Soccer

Can a Former Star Player Fix U.S. Soccer’s Big Problem?

The United States Soccer Federation has been carrying more baggage than the bellhops at a busy hotel. It has a decades-long history of not being able to field a competitive men’s team, it is affiliated with a world governing body often perceived as corrupt, and the USSF is feuding with the people directly responsible for its greatest successes over the past three decades.

The USSF did something this week that was either a strong step toward repairing its biggest current problem or merely patronizing and superficial when it called upon Cindy Parlow Cone to take over leadership of American soccer.

The stock market had a bad week but the USSF had a worse one

The USSF has been embroiled in a fight with the U.S. Women’s National Team that turned worse this week with another exchange of court filings ahead of a scheduled May trial to determine whether the nation’s governing body for the sport owes $67 million in back pay based on an interpretation of Title VII regulations.

The USSF continues to argue that players on its men’s team are physically superior and have greater responsibility because they face tougher international competition and play games and tournaments that yield far more money than the women. As such, they say there’s no case to be made along the lines of equal pay for equal work.

The women’s team won a game against Japan on Wednesday, before which the players turned their warmup jerseys inside-out to hide the United States Soccer Federation logo.

USSF President Carlos Cordeiro apologized for the language used in the court filing in a statement released late in the game. He also announced the USSF would take on new legal representation in court and he generally sounded closer to contrite than combative.

And then he was gone a day later. With corporate sponsors starting to distance themselves from the USSF and star player Megan Rapinoe among those dismissing the apology, the board of directors replaced Cordeiro with Cindy Parlow Cone, naming her the interim president.

Cindy Parlow Cone was a key figure on the team during part of the stretch that has seen the United States win four World Cup championships and four Olympic golds since 1991. She played 158 games at midfield from 1995-2006, scoring 75 goals. She went on to coach in the National Women’s Soccer League after retiring as a player.

Can Cindy Parlow Cone heal the wounds?

Appointing her could be interpreted as a message to the USWNT that the U.S. Soccer Federation is ready to discuss settling the pay dispute outside the courtroom. As an interim choice through next February, however, Cove likely will have limited power to work on a resolution and could find herself pressured by the generation of players that followed her.

If nothing is resolved before the case reaches court in May, she risks being labeled “window dressing” and a token selection made to lessen the perception that the USSF has a bias against women. Although former teammates applauded her appointment, she already could be seen as siding against the women’s team based upon the fact that had been serving as the USSF vice president for the past year.

The U.S. Soccer Federation is a mess

Soccer has not been able to join baseball, football, and soccer in the top tier of American sports and owes part of its failure to repeated disappointing results by its men’s national team. After qualifying in 1950 the United States did not return to the World Cup until 1990.

The men did appear in seven straight World Cups beginning in 1990 and played in the 2002 quarterfinals. However, whatever momentum remained at the international level was lost when the United States failed to qualify in 2018, unable to beat the likes of Panama and Costa Rica for a berth in the final stage.

In that context, a court may see the contention of the women’s team members that they deserve the same pay as the men as valid.

Beyond the gender issue, the United States Soccer Federation faces multiple challenges. Carlos Cordeiro wasn’t a decisive winner over marketing specialist Kathy Carter in the 2018 election for USSF president and as such didn’t have the mandate that elected officials often cite.

He inherited a player development system that pits high schools against club programs in the training of young prospects. At the other extreme, the United States still does not have a league suitable for all its best players.

Major League Soccer has avoided most of the mistakes of previous U.S. pro leagues, is stable and puts a quality product on the field. However, the level of play is not nearly as good as the top European leagues. That forces many of the top American talents to play abroad, where they are less visible and marketable to U.S. fans. That further contributes to the sport lagging behind the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.