Behind the scenes of the U.S. Soccer election

Sunil Gulati, shown here presenting for the U.S.' 2026 World Cup bid, decided not to seek reelection after a catastrophic U.S. loss. Andy Mead/ISIPhotos/ZUMA Wire

When Sunil Gulati steps to a podium in a Toronto hotel one December morning, Kyle Martino can't hide his smirk. Nobody knows this man, Martino thinks. Nobody in America has ever seen him on television. Nobody would recognize him if they did. And isn't that exactly the problem with soccer in this country?

Gulati is the president of the United States Soccer Federation, an elected but unpaid position that he has occupied since 2006. To Martino, a former MLS player who works as a studio analyst on NBC's English Premier League telecasts, the leader of his sport should be as prominent as the commissioner of the NBA or the NFL. "You know who Roger Goodell is," he'd insisted earlier that morning. "You know who Adam Silver is. I know who those guys are and I don't even watch their sports."

Standing in the back of the ballroom, on the second floor of the Westin Harbour Castle, his white dress shirt carefully untucked, Martino yearns to be the face of American soccer, albeit an unshaven one. With that in mind, he has taken a leave from his job and sold his stake in a Spanish team to run for USSF president.

In front of him, sitting demurely in one of the metal folding chairs facing the podium, another aspiring USSF chief executive stares at Gulati with rapt attention. Kathy Carter, 48, runs Soccer United Marketing, which generates millions of dollars annually for MLS. Considered the establishment's preferred candidate, she entered the room moments before alongside Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber. The rumor circulating the ballroom is that she even flew to Toronto on Garber's plane, though that turns out to be untrue. It isn't lost on Martino that he is standing at the back of the room and Carter is sitting at the front of it. "Nobody," he whispers as the news conference begins, "even told me that this was happening."

Gulati is there to report on the 2026 World Cup bid the United States is mounting in conjunction with Canada and Mexico. He explains that Televisa network, which owns Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, demanded that its country stage the tournament's opening game, second in prominence only to the final. Gulati refused to commit, he says. Rather, he threatened to withdraw from the bid and leave Mexico and Canada on their own.

This, it turns out, is supposed to be a joke. But as if that doesn't make him seem like enough of a caricature of the entitled American, he adds a punch line that sums up everything that his critics can't abide about him, despite the sizable advances in many areas that U.S. soccer has made during his USSF tenure. "I told them," he says, "'You can't fly through U.S. airspace.'"

Everyone in the room is silent.

The USSF hasn't held a contested election since 1999, but this one is making up for lost time. Besides Martino and Carter, six other aspiring presidents -- three former U.S. World Cup players, two lawyers, and the sitting USSF VP -- have been trolling constituent groups around the country for votes, which will be tallied at the organization's convention in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday.

This wouldn't be happening, it is safe to say, if not for perhaps the worst loss in American sports history. Last October, the U.S. men's national team traveled to the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, known best for steel drums and the world's hottest peppers. To secure a place in this summer's World Cup, the U.S. needed only a draw against players who compete in lower-level American leagues, or for Trinidadian teams with names (W Connection, Club Sando) that sound like somewhere you'd go looking for a hookup on a Friday night.

Forget beating Brazil or Germany this summer in Russia; the U.S. couldn't get out of CONCACAF, which consists of the nations between Canada and Panama and countries in the Caribbean. Instead, the Americans delighted dragon-slayers everywhere by losing to a country with roughly 1/320th of its population and 1/900th of its GDP. As a result, the U.S. will miss the tournament this summer for the first time since 1986, when the country didn't even have a league. The estimated financial cost of that failure is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost in interest to the sport in America is incalculable.

Way back in April, when the most meaningful event in its athletic history was still a twinkle in Trinidad's eye, a Boston attorney named Steve Gans -- who played soccer in college and has helped coach and run youth teams -- declared his intention to run against Gulati for the presidency. Back then, the notion of unseating a three-term incumbent seemed fanciful. But the Trinidad loss changed everything. "If we had qualified for the World Cup, do you think any impetus for change would have existed?" Martino says now. "I can tell you that if we had qualified, Sunil would be the president for the next four years. And we would have lost an opportunity to finally elect someone who has a soccer vision."

