U.S. Soccer holds its president election Saturday in Orlando. The race is said to be tight and unpredictable. Whatever the outcome, members of the governing body will be forced to mend fences or be constrained by internal strife.
Sound like another election that happened not so long ago? Mike Cullina, newly appointed chairman of the board at US Club Soccer, does little to deflect an analogy to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.
“I have real hesitation about what happens in Orlando and what the aftermath may be,” he says. “My hope is people take a step back and whoever the next president of U.S. Soccer is, even if it’s not an individual they would vote for, give the new president an opportunity to be successful. We should want the next president to be successful because then our sport is healthier.”
Cullina says the timing makes this election a particularly critical one. It comes months after the U.S. men’s soccer team failed to qualify for the World Cup. The blame game has followed suit, leading to myriad candidates looking to cure the sport’s ills in the United States.
“All that did was pull the curtain back a little bit,” Cullina says of the World Cup failure.
As Cullina calls for soccer officials to become part of the solution, he lays out the key issues the next U.S. Soccer president will face once in office.
The numbers don’t lie: Soccer is losing players between ages 10 and 12 to other sports. “Right now, we can’t grow because we’re losing more players than we are gaining,” he says. Of course, the decline in participation is related to other challenges, detailed below.
Parents, especially ones who move to a new location, struggle to know the right placement for their child, Cullina says. If the player is not the right fit for the league or team he or she is on, it opens the door to quitting the sport—or, at the very least, lessens the enjoyment. And if the parents or child want to expand on previous participation, “there should be a clear path,” Cullina says.
Organizations involved with youth soccer often find themselves at odds with one another. That includes the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer working better with US Club Soccer’s youth council. “We’ve proven we can work together; we just needed to be given the opportunity,” Cullina says.
The Women’s Game
“My daughter doesn’t even consider NWSL at the moment and that’s a shame,” laments Cullina. “We need to change that.” While the U.S. women’s national team remains popular and success on and off the field, NWSL—the country’s women’s pro soccer league—struggles behind. The league’s wages don’t compare to domestic men’s leagues and to international women’s clubs. “We need to ensure the best female players can continue to develop and grow right here at home,” he says.
The 2026 Bid
The highest profile proposition may also be U.S. Soccer’s most important move. Cullina says it’s vital the joint U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid be successful. That alone could cure many ills, including eliminating the need to qualify for the World Cup. “I definitely don’t want to talk about missing the World Cup again,” he says. “That’s a disaster.”