Scenes from a U.S. Soccer board meeting

While other reporters were out chasing down details of the Gang of Six (or Five or Four), I was at a U.S. Soccer Board of Directors meeting.

And what I can report from that meeting is that USSF board business is …

Boring.

Really, really boring.

If you read Twitter — and yes, the board members made it known that they’re aware of what’s said — you would think the board sits around discussing ways to prevent promotion/relegation from happening. Or ways to make sure Eric Wynalda is never employed. Or perhaps just taking turns swimming in piles of Soccer United Marketing gold.

Here’s what happened in the first, oh 150 minutes (minus a few minutes where I had to run out):

1. Sunil Gulati said he’s looking forward to the election being over. Carlos Cordeiro, sitting next to him, nodded his head slightly.

2. Gulati went over the USA/Canada/Mexico World Cup bid. He’s quite enthusiastic about it.

3. Gulati went over FIFA’s current thinking over changes in international competition. They’re combining youth tournaments — instead of a separate U20 and U17 tournament, we’ll see either U19 or U18. They’re leaning U18 because it’s easier to get players released. That also works for the U.S. because they often run into conflicts with college players now.

4. OK, THIS is interesting. FIFA is working a women’s Nations League, like the UEFA and CONCACAF men’s league. The goal is to keep women’s national teams more active. Gulati gave the example of Ecuador’s women, who made the 2015 World Cup and then went more or less dormant.

There’s a side discussion about SUM and whether it’ll have less stuff under its control as FIFA controls more rights. Gulati points out that other countries are in the same boat, and FIFA is backing off a bit for now.

5. Want to see a long presentation of marketing stuff being planned around the Women’s World Cup? Here you go. No word on what happens if the U.S. women don’t qualify.

6. A player development update turned into a discussion with Dr. Bob Contiguglia, attending his last board meeting as past president, asking about the process the federation went through before announcing the birth-year age-group changes that have blown up real good. Ryan Mooney answers and says nothing substantial for the first three minutes or so but then says it has spun off a longer discussion about better communication with members.

7. A participation study has shown that rec players tend to “lapse” at age 8-10, while travel players tend to leave at 11-15. But there’s a high interest in “unorganized” soccer, and there’s interest in an intermediate level between rec and travel. (Which some states do.)

8. Tax Reform Impacts. This goes on for a while.

Having fun yet?

9. USSF counsel Lydia Wahlke goes through a presentation on athlete safety, especially in the wake of what’s happened with USA Gymnastics. The federation was already doing a lot, including harassment training for every NWSL club last spring. This was a long but absolutely important discussion. I couldn’t follow all of it, and I started wondering how long these meetings would run if Wahlke and Kyle Martino are both involved.

10. Election update: The vendor overseeing the election is Plante Moran. We get the lowdown on who they are. I didn’t need to know that they were named one of the top places to work in Chicago.

A break. Finally.

11. Donna Shalala’s term as independent director is ending, and the Risk and Audit Committee needs another independent director to lead it in the interim. I think Val Ackerman ducked. Lisa Carnoy gets volunteered.

Incidentally, Carnoy also filled in as treasurer for the purposes of validating registration fees so they can properly weight the votes. Cordeiro would normally do that, but he recused himself, sensibly.

12. AN OPEN CUP DISCUSSION! And it got quite interesting. They’re considering an amendment that would eliminate the Cup’s foreign-player restriction, which currently stands at five for pro clubs. The pro clubs don’t want that any more — in fact, NASL interim commissioner Rishi Sehgal was in attendance and spoke up to testify that all the pro leagues agreed on this. (Nice to know they all agreed on something.)

The lines of argument are surprising. It’s basically Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn vs. Shalala, Carlos Bocanegra and Don Garber. Gulati argues that the Cup’s credibility won’t be hurt by limiting the number of foreign stars, especially considering how many of them sit out until the semifinals or final, anyway. And Gulati says he wants to give U.S. players more opportunities. John Motta is on the Open Cup committee but says he didn’t really participate in this discussion because it affects the pro leagues, not the ones in his domain (USASA).

tabledThe amendments wouldn’t take effect until qualifying begins anew in August, so the motion is tabled.