But who? In the weeks after the failure to qualify, it became clear that heads would need to roll, and that one of them would be Gulati's. The Monday before he left for Toronto, Gulati acknowledged that reality with a prepared statement that he would not be a candidate for what would have been his fourth term.

And that's when the free-for-all began.

Given the uncertain state of American soccer, it seems appropriate that the team with home-field advantage in the title game of our national league is Canadian. On this MLS Cup morning, the relationship that each of the major candidates has with the existing power structure can be inferred by his or her physical distance from Gulati, who will finish the World Cup news conference in a few minutes by telling a circle of reporters that most of the candidates running to replace him aren't up to the job.

As Carter nods and Martino looks pained, Carlos Cordeiro is holding an earnest -- if not exactly necessary -- conversation in the lobby. Cordeiro is vice chairman of the 2026 bid. He has spent hours helping finalize the details of the complicated, three-nation plan. But he has also acted as Gulati's right-hand man for the past two years. Desperate to avoid questions about why he declared his candidacy while Gulati was still evaluating his own, uneasy about a public viewing of the complicated state of his friendship with the discredited president, he has created a reason to stay downstairs. He never appears at the news conference.

Now 61, Cordeiro joined the USSF as an independent director in 2007. A former Goldman Sachs executive with a Harvard pedigree, he's almost never seen without a business suit. His challenge is to distance himself from Gulati while simultaneously defending his role in Gulati's administration, which is pretty much his only tangible qualification for the position. As someone who hasn't played in a competitive match or coached a team at any level, he has to fend off accusations from the other candidates that he knows nothing about the sport.

The most vociferous of those candidates is Eric Wynalda, the three-time World Cup participant and former broadcaster. Of all the campaigns, his has been the most visible and voluble, at least to fans who use Twitter or listen to podcasts or walk through airports. A proponent of promotion and relegation, shelving the playoffs, and playing games in domes during the winter, Wynalda is this election's version of a populist. He'd rather have an intense conversation with someone who disagrees with him, even if that person happens to be a cab driver, than attend an official event. He was conspicuous at the hotel all morning, but now nobody knows where he has gone.

There are three longshot candidates: former standout players Hope Solo and Paul Caligiuri, and the New York lawyer Michael Winograd. They're so far removed from the center of power that they're off the radar. And Gans? He's tending to business back in Boston, monitoring the proceedings in Toronto through texts. If Gulati is the USSF equivalent of Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent who decides under pressure not to run again, Gans is this election's Eugene McCarthy. He challenged the sitting president when it wasn't politically expedient, then lost the spotlight to the big names who jumped in as soon as it was. (In this analogy, Martino -- handsome, young, articulate, opportunistic -- represents Bobby Kennedy. And Cordeiro, the sitting VP, is a spot-on Hubert Humphrey.)

After the news conference, the candidates converge on the lobby, detailing their visions of the soccer universe to anyone who will listen. "It's arrogant to say that we just had a business guy in there who made a lot of mistakes, so we're going to put another business guy in there," says Martino, who is the son-in-law of the actor and progressive political activist Susan Sarandon. He's talking about Cordeiro, about Carter, maybe about Gans. "Simply by osmosis, businessmen in other countries are soccer guys," he adds. "That's not true here."

Martino pitches his notion of a USSF president who gets paid, as Goodell and Silver do. That will elicit an eye roll from Cordeiro, who points out that the USSF charter gives its president the role of board chairman, not chief executive. Martino, he says, is campaigning for a job that doesn't exist.

Carter's role as a crucial revenue-producer for MLS would seem to be an impediment to simultaneously running the organization that oversees the league. Martino made that point in a news release when Carter announced her candidacy, which happened the day after Gulati dropped out: timing that seemed suspiciously choreographed. "Except that I do represent change," she protests now. "I haven't actually worked inside the federation. I've worked on behalf of the federation, but not inside it. I haven't been in the youth soccer space for 25 years." She shrugs off the perception that she is Gulati's anointed successor as misinformation being spread by desperate rivals. "People can take all the shots they want," she says. "I'm going to stay above it. I appreciate everybody's passion. Twenty years ago, this all would have been met with indifference."

