Q&A with Carlos Cordeiro, U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election candidate
Cordeiro has been the governing body's vice president since February 2016. He previously spent nine years as an independent member of the board of directors.
U.S. Soccer Federation vice president Carlos Cordeiro threw his hat into the ring Tuesday for the election to take the governing body's top seat.
Cordeiro has been in the vice presidential role since February 2016. He previously served as an independent member of the governing body's board of directors.
The Harvard-trained, former Goldman Sachs executive has long been seen as a right-hand man to Federation president Sunil Gulati. Now he is aiming for Gulati's job.
Other confirmed candidates so far, according to various reports, include Massachusetts-based attorney Steven Gans; soccer administrator Paul Lapointe; former U.S. men's national team star Eric Wynalda; and New York-based attorney Michael Winograd, a Penn law school product who played professional soccer in Israel.
Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Mike Warner, a banker with experience in that region's youth soccer community, publicly expressed "interest" in the job to U.S. Adult Soccer Association president John Motta.
Cordeiro, Gans and Lapointe are the only candidates known to have the required nominations to be officially on the ballot.
Gulati has not yet confirmed whether he will run for what would be a fourth four-year term in the job. He said on Oct. 13 that he would make that decision "in the coming weeks." He also acknowledged that he had "reached out to people about endorsing me or nominating me in the last few weeks."
A source with close knowledge of the landscape told the Inquirer and Daily News that Cordeiro told Gulati he was running before making the news public, and that Gulati was surprised by Cordeiro's intention.
Cordeiro has made the rounds of major media outlets since declaring his candidacy. He has given interviews to ESPN, Soccer America, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times. He also told Fox Sports via Twitter that his campaign is self-financed.
On Wednesday, he spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News by phone for half an hour. Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited slightly for clarity.
Why are you running, and why have you decided now to run?
My decision to run for president was not something I took, or am taking, lightly. This was something I actually have been thinking about for some time, and I think to be fair — not that many months ago, I was probably focused more on [running in] 2022.
To be clear, this is not about one loss [the U.S. men's team's defeat at Trinidad & Tobago], a ball going three inches here or three inches there. This is not about not qualifying [for the 2018 World Cup]. It's not even about a bad year. This is about thoughts that I've had for quite some time.
One reason why I ran for vice president two years ago was to try and get the Federation — I think that the sport overall is at a critical juncture. The Federation, I think, which governs the sport, I believe needs new leadership. With, I think, a very open, inclusive, sort of collaborative approach, if we are to take it in the right direction.
And I think what I've said elsewhere is: I think the opportunity for soccer, for the sport in this country, is limitless. Thank God and our lucky stars that this is a large country with a critical mass of [nearly] 330 million people. It is a wealthy, developed country. And the demographics, and the population growth — the very young population that we have — basically favors soccer.
So we are ripe to take the sport — I think the sport could be taken to another level with the right sort of leadership. That is really what has been in the back of my mind. I talk a lot about our women, who have been so successful for over a generation. It wasn't just one lucky win. These women win all the time. Why is that so, and why can't our men be amongst the top five, consistently, in the world? I think we should be aiming for that, and not aiming just to qualify.
I think there's a slightly different focus there that I'm trying to underscore, and for me, it needs new leadership which is open, inclusive, collaborative and so on. To answer your very specific question, the opportunity today is that it's going to be a contested election. So, sitting where I'm sitting and thinking all these thoughts, I decided that now is my time. And that is why I'm running today.
Your background is in business. What else of your background before you became U.S. Soccer's vice president should people know about?
I've had a successful business career. I've excelled in one of the most competitive financial firms in the world. And I've grown businesses in difficult markets. In Europe 25 years ago, when for most American financial firms, European businesses were small outposts or satellites, and that's not the case today. All these firms, my former employer [Goldman Sachs] included, now have several thousand people working in Europe. Well, that was not the case 25 years ago.
Then I went to Asia in 1997, and the people and partners I was there with, the leaders of those businesses — including myself — I'd like to think when we left Asia, we left it much bigger and a lot more successful. And I think you know the story about what's happening in Asia.
