Will Wilson: “My experience at SUM will be a big assist to the process.” (Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer)
By Michael Lewis
Will Wilson checked many, if not, all of U.S. Soccer’s boxes in its pursuit for a new CEO and secretary general as Dan Flynn’s successor.
He is bilingual, speaking English and Spanish. That could help bridge the gap with the Hispanic community, which has been under-utilized by the U.S. Soccer Federation for years.
He also has been on both sides of the negotiation table as well in management and as a player agent, which could help in settlement talks with the U.S. women’s national team in the squad’s lawsuit against the federation, and in future litigation talks.
And he also worked for Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, which is a controversial issue for many soccer American soccer fans. They felt that MLS, SUM and the USSF have too cozy of a relationship.
“I think it’s a plus,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said during a Tuesday conference call, adding that Wilson has “got 30 years of experience and four of those were at SUM and MLS. So, he has a good understanding of the process. Soccer is very complex game and a complex business. I think it would be very difficult for someone to come in from the outside and not knowing that business and step in and hit the ground running. A plus on our side for Will.”
Wilson has known MLS commissioner and SUM CEO Don Garber for many years. So, when he became a candidate, Parlow Cone said that she asked Garber to recuse himself “as an overabundance of caution.”
Added Wilson: “I will second what Cindy said. My experience at SUM will be a big assist to the process. As all of you guys … know it’s a complicated game with all the various tournaments, all the various competitions, the way the leagues work. Soccer obviously is the only sport in the world with infrastructure in every country. So, it’s a complex landscape. I think my time there will be a benefit, quite frankly. … I only see it as a positive.”
Finding Flynn’s successor took seven months, more than many observers thought it would take. He retired in September after 19 years as CEO.
“The process did take a long,” Parlow Cone said. “I was willing to take as long as it took to get the right person in the job. Many of the candidates we interviewed early on, we didn’t feel like were the best fit. We had to basically restart the process and we did so with a new firm. Through that process we came to the best candidate for U.S. Soccer.”
Wilson met with every board member, except for Garber, and he was voted unanimously into his new position, according to Parlow Cone. He is expected to start at the end of the month. Wilson said he signed a multi-year deal “and not dissimilar to anyone in my position would have.”
One of the top priorities will be to try to reach a settlement with the U.S. women’s national team, which is seeking $66 million in damages in its gender discrimination lawsuit. When he was with Wasserman, a major global sports agency, Wilson was the agent of NFL quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft, among other football players.
“That is experience that I have that will be very beneficial, quite frankly,” Wilson said. “I’ve been on both sides of the table, the teams at the league level and for the last number of years, representing athletes. I understand that athletes view the world differently and I think I have learned where to meet them where they’re at, so to speak, things that are important to them. Obviously, American football is a different sport from soccer, but I think there are a lot of common threads … of things that concern athletes, things that really relate to their careers and things that are important going forward. Yes, I do think my experience there working on a contract of a CBA, engaging with my prior clients on labor issues when they were focused with dealing issues are all going to be beneficial with this job as well.”
For years, one of the underserved areas of American soccer has been the Hispanic community. Players have fallen through the cracks and even some, due to dual nationality or background, have pursued international careers in Mexico, slipping through the hands of the various U.S. men’s national team
“For me, a huge priority in terms of growing the game and growing the interest in making soccer the preeminent sport in this country is really uniting the various soccer demographics,” he said. “There’s an old saying: ‘Demography is destiny.’ There is no denying the census in this country, the population in this country and we’re doing a disservice to the soccer eco-system if we’re not communicating with all the folks of all the nationalities within this country … Clearly, the Mexican demographic, the Hispanic demographic is a big part of that. I think what you will see from me over time is a very concerted effort to engage directly with all the demographics of soccer in this country and find a way to unite these Bedouin tribes, if you will.”
Parlow Cone said Wilson’s experience overseas — he worked in NFL Europe — and his ability to speak Spanish went a long way.
“It was very important in our decision to choose Will Wilson as our CEO,” she said. “I really liked that he had diverse experiences in foreign countries and that he has an understanding and appreciation of different cultures. This is something that us soccer is doing a little bit of, but it’s not doing a good enough job of right now.”
While the USSF board was evaluating Wilson, the 52-year-old had an opportunity to take a good, long hard look at federation. He realized he was stepping into a situation in which there are many issues, including low morale at the organization’s headquarters, U.S. Soccer House, the Glassdoor review, several other lawsuits besides the USWNT ‘s litigation and just making sure everything is running smoothly.
“There is definitely things for me to address. There is no question about that. No question,” he said. “I viewed it as a huge opportunity and I believe that U.S. Soccer has … great opportunities on the horizon with the 2026 World Cup, the Olympics and the other things that are coming.”
Wilson added he wanted to “create a culture and work environment that makes U.S. Soccer an admired place to work, where everyone feels … and wants to continue to move forward because everyone there loves soccer, loves U.S. Soccer, takes a ton of pride of what they do and … just tap into that and create a very positive culture going forward.”