Kyle Martino, 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 Kyle Martino had to say.
The U.S. men have not only failed to qualify for the World Cup, but also the last two Olympics. What needs to be done to get the program back on track?
Missing the World Cup and the Olympics are symptoms of the problem. The failure comes down to a need to focus on youth development, create access to the game for a larger and more diverse group of players and develop a cohesive, unified vision for us as a soccer nation. At the grassroots level, we need to develop a soccer culture, widen our reach and encourage more kids to play. Today's youth game has become overrun by hyper-competition and prohibitive financial costs. We need to make playing soccer more fun, more inclusive and more accessible. At the program-specific level, we need to hire a technical director with a clear vision for the on-field direction of the program. Additionally, we need a new coach, but we also need the right people choosing the coach. I plan to convene a captains' council of former players, coaches and trainers who have the right expertise to help choose our next men's team coach.
What makes you qualified to run an organization with 170 full-time employees and an annual budget of around $100 million?
I have many business experiences that have prepared me to succeed at this job. I worked on an executive team at Lenox Advisors managing multimillion dollar accounts and signing billion dollar clients. I spearheaded the team that signed Pfizer as a corporate client, an accomplishment one of the partners of Lenox highlighted in his letter endorsing me. It can be found on my website. I also am part of the ownership group for Real Mallorca. My role and experience there is highlighted in the letter of endorsement they wrote for me, which is also available on my site. Mallorca is a century-old club with great tradition and I am charged with helping restore their pedigree by bringing them back up to La Liga. I'm involved in all financial, technical and strategic decisions we make as an ownership group.
To what extent are outside sources financing your campaign and who is contributing?
My campaign has crowd and private funding. Crowd funding has been done through my GoFundMe page and private funding has been done through a mixture of friends, family and individual soccer fans. I have introduced a journalist to my private donors per their request so they have the opportunity to go on record about the reasons for their donation if they choose to, and five of my donors have chosen to disclose themselves. Campaign funds are solely used for campaign costs. I am not taking a salary out of the donations. I created an LLC and have retained Day Pitney, an estate and tax planning firm, and an accountant to run all the accounting.
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?
The president should first and foremost be the chairman of the board as the bylaws outline. However, the president has to be much more than that. The president's full-time job should be to restore the membership's faith in the federation while simultaneously getting out in the marketplace to sell the sport to consumers. We need a president with the requisite credibility and presence to become a media force, driving U.S. interest in the greatest sport on the planet. We don't need just a chairman of the board; we need someone with a soccer vision and the technical knowledge necessary to reverse the harm caused by the shortage of soccer expertise in the current leadership. This isn't my opinion alone; it's the opinion of the majority of the voting and nonvoting members of our soccer community. The election on Feb. 10 is their chance to make that clear.
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?
The No. 1 factor that can help develop more Christian Pulisics is the creation of a strong soccer culture in this country. We need a culture where kids are constantly playing pickup games, practicing in their backyard or on the streets, etc. The one constant for every talented player I've known is the countless hours of play logged in unstructured settings. The U.S. has not yet developed a soccer culture that encourages young athletes to play pickup and develop their skills over the "10,000 hours" described by Malcolm Gladwell. On the structured youth development side, we don't have a unified, cohesive system with a shared vision. We're pushing kids out of the system due to price as well as the hyper-competitive nature of the lower levels of our game. We need to fix both of these factors to make our youth development more inclusive and more enjoyable, ensuring the highest potential of kids stay with our game long-term.
How would you reform the youth system so that the cost to families, which often run into several thousand dollars annually, isn't so prohibitive?
U.S. Soccer should help subsidize a soccer education and improve access to the game. We're disenfranchising the underserved communities and pricing kids out. In the rest of the world, this demographic is the best supported because it delivers he most talent. We have not done nearly enough to increase access to the game. We need to better support the efforts of the U.S. Soccer Foundation. Their Everyone's Game initiative is a great start, but we can do more. I'm working with Steve Nash and Mia Hamm on an initiative called Over/Under to build dual sport courts in inner cities. This low-cost, high-impact program will create hundreds of new places to play for kids. I'll commit 25 percent of the U.S. Soccer budget to the bottom of the pyramid. I'll also create a 2026 Fund, which will take $1 from every U.S. Soccer, MLS, USL, NWSL and NASL ticket sold until 2026 and put it toward the Everyone's Game Fund.
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?
