Michael Winograd, USSF presidential candidate, answers ESPN's questions
Ahead of the United States Soccer Federation presidential election on Feb. 10, ESPN FC asked the eight candidates running to succeed Sunil Gulati to address a series of questions, in 150 or fewer words per answer.
Here is what Michael Winograd had to say.
The U.S. men have failed to qualify for not only the World Cup but also the past two Olympics. What needs to be done to get the program back on track?
These failures are symptoms of systemic problems that have been building over time. For the elite player, I will work collaboratively to clearly define the path to our national teams and implement a player development model that identifies talent in a more objective and comprehensive way and trains players more efficiently and effectively. I will also work to reduce the cost barriers in youth soccer and coaching education, which serve as barriers to entry and impediments to development. To further aid in player development, I will work collaboratively to take a fresh look at youth soccer's organizational structure on a state-by-state basis and ensure that competition in each state is structured in an effective, clearly defined and integrated way. Finally, I will ensure that all critical decisions -- including as to the selection of national team managers and game venues -- are made pursuant to an inclusive, merit-based and transparent process.
What makes you qualified to run an organization with 170 full-time employees and an annual budget of around $100 million?
I have no hidden agenda, no sponsors and no special ties to any constituents. On the soccer side, I have played soccer at the youth, collegiate and professional levels, coached at the youth and collegiate levels, and managed at the youth and professional levels. On the business side, in addition to successfully having co-started a professional A-League franchise, for the last 17 years, I have been a corporate attorney in New York City at some of the world's most prominent law firms. I have represented large companies -- with revenues tens or hundreds of times that of U.S. Soccer -- in their high-stakes matters and negotiations. I have counseled CEOs and boards, devised strategies, managed teams and negotiated settlements. I am in the unique position of having the experience, skill set and independence necessary to bridge the soccer and business sides, bring parties together and do this job effectively.
To what extent are outside sources financing your campaign, and who is contributing?
My campaign has been and continues to be self-funded.
During his time as president, Sunil Gulati operated in more of an executive/hands-on role. The USSF Board of Directors is moving to make the position more of a chairperson role with less power. Do you agree with this move?
It is difficult to comment on potential changes without knowing the details of what those potential changes might be. But changes that implement more checks and balances and require a more transparent and collaborative decision-making process are both good and necessary. And with or without any bylaw changes, that is exactly the governance style my presidency will reflect. I will implement a governance structure that is inclusive, merit-based and transparent. Critical U.S. Soccer decisions will reflect meaningful input from all parts of the U.S. Soccer landscape that they affect. And absolute transparency will be imposed to ensure integrity and engender confidence and trust. I have successfully done these very things throughout my entire professional career at the highest levels, and I will bring those very same skills and experience to U.S. Soccer.
What can the USSF do to help create more Christian Pulisics? What needs to change on the youth development side, and is it a problem if more players follow his lead?
For the elite player, I will work collaboratively to clearly define the path to our national teams and implement a player development model that identifies talent in a more objective and comprehensive way and trains players more efficiently and effectively. To that end, we will build a U.S. Soccer State Training Center in each state (more for larger states). It will house fields and a U.S. Soccer State Director responsible for scouting and training players and assisting in the professional development of coaches. Scouting will be objective and across all leagues, and we will add training windows hosted at the State Training Centers during pre-announced blackout dates throughout the year. The State Director will also work with the state association and others to structure competition in that state in an effective and integrated way that maximizes player development, including in light of geographic and other realities within the state.
How would you reform the youth system so that the cost to families, which often runs into several thousand dollars annually, isn't so prohibitive?
"Pay to play" in youth soccer and the high expense to obtain coaching licenses and education are an impediment to the development of talent in this country. The reduction of these cost barriers in youth soccer and coaching education must be addressed creatively, thoughtfully and with a sense of urgency. I will work with business leaders to incentivize professional leagues and other private sector businesses to help finance youth and coaching development, in addition to tapping into U.S. Soccer's own surplus and available public grant funds. I will also ensure that youth clubs that get it right share in the successes of its players through "solidarity" payments to help incentivize and reward up-front investments. Access to development must hinge on desire and merit, not personal finances. Every year that passes with this issue unaddressed is another crop of potentially unrealized talent and lost opportunities for U.S. Soccer.
There is a perception in some circles that many of the country's best athletes leave soccer for other sports. What ideas do you have for ensuring that more stick with it?
We have all fantasized about watching another national team try to mark LeBron James on a corner kick or about what could have been had Odell Beckham Jr. or Wes Welker stuck with soccer. The first step is to ensure that soccer is accessible to all athletes based on merit and desire, and not family finances, and I will work to reduce cost barriers in youth soccer. We must also make soccer physically accessible in more communities. The U.S. Soccer Foundation has made great strides in this area by building fields and programs in urban communities, and U.S. Soccer must invest in growing those types of organizations and initiatives. Above all, we must ensure that our player paths achieve success without dampening the love and joy players derive from the game.
