Cindy Parlow Cone Q&A: U.S. Soccer president on seeking reelection, NWSL investigations, 2026 World Cup, more

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This Saturday, the National Council of the U.S. Soccer Federation will hold an election for president of the organization. Unlike the free-for-all that took place four years ago when there were eight candidates, there are only two candidates this time around: incumbent Cindy Parlow Cone and her predecessor, Carlos Cordeiro, who resigned under pressure just two years into his tenure. His resignation came after legal filings related to the equal pay lawsuit had disparaged players on the U.S. women's national team.

ESPN sat down with both candidates to get a sense of why they are running, where they can improve and how they will lead the federation moving forward. The interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

ESPN: Why do you think you're the best candidate to be USSF president in this race?

Cindy Parlow Cone: Serving in this role for nearly the past two years has been one of the greatest honors and obviously challenges of my life. And I have every intention to continue to pour my heart and soul into U.S. Soccer for years to come. Despite all of the challenges we have faced, I have led the organization with integrity and honesty, and I took on this role and am running for reelection because of my love of the game and I believe in the future of the game.

Soccer runs through my veins. This is not just a retirement project for me. This has been my life and it will continue to be my life and I think it just makes sense for soccer to be run by soccer people and we need to continue to keep moving forward, not back.

ESPN: When you say "soccer people," what do you mean?

CPC: People that know the landscape and understand the landscape at every level. You know, I grew up playing this game. I've been a coach at every level of this game. I've played at just about every level of this game and so I know the game inside and out. I know our history, I know our challenges and I also know our opportunities moving forward. And then obviously, to take on this role, you have to have the business acumen and I think I've proven my business acumen and moved the federation forward.

ESPN: The situation with Rory Dames has been in the news a lot lately, and more allegations have come to light, both in the professional and youth ranks. What details can you provide about the USSF investigation into him in 2018? [Editor's note: U.S. Soccer managed and operated the NWSL up until last year. Dames, head coach of the Chicago Red Stars, resigned amid new allegations of abuse in November.]

CPC: Yeah, I share everyone's concerns and this is obviously heartbreaking for everyone. How do we prevent these things from happening in the future? And how do we investigate and deal with things as they are happening?

This is one of the reasons why I hired Sally Yates to run an independent investigation, and gave her full autonomy, access and all the necessary sources she needs to follow the facts wherever they lead. Because we need to find how is this happening and what can we do to prevent this from happening again. And so we're all eagerly awaiting the outcome of that.

One of the challenges I think Sally faces in her investigation is that she doesn't have subpoena power for players or teams, so people don't have to talk to her if they don't want to. So I think this is part of the challenge in what's taking so long, but I absolutely share everyone's concern about this in their allegations of sexual abuse, bullying or verbal abuse. It has no place in our game, and we need to do everything in our power to get rid of it.

ESPN: There's nothing you can tell me about the 2018 investigation?

CPC: I wasn't on the board. I was out during that time, so my last board meeting was the AGM in 2017. So I wasn't here during that time. I didn't come back until 2019. So I didn't have any knowledge of it.

ESPN: But have you seen the results of that investigation?

CPC: I have not.

ESPN: In light of these allegations, how will the voting membership and the public be able to trust U.S. Soccer again? Because, obviously, the ongoing investigation is very important, but that's kind of reactive. What steps are being made today to make sure that, like you said, nothing like this ever happens again?

CPC: That's one of the challenges that we face. We don't want to just make changes just to make changes, to maybe make people think we're doing something. When we make changes, we want to make sure they're meaningful and actually get at the heart of the problem, which is why we've hired Sally Yates to come in and to give it to us straight. What do we need to change? And she's guaranteed us that if she finds something that we need to change immediately, even if she is in the middle of our investigation, she's going to tell us.

I get people that want us to make immediate changes. I understand that. I think that's human nature to want to jump in and be like, 'OK, let's do this and this and this.' But we are going to have to be a little bit more patient, see what her investigation finds and make sure that the changes that we're making are the right changes, and are the changes that are going to be impactful and help to prevent this from ever happening again to any kid or any player at any level.

ESPN: So there's nothing you can tell me about the investigation as it stands?

CPC: About Sally Yates' investigation?

ESPN: Yes.

CPC: We have an independent group that is liaising with Sally, so I haven't spoken to Sally, which is the reason we set it up that way -- so that it is completely independent.

ESPN: When did you first become aware that there was a previous investigation into Rory Dames?

CPC: It was in the past few months, [when] the Washington Post stuff was being done.

ESPN: So you didn't know prior to that that the USSF had been investigating Dames?

CPC: I did not know.

ESPN: What plans are you proposing for acquiring the hosting rights to future Women's World Cups?

CPC: Obviously, as everyone knows, there's a lot that goes into hosting a World Cup and I've already said publicly, we're looking to host either the '27 or the '31 women's tournament. More broadly than that, I'm for hosting a lot of other events, other World Cups for extended national teams and other events that they compete in.

The U.S. is a great place to hold an event. We've seen it before and we'll continue to see it and obviously the tentpole event is World Cup '26 in our near future and so we will continue to work towards hosting another Women's World Cup.

ESPN: Are there resources being dedicated to that effort right now, or are you guys kind of taking a wait-and-see approach on things?

CPC: We're not dedicating resources quite yet. FIFA hasn't even opened up the bidding for the '27 World Cup yet. So there's a little bit of waiting on that as well.

ESPN: The number of registered players is decreasing. Why do you think this happened, and what are your plans to address that trend?

