ORLANDO, Fla. – Soccer is part of the American immigrant story, and although he never amounted to much of a player before turning to higher education and a successful business career, Carlos Cordeiro appreciates the role of the sport in the lives of millions of transplants.
He was born in India to a Colombian mother and Portuguese father. After his father was killed in an auto accident, Cordeiro and three siblings moved with their mother to south Florida. Their immigrant experience helped shape his views, and as the first president of the U.S. Soccer Federation with Latino roots, he says he will lead a stronger effort to make the game more accessible to minority communities.
"I am a proud American, but I am an immigrant," said Cordeiro, 61. "I came to this country when I was 15. I have had a terrific education. I'm the beneficiary of all of that. I owe all of that to the American system.
"For us to grow the sport into a preeminent position, we have to be more inclusive. We have to reach out to those under-served or diverse immigrant populations. It can't be that we only have 3 or 3 1/2 million kids playing soccer in this country. We know there are more, but they are just not playing under the (USSF's) umbrella."
Critics of U.S. soccer leadership have, for years, pointed to a flawed system that prices out lower-income families and overlooks minorities, particularly Latin American families, who have been at the forefront of U.S. immigration for decades.
As the USSF's vice president for two years and a figure in the federation since 2007, Cordeiro was part of that leadership. He does not escape blame.
To the USSF's credit, it did make some strides under Cordeiro's predecessor, Sunil Gulati, who, in the wake of the World Cup qualifying disaster last fall, decided not to seek a fourth term. Still, there is enormous work to do on the immigrant front, Cordeiro acknowledged.
During an "Aim Higher" campaign, he raised the issue of affordability and accessibility. (To be fair, so did the other seven candidates.)
One of the biggest criticisms of Gulati is that he operated in the high-end circles of international soccer and didn't pay enough attention to the state associations, who are on the front lines of youth development. Those include the immigrant and lower-income communities.
"We have to reach out and get them and bring them in," Cordeiro said. "To the extent we are successful, we are going to have a lot better players over time."
In a pre-election interview with the Miami Herald, Cordeiro said: "My vision is really about reinvigorating our grass roots, which I think over the last 10 to 15 years has suffered as a huge amount of resources have gone into our elite players and national teams."
In his efforts, Cordeiro will have to combat perceptions that he, like Gulati, is out of touch with the rank and file. Cordeiro was never a coach or administrator. He came to the USSF in 2007 as an independent director and, with decades of experience in high finance, specialized in budgetary matters.
From humble beginnings, he did very well for himself. A graduate of both Harvard and Harvard Business School, Cordeiro was a partner at Goldman Sachs and worked for several other international firms. He retired earlier than most Americans and has several homes. The fact that the USSF presidency is an unpaid position will not burden him in the least.
With the election results – Cordeiro led on the first two ballots and crossed the 50 percent majority on the third – the USSF membership clearly valued his business background. The Chicago-based federation has about 160 employees, a $110-million budget and a $150-million surplus.
While the federation is in fine financial shape, Cordeiro will have to find ways to reinvigorate the men's national team program following the absence from the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The first step is hiring a general manager, then conducting a search for a head coach. (Dave Sarachan has served as the interim boss since Bruce Arena's resignation in the fall.)
Cordeiro also will have to ensure the women's program, amid increasing global competition, remains at an elite level; identify ways to unclutter the youth development system for both genders; and help a North American joint bid win the rights to host the 2026 World Cup. (FIFA will decide in June.) Cordeiro also has suggested the United States should bid to host the 2027 Women's World Cup.
Cordeiro admits he does not have all the answers.
"I was impressed with his ideas, his vision for the governance within U.S. soccer," said former World Cup midfielder Stuart Holden, a member of the Athletes Council, which voted as a bloc for Cordeiro. "I also loved that he was vulnerable in saying he is not the smartest soccer guy in the room and he wants to find the smartest soccer guys. That resonated strongly."