A U.S. Soccer presidential election is less than four months away, and for the first time this century, the race is wide open. Or at least it’s open. It’s contested. And that, regardless of the contestants or their odds, is a good thing.
Steve Gans, a Boston-based attorney with diverse soccer experience, confirmed to Yahoo Sports that he has received the three nominations necessary to become an official candidate. His name will be on the ballot – in all likelihood, along with Sunil Gulati’s. And possibly along with Paul Lapointe‘s.
But over the past week, amid outrage and soul-searching and constant calls for change, American soccer has seemingly been waiting for a fourth candidate to emerge. Someone who came through the youth systems which we bemoan as flawed. Someone who played for one of the national teams which we so desperately want to succeed. Someone who has experience in U.S. Soccer, but also extensive experience in U.S. soccer, with a lower-case “s” – they are two very different things.
Julie Foudy fit the bill, but said she will not run. Ditto for Kyle Martino, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the federation as of late. Eric Wynalda has floated the idea of running, but hasn’t yet declared.
The most intriguing name yet emerged on Wednesday afternoon, however. That name is Landon Donovan. Yep, the U.S. men’s national team’s joint all-time leading goal-scorer. Arguably the greatest American male player ever.
Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported that Donovan is “seriously considering” running for the presidency, and ears around the country immediately perked up. Others confirmed Wahl’s report. Donovan is the most high-profile possibility to be mentioned yet, and would be the most high-profile United States Soccer Federation president ever.
But the intrigue surrounding Donovan as a candidate highlights the strange role that a U.S. Soccer president serves. Gulati’s most popular and oft-cited failures are his national team managerial hires. But the position entails so much more. Under Gulati, a Colombia University economics professor, the president has been a businessman; a mediator; a politician; and a general figurehead for an organization that now pulls in over $100 million annually. He has helped strike sponsorship deals, negotiated contracts with both coaches and players, overseen labor disputes, worked to cultivate power within a corrupt international governing body, and made a host of other decisions that few fans are even aware of. Oh, and on the side, he’s in charge of a World Cup bid.
Gulati has delegated many of these tasks, of course. But he is ultimately responsible for them.
Now consider Landon Donovan’s name in light of all that. For the specific functions that Gulati has preformed, Donovan is very underqualified. Since his 16-year playing career ended, Donovan has been involved with English Premier League club Swansea City as a shareholder and consultant. He’s also joined an ownership group attempting to bring an MLS expansion franchise to San Diego. He’s worked as a color commentator and analyst for Fox Sports. But he’s never done much of what Gulati has done over the past 12 years.
The thought, however, is that there are functions Gulati has not served that Donovan could. He would presumably take an increased interest in mending a dysfunctional youth system. “We are missing a lot of the best kids,” he told The New York Times’ Marc Stein last week. “And that should not be the situation in a country of this size, with the resources we have, where kids are getting passed over for any reason, whether it’s socioeconomic status, race, religion, proximity to a club. Our best, most talented kids should have the opportunity that everybody else has. There’s no easy answer to that. But it’s something that needs to be fixed.”
Donovan isn’t necessarily more qualified than somewhat like Gulati or Gans to implement youth reform or better the quality and quantity of coaches at all levels. But the thought is that, in general, Donovan would presumably prioritize the best interests of the sport in the U.S. over other interests, such as money. A central criticism of Gulati is that he has tended to lean in the other direction.
But money isn’t unimportant either. Far from it. And under Gulati, the federation has been able to make boatloads of it.
The problem is that his role has been far too all-encompassing. And if Donovan were to take on the same responsibilities Gulati did, it would probably be too all-encompassing for him, too. The problem, therefore, seems to be a structural one with how the federation is governed. The variety in candidates’ (or potential candidates’) backgrounds speaks to that. It’s not so much that too much power is concentrated in one position, but that too many types of power are.
Donovan is more sporting director or general manager than president. But the federation currently employs neither. So his route to either of those roles, or both of them – his route to leading a U.S. Soccer makeover – could be through the presidency.
So, short of structural reform, would Donovan be better than Gulati? It’s impossible to know. He would likely be better in some respects and worse in others.
The reason Donovan is an attractive candidate is because of trust. Trust that he would lead that makeover. Or at least that he’d try to. He earned that trust during his playing career, both on the field and off it. Gulati, over the past few years, has lost it. Gans and Lapointe haven’t really had opportunities to do either.
That’s why Donovan inspires hope. He’s not underqualified. He’s just differently qualified. He’s uniquely qualified. And he’s probably the most promising candidate out there.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.