The dynamics that Cindy Parlow Cone faces in her reelection campaign as U.S. Soccer Federation president are pretty unusual.

It’s one thing to be the first woman to have held the job, and as a former U.S. national team star player at that. It’s another to have gained the job because her predecessor, Carlos Cordeiro, resigned amid scandal in early 2020. Then Cone had to win a one-year term in early 2021, in an election that ended up uncontested.

Only now, as U.S. Soccer’s four-year election cycle reaches its official presidential election year, is Cone running for a full term. To top off the unique circumstances, her opponent is that same predecessor — who was also Cone’s boss when she was vice president from Feb. 2019 to March 2020.

“When Carlos resigned and I became president, it was interesting to be thrown into it, quite possibly in one of the more challenging times in U.S. Soccer’s history,” Cone told The Inquirer in an exclusive interview on Monday. “On top of it, with the pandemic, I literally became president the day our country shut down … There were a lot of challenges, but working through it, and building up a team, and changing the culture at U.S. Soccer, I think this is why I feel like I want to do it again.”

Facing a ‘toxic culture’

Her reference to changing the culture is about a specific stretch of time. In the first half of 2019, a series of complaints about the Federation’s work culture was posted on the business networking website Glassdoor. The complaints became so fierce that they were featured in the New York Times in late June of that year, right in the middle of the U.S. women’s team’s World Cup title run.

“When I came on, I think everyone knew the Glassdoor reports of the ‘toxic culture’ at U.S. Soccer,” Cone said, invoking the specific language used in one of the complaints.

“I knew from the get-go that, one, we needed leadership, and we needed a senior team in place that was working together,” she said. “We needed to get rid of silos. And I think a huge part of it was we needed to be more inclusive, and that is why I brought in people to help us with diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

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There’s now a DEI council that meets biweekly, and a push to do more bilingual work in English and Spanish — something long desired by the national teams’ fan bases. Last month, U.S. Soccer launched another initiative called Game Changers United, with leaders including former national team stars Cobi Jones and Abby Wambach.

There’s much more to do, and Cone hopes to be able to do it. But to earn that right, she must overcome some significant criticisms.

Changing priorities

One is a widespread sense in the youth and adult amateur soccer communities that Cone hasn’t been as receptive to their interests as her predecessors, and has prioritized the senior national teams — especially the U.S. women — in ways her predecessors did not.

Asked to respond to this, Cone acknowledged it’s a fair point.

“Their perception is their reality,” she said. “I’ll take that on. I think one of the mistakes that I’ve made is that during this time, I’ve relied on their reps on the board to bring their viewpoints to me. And what I found during my conversations is that they want that one-on-one contact with U.S. Soccer, and not to have to go through someone like their board representative. So that will be a focus moving forward.”

It helps, she added, that she no longer feels she has to be “putting out fires constantly and making sure the ship doesn’t sink.” She said that only since last December has she felt able to “actually, like, lift my head up and think more broadly on what we needed to do.”

Cone knows that one of the fires was of her own making: dismissing Brian Remedi, U.S. Soccer’s chief administrative officer, as a pandemic-induced cost-cutting measure in April 2020.

Remedi isn’t a well-known name to much of the public, but within U.S. Soccer’s ranks he mattered a lot. He was someone whom youth and adult clubs could call to have questions and complaints listened to. He was also one of the Federation’s highest-paid employees, earning over $350,000 in the fiscal year that ended in March 2019.

“With the pandemic and all the uncertainty around it, every organization made really difficult decisions, and I would put Brian up as one of those really difficult decisions — one of the harder ones that I’ve had to do,” Cone said. “I like Brian. I have a great relationship with Brian; I think he was great. But in this time, whether programmatic or personnel, during COVID we’ve all had to make really hard decisions.”

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Following the money

Another complaint aimed at Cone — especially by Cordeiro in his campaign manifesto — is a belief that U.S. Soccer isn’t doing enough to make the most money possible from hosting the 2026 men’s World Cup.

Cone responded to this with a set of proposals in her campaign manifesto. She also dangled a big carrot in front of youth clubs by promising to ask FIFA for U.S. Soccer members and season-ticket holders of American pro teams to get early access to World Cup game tickets.

“My team and I have been engaged with FIFA and all the potential host cities,” Cone said. “In this next phase, the priority for us is to make sure no time is wasted once the decision is announced, to begin working with the host cities and all of our members to benefit from hosting and growing the game.”

The final decision on host cities is due this spring.

With the national teams, one of Cone’s biggest pressure points right now is simultaneous collective bargaining with the U.S. men and women. The men haven’t had a CBA since the end of 2018, and the women are operating on a short-term extension through March of a deal that expired at the end of 2021.

There’s been progress, but Cone didn’t sound optimistic about getting new deals done before the election.

“It’s not for lack of us working together — there’s just a lot to work through and to get done” she said. “I can tell you that we have been engaged and meeting several times a week to do it. But I think the short timeline of three or four weeks [from] now, I think that would be a giant push to get [deals] done before the election. I’m more hoping [for the] end of March.”

Politics at play

There could be big changes to the presidency in more ways than one before then. In addition to the election, U.S. Soccer’s Athletes Council — which holds 33.3% of the elections votes — has proposed making the presidency a paid job for the first time. It has always been a volunteer position, with expenses reimbursed (and there are a lot of them). The proposal would give the role a $125,000 salary.

Cone, whose current paying job is overseeing North Carolina FC’s youth programs, hopes the proposal passes.

“I do think that if the amendment passes, it will move the Federation forward,” she said. “It will open up the position to people who are not independently wealthy, or who don’t have unlimited time off, or people like me, where I have a really understanding and supportive employer.”

Until then, it’s back to campaigning.

“I was never even looking to become vice president, but I felt like it was important for athletes to have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made that would affect them,” Cone said. “I tried to find an athlete to run for VP, and no one would do it. So I did it.”

Now she has the biggest job of all, and she’d like to keep it.

“I’ve always been honest; I don’t promise things that I can’t deliver, and I bring a unique perspective that no president has ever had at U.S. Soccer,” she said. “I think people see that, and see that what I’ve had to deal with during this time as president. It hasn’t been a usual presidency, that’s for sure, with what I was handed, and then put COVID on top of that.”