As a member of the 20-person U.S. Soccer Athlete Council, former U.S. Men’s National Team [USMNT] player and Fox Sports soccer analyst Stu Holden is part of an extremely influential group that will help determine the next U.S. Soccer president, with the election taking place during U.S. Soccer’s national council meeting on Feb. 10 in Orlando.
CBS Sports has a good guide on who will vote in this election and a brief look at each of the eight presidential candidates— Paul Caligiuri, Kathy Carter, Carlos Cordiero, Steve Gans, Kyle Martino, Hope Solo, Michael Winograd and Eric Wynalda— vying to replace Sunil Gulati, who stepped down after USMNT failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup.
In an extensive conversation with Awful Announcing, Holden discussed the Athlete Council, the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia, the most important issues in the election, what he’s looking for in a candidate, and more.
“We all realize the gravity of this and what this could essentially mean as part of our history going forward,” Holden said.
The Athlete Council
Holden is in his 6th of an eligible 10 years on the council. Members are eligible for 10 years after the last qualifying event they appeared in, whether that’s the World Cup, a World Cup qualifier, or the Olympics, Holden said. Members are nominated by any eligible U.S. Soccer athlete, seconded and a vote of the former players peers, including members of the Athlete Council, is conducted, per Holden. Athlete Council members then have to participate and vote in meetings, attend U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Meeting, vote as part of the athlete’s share of the National Council and serve on federation committees, as applicable.
Holden’s role and responsibilities on the Council has grown over recent years, he said, and his participation has grown as election day approaches. It’s a process he’s had to be heavily involved in.
“It’s at a point where we’re at one of the most historic elections in U.S. Soccer history,” Holden said, “one where we are certainly— as a member who’s been on the Council for a number of years— trying to educate some of the newer members on the Council exactly what type of voice and role we can have in this whole thing.”
Holden has been getting calls from all the candidates, wanting to tell him about their plans and why they would be the best person for the job and deserve his vote.
“And I feel a responsibility as a voter with a Council vote, as part of the Athlete Council, to be educated [on the issues],” Holden said. “So I’m doing my reading, talking to different people, doing my due-diligence and making sure that when it comes time for me to formulate an opinion and make my decision that I have all the facts in front of me and I give everybody a fair shot.”
Will the Athlete Council vote as a block?
Every candidate has asked Holden whether the entire 20 percent will be given to one person or divided up among the individual Athlete Council voters. The Athlete Council is not required to vote in a block, Holden said, but they had in the past when Gulati ran unopposed.
As the Council is going through the candidates, coming to a consensus and voting as a block is proving more difficult than they had anticipated because of the larger than expected number of candidates.
“At this point, we’re waiting and then we’re going to narrow it down probably from the eight to our preferred three,” Holden said. “And then as a council, I don’t think this would happen until either the day of or the day before the election, where we sit down and we try to have an internal democratic vote. And if we can get to a consensus that would be great, and we’d be able to vote as a block. And if not, then everybody has their own individual vote.”
You have to be present at the election in order to vote, but even if all 20 Athlete Council members don’t show up on election day, the vote is weighted so that the Athlete Council still constitutes 20 percent of the U.S. Soccer electoral vote.
United Soccer Coaches Convention
The annual coaches convention was held in Philadelphia on Saturday, and it was aimed to be the main preliminary showcase for the election, where the candidates would debate and lead panels on U.S. Soccer’s most important issues leading up to Feb. 10.
“I actually would’ve loved a debate,” Holden said, dismayed that a debate between the candidates did not occur. “I’m not entirely sure what the reasoning behind that was.”
Holden theorized that some candidates with television experience like Martino and Wynalda would’ve shown better in a debate format.
“Naturally, they would feel more comfortable talking on stage,” he said, positing that U.S. Soccer wanted “to give everybody a level playing field.”
It was interesting to Holden to see the candidates who have all spoken to him in private in that more public and open setting. Wynalda and Solo filled up panels attended by nearly 500 people, Holden said, and he was interested in how Cordeiro— who hasn’t been publicly campaigning very loudly, according to Holden— conducted himself in this large, open setting.
“We’re going to have a new president,” he said. “We’re going to have change. We’re going to have a new direction. And I think that that is all coming at the right time.”
