For disgruntled fans and stakeholders craving change at the helm of U.S. Soccer, they’ve gotten their wish in one fell swoop.
Since president Carlos Cordeiro resigned two weeks ago, the federation has gained two new leaders. First is Cindy Parlow Cone, the vice president who was automatically promoted to Cordeiro’s vacant role. Next was Will Wilson, who was hired last week to fill the long-vacant CEO role and will oversee all the day-to-day operations at U.S. Soccer.
But changing the personnel was the easy part. The hard part is fixing the problems that have either cropped up within U.S. Soccer or are afflicting the federation from the outside – and there are many of those problems.
By all accounts, both Parlow Cone and Wilson are plenty capable of delivering.
Parlow Cone never asked for the role she has now, but it may be the reason to hope she’ll be an antidote to some of U.S. Soccer’s problems. To the extent that past presidents may have been motivated by a grab for power and influence, Parlow Cone – a former USWNT midfielder – can just focus on steering the federation back on track.
Wilson, on the other hand, looks like an industry insider on paper, with connections to one of the preeminent sports agencies, Wasserman, and Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of Major League Soccer. That might make some U.S. Soccer critics uneasy, but considering the job had previously appeared to be destined for longtime U.S. Soccer executive Jay Berhalter, who had been partially blamed for the poor culture at the federation, Wilson is a breath of fresh air by comparison.
So what do Parlow Cone and Wilson need to do? Here’s a list of the first four tasks to get them started.
1. Settle the lawsuit with the USWNT
While U.S. Soccer has plenty of challenges, none has eroded the federation’s goodwill and image as much as the gender discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. women’s national team.
The case itself is rather nuanced and, while there is a path to mediation, it’s not an easy one. But to the USWNT’s credit, they’ve boiled down the topic to two simple words: equal pay. The odds that this ends well for U.S. Soccer are slim.
His abrupt resignation was forced by an extremely ill-advised legal approach that essentially argued women are inherently inferior to men. As the ordeal shows, winning the lawsuit in court could come with heavy losses in the public’s goodwill toward U.S. Soccer and the federation’s relationship with the players.
To be fair to Cordeiro, he seemed to be aware that the longer the lawsuit lingered, the worse it was for U.S. Soccer. He was eager to reach a settlement – but not eager enough with the USWNT seeking nearly $67 million in back pay.
Parlow Cone, who is probably acutely aware of U.S. Soccer’s shortcomings in dealing with the USWNT over the years as a former player, also seems anxious to settle.
“I think that’s one of our top priorities right now,” Parlow Cone said in her first press conference as the new president of U.S. Soccer. “I don’t think the trial is good for either party or for soccer, both in this country or internationally. Obviously our women’s team is the best team in the world and I’m hopeful that we can find a resolution before this goes to trial.”
The trial was supposed to begin May 5, but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it will likely be delayed, giving both parties more time to reach a compromise.
2. Repair the damage from the equal pay lawsuit
The legal outcome of the USWNT lawsuit is only part of what needs to be dealt with – and increasingly it seems like the less important part. Rather, the public relations fallout has been a disaster for U.S. Soccer.
After all, the federation demeaned women everywhere and argued in a public document that the labor of women is less than that of men. That’s bad for U.S. Soccer’s relationship with the USWNT, obviously, but it’s probably bad for U.S. Soccer’s relationship with everyone, period.
“I think the comments and the language in the last filing not only hurt our relationship with our women’s national team, but hurt women and girls in general,” Parlow Cone said.
“Settling this dispute is only the first step, but the next step is a long process,” she added. “A lot of damage has been done and I think we are going to have rebuild that trust and rebuild that relationship. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of effort, time and energy from the U.S. Soccer side to rebuild that trust, not only with the U.S. women national team players, but with our fans and everyone engaged in our sport.”
Lydia Wahlke, the in-house legal counsel for U.S. Soccer who signed off on the strategy, has been placed on leave while a review takes place. But it’s unclear what that review will yield beyond the obvious, which is that the lawyers were trying to win a legal argument and either no one paid attention to the public relations fallout or no one thought it was a big deal.
