Carlos Cordeiro: “I think we are in an inflection point in soccer history in this country. We have an opportunity transform it into a No. 1 sport.” (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
ORLANDO — During arguably the most contentious presidential campaign in U.S. Soccer Federation history, candidate Carlos Cordeiro claimed he was a reformist, though skeptics felt he was an insider given his 10 years with board of director and most recent position as vice president.
Today, there is little doubt he is an insider as U.S. Soccer president who finds himself with much on his plate.
The former Goldman Sachs vice chairman of Asia must hire a general manager for the men’s and women’s national teams, hire a coach for the men’s side, make sure Mexico, Canada and the United States can secure the bid for the 2026 World Cup from FIFA, and grow the sport at the grassroots level while trying to make it more affordable for players, coaches and families with limited incomes to fortify the national teams for the future.
It sounds like a difficult balancing act and one difficult equation to achieve, but only hours after he was elected as U.S. Soccer president to succeed Sunil Gulati, the 61-year-old Cordeiro sounded up to the challenge.
“I think we are in an inflection point in soccer history in this country,” Cordeiro said in his first press conference as president Saturday afternoon. “We have an opportunity transform it into a No. 1 sport. The demographics favor that. It’s a reason why the millennials identify with soccer. That’s very much in our favor. We have to do a number of things ourselves to make it happen and make it happen more rapidly. The most important thing for the federation is securing the co-hosting of the World Cup in 2026.”
Decision Day for that won’t be until June 13 in Moscow, on the eve of the World Cup kickoff.
The U.S. will be on the sidelines for that competition as the Americans failed to reach soccer’s promised land for the first time since Mexico 86, some 32 years ago. That cataclysmic result opened the door to the most wide open election in USSF history as Gulati decided not to pursue another term.
Like it or not, Cordeiro was identified as an insider because of his 10 years with the USSF. Though he won by a landslide — 68.5 percent of the vote — against four remaining opponents on the third ballot — Cordeiro first impressions were not as encouraging as he received 36.3 percent on the first ballot.
So, there are some fences to mend.
“For those who didn’t vote for me, I have to work even harder,” he said. “I think there was a lot of misinformation. There was a sense perhaps I was an insider, but the reality is you have to understand what it means to be an independent director. You’re an outsider. You don’t represent any of the councils. You are brought in to provide very impartial advice at the highest levels.”
Not surprisingly, many observers felt the Cordeiro regime will be a continuation of Gulati’s 12-year tenure. Cordeiro felt he will prove that assumption will be far from the case.
“You will see over the next couple of years a much more engaged leadership, a board that is actually taking more responsibility,” he said. “We’re only as strong as the team is.”
Cordeiro talked about his experience with the federation, which could make critics harken back to that insider status.
“I tried to make the case you have to be able to hit the ground running you need a certain amount of experience and a degree o familiarity with the functioning of the federation,” he said. “It’s a very complex organization.”
He cited the USSF’s $110 million budget in 2018.
“Lots of different things happen,” Cordeiro said. “It’s just not national teams. There’s a lot of stuff going on beyond the surface. I think you need a lot of experience, maturity and the leadership to run the board. That’s what I try to convey to the membership.”
Kathy Carter, who took a leave of absence as the president of Soccer United Marketing to seek the presidency, noted Cordeiro’s experience as a key to his election triumph and running the federation show.
“Of course, he’s got great experience on the board for the last decade,” she said. “He has a great familiarity. He sits on the bid committee and will be very additive as we go forward to win the right to host 2026. When anybody asked me, I said Carlos was very qualified. He had different skills in my estimation, but I think he’ll do a great job. He is at the right time and he is going to take our game forward.”
The challenges Cordeiro faces are familiar, trying to make the most out of a country that houses four time zones, youth participation that has stagnated the past decade and how to cut down coasts for participation and coaching courses.
“We have to make things more flexible for them,” Cordeiro said. “But at the same time, it’s also the affordability question. So, we have to look into things in my opinion, like reducing the cost of coaching education if you want to increase the number of coaches. The challenge of recruiting and retaining referees. All of this is going to take time in a grand plan and more financial resources, obviously.”
If anyone can identify with diversity, it is Cordeiro. He was born to a Colombian mother and a Portuguese father in India. When he was 15-years-old, Cordeiro, his widowed mother and three siblings emigrated to the U.S.
“I owe everything I have to the American system,” he said. “For us to grow this sport to a pre-eminent position, we have to be more inclusive. We have to reach out to those underserved, more diverse immigrant populations. It can’t be that we have 3, 3 1/2 million kids playing soccer in this country. We know there is more, but they’re not playing under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer.
“So, we have to reach out and bring them in. To an extent, we can be successful in doing that we’re going to have a lot better players over time. The challenges are making soccer more affordable and gets to all sorts of difficult questions — cost of coaching, access to facilities and so on, the cost of travel. Why are so focused on the World Cup? Because the World Cup is going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars to us.”