Holden’s key issues
There’s been a lot of talk and noise, Holden said, about what changes U.S. Soccer needs to make after failing to qualify. He doesn’t think that U.S. Soccer should start from scratch or “get away from everything that we’ve been doing for the past 15, 20 years,” because soccer has come a long way in this country over that span.
“I think Sunil Gulati did some great things as president,” Holden said. “I also think there were areas he wasn’t held accountable, and I’m also of the school of thought that it’s the right time for change now.”
As for what Holden is looking for in a U.S. Soccer presidential candidate, here’s what he said:
“I’m looking for a candidate that’s able to step in and can help the U.S. Soccer board function more effectively, can lead from the top, can sort out the structure on the technical side on both the men’s and women’s [teams]. I think that’s incredibly important, having a general manager and a technical director and really making sure that that is not being done by the president of U.S. Soccer. I think that’s something that’s very key for me. And continuing to grow the grass roots, and sorting out the youth soccer landscape in our country, which is very complex. I’ve listened to a lot of plans from a number of the different candidates on how they would do that, from developmental academies, to state associations, to ODP [Olympic Development Program], to residency programs, youth national teams. I think that’s where I’m really keyed in on looking at how someone could do that. Do they have a plan, and how can they execute that plan through knowing the inner workings of the board as it stands.”
“Who is the best-suited leader, what needs to be sorted out in the youth development space,” Holden said. “All these different questions, I would say there’s more accountability just across the board, and that has been raised by the USMNT not qualifying for the World Cup, and nobody being satisfied and happy about that.”
What can U.S. Soccer learn from other countries?
“I think there’s things we can learn from some of these successful nations like a Germany or an England or Spain, perhaps,” Holden said. “But ultimately, I think it’s being proud of us and the American system and what the American system actually entails.”
Investing in coaching education, similar to what Germany did during Das Reboot, Holden said, would help both coaches and players improve.
“I don’t want to see anyone just replicate a blueprint from another country,” Holden said. “I want us to develop what we’ve come to love as an American youth system and embracing that and stop trying to be everybody else.”
But as Holden pointed out, the sheer size and scale of the U.S. population— with each state having its own regulations— makes it a unique situation.
“Within that, you have an overarching national team, you have developmental academies, you have a certain number of Major League Soccer teams, and those are sanctioned in different ways,” Holden said. “It is such a complex structure that I think that we have to develop our own plan and to sprinkle bits from other nations.
Should pro leagues like MLS divorce themselves from the election?
In short, according to Holden? An emphatic no.
“I think they’re very important in our soccer landscape, and that they’re leaders and the people that are the heads of these leagues are very influential in the soccer business in our country,” he said. “They have a vested interest and a vested stake in that, and I think that they should have a voice in that election as well.”
What’s going to happen on election day?
Voting will be conducted electronically, with the results instantly appearing on a large screen, per Holden, so the actual election itself may happen quickly if a winner is decided on the first ballot.
“You’ll see almost a sigh or a gasp as far as the numbers go,” Holden said.
Holden doubts that a winner will be determined right away.
“I think it’ll probably go to a second ballot, where you’ll see a couple of candidates get a lower percentage,” Holden said. “And from there, it’ll be whittled down to a couple of candidates, three maybe max. And from there, you’ll really see the next round of voting that will decide this.”
Then, Holden said, different groups and factions are going to have to come together and figure out which of the remaining candidates would be best suited to run U.S. Soccer.
“I think it’s important to not just have your 1A candidate, it’s to have your 1B as well,” Holden said, “and to react then based on how the first vote shakes out. That’s going to be the really interesting part.”
The importance of this election combined from its current uncertainty and unpredictability, makes it extremely compelling and, ahem, would make for really good television.
“Every time I really start to think about this, I just start to think about what a scene this is gonna be,” Holden said. “I get a little nervous-excited thinking about it.”
Over the next two weeks, it’ll be about figuring out what the best course of action for Holden will be as a member of the Athlete Council and the overall electorate.
“I’ve never seen so much interest in a U.S. Soccer presidential election before, and that’s because there’s never been an election like this,” Holden said. “And I’ll keep coming back to that, because it is unprecedented.”