The Equalizer: Who’s who in the USSF presidential election?

The Equalizer is back for another semester of U.S. Soccer coverage, where I’ll be giving airtime to stories and issues plaguing both the men’s and women’s game on and off the field. Without further ado, here is a look at a presidential race that could shape U.S. Soccer’s destiny for years.

Fans and pundits alike have compared the 2018 United States Soccer Federation (USSF) presidential race to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. At first glance, the two frontrunners — Kathy Carter and Eric Wynalda — appear to reflect traits of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively.

Carter, the current President of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) — the commercial arm of Major League Soccer (MLS) — has been a member of the top brass in U.S. soccer for decades. With support from outgoing president Sunil Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber, her vague status quo campaign aims to “make soccer the leading sport in America.” 

Wynalda is a USSF outsider with mainly playing and television broadcasting experience. For many, Wynalda’s agitated, radical, populist campaign speaks for the soccer communities that have been overlooked by the U.S. Soccer establishment. Sounds familiar, no?

But after careful investigation, Carter appears more Trump-like, and Wynalda appears, if anything, more in the vein of Bernie Sanders. Similar to Trump’s questionable conflicts of interest, SUM — Carter’s employer — has a close relationship with USSF, which has raised eyebrows for years.

For example, since the USSF exempts from its conflicts-of-interest policy “any … affiliated member of U.S. Soccer,” members of for-profit companies like SUM vote on USSF policies that can directly benefit the very same companies. This grants members the power to grow their companies while limiting their competitors.

Carter recently stated that the U.S. Open Cup, the oldest club soccer competition in the U.S., should be partly owned by MLS, an organization she works with through SUM. As the USSF president, would she be unbiased and treat all soccer organizations equally, regardless of their relationship with the USSF? In an interview with ESPN that raised these issues, Carter pivoted to explain the financial benefits of SUM and the cozy relationship with the USSF.

Wynalda seeks to disrupt these conflicts of interest.

“I propose a threat to a monopoly because that’s what this is,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Currently, only MLS franchises can compete in the top professional tier of U.S. Soccer, which is why Wynalda calls it a monopoly.  That’s what Wynalda seeks to undertake through the implementation of promotion and relegation (pro/rel), a league system used globally that stimulates investment through financial incentives. 

Carter has stated that pro/rel “is not a viable option at this time,” because professional leagues are still developing. As MLS enters its 23rd season, however, the North American Soccer League (NASL), a lower-tier league, has sued USSF over alleged antitrust violations.

Wynalda’s record is not unblemished. His campaign is partially funded by Ricardo Silva, the owner of a NASL franchise and media company behemoth MP & Silva, which also suggests possible conflicts of interest.

In such a divided political climate, it’s dangerous to create and enforce such a convenient analogy as the one between the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2018 USSF presidential election. One thing is for sure, though: Those who paint Wynalda as Trump-like have either not done their homework or are afraid that there is a legitimate challenge to the status quo in U.S. Soccer.