The most interesting USSF election in twenty years has been won by the least interesting candidate. The election went to a third ballot, which you would have imagined meant chaos and rage and strife. As a comparison, the 1990 USSF election, probably one of the most fateful federation elections in world soccer history? Alan Rothenberg won big on the first ballot. He got more votes combined than his two opponents, Werner Fricker and the perhaps unjustly forgotten Paul Stiehl, then the USSF treasurer.
There was a little more to it than that, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Carlos Cordeiro rode to victory on a wave of inertia. Seven opponents ranging from sober to flamboyant raised issues ranging from the crucial to the goddamned silly. Cordeiro expertly avoided them all. It’s almost enough to restore one’s faith in politics.
Cordeiro inherits from Sunil Gulati, if one may indulge in metaphor, a Ferrari with two broken axles. Millions of dollars are being funneled to a former German national team forward, and something something Russia World Cup mumble mumble. Cordeiro’s mission now is to help Sunil Gulati reel in the 2026 World Cup bid, which will pay for the Klinsmann and Trinidad setbacks, and fund every sort of utopian development, marketing and outreach program imaginable.
The depressing stupidity of the actual campaign should be thrown into the memory hole with speed and force. But it’s a little interesting to chart how Cordeiro rode his beagle to win the Kentucky Derby.
Once it became obvious that the silver mane of Sunil Gulati would adorn one of the heads that would roll down the steps of Soccer House, it was further assumed that everyone involved with the Old Regime would also go on a speed-date with the guillotine. Cordeiro won, of course, but the assumption did not die as quickly as his opponents’ campaigns.
So a diverting conspiracy theory. Faced with the probability of Sunil’s hand-picked successor having to settle for the finger, the Powers That Are called forth one of its demonic minions. The poltergeist, operating under the human name “Kathy Carter,” was to mount the Cerebus of SUM/MLS/USSF and lay waste the countryside with a mixture of merciless robber knight cruelty and pleasant businesslike charm in the name of the status quo. Having been thus terrified (goes the theory), the yeomanry would flee to the protective cufflinks of Mr. Cordeiro, rather than face either Carter or this “change” thing that all the far-out groovy kids were using the beat the system, man.
Nicholas Mendola at NBC Sports nutshelled it thus:
Carter’s low profile candidacy and the stories of Don Garber and Sunil Gulati courting voters for her was simply designed to get people comfortable with the idea of Cordeiro being establishment but not the establishment’s choice (It’s worth noting that this conspiracy theory does not require Cordeiro to be in the know if you want it to be extra nutty). At the right hour of any given day, I will fight you on behalf of this conspiracy theory. Most hours, though, I just laugh and make more coffee.
I too was delighted at the thought of US Soccer for the indefinite future safe in the hands of a blasphemous brood litter of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Thrasymachus and Nixon. But sadly, I’m afraid we must take down our I Want To Believe posters.
First of all, we have to assume that the people involved in this conspiracy were capable of carrying it out. And so founder many popular conspiracy theories. The John F. Kennedy assassination, for example, is a masterpiece of spycraft allegedly pulled off by the same institutions, and many of the same people, that gave us the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and Watergate. Here, the deployment of Carter to divert fire from Cordeiro required the clandestine expertise of the same people who are, as we speak, colossally botching the Columbus Crew moving to Austin.
Cordeiro also entered the race before Gulati had officially undeclared himself, but in fairness this could have been a diabolical extra layer of devil’s food cake. But the Get Carter! plan, assuming it existed, could have foundered in a dozen different ways. Centrist, status quo, stay the course candidates benefit from an aura of inevitability. Neither Cordeiro or Carter had any such aura, to say the least. People like Wynalda, Martino and Solo were given a much greater hearing than their qualifications deserved. People like Wynalda, Martino and Solo are also a good deal more charismatic than Cordeiro and Carter. The dissident faction may have needed to unite to have a chance to win, but Cordeiro and Carter were, as it turned out, only taking votes away from each other.
And, of course, there was the second ballot. The first ballot, we recall, was Cordeiro, Carter, and debris. So the conspiracy, if there had been one, had succeeded at this moment. All that needed to happen was for either Cordeiro or Carter to drop out, before the other candidates could stop reeling.
Neither dropped out. And the second ballot strongly resembled the first.
If there had been a conspiracy – if Carter and Cordeiro were working the same corner all along – then this was a completely unacceptable risk. We know now that the Sinister Six had made no contingency plans for early setbacks. We don’t know if the remaining candidates attempted to make headway among Carter and/or Cordeiro voters, but we do know that if they tried, they failed.
There would have been no way for Carter or Cordeiro to know this at the time, though. The intelligent thing to do, both in a conspiracy and in real life, was to unite before the insurgents found their bearings. Instead, the election went to a third ballot, and the SUM faction folded.
The simplest explanation for what happened is a great deal less interesting than the conspiracy, sadly. There were real differences between and among Cordeiro, Carter, Garber, Gulati, and the USSF rank and file, but they decided they had more in common than they did with the alternative. The third through eighth runners-up were faced with a similar test, and failed. The English word for this is “politics.” And like soccer, it doesn’t have to be played well to win.