The lessons, the experience I bring from that is all about teamwork, about collaboration. There's no one person who can do everything. You can't be an island unto yourself. I know those sound like clichés, but it's true: It's all about teamwork, and getting people to work together for a common objective. And it's those skills that I believe translate very well to soccer.
I've now had 10 years of experience on the U.S. Soccer Federation board, so I'm not a novice, I think. I came on as an independent director, to be fair, but very quickly I took on a lot of additional responsibilities. Initially, I chaired the budget — now called the Finance Committee. Very much responsible for the budget.
We have a significant financial reserve, that we have put a good team on to manage. We've brought committees in that I've been very involved with in helping to structure. We have outside experts assisting the Federation with that. All of that is, you know, I think, steps in the right direction.
Then finally, two years ago, I chose to run for vice president because I wanted to make an even bigger contribution. And all of these years I did as a volunteer. So I think that answers your question: that totality of experience that I think is very important here.
As you said, you're certainly no novice in soccer at this point, though you have the business background. There are candidates out there who would cast themselves as soccer guys first and business guys second, if at all. Or at least one candidate, certainly, in Eric Wynalda. For lack of a better way to ask the question, would you make the case for why a business person should be at the top of the Federation's masthead? And then, as you have said elsewhere, have a soccer-centric "technical committee" running matters on the field.
The first point I would address is, I think we need to understand what the job is of president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. To understand what that is — it's all in the bylaws, by the way — is to understand the distinction between the role of president and the role of a CEO.
The role of president, as defined, is really more of a chairman of the board. It's non-executive, volunteer — because it's unpaid — [and] part-time. I'm just giving you some adjectives, but that's what that role is. It's chairing the board of the U.S. Soccer Federation. You're not running it day to day. You have, reporting to the board, the Chief Executive Officer, who happens to sit in Chicago, where the Federation is based. And reporting to him are a board, various director-level people, and then 150 others. It's a large organization.
So the role of president is about chairing that board; making sure that the strategy is on track; that we're allocating our resources based on that strategy, those decisions that have been taken; and that the CEO and his staff are basically implementing that. And obviously, at our level, we have oversight of the finances, the head count, and all other major strategic decisions.
The job of president and the job of the board is not to choose who the coach is. It's not to get into the granular detail of what the folks on the technical committee will do. That's where I really draw the distinction. I think the role calls for someone who has the business background, has the experience of leadership at that level, and is above the day-to-day.
I am not pretending to be an expert on the soccer side, but I don't need to know that, either. I'm not trying out for the national team. I don't pretend to be in a contest on the field. I am putting myself forward as a candidate for the president of U.S. Soccer as it is defined. This is not about who kicks the ball.
To follow up on that, while the president may not be the chief executor, the president in recent years has certainly been the most public figure. Not just under Sunil Gulati, but under Bob Contiguglia and Alan Rothenberg before him. With that public stature has obviously come some power and influence. Under your way of doing things, would the CEO — whether that is incumbent Dan Flynn or someone else — become a much more public figure than has been the case before?
The first comment I make is this is not about Sunil versus me. This is more about the Federation. My view, the way I see it, is that this is a team effort. This is much more of a collaborative effort. And therefore, absolutely, the CEO — who is a full-time employee of the Federation — should share in the responsibility for communicating and having a dialogue. Not just with you guys [the media], but also with our corporate sponsors, or our other stakeholders.
We have many stakeholders. We're growing the fan base. That's a very important part of who we are. We're spending millions of dollars on developing athletes. We have significant sponsors out there. So the responsibility for communicating, staying in touch, those relationships aren't the responsibility of any one person.
There has to be a team approach. The CEO has to be integral to that. And under him, his board's directors should obviously have even more very focused responsibility within their spheres. But it's not about any one person, and it never should be.
That's not to suggest the president should be a wallflower, or never show his face. No, absolutely not. I just think that it's never about one person. It should be a collaborative, team-based approach. And by the way, to your comment about Alan [Rothenberg] and Dr. Bob Contiguglia: These are icons. These guys were leaders of the sport at a point in time when the sport was nothing. It was tiny, OK?
Even 10 years ago, when I first came on the board, our annual budget was in the $40-45 million range. We're now at more than double that in 10 years. My point is that you have different leaders for different times. What Alan did, and what Dr. Bob did, and frankly what Sunil has done, have all been terrific. They've all served their purposes and more as leaders of the Federation in their eras.
