Steve Gans, Eric Wynalda deliver first salvos in USSF presidential race
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nevada -- The Lake Tahoe area is as tranquil and scenic as they come. This time of year the days are still balmy enough, though the dusting of snow on the surrounding mountains is a reminder that winter isn't far away.
It is here that the race for the presidency of the U.S. Soccer Federation began to heat up on Saturday. The gathering was ostensibly the midyear meeting for the National Council of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association, where the mundane tasks of approving budgets and adopting bylaws are undertaken by delegates from around the country.
"It's like going to the dentist," one observer noted dryly.
And compared to their counterparts on the youth soccer side of things, the age of those in attendance -- which numbered in the hundreds -- skews older. Delegates on the youth side are involved because of their kids' involvement in the sport. These are soccer lifers, giving what they can to the game even as their playing days are winding down. But it is an important constituency, comprising 25.8 percent of the vote in determining the next USSF president.
Once the USASA's business was complete, Boston-based attorney Steve Gans and former U.S. international Eric Wynalda made formal pitches to advance their bids to replace Sunil Gulati as USSF president. Candidate Paul Lapointe was not able to attend because of a prior commitment. Another rumored candidate, Landon Donovan, was not in attendance, either. Gulati was present, but he declined to make a presentation, preferring to take part in smaller regional meetings earlier in the day, and make a brief statement directed mostly at the delegates in attendance.
That Gulati didn't speak at the forum went over about as poorly as one might expect in the Twitter-sphere. But the reality is those in attendance are the ones Gulati needs to convince that he is deserving of a fourth and final term. So his methodology has been to do his politicking in smaller settings.
Gulati is also a known quantity. What isn't known is whether he'll run again for a fourth term, telling ESPN FC he still hadn't made up his mind as yet. One delegate seemed certain that Gulati will run: "He's already asking for endorsements."
Another was less sure, noting that the current president was keeping his intentions closely guarded.
Gans and even Wynalda, for all of his name recognition, have much more to prove. The dynamic between the two was cordial, shaking hands before giving brief remarks and answering several questions.
What emerged is a dynamic that will likely repeat itself over the next several months. There seem to be two types of candidates, those with greater business experience such as Gans, and those with more technical leanings such as Wynalda, who will play up the debacle of the U.S. men's team missing the 2018 World Cup.
Both men tried to showcase their strengths. Gans played up his experience as a lawyer, corporate executive and soccer administrator who has advised both youth and pro clubs in his professional life.
"The federation is a complex organization," he said. "I think I've run complex organizations. I know how to be inclusive and respectful."
He later added, "From a straight business person, I think I'm up to [the task]."
Wynalda's lack of business experience is something he'll need to address at some point. On this day, however, he chose to frame the race in his own terms. Wynalda lauded USSF CEO Dan Flynn, who was also in attendance alongside Gulati, to try to send the message that the business side will be in capable hands while he focuses on the technical side.
"The money that we've been able to create this surplus is because we were a success," he said. "We have just taken a massive hit financially. When we miss out on a World Cup, you miss out on a lot more."
He added, "If we don't take care of the product, it will not take care of us. We have a soccer problem, not a business issue."
This is merely the opening salvo. Strengths and weaknesses in the respective candidates will be probed. But make no mistake: This is a political contest, and each constituency -- Youth Council, Adult Council, Pro Council and Athletes Council -- has its own needs and leanings.
Gulati has never been challenged in any of his previous elections, but to get an idea of just how unpredictable a USSF presidential election can be, one need only look to 1994. After the success of the 1994 World Cup, one might have expected Alan Rothenberg to be re-elected in a runaway. Instead, he called in then-FIFA president Joao Havelange to campaign for him. The election went to a second ballot, and Rothenberg ultimately prevailed with just 53 percent of the vote.
This election is just over three months away, and given the circumstances and the stakes, it figures to be every bit as tense.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.