New U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO Will Wilson have no grace periods as they start their jobs.
Not when U.S. women’s players are suing the federation for gender discrimination, U.S. men’s players have gone 15 months without a collective bargaining agreement, and the coronavirus has upended everything in the soccer world.
But there are reasons for optimism. Cone played for the U.S. in the early years of the equal pay fight, winning the 1999 World Cup and capturing gold medals at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics. Wilson was recently an NFL player agent, so he can see labor issues from the players’ side.
Cone and Wilson brought those perspectives to their first major public remarks in their positions, a conference call Tuesday with reporters nationwide.
Many of the questions they faced were about the U.S. women’s lawsuit, especially sexist language in a filing by lawyers U.S. Soccer hired. That filing led to former president Carlos Cordeiro’s resignation on March 12, and the lawyers were overtaken by different ones.
Cone said the governing body launched an external review of how everything fell apart “so that we can ensure this never happens again.”
Federation chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke has been placed on administrative leave for the duration of the review. Wahlke reports directly to the CEO position, which had been vacant since Dan Flynn stepped down last September.
Cone again disavowed the offensive filing, as she did when it first became public, and acknowledged the severe impact it had on players and fans alike.
“I think [the filing] not only hurt our relationship with our women's national team, but hurt women and girls in general — and as a former national team player, they were personally hurtful to me,” Cone said. “So I think we have a lot of work in that area to do, but I'm willing to jump in and work tirelessly to help build that relationship and that trust.”
Cone said Cordeiro set up a “special litigation committee” to deal with the lawsuit that included herself and two board members: U.S. Youth Soccer vice chairman Tim Turney and independent member Patti Hart, CEO of slot machine manufacturer International Gaming Technologies.
Neither the committee nor the board as a whole saw the filings in advance, Cone said. She called that “a fundamental error in our processes."
The committee notably lacked anyone from the athletes’ council of former and current players, or from the professional council of domestic league executives. Of the board’s 14 voting members, Turney is one of five from youth or adult amateur organizations. Those entities’ clubs form the bulk of the federation’s actual voting membership. Very few of them have said anything about the equal pay lawsuit.
Cone said U.S. Soccer wants to settle the case before it gets to trial in May, even though the governing body asked the judge for summary judgment just like the players did.
“I think that’s one of our top priorities right now,” she said. “I don’t think a trial is good for either party or for soccer, both in this country or internationally."
Wilson’s experience as a player agent — including for former Indianapolis Colts star Andrew Luck, his nephew— could be very helpful in resolving the women’s lawsuit and the men’s lack of a CBA.
“I think I’ve learned how to meet [players] where they’re at, so to speak, on the things that are important to them,” he said. “Obviously, American football is a different sport than soccer, but there's a lot of common threads. … Engaging with my prior clients on labor issues when they were focused on dealing with negotiations [for] the NFL CBA, [that] can be very beneficial in this job.”
Questions beyond the lawsuit included a few sharp ones about Wilson’s background. He worked from 2008-12 with Soccer United Marketing, the business arm of Major League Soccer that handles commercial sponsorships for MLS and U.S. Soccer.
SUM and MLS commissioner Don Garber have been criticized for conflicts of interest. For example, SUM profits from the U.S. women while doing little to help the NWSL get sponsors. Other men’s leagues are also outside the deal, such as the National Independent Soccer Association — home to loudly-rebellious Detroit City FC and the New York Cosmos.
Cone said she is not as concerned about Wilson’s SUM ties as others are.
“I think it’s a plus,” she said. “Soccer is a very complex game and complex business. I think it would be very difficult for someone to come in from the outside, not knowing that business, and hit the ground running.”
Cone also said she “definitely” believes U.S. Soccer should treat MLS and the NWSL, the nation’s two top-tier leagues, as equals. They currently don’t have the same number of votes on the Federation’s Pro Council, and it has taken outside pressure to try to get that fixed.
There were some positive notes on the call, including Wilson highlighting his fluency in Spanish from past years living in Mexico. U.S. Soccer has long been criticized for failing to attract this country’s Hispanic population to its programs, and Wilson promised to tackle that.
“There’s an old saying that demography is destiny — there’s no denying the Census in this country, the population of this country,” Wilson said. "We’re doing a disservice to the soccer ecosystem if we’re not communicating with all the folks of all the nationalities who live in this country who love soccer.”
Cone added that was a key reason why she wanted to hire Wilson.
“This is something that U.S. Soccer is doing a little bit of, but is not doing a good enough job of right now. Bringing Will in, with his understanding of different cultures and also speaking Spanish, was a huge plus.