We’re in a very conspiratorial mood these days in American soccer, probably to help get our minds off having to cheer on our beloved brothers in CONCACAF. Even respectable outfits are getting into the act. Four Four Two is an excellent multi-platform football resource, even if they do have an annoying tendency to fire my acquaintances every so often. And Michael Lewis is simply one of the best soccer writers in American history. And Lewis just did amazing work in finding a more or less intact copy of the Magna Carta of promotion and relegation – the 1988 blueprint for a nationwide professional league with divisional movement known these days as the “Fricker Plan.”
Steve Holroyd covered this topic with considerable expertise already - I recommend you read the whole thing. I just want to add a little background, because the story of Fricker and Rothenberg has pretty much determined the course of the sport since then.
One of the more ironic aspects Lewis uncovers is that the Fricker Plan should have been called the Gulati Plan. (Or at least the Gulati-Pelletier Plan.)
It’s an interesting retrospective into the beginnings of the modern American soccer era, and what was going through their minds.
And then it falls straight down the stairs.
So, what happened to promotion and relegation?
Well, Major League Soccer happened.
In August 1990, a new USSF president, Alan I. Rothenberg, was elected. He helped create MLS, and general policies were changed because the owners did not want to duplicate NASL history.
In the words of Leslie, nope. The Fricker Plan was dead in the water before Alan Rothenberg even declared interest in running.
Lewis describes how promotion and relegation would not have been implemented until teams had filled out the First and Second Divisions. At least, that’s how the plan read in 1988.
Little progress was made, perhaps because the more immediate need was to qualify for the World Cup and gather something resembling income and sponsorships. The USSF made both of those tasks very difficult for itself.
By 1990, Werner Fricker, in Florence about to watch the US men’s national team get worked over by Czechoslovakia, addressed the less-than-impressed world media:
Fricker, U.S. Soccer Federation president and chief executive of the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee, said he expects a league of 12 to 16 clubs to be in place by the 1993-94 season at the latest….
Fricker said the USSF would start preparing ground for the new league in the next 12 months by setting up three or four national teams to play against tough international opposition.
"These would gradually be transformed into club sides," he said. "We need to get more players to play at a higher competitive level, get spectators, TV coverage and make money."
Fricker did not indicate how the American Professional Soccer League, recently formed out of a merger of the American Soccer League and Western Soccer League, would fit into his plan.
That was Fricker’s view. The mainstream view, though, was far more bleak. Randy Harvey was able to write this in the LA Times a mere three days later:
One solution would be a legitimate professional league, but the U.S. Soccer Federation still does not have a plan, two years after it announced that it would develop one.
At least through the end of this year, the federation plans to maintain a national team that will play an extensive schedule, beginning July 28 in Milwaukee against East Germany. But Gansler calls that concept, over a four-year period, "a traveling Gypsy band that will drive the players and me insane."
Gansler did not have to worry about being driven insane; it would be Bora Milutinovic who would guide the national team during its pre-1994 roamings.
And while Fricker did not indicate his opinion about the APSL to Reuters, the APSL itself had a very solid idea what Fricker thought of its teams. (By the way, the whole article is indispensable in showing what the pre-MLS landscape was like, and what the sport was facing, I demand you read it right now, instead of this.)
They say they have taken the lead in providing what FIFA demanded and the USSF has not delivered--a professional soccer league.
Said [LA Heat part-owner John] Ajemian: "Where is the plan, and why doesn't the USSF implement it now?" They just can't wait until the last minute."
President Werner Fricker of the USSF has steadfastly refused to recognize the APSL--a stand that has angered league members, according to [LA Heat General Manager Jill] Fracisco.
Fricker, who is up for reelection, has proposed a professional league of three to five divisions, each containing eight teams. Fricker said existing teams would be eligible to apply for some of the spots, but it seems unlikely that all the APSL teams would qualify, because Fricker plans to restrict the regions of the country where professional soccer could be played.
Theoretically, any existing franchise in the Los Angeles market would be coveted by the USSF, because of possible fees for television rights. In addition, it is generally acknowledged that Los Angeles will host either a semifinal or a final game of the 1994 World Cup at the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl.
Those prospects seems to put the Heat in a good position if it can hang on. But other teams in less-populated areas, such as Albuquerque or Salt Lake City, may not be as fortunate.
So far, the APSL has received some attention from the U.S. media, both good and bad. Soccer International said the merger leaves "new hope for the eventual return of a fully functional national league." But a headline last month in The National said: "U.S. pro soccer: Barely alive and kicking."
Yes, APSL teams had female general managers. Progress comes in fits and starts.
But not for the mythical multi-division pre-1994 American pro league. The Fricker Plan was a dead letter, if not fresh off the mimeograph, then certainly by the time Alan Rothenberg appeared.
It’s worth remembering how quickly the Rothenberg coup happened, and why. Here was Sports Illustrated in July 1990, bemoaning the state of the USSF.
