live sports content and thus, the best climate for pro soccer in this important area too is its current schedule.
Gulati had considerable power over how national team coaches were selected. In the future, how should these decisions get made and who should have the final say?
Transparency and process are critical to establishing public confidence in U.S. Soccer's decisions. Once elected, I will form a search committee comprised of some of the most experienced soccer minds in our country for the express purpose of developing a USMNT Manager profile, criteria for potential candidates, a potential compensation package, a hiring process approach and strategy. Such a committee will be actively involved in all aspects of the selection process, including interviews of prospective candidates, and will advise the Board of Directors on the final decision of the next MNT manager. Such an approach will be repeated for all national team coach searches.
The USSF has a tightly coupled business relationship with Soccer United Marketing and MLS. How big is the SUM/MLS/USSF conflict of interest here and what, if anything, should be done to address it?
The overriding concern in any agreement between a nonprofit organization and a for-profit company is that the nonprofit organization be treated fairly and that it receives fair market value. Such transactions must be done with transparency, and certain steps aimed at ensuring that the non-profit receives fair market value must be followed. I pledge transparency in every transaction in my administration. In any proposed U.S. Soccer-SUM transaction, nonprofit principles would be followed to the letter, including: (A) the negotiated terms of any proposed agreement would have to ensure that U.S. Soccer receives fair market value for the services provided; (B) any interested Directors would have to recuse themselves from the matter; and (C) a survey of other possible vendors who could also provide the services would be conducted, so as to have independent confirmation that the proposed contract terms truly do represent fair market value to U.S. Soccer.
FIFA training compensation and solidarity payments mandate professional clubs to reimburse a player's youth teams for development costs. The system is not being enforced in the U.S.; should it be and, if so, how should this be done?
In order to partially defray the pay-to-play system, to encourage clubs to focus on player development and for fairness' sake, I will encourage all interested parties to meet and design a system that will be similar to the training compensation and solidarity payment system used throughout the world. In terms of process, I think the interested parties should meet to negotiate the business terms and then jointly address the legal issues involved, so as to ensure that such system is enforceable.
How would you ensure that the men's and women's national teams get equal pay?
I pledge pay parity between the USWNT and USMNT under my administration. The approach as to both the 2018 USMNT and 2021 USWNT CBA negotiations will embody that goal. In addition, I pledge immediate equality in working conditions for the USWNT. The recent USWNT CBA contains indefinite language regarding how often the USWNT can play on artificial turf. The USWNT will not play on artificial turf more often than the USMNT (hopefully never). I also would insert a "most favored nation" clause in each future USWNT and USMNT CBA, so that each would be automatically made whole and receive an escalator should the other receive an increase in benefits following either entering into a new CBA (and so as to avoid the recent wrong and embarrassment involving the USWNT receiving less per diem than the USMNT following its [at the time] more recent entering into of a CBA).