CPC: I think there are a lot of things. I think for one, honestly, the coronavirus had a significant impact, and I think it impacted the recreational players much more so than the elite players. We saw the elite players came back fairly quickly, but the recreational players didn't come back as quickly, which is really concerning. As a soccer person, and because they are the bottom of the pyramid or the top of the funnel, and to have a significant decrease in those players, is worrisome.

We all have to work together, and I say 'we' collectively. It's not just U.S. Soccer: it's all of our members and partners and sponsors working together to grow the game. I think we really need to have a focus on the "entry player" to our game -- so the U-10s and younger age group -- working on bringing not just more kids but making sure that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is a real focus, and in making sure that every kid has access to our game. This is one of the reasons why we conducted the minority study in youth players and trying to find out why youth aren't choosing soccer. What are the barriers and what can we do to remove those barriers?

So I think this needs to be a huge focus going forward, and I think there are some things that U.S. Soccer can take the leadership role on and I think there's other things that through sponsors and with our members and partners that we'll do together to push the game forward and to continue to grow the game. But this is front and center, front of mind for me. This is the future of our game.

ESPN: One criticism of you and the current administration is that the USSF isn't capitalizing on hosting the 2026 World Cup and that Carlos Cordeiro has better relationships with FIFA and other member nations. What's your response to that?

CPC: Well, capitalizing on the World Cup is a lot about relationships within the U.S. as well. For U.S. Soccer to capitalize, it's not just working with the host cities; it's working with all 50 states, all of our members, all of our sponsors, partners to really capitalize on this energy moment. We've built a framework on what to do on the road to World Cup '26 over the next four years, and then the event itself and then the legacy portion.

I'll give Carlos credit. He came in for the last four months of the bid and worked hard and helped get votes. But the lobbying is over. Now it's time for leadership. I think I'm the best leader in order to ensure we meet this moment and use it to exponentially grow our sport and to make sure the World Cup has a positive impact, not just within the host cities or the states but that have the host cities, but within all 50 states and that our footprint of the World Cup is all over this country, in every corner of every state.

ESPN: How is sponsorship going in terms of the World Cup? There are FIFA sponsors, but to what degree or is the USSF able to leverage sponsors within this country?

CPC: Right now we're waiting on the final announcement of the [host cities], which should be at the beginning of quarter two. So we've been engaged with FIFA and the potential host cities and I serve on the steering committee with the president of FIFA, and president of CONCACAF as well as the president of Canada and Mexico to work on this. That announcement should be coming up here pretty soon in quarter two and then after that, it's hitting the ground running for the next four years.

ESPN: Based on some comments from stakeholders in the adult and youth councils, it seems like you've lost the confidence of those two constituencies. Why do you think that is?

CPC: I think that's an overly blanket statement. I think there are people that are more supportive of Carlos in the youth and the adult space, and part of that is my fault. I was handed a U.S. Soccer that was quite possibly in the worst shape it has ever been in, with sponsors threatening to leave, at least half the country angry at us. And then on top of it, the coronavirus, and so a lot of my focus has been on righting the ship making sure the ship doesn't sink -- plugging holes, crisis management. And I relied too heavily on our adult and youth membership reps to the board.

What I've learned is that they really want that one-on-one relationship with U.S. Soccer, whether it's with me or with our staff. So that was definitely one of the mistakes I have made. But I'm working on fixing that now.

I think what people, when they actually get the chance to sit down and talk, they see that what they've heard about me is not the truth. I'm very open. I'm a soccer person. I care deeply about this organization, and I care deeply about soccer and the future of soccer in the U.S.

There's a lot of talk out there that all I care about are the senior national teams and the youth national teams, which obviously are important. But I spent my life in the youth game like that. That is my job. That's where I am every day on the soccer fields, and every weekend at games. So I have a deep passion for this game. And so I think just people getting the opportunity to speak to me about the game has really opened up their eyes because what they've been told about me has not meshed with what they actually experienced when they speak to me.

ESPN: Carlos criticized you for shutting down the Development Academy. What's your response to that? And as a follow-up, do you think the USSF should have been in the youth soccer business in terms of running a league that was almost competing with other members?

CPC: Getting rid of the DA was not an easy decision. It was a purely financial decision. We had to make significant cuts at the federation, as every organization was dealing with during the pandemic. Everyone was having to make really hard decisions that were not easy in any way, shape or form. And this was one of them. We presented it to the board and I'm almost positive -- I have to go back and look -- but I think it was unanimously approved by the board to make these cuts, because we weren't going to cut national teams. We weren't going to cut youth national teams. We weren't going to cut our extended national teams.

And we knew that our members were also in the space and we were hopeful that our members would take on the standards that U.S. Soccer had put into place for the DA and carry out those standards within the youth landscape. And I think that's taking shape now. I think it is a little bit more fractured than we would have liked to see. But I think U.S. Soccer can still lead in this area by breeding the different so called elite leagues or groups together and working with each of them to find a good path forward.

ESPN: Could you have handled it differently?

CPC: I wish we could have handled it differently. I wish we could have taken more time but, when COVID was happening, we're looking at financials and we have no sight on when revenues will come in again. Or if they will come in again. You've got to remember all of our sponsors were threatening to leave at this time because of the legal refiling. No one was playing, so no revenue was coming in from games. And then because we weren't looking like we were going to be able to fulfill our contracts with a number of games, this was a significant financial issue at U.S. Soccer.

We spent a long time [on this], we talked to a bunch of staff and U.S. Soccer had brought in outside experts. We had experts within our board that looked at it as well as our CFO. There really wasn't another answer. We had to cut out, I think, $63 million out of the budget. It wasn't fun.