The U.S. Soccer presidential election has resembled a bit of a free-for-all in the past few months, so perhaps it is fitting that there continues to be a sense of chaos as we reach the conclusion with Saturday's vote.
Reports have emerged from Orlando, Florida, the site of the election, stating that the six candidates believed to be the underdogs are banding together in an effort to stop the seemingly inevitable coronation of Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter, as well as U.S. Soccer vice president Carlos Cordeiro's bid to beat Carter for the position.
The battle lines between the "status quo" and the "agents of change" shouldn't surprise anybody. We have seen the election process create these divisions, even as Carter and Cordeiro reject the status quo labels. Like it or not, that is how both are being seen, which isn't a good look at a time when there is a growing feeling among supporters of American soccer that real change is needed at the top.
So which reality is American soccer living in? Is it the reality espoused by the so-called status quo, that while Gulati made some mistakes, things aren't going nearly as badly as some are portraying? Or is the grim reality painted by the likes of Eric Wynalda, who want a wholesale shakeup that, by their logic, can only be steered by someone with no ties to the current establishment?
The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in the middle.
U.S. Soccer needs to make changes, and clearly needs improvement in a variety of areas. What often goes overlooked is that plenty of change was already underway, and more changes were inevitable in the wake of the men's national team's World Cup qualifying debacle. If the end of Gulati's term as president showed anything, it's that going forward there needs to be a shifting of responsibilities so that the president doesn't have the kind of unilateral power he previously held.
That change is coming regardless of who wins the election.
But that reality is providing little comfort to those who dread the idea of Carter winning, which at this point feels inevitable. Carter's resume as an executive is an impressive one, but her ties to Gulati have made her an unlikely villain in this election. It's a role she wears because she is Gulati's handpicked successor — as much as both continue to deny it — and a role she will continue to wear if, as expected, Gulati helps pave the way for her to win.
Yes, the same man ready to give up the U.S. Soccer presidency he has held for the past dozen years is still very much pulling the strings on another election. Carter is Gulati's pick to be his successor, as much as he has refused to publicly endorse her, and the man vacating the highest position in U.S. Soccer has spent the past two months putting the pieces in place to create a path for Carter to take his place.
Anyone questioning how much influence Gulati still has is ignoring the decades he has spent in American soccer cultivating relationships. Those same skeptics may have missed Gulati's performance at the FIFA presidential election, during which he worked the room like a maestro in helping Gianni Infantino secure the presidency.
If Gulati can help finesse a FIFA presidency into the hands of his preferred candidate, how will he possibly be stopped from clearing the way for his handpicked successor at U.S. Soccer?
If Carter and Gulati are foiled, it will be due to the rising tsunami of discontent that was borne out of the disastrous failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. That loss sparked the kind of reaction we had never seen before in American soccer circles and eventually led to a mass airing of grievances as every issue plaguing the sport in the U.S. was laid at Gulati's feet.
Whether it was the rising costs of youth soccer, the lack of representation of minorities, the ignoring of underserved communities, the too-cozy relationship between SUM and U.S. Soccer, or the absence of promotion and relegation, you name it and some group of constituents began clamoring for the need to address it.
Ultimately, what the federation needs is a consensus-builder, someone who understands the current U.S. Soccer structure and someone with leadership experience and the ability to bring people together to help heal the deep divides that have been exposed in recent months. Carter would feel very much like a status quo selection, while the likes of Kyle Martino and Wynalda would be extreme choices who have charmed their way into the picture while ignoring their clear lack of qualifications. Hope Solo and Paul Caligiuri were always extreme long shots, but they have done their part to raise important questions during the process.
That leaves three candidates — Cordeiro, Steve Gans and Michael Winograd — who have the qualities to fill the position and help mend the divides that clearly exist in American soccer. Cordeiro is the most qualified of the three, and as someone who had a front-row seat to watching Gulati's mistakes, he has a vision for making changes to avoid those pitfalls in the future.
Unfortunately for Cordeiro, he could ultimately be brought down by the stigma of having been a part of U.S. Soccer leadership, though people with actual votes in the election may see him as the change agent that other candidates and their supporters don't see him as. Winograd has the background you would want for an ideal candidate, but he looks to be too much of a long shot.
That whittles the list of serious challengers down to just Gans, who happens to be the only one of the eight who stated an intention to challenge for the office last summer, before the debacle in Trinidad and before Gulati chose not to run for re-election. Gans has a rock-solid reputation and was expressing his concerns with the direction of U.S. Soccer before it was fashionable.
He doesn't boast the playing resume or the television polish of some of the other candidates who have gained popularity among American soccer fans following the election process, but Gans is far enough away from the status quo and the extremes of the opposition to be able to do the necessary mending of the divides now plaguing the sport.
Of course, elections are never about who should win, but who can win. If Gulati succeeds in steering Carter into the presidency she will have to show the U.S. Soccer constituency that she is serious about change and serious about addressing the issues that have come to the forefront during the election. That should include working with, and even appointing, some of the candidates she winds up defeating. That would offer a real sign that she is about consensus-building and not just catering to the establishment.
Regardless if it's Carter, Cordeiro, Gans, Martino or one of the long shots, the next president must build a consensus and look to put an end to the divisiveness that has flourished in recent months. If they don't, then the ugly and chaotic free-for-all that has become the backdrop for this election will only continue.