Not only does Hugh Delehanty not mention the Fricker Plan, he does not even mention Rothenberg. He would have had no reason to. It wasn’t until July 27 – less than two weeks before the election! – that Julie Cart broke the news that Rothenberg was mulling over a run. (Although FIFA had, according to Rothenberg, been begging him to involve himself even before Italy World Cup.) Rothenberg's less formidable opponent would prove less than prescient:
Stiehl said he didn't know anything about Rothenberg and that with only two weeks to go before the vote, Rothenberg would have a difficult time being accepted by soccer's rank and file.
"I'm not aware of any expertise he has in the game of soccer,'' Stiehl said from his office in Beltsville, Md. He will be seen as an outsider; he will be seen as an opportunist, as an expert there to tell us how to run our sport. The question will be, 'What have you done for the game?' Quite frankly, no one will be impressed with the (title of) commissioner of the Olympics.''
The immediate previews of the election on August 5 is fascinating, as well. Note the lack of discussion about the pro league, let alone promotion and relegation. Here are Julie Cart and Jeff Ruznak. Tempers were high, and so were the stakes. And there was indeed scandal during the election – and the hapless Paul Stiehl made it public:
“Hold onto your seats,” Stiehl began in his speech, which blasted Rothenberg as an opportunistic outsider and accused FIFA, socce’sinternational governing body, of meddling in federation affairs.
Stiehl said FIFA called him Sunday morning at 6:20 asking him to pledge his support to Rothenberg, who entered the race two weeks ago at FIFA’s urging. Forty minutes later Stiehl met with Fricker and told him, “One of us would be president.”
But Stiehl did not withdraw or try to shift his delegate support to Fricker. He stayed on the ballot and pleaded with the membership not to fall prey to “a hostile takeover,” by Rothenberg, the 1984 Olympics soccer commissioner who has been called soccer’s answer to Peter Ueberroth.
The Olympics were Rothenberg`s last significant involvement in soccer, and Stiehl and other federation members were resentful that the Los Angeles attorney hadn’t paid his dues with the group.
“We are under siege,” Stiehl told a crowded banquet hall. “We will protect the powers in this federation.
“I will defend the palace. We will never sell our federation or our souls at any price. I am asking you, begging you, don’t you dare, after all you’ve worked for, leave us.”
Long story short, they dared left him.
“Defend the palace” was a fairly crass reference to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, another 1990 event that continues to reverberat. Things were very different back in 1990, of course. “The Simpsons” was good, and the US men’s national team qualified for the World Cup – two things unimaginable today.
Cart provided more detail of why FIFA was so annoyed with Fricker – and it had everything to do with money and television.
The latest irritants to FIFA were marketing and television agreements signed by the USSF without FIFA approval. Even though the U.S. federation has every right to negotiate without seeking FIFA approval, FIFA believes it has a proprietary interest in all soccer matters. This interest is magnified by the U.S. position as host nation for the 1994 World Cup.
Last December, FIFA rejected a marketing and television deal that the USSF had negotiated with NBC and SportsChannel America, angering the networks.
On June 28, the USSF announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar marketing contract with Soccer/USA Partners. On July 19, FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter sent a letter to Fricker indicating FIFA concern about the contract, in particular the marketing agents.
The 1990 USSF election was one of the sport’s turning points. There was plenty of intrigue, as might have been expected from the Havelange era. But it had nothing to do with promotion and relegation. Projecting current prejudices backwards is a cardinal sin in studying history.
Especially when the facts are far more fascinating. For example, from the Randy Harvey article of June 21, 1990, here is Gansler describing the US mission in worryingly familiar terms.
Most important, however, the federation must reach out to more players. Most of its talent pool consists of white, middle-class suburban products of the American Youth Soccer Organization. It will not succeed until the Michael Jordans and Bo Jacksons are playing soccer.
"Somewhere out there is a Vietnamese community, a black community, a Latino community where there is soccer talent," Gansler says. "For whatever reasons, sometimes they're missed."
Fricker was a fascinating figure, and comes off very poorly in this time frame – an unhappy fate for someone so deeply involved in American soccer for so long. One of the things that Fricker may have given is the United States’ all-white uniform.
As Adidas picked up the check, the athletic apparel manufacturer used the occasion to unveil the white-with-blue-trim uniforms that the U.S. team will wear in Italy. It seemed like the right time to ask Fricker about the oft-repeated story that he will not allow the U.S. team to wear red because of his staunch anti-Communist, anti-Soviet sentiments.
Fricker said he has heard that story so often that he is rarely amused by it any more.
"I played most of my lifetime as a soccer player in a red jersey with black shorts for a German-Hungarian team outside Philadelphia," he said. "I have nothing against red. It's part of our national flag.
"I like all white or all blue or all red because it makes the players' numbers easier to identify. Canada wears all red. My preference is all white because we play a lot of games in warm and humid conditions, and white is better for the players.
"People who want to embarrass me spread that story to the media. I have a pair of shorts that I wear around the pool that are red with white stripes."
The US at the time usually wore white shirts with blue shorts, most notably in Trinidad in 1989 and in two of the three games in the World Cup. But against Italy, the US national team did indeed wear all white. While the team itself was inconsistent, the look was usually pretty sharp, and there were high hopes for Adidas outfitting the national team at home with the world watching in 1994.