The legendary Mia Hamm recently told me: "There is an epidemic, Kyle. The kids aren't having fun." Kids are absolutely leaving soccer at early ages and a primary reason is they're not having fun. The professionalization of our youth game is happening at younger and younger ages. This pressurized environment sucks the fun out of the game at a point where kids should be playing the game for enjoyment and developing a lifelong love of the game. As part of my platform, I'm developing a SMILE Campaign (Soccer Must Include Love and Education), which will bring soccer back to the idea of being a community game with fun as the foundation. Through the campaign, we'll:
- Build and upgrade local facilities to provide places to play.
- Increase educational and after-school programs.
- Provide free clinics and seminars for parents and kids to educate and excite.
What are your thoughts on promotion/relegation? Do you think it's viable given that MLS is against it?
In my Progress Plan, I layout a road map for an open professional soccer league called the 2030 Project; a 12-year strategy for creating an open-tiered professional structure:
1. Freeze MLS, USL, NASL and Adult League expansion starting in 2024.
2. Transition single entity contracts and home offices responsibilities to clubs by 2024 deadline.
3. Aim to be on European competition calendar with winter break in next five years.
4. Allow promotion and relegation between USL and NASL from 2024-2030.
5. Start bidding summer of 2026 for six-year escalating TV contract linked to accelerators for rights to the top division for 2030-2036 seasons.
6. Start bidding summer of '18 for six-year NASL and USL TV contract for 2024-2030 seasons.
7. Open system to adult leagues in 2038 to create six-tiered professional soccer league (any creation of clubs after 2024 deadline will be recognized as "non-league" without possibility of promotion into the professional soccer league.
What other changes would you make to the pro game in the U.S. to foster growth and interest?
The role of U.S. Soccer should be to create a soccer culture where our professional leagues can thrive. How they grow their leagues is something I as president will follow closely but leave to the people hired to run their organizations. Soccer is this country exists whether we have pro leagues or not. Don't get me wrong, growing them is very important for U.S. Soccer but should not be our focus. Our focus is to grow the culture that fills their stadiums with fans and their fields with players.
Do you think the domestic game should change its calendar to match that of the international game?
As part of the 2030 Project, we'll aim to move U.S. Soccer to the European competition calendar with winter break in the next five years. Switching the calendar aligns the U.S. with the international player market. It also positions the culmination of our professional leagues' seasons in the warm weather during a less crowded sports window.
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?
U.S. Soccer needs a president who has the knowledge to and is capable of making the technical on-field decisions, but the president should absolutely not be the one to make technical decisions. As president, I would hire a men's and women's technical director, who would oversee the on-field decisions for their programs. I would create a captains' council, which will be a diverse group with technical expertise from each level to help make holistic soccer suggestions and advise on technical decisions (this would include former players, coaches and trainers).
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?
Even people closely associated with the game in the U.S don't understand the deep relationship between U.S. Soccer and SUM. Per my conversations with a SUM founder and SUM clients, MLS and U.S. Soccer created SUM to offer English-speaking broadcasts of World Cups. U.S. Soccer and MLS leaders one time sat on SUM board with an equity stake, which could still be the case. U.S. Soccer's conflict of interest policy excludes SUM, which makes it possible for a SUM employee to be president of U.S. Soccer or a U.S. Soccer employee to be paid by SUM. SUM's contract with U.S. Soccer has never been bid out and the specifics aren't public. Perceived conflicts of interest are a liability for U.S. Soccer. Reasonable questions about the relationship are met with dismissive responses. That approach doesn't serve the broader membership and is a threat to the harmony of our federation.
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?
The legal argument for why solidarity payments aren't possible is unfounded, and the players union argument for why they are detrimental is uninformed. They are possible and they are essential to the health of our soccer in our country. Once we create youth pathways to clear up market confusion, we must incentivize clubs to pass elite players to higher levels. This will rid our youth game of infighting, it will create a positive development ethos based on merit, and it will lower the cost to play. It's how the rest of the world does it, and it demonstrates our arrogance that we don't follow this proven strategy.
How would you ensure that the men's and women's national teams get equal pay?
U.S. Soccer should be a leading voice and example of equality, inclusiveness and fairness. Our women's team are champions and should be treated as such. My proposal for equality covers not just the national teams, but the federation and the grassroots level of the sport as well. To increase equality for the men's and women's national teams, I would renegotiate the CBA and investigate the creation of one players union that will cover both teams. Other nations have accomplished this ,and we should look to do so as well. A joint CBA will ensure fairness and equality for both our national teams.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.