For several months, Boston attorney Steve Gans has been on a listening tour of sorts in deciding whether to run for the U.S. Soccer Federation presidency. He attended youth soccer’s assembly in Dallas this summer, exchanged thoughts with former players and received feedback from those involved in the sport from the under-9 level to MLS.
And he reached the conclusion that he needs to run for a position that Sunil Gulati, a powerful figure in both American and global soccer, has held for 11 years through three elections without a challenger.
“I am going forward,” Gans told The Washington Post on Monday night. “The listening tour absolutely has confirmed that there’s a need for this. I’ve talked to members of all the major constituencies and voting delegates and heard from people that it’s time for change.”
Gans, 57, said he plans to soon file paperwork for the election, which will be conducted during the USSF’s annual general meeting Feb. 8-11 in Orlando. Several hundred delegates from the youth, adult and pro sectors, plus an athlete council, will vote.
Gans said he has assembled a steering committee of sports, business and legal professionals and lined up a small group of confidants, including volunteer adviser Scott Ferson, a public relations executive who has worked in Massachusetts political circles for many years.
Gulati, 58, has yet to announce whether he will seek a fourth term, but given his high-ranking role on the FIFA Council in soccer’s international governing body and his position in leading the campaign to bring the World Cup to North America in 2026, many in U.S. circles expect him to run again.
USSF guidelines allow Gulati to seek one more term. He said Tuesday that he did not want to comment on his plans or Gans’s decision to enter the race.
Paul Lapointe, who has coached at various levels in Massachusetts and owned an indoor team, is also weighing a campaign.
A competitive race for the USSF’s top position comes at a time of both growth and concern in the domestic game.
The sport has blossomed at the top pro level with MLS in 22 U.S. and Canadian markets and the National Women’s Soccer League in its fifth season, longer than two previous female circuits. (Gulati helped launch the NWSL and the USSF administers it.) The second-tier USL boasts 30 teams, while the second-tier NASL struggles with eight.
In 2015, the women’s national team won the World Cup for the first time in 16 years, and the program is ranked No. 1 by FIFA.
Under Gulati’s stewardship, the USSF entered into a partnership with Mexico and Canada to stage the 2026 men’s World Cup. The North American bid is an overwhelming favorite to defeat Morocco next summer for the right to host the sport’s quadrennial spectacle here for the first time since 1994.
But Gulati has also come under criticism for Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as men’s national team coach. After guiding the Americans to the second round of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Klinsmann stumbled through the 2018 qualifying campaign and, with about two years left on his USSF-record contract, was fired last winter. The USSF owed him a $6.2 million severance. Gans called the payout “a debacle.”
Gulati replaced Klinsmann with Bruce Arena, who has restored stability but needs to win the final two matches next month to clinch a 2018 World Cup berth. The United States has not missed the World Cup since 1986.
“Look where we are right now,” Gans said. “To me, it feels more like 1989 or ’90. It’s almost 30 years later and we’re such a robust soccer country in terms of participation. And the current president is reputed to spend most attention on the national teams, and look at this situation we’re in. So it’s time for a fresh perspective.”
Gans also criticized Gulati for his handling of the women’s labor dispute last year (“another debacle,” he said); for what he called a lack of transparency in the USSF; and for neglect of the youth ranks.
“One of the things I get back from people all the time is that they’ve been ignored and that the attention has been more to the national teams than anything else,” Gans said. “The youth game is just as important as any other constituency.
“It’s not lost on me how important the national teams are, but I am very confident I am going to be able to give proper attention to every constituency, from youth to adult amateur to pro and national team. It’s going to be a big tent.”
Gans played at Cornell and Brandeis universities and with the New England Tea Men youth team while also serving as the NASL club’s statistician and official scorer. He worked in the front office of the Baltimore Blast indoor team and was legal counsel for Boston’s successful effort to host 1994 World Cup matches.
He founded Professional Soccer Advisors, which worked with clubs overseas pursuing U.S. commercial opportunities, and brokered a commercial relationship between English club Fulham and Fenway Sports Group (owner of the Boston Red Sox and now Liverpool FC).
From 2010 to 2015, Gans served on the board of directors of FC Boston, a member of the USSF’s development academy system, which was implemented under Gulati.
The USSF, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, does not pay its president. Daily operations are overseen by Dan Flynn, the salaried chief executive and secretary general since 2000.
Gulati is a senior lecturer in Columbia University’s economics department. Gans is a partner at Prince Lobel, practicing corporate, sports and employment law.
Gans’s position on . . .
. . . how challenging Gulati could impact the 2026 World Cup bid:
“I’m a very enthusiastic supporter and it appears things will wind up positively. Everything is lined up and it’s wonderful. It makes total sense that we get it. The last thing I would want to do four months before the actual awarding is try to substitute my judgment. I would be there to help if it needed help, but the country deserves it and this is bigger than one person.”
. . . the touchy subject of introducing promotion and relegation into the professional tiers:
“Certainly there’s a passionate fan base for promotion and relegation out there. It’s a great thing in principle — it’s how the sport works all over the world. It’s dramatic and exciting; we all watch the last week of the Premier League. But you can’t divorce yourself from the fact that the way sports are set up in this country are different. It’s a very complex issue. The passion for it makes sense, but the devil is in the details. You look at over 100 years of tribal loyalty to clubs in these other countries, and it’s just a different sort of structure, history and lineage than how sports work here.”
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