What are your thoughts on promotion/relegation? Do you think it's viable, given that MLS is against it?
Few things would be as exciting for U.S. Soccer as pro/rel in our professional leagues. But with MLS franchise rights going for $150 million, implementing pro/rel has significant obstacles. As a first step, we should continue to work on building the strength and profitability of the lower divisions to close the gap between them and the top division to make achieving pro/rel a more practical goal. We also do not need to think of pro/rel as a binary, all or nothing choice. There could be a middle ground that is achievable in the nearer term. As I have discussed previously, for example, pro/rel could be structured using designated "guest" spots, with leagues agreeing on how much or little to integrate guest teams financially and administratively. In the meantime, though, we should continue to focus on strengthening our lower divisions and expanding them into more markets.
What other changes would you make to the pro game in the U.S. to foster growth and interest?
The pro leagues in our country are private businesses. As president of U.S. Soccer, I will ensure that U.S. Soccer's interests are communicated -- thoughtfully and persuasively -- to, and given due consideration by, our pro leagues. A rising tide lifts all boats, and U.S. Soccer continues to help build the strength and profitability of all of our professional leagues. Pro/rel, a more aligned calendar that features championship games in warmer climates, and other changes would be exciting for U.S. Soccer, and we will work with our professional leagues to explore the possibilities and timing of those and other potential changes.
Do you think the domestic game should change its calendar to match that of the international game?
From U.S. Soccer's perspective, yes, it would be ideal for our pro leagues to align with the international calendar. And it would be more efficient, effective and sensible for teams, players and fans as well. Shifting calendars in a unique American sports landscape brings with it unique challenges that the pro leagues as private business must grapple with. As president of U.S. Soccer, I will ensure that U.S. Soccer's interests are communicated -- thoughtfully and persuasively -- to, and given due consideration by, our pro leagues in reaching their business decisions. With open discourse and consideration of the substantial growth that professional soccer has seen in this country, we may well be at a point where this shift would be practical.
Gulati had considerable power over how national team coaches were selected. In the future, how should these decisions get made, and who should have the final say?
As one of my three key strategic initiatives, I will ensure that critical U.S. Soccer decisions are made pursuant to an inclusive, merit-based and transparent process. The selection of national team coaches is no different. I will form influential advisory committees that include current and/or former players, coaches, managers, administrators and executives from all levels. We will approach the hiring of a national team coach as any serious organization should: deliberately, thoughtfully and comprehensively and with input from those with relevant expertise.
The USSF has a tightly coupled business relationship with Soccer United Marketing and MLS. How big is the SUM/MLS/USSF conflict of interest here, and what, if anything, should be done to address it?
SUM is the commercialization arm of MLS and is owned by MLS team owners. U.S. Soccer, MLS and others grant SUM the right, for example, to negotiate their television and other marketing deals. In most cases, the interests between U.S. Soccer and MLS are aligned. But not in all cases. Conflicts occur among business partners, but they require disclosure, transparency and safeguards. I will ensure that we are diligent and careful to work with our partners in a way that ensures that the best interests of U.S. Soccer are firmly and fairly represented and to make sure that decisions as to with whom we partner are made pursuant to an appropriate, transparent and merit-based bidding or other process. I have no special ties to any interested parties and will approach this and any other conflicts in a fair, impartial and faithful way that puts the interests of U.S. Soccer first.
FIFA training compensation and solidarity payments mandate professional clubs to reimburse a player's youth teams for development costs. The system is not being enforced in the U.S. Should it be, and, if so, how should this be done?
I will ensure that youth clubs that get it right share in the successes of its players through "solidarity" payments. Solidarity payments not only provide specific clubs with funding when one of their players signs a professional contract, but the mere promise of such a reward helps incentivize up front investments for all clubs. It allows local clubs to access local sources of funding that only they can reach -- local business owners, local residents -- to solicit funding on the platform that not only is investing in a local youth club a good thing to do, but there is actually a prospect of getting a return on that investment if the club gets it right. This additional funding aids in player and coaching development. As with all other critical decisions, we will implement a solidarity payment system through a deliberate, inclusive and transparent process.
How would you ensure that the men's and women's national teams get equal pay?
Women's soccer must be treated equally -- full stop. Forcing the U.S. Women's National Team to play on substandard fields, travel under substandard conditions or accept lower pay is inexcusable, unconscionable and contrary to the mission and spirit of U.S. Soccer. Any inequalities will be resolved promptly. As to pay specifically, if the MNT and WNT want the same pay structures, there will be equality. If they want different pay structures, there will be equivalence. And we will not wait until the expiration of the CBAs to work on and resolve this. As a corporate lawyer for the past 17 years at some of the most prominent firms in the world, I have successfully negotiated complex, high-stakes contracts throughout my legal career for some of the largest companies and will be uniquely positioned to leverage my skill set to swiftly and unequivocally institute equality between the men's and women's national teams.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.