All I'm trying to make the argument for is we have now plateaued. We need to take the Federation to another level, and that requires a different type of leadership. It's not against Sunil or against Dr. Bob or against Alan. It's just, I think in this day and age, I think I think I'm best-suited to be taking the Federation forward.
As you know, there is a lot of impatience in the American soccer fan base. There are many new fans of the sport who don't know all the history, and perhaps believe they can snap their fingers and make lots of things happen magically in terms of player development and other matters. How do you combat that? Or do you embrace it?
I can sympathize with — I wouldn't say the impatience, as much as I can sympathize with the disappointment. I think one of the great characteristics about the American people is that we shoot for the stars, you know?
I think that, to me — if you translate that into our fan base, or let's call it our supporter base, we have arguably the most passionate supporter base in the world. I think this traffic going back and forth on Twitter and on other forms of social media is unparalleled. I don't think there's any country in the world that shows that degree of involvement, of passion, of commitment on the part of our fans. So I applaud that. I encourage that. We want to grow that fan base.
And by the way, as we grow that fan base, so we grow our sponsorship base, and that results in better and more resources. This is all a virtuous circle. If we have young people, millennials, and others, who are following soccer day in and day out, they're going to go spend more money on soccer-related things. And all that goes back into, ultimately, U.S. soccer.
So we want to be, we aspire as a country, our fans aspire to want, and they should want, to be the best. Our women have demonstrated that we can be. And it wasn't a fluke win here or there. They win consistently. All right, they don't win every single World Cup, but they sure nearly win every single World Cup and Olympics. That, to me, shows me that our programs are working. The women have been very successful. Why can't we do the same thing with the men?
That goes back, by the way — we haven't actually touched on this, but the whole theme of my proposal is "Mission 2026/27." I would like to get us in 10 to 11 years, depending on how you count, to the point where it's not about just qualifying — it's about exceeding every conceivable expectation. Obviously, for the women, that means winning. I accept that. We're going to give them every resource to continue to win. And for the men, it should be something very close to that. So that 25 years from now, maybe, the expectation will be very different.
Why is it that Germany, Spain, and England, these countries continually [thrive] — I think a lot of it is that they've been at it a little bit longer than we have. But we have every capability of competing with them in a matter of time. And I don't mean 25 to 50 years, but I mean in a decade.
I think if we get the right resources to our grassroots, the pyramid — we talk a lot about the pyramid in U.S. soccer, the Federation being at the top of the pyramid, that has prospered. Clearly.
We're sitting with a pool of reserves, we're having strategic discussions about where those funds should be invested. And I don't use the word "spent" — these are investments we're making. We want to invest in programs that we can sustain over long periods of time. That's what we're thinking about today. But we need even more resources than what we have in the bank.
That has to trickle down more to the bottom of the pyramid. The bottom of our pyramid is what has been left behind to some degree. To me, that's one of the big challenges. Our grassroots, our youth programs, need more resources.
And with more resources, the pay-to-play discussion becomes less central. We have more resources to help the underserved, or the underprivileged, and the diverse kids out there. They come into the sport more, and it's going to dramatically change things.
With the women's team, what are the next steps? Equal pay is a nebulous thing. Eric Wynalda has said he wants to tear up their collective bargaining agreement and start it all over. So, what happens next for the women's national team if you win the election?
The discussions a couple of years ago were perhaps more public than they should have been. In my view, we need to have serious discussions about all issues, not just the women. About the pros, the youth, the adults, and so on, and I think everyone needs to be treated fairly. We're going to be coming up on other CBA discussions before long.
It's not enough, and I think it's too simplistic, to say "equal pay." That is easy for others — not mentioning Eric specifically — to talk about a revolution. I don't think it's quite that. But I do think we need more inclusivity, we need more access, we need to have more serious discussions about all these issues, including our women, on that particular point.
When it comes to access, the question of bringing the Hispanic community into the "American" game to a greater degree is always a big talking point among the public. Obviously, there are many different diverse constituencies in inner cities, and lots of different demographics. But with the Hispanic community specifically, what do you see and where do you want things to go?