In a far corner of the lobby in Toronto, where Wynalda and Martino have converged in a conversation with a former Fox executive, such passion has spilled over into unpleasantness. Earlier, Martino confided that Wynalda has been showing disdain for him in interviews, mocking the level of soccer that he managed to achieve during his playing career. That has left Martino in no mood for cordial discussion. When Wynalda admits that he won't be attending the game that afternoon, in part because he disapproves of the whole concept of a championship game deciding the winner of a domestic league, Martino can't hide a sneer.

"We'll miss you," he says.

"No, you won't," Wynalda replies, smiling.

Martino doesn't smile. "We both know that I won't," he says.

You don't need to own an original Giorgio Chinaglia bobblehead to realize that soccer has evolved differently in the U.S. than everywhere else. By the time that youth soccer started booming in America in the late 1960s, baseball, football, basketball and hockey were established. Their overlapping schedules blanketed the calendar year. Soccer had to wedge itself in, one more passenger pushing into a car that already felt crowded.

So a summer season was adopted to avoid the Super Bowl. Playoffs were created to make fans feel comfortable with the sport. The possibility of relegation or promotion, which motivates ambitious small clubs around the world, was deemed too risky to attract the wealthy investors that a U.S. league required. Expansion franchises were created, then awarded nicknames tested by focus groups. Resources were pooled, profits shared.

All those accommodations, Wynalda believes, has left us with soccer that only vaguely resembles what the world plays. "Being Americans, we felt that we could have a different schedule than the rest of the world, we could have a different plan, and it would magically happen," he says. "But we've never done soccer right in this country." Wynalda argues that we still haven't taken the steps to foment a genuine American soccer culture. "If you go to a party, and you walk through the front door, and you walk around the perimeter of the room and you never have a drink and you never talk to anybody, did you really go to the party?" he asks. "We think we've been to the party. We haven't been to the party."

It isn't lost on Wynalda that soccer is more popular in the United States now than ever before, by an order of magnitude. Games from half a dozen European leagues fill weekend mornings. MLS is thriving, with expansion hopefuls offering, according to one league owner, "not just $100 million dollars for a team, but hundreds of millions." The world's most important clubs, engaged in a pitched battle over the U.S. market, have invested in offices and academies and even shares of franchises. In America, now, soccer matters.

And in soccer, America matters. But walk into an elementary school nearly anywhere in the country and you'll see far more Manchester United and Barcelona shirts than those of any MLS franchise, or even every MLS franchise put together. Most American fans enjoy the sport by tuning into foreign clubs, maybe shouting out the chants and the songs, then sitting down to two hours of televised entertainment. That makes sense because it's also the way most Americans access the NFL and NBA; it doesn't matter, it turns out, if your favorite team is halfway across the state, they country or the world. "I think we're on the cusp, but we're still below most other countries," Cordeiro acknowledges. "But remember, our league is only 20 years old."

The USSF, on the other hand, has been around since 1913. Until only a few years ago, it was led by well-meaning dilettantes. "When I started," says Bob Contiguglia, the Denver physician who served as president from 1998 to 2006, "the referee program was run from a shoebox in someone's basement. We had to borrow money to send the women to the World Cup." The $12 million budget Contiguglia inherited grew to $52 million by the time he left. Now it's nudging $150 million. That's still less than half that of the major European nations, though, and one-third of Germany's or England's.

A paid CEO runs U.S. Soccer's business affairs, but leadership comes from the president. Gulati, a lecturer on economics at Columbia, has guided the organization through its greatest period of growth and advancement: selling out stadiums, pleasing sponsors, making money. Even his strongest critics acknowledge that he deserves much of the credit for the sport's success over the past decade, including a women's national team that still ranks as the world's best, a compelling World Cup bid that seems likely to bring much of the 2026 event to American soil and a development system that is turning out better players at the top of the pyramid than ever before.