13. Insurance. The USSSA had some concerns with the USASA’s proposal. Tabled to give them time to work it out.

14. Wahlke describes an independent ethics committee proposal. Gulati points out the Risk and Audit Committee has been doing a lot of this work but doesn’t object to it being formed. No one speaks in opposition. So that passes the board — I’m not sure whether the National Council (the big meeting, which will vote on the presidency) has to vote on it tomorrow.

15. Membership fees. They saved the most explosive item for last. Motta wants to cut membership fees in half — from $2 to $1 per player for adults, from $1 to 50 cents for youth. At-large member John Collins, who asks great questions throughout the meeting, points out that the National Council would have to approve this.

It’s safe to say Gulati is not a fan of this idea. Especially the timing of it, one day before a National Council meeting at which they’ll need to approve the budget. (Cordeiro points out it’s also one day before the election.) And Gulati is convinced we’re not losing players over 50 cents.

Gulati unleases his full sarcasm on Motta, with whom he traded the VP slot way back when (Motta beat him for the spot in 1998, Gulati won it 2000): “Want to withdraw it or see it defeated?” Motta wants a vote.

So they vote … sort of. A couple of people raise their hands in favor. Athletes’ Council chair Chris Ahrens is intrigued. He asks Motta for a specific use of the money (which is maybe a couple million dollars, all told) if they get it “back.” Motta doesn’t give a particularly good answer.

It’s safe to say this issue is going to come up again. But the argument to recommend such a change now isn’t persuasive. They take a final vote. Motta and fellow Adult Council member Richard Moeller vote yes, as does Youth Council rep Jesse Harrell — overlooked at first because he doesn’t raise his hand very high. Cordeiro abstains. Everyone else votes no.

And that’s the last order of business. We’re off to the “Good of the Game” segment in which members can talk about what they want. That’ll be part of the National Council meeting — actually, all my local club meetings end with it, too. It’s generally like the minute-long speeches in Congress hailing the accomplishments of a local chess club. But it can get testy, as it did in the National Council meeting a couple of years ago when people went back and forth with contrasting opinions on Chuck Blazer. And if Kathy Carter wins, I think tomorrow’s session will be a doozy.

This one had a lot of positives. Bocanegra praised the work on the SheBelieves Cup and related initiatives. Several board members bid a fond farewell to departing board members Shalala and Contiguglia. Several also summed up their congratulations to Gulati for 12 mostly good years.

But there was some talk of the election animosity. Contiguglia was philosophical — having been through tough times at USSF before, he reminds everyone, “this too shall pass.” Moeller lamented the palpable animosity at the hotel bar last night.

Ahrens was particularly pointed, saying criticisms of the Athletes’ Council were offensive. They’ve put a lot of effort into their duties, he says, only to see their integrity unfairly and inaccurately called into question.

Then Gulati lets fly. “I’d love to say only friendly things, but that wouldn’t be honest.”

He laments that the board (other than Motta and Contiguglia) has been accused in legal documents of being conflicted. (I turned to look at Sehgal, who had a face of stone.) He says the independent directors are truly independent. He didn’t know Shalala until Julie Foudy introduced them. He barely knew Ackerman or Carnoy.

He takes aim at Twitter — particularly, the fact that people who retweet nonsense. “A tweet by someone anonymous gets retweeted, and now it’s Encyclopedia Brittanica.” He jokes that his wife tried to take the tweet that he’s due $30 million-$50 million from the World Cup bid to the bank to see if she could some how use it for cash or credit.

“So much nonsense out there, and you should let people know that.”

And frankly, it was hard not to sympathize. Anyone who sat through that and doesn’t think these people are doing their fiduciary duty is … well, probably looking at it strictly through the lens of self-interest and one decision that didn’t go their way. If you think that’s worth burning down everything the board members and staffers in that room are doing, fine. Sign your name to it and make your case below.

No, that’s not an endorsement for anything in the election. It’s one thing to say the board could use some fresh ideas. So could MLS, for that matter. That’s all that needs to be said. The rest is overkill.

And I found myself wondering who would want to be on this board in the current climate. Who would voluntarily put themselves through this?

So tomorrow, someone is going to win an exhausting and often tedious volunteer position. And they will have skipped all the other exhausting and often tedious volunteer positions that people normally do to pay their dues. So the new president should walk before the board with the greatest humility. Maybe then those fresh ideas will gain some traction.

 

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