To begin with, look at the composition of our national team today or over the last 10 years. That has become, really, America. You have any number of Hispanic-American players, you have other nationalities, and so on. It's not about Hispanics per se.
My only point is I think the demographics, the way the birth rate is growing in this country, Hispanic-Americans are a critical mass taking on a more and more significant proportion of the population. So you would expect that over time, we should have more Hispanic-Americans challenging for national team seats. I don't know if that was your question, but to me, it's common sense.
It is, but there is also the question of fans' and players' hearts, and whether those people feel more inclined to align themselves with the United States, or Mexico or Honduras or Brazil or Argentina or the many other countries they may come from. They have said they want to feel they are welcomed, whether by the player development system or the professional game.
This is still a young country by any measure of history, and we're still a country of immigrants, and it's not unusual for first-generation and other immigrants to have strong ties to their home countries. And we have millions of Mexican-Americans living in America. So you would expect there to be strong ties to Mexico, or to other South American and Latin American countries that have significant populations in the United States.
We're blessed in the United States with this great mix of people, and that does present some challenges. I think at the end of the day, Americans, by and large — certainly as the population ages and we pick up second and third generation [immigrants], they are huge fans of the United States, as they should be. But that doesn't mean you don't keep your ties to your original country.
I think you're talking about that from a fan perspective, right?
Yes, but also when it comes to players who are being recruited by the Mexican and U.S. national teams.
Mexico is one of our fiercest competitors. Given our shared history, given the movement of people back and forth, there is always going to be that pool of players who the Mexicans are trying to attract. And we're going to do everything possible, and I think we've been pretty successful, in keeping hold of them for the United States.
But I don't expect that's going to disappear overnight. There are just too many people involved, and too many players, and the proximity of the two countries.
You're not talking about European immigration from 25 years ago where you cut your ties. Now with communications being what they are, you can live on one side of the border or the other side of the border and watch the same TV programs and speak whatever language you want.
I don't want to to segue into the political stuff, but all I'm saying is that is just part and parcel of the reality of life right now. We're going to go after all the best talent out there that we can encourage to come and play for the United States. Men and women.
There is a lot of discussion out there about the potential to have promotion and relegation in the American soccer system. Many fans and observers want to see the U.S. Soccer Federation take a strong hand in making that happen. I'm sure you've seen the conversations out there. What's your view on the subject?
You are delving into issues that are currently before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and are in litigation [in U.S. courts]. I'm not in position to comment on anything related to that, or remotely related to that, without getting myself into hot water. So I do not want to, and cannot, comment on anything that may be related to one or the other of those pending situations.
I'm a vice president of the Federation and the Federation is part of all of this. Unlike the other candidates, who can speak their minds on this, I'm not in a position to talk to any of those points.
[Editor's note: Second-tier North American Soccer League club Miami FC and fourth-tier semi-professional club Kingston (N.Y.) Stockade FC have taken the U.S. Soccer Federation to the global Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, to try to force the governing body to adopt promotion and relegation. In addition, the NASL as an entity has sued the Federation on antitrust charges, claiming that the standards for sanctioning leagues as divisions or tiers are "arbitrary" and a "conspiracy." Neither case has been resolved yet.]
The last question goes back to something you addressed earlier. There is a widespread perception out there that you are running against your boss, Sunil Gulati, even though Gulati has not said yet whether he will run. There is a perception that you, his right-hand man, are now aiming to take over his job. Is that a fair perception or an unfair perception?
I've seen it. I was asked that question [by other media outlets] a couple of times. I think you've seen my response to that already that is out there. I am not running against Sunil. I am not running against any one candidate. I know there are a number of them out there.
I'm running because I think the time is right, to me, to lead this Federation. And because I see an opportunity out there that requires a very different form of leadership of the board of directors that can take us to the next level.
I'm not talking about growing this in dollars and metric terms. It's not about dollars. It's not about growing by 10 percent or 20 percent in terms of the scope of what we do. But in doubling or tripling that, I think it takes the Federation to a different scale that we could never have imagined not too long ago.
I think we're at that point, at that critical juncture, where we can aspire to those highs. I think it requires a different type of leadership. I want to get away from whom am I running against, to what I think the future is all about, and where I fit into that discussion.