But that has come, critics say, at the expense of the sport itself. "We are creating technically sound players who have no joy," Gans says. To him, the USSF-sanctioned academy system, meant to identify and support elite players, is doing more harm than good. "People sitting in some boardroom say, 'This will make a kid more professional,' " he says. "They send down an edict from 30,000 feet. And they couldn't be more wrong in most of their decisions."

Recently, several of those decisions combined to alienate one of America's most promising prospects. Eighteen-year-old Jonathan Gonzalez is a California-born midfielder with Mexican parents who plays for a club team in Monterrey. When he was left off the U.S. roster for a recent friendly against Portugal, nobody bothered to give him an explanation. In part because of that, Gonzalez has decided that, for the rest of his international career, he will compete for Mexico. "He obviously didn't feel enough love from the USSF," says Gans, who sees it as emblematic of the organization's emotional disconnect with young players in general and young Hispanic players in particular. "How is it that we lost a kid like that? How could we let that happen?"

Growing up in Massachusetts, Gans played until he couldn't play anymore, getting as far as a trial with the Major Indoor Soccer League's Baltimore Blast. Then he turned his attention to his sons, one of whom now stars at Brandeis. "You nurture your kids, and they play and play, and you see the joy being taken out of it," he says recently while watching a match from a bar in Boston, his voice husky with emotion. "And one day, you look up and it's gone. This passion that my father passed down to me and I passed down to my boys? It's gone."

Gans snaps back into campaign mode. "There has to be a better way," he says.

At their home stadium that Saturday evening in December, Toronto FC wins its first MLS title. The game is compelling, as emotional in its way as a top European league's cup final. There isn't nearly as much history involved, of course, but that doesn't seem to matter to the fans shouting in the misty darkness.

Afterward, there's a crush in the hospitality tent, and a long wait for the buses that are shuttling VIPs back to the hotel. Cordeiro arrives with executives from Canadian and Mexican soccer and they prepare to be there awhile. But moments later, Gulati strides in and announces that he has a car. The other two men, who have been working with Gulati for years, stand up to leave. Cordeiro lingers, unsure if the offer applies to him. As he departs, Gulati waves an arm in Cordeiro's direction, as if to say that even if Cordeiro did declare himself a candidate while Gulati was still considering his own options, he still won't abandon his former acolyte to trays of half-eaten canapes and grindingly loud music. "Come on," he says.

That night, Cordeiro again holds court in the hotel lobby. Indian-born, like Gulati, but of Portuguese and Colombian descent, he and his three siblings were raised by their mother in Miami after their father died in a car accident. Following business school, he embarked on a career in banking and venture capital, having learned long before to take nothing for granted. A lifelong bachelor, he poured his passion into business. In 2007, he turned to soccer. Before becoming vice president, he was USSF treasurer and chaired its budget committee. He's also a powerful voice in CONCACAF and FIFA. It's true that he hasn't ever worn cleats in a game that matters. But his knowledge of the inner workings of international football is second only to Gulati's.

For two hours, he sips cabernet and connects with USSF delegates who wander past. He's enough of an insider to know many of them, enough of an innate politician to strike the right notes with each. "There are different presidents for different times," he says at one point. "Sunil's emphasis was with the elites. With the exception of this year, that wasn't bad. And I'm part of that, and I'm proud of it. But when I talk to the grassroots, I can tell you that they feel left behind."

"We can fix it," he says. "But it takes leadership. And if we fix our youth, we may well end up with -- surprise, surprise -- better national teams. That's how it works." The relief around the table is almost palpable. For the first time, it seems, someone is giving them a reasonable way out of this mess, a vision familiar enough to feel comfortable, but pointed toward 2026 and beyond.

Later, Contiguglia joins the table. Then John Collins, the only board member who doesn't represent a specific USSF constituency, pulls up a chair. The mood is jovial, less like a sports event than a bunch of business colleagues unwinding after doing a deal. Cordeiro sits at the end of the table, mostly letting others do the talking, looking utterly at ease. It's getting late, and there's a USSF committee meeting to attend the next morning.

But for now, he flags down the server. There's still time for one more round.