“A good life,” he said.
And then Couva happened.
That’s the town in Trinidad and Tobago where, on the infamous night of Oct. 10, the U.S. men’s national team failed to gain even a draw against a last-place opponent and, consequently, missed the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Given a rare opportunity to be a fan, Martino had joined the Manhattan chapter of the American Outlaws supporters’ group at Smithfield Hall NYC on West 25th Street. They shared the place with Chilean fans, which made for a sad evening as both teams were eliminated.
“It was the most depressing place on the planet,” he said. “I think their depression set in a little before ours.”
In subsequent days, Martino couldn’t shake it.
“My wife noticed I wasn’t sleeping and I was off,” he said Friday. “I couldn’t figure out why I was still so upset. I think it was a bit of guilt.”
Guilt that the soccer support system from which he had benefited — as a youth player in Westport, Conn.; as a college player in Charlottesville; as a six-year pro and as a 13-game national team player — was losing its way and failing an emerging soccer nation. Couva, he believed, was only the tip of the iceberg.
“I felt I hadn’t done enough, from my pulpit, to stand up for the membership,” he said. “The membership is what grows a soccer culture, and we’re ignoring them.”
So in November, with an emphasis on fixing problems at the local level as well as the national side, he announced he would enter the USSF’s presidential election, set for Feb. 10 in Orlando. He is among four former national team players — Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri and Hope Solo are the others — and eight candidates in all seeking to succeed Sunil Gulati, who decided not to seek a fourth term in the aftermath of the national team’s fiasco.
Martino, who turns 37 next month, is on leave from NBC. If he wins the election, he would not return.
In pursuit of the presidency, he has traveled the country meeting with state associations and individuals deeply entrenched in the sport.
“I believe I can move this thing forward,” Martino said. “I am already acting in the way I intend to govern. I admit I am not an expert in all categories. I’m making it my full-time responsibility to reach out to the membership to understand what they need.
“Youth soccer is the hardest to galvanize and connect. I’ve met with all of them. They are not as warring as we like to make it out. They’re warring because they haven’t had good leadership. Now is the opportunity to elect new leadership.”
Martino also has enlisted two of soccer’s biggest retired names, Thierry Henry and David Beckham, to help mold his platform and persuade hundreds of voting delegates to choose him. The other day, Henry flew to Philadelphia from London at Martino’s expense to attend the 13,000-strong coaches convention, which draws administrators and state soccer officials from all over.
“Sometimes we need someone outside the family,” Martino said.
His campaign slogan is “Everyone’s Game.” His manifesto is the “Progress Plan.” In it, he emphasizes the need to build an enduring soccer culture through the “grassroots soul of the sport” and, like the other candidates, has mandated greater transparency in how the Chicago-based nonprofit operates, gender equality, Latino outreach and lowering the costs of youth soccer.
He also wants to bring joy back into the youth game: “We’ve professionalized youth soccer,” he said.
Martino is proposing hiring a technical director to oversee the national teams. His friendship with Henry and Beckham, he said, would help open global doors as the federation seeks to fill high-profile positions. (The men’s head coaching job has been open since Bruce Arena’s resignation after the Trinidad defeat.)
Martino acknowledges his age is a weakness and there’s a perception of inexperience, though he does tout business acumen as an investor in Mallorca, a Spanish third-division club. The USSF is a $120 million business with 150 employees and a $150 million surplus. A salaried chief executive oversees business decisions and day-to-day operations in Chicago.
“I’ve got to learn on the job,” Martino said.
Over the next few weeks, he said he’ll continue welcoming feedback from soccer’s rank and file.
“I’ll continue meeting with people and find out if I got it right,” he said. “If not, let’s continue working on it.”