Cordeiro, in his resignation letter, said he never read the legal filing that sparked the firestorm. There was no CEO yet who would’ve been responsible for paying attention. A litigation committee, which consisted of Parlow Cone, Patti Hart and Tim Turney – all unpaid volunteers – also didn’t review it.
Regardless, the governing body of a sport can’t get away with publicly declaring that women are unequal to men and thus deserved to be paid unequally. Cordeiro may have sacrificed himself as the scapegoat, but this all shouldn’t fall on the unpaid president of the federation’s board.
Regardless of how exactly the misogynist and belittling legal strategy came about, no one was apparently concerned that such an approach wouldn’t be embraced wholeheartedly at U.S. Soccer House. No one second-guessed it, and that in and of itself raises a bigger concern that must be investigated and addressed.
3. Make reforms a priority, and be proactive about it
U.S. Soccer has long faced accusations that it is an organization in dire need of intervention, and there seemed to be at least some progress at U.S. Soccer House lately.
The federation had conducted employee surveys last year, and started to pinpoint reasons for low morale and a culture that some employees had labeled as “toxic.” But the problem is that such an inventory of federation employee concerns only came after a scathing New York Times report.
Until the negative press, was anyone responsible for day-to-day decisions at U.S. Soccer actually checking in with the men and women who carry out the federation’s mission every day? Did anyone take stock of whether staffers felt valued, respected, happy and motivated? Did anyone seek ideas and feedback from the people on the ground? It doesn’t sound like it.
The federation has started to implement reforms as a result of the New York Times report, which was prompted by anonymous Glassdoor reviews. But soliciting feedback from senior staffers isn’t enough when U.S. Soccer has almost 200 full-time staff, and plenty more people working part-time.
Wilson, the new CEO, will be uniquely positioned to change the culture at U.S. Soccer. But it’s easier said than done.
On his debut conference call with reporters, he promised improvements, but how they’ll be made remains to be seen.
“What I would like to address really is trying to create a culture, a work environment, that makes U.S. Soccer an admired place to work, where everyone feels valued,” Wilson said of his assessment of the federation when he chose to accept the job.
“Yes, there are issues,” he added. “That’s obvious. But for me, it’s the fact that we had to address those and find resolution, attack the culture and really create a place that people want to be and want to work to support our members and grow the game.”
4. Figure out a path forward with the NWSL
The National Women’s Soccer League and U.S. Soccer have a symbiotic relationship.
The league owes its existence to U.S. Soccer, which pays for USWNT players to play for NWSL clubs, all while serving as the league manager and covering administrative costs. In return, the NWSL has helped develop some of the USWNT’s key breakthrough stars – and when the USWNT wins, U.S. Soccer wins.
Last year, the NWSL sought to fundamentally change how the arrangement works. The league asked to stand on its own without U.S. Soccer’s oversight, something U.S. Soccer has said it supports. But NWSL owners also asked U.S. Soccer to provide millions in extra funding, and U.S. Soccer’s board scoffed at the notion.
Instead, U.S. Soccer said it would continue to manage the league for one more year until a new plan could be devised for the NWSL to become independent. The clocking is ticking.
For the continued depth of the USWNT player pool, U.S. Soccer should do whatever it takes to keep the NWSL strong and viable. But the NWSL needs to continue to demonstrate it is trending in the right direction and toward financial sustainability.
The federation had previously raised concerns about the NWSL owners’ failure to hire a commissioner for three years, and that’s finally been rectified with the promising appointment of Lisa Baird a month ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic may change the timeline. For all we know, the NWSL’s 2020 season may never be played, which would be an unfortunate setback to the good momentum the league has been building.
But that’s all the more reason for U.S. Soccer to take a long and thoughtful look at its relationship with the NWSL and map out the possibilities for the future.
Asked about the importance of the NWSL to U.S. Soccer, Wilson gave a correct (albeit short) response.
His entire answer: “Obviously we’re very supportive of the NWSL. We think it’s very important to have a professional league where women can compete and compete at the highest level in this country. That’s something that is definitely of importance to us.”
You can forgive Wilson – he had been on the job for one day when he offered that response, and the federation has issues that need to be dealt with more quickly. But action will eventually need to back up those words.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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