The highest-ranking official in American soccer spends her weeks in an endless stream of meetings and phone calls. She regularly hops on planes and pores over documents. She sifts through emails and schmoozes with supporters. She chairs a powerful board and oversees a sprawling staff and negotiates contentious CBAs and landmark commercial contracts — and for all of that, for more than 40 high-pressure hours and multiple travel days per week, Cindy Parlow Cone gets paid $0.
As the U.S. Soccer Federation’s president, she is primarily responsible for charting the course of the world’s most popular sport in the world’s most powerful sporting nation. Yet for more than a century, the position has been an unpaid one. It’s a vestige of the federation’s humble past, with a resilient range of present-day justifications. But there is a growing acknowledgement, at least in some American soccer sectors, that the volunteer nature of the role is somewhere on the Venn diagram of unfair, exclusionary and ridiculous.
And so, ahead of U.S. Soccer’s 2023 Annual General Meeting (AGM), there is a fortified push to change it.
On March 18, in the cavernous Sapphire Ballroom of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, U.S. Soccer’s members will vote on a proposal to amend the federation’s bylaws and pay the president $150,000 per year, plus benefits. A similar proposal last year fell several percentage points short of the necessary supermajority. But sources with knowledge of the membership’s various delegations believe this year’s weighted vote will be closer, perhaps right around the 66.7% required for a bylaw amendment to pass.
On the surface, the increasingly popular rationale seems obvious. “As the U.S. Soccer Federation has continued to grow in terms of reach and relevance over the last decades, the position of president has become a position that requires full-time commitment,” Juan Uro, the board member who proposed the amendment, wrote in the annual book of reports distributed to members.
There remains, though, steadfast opposition to paying the president, especially among elder administrators who run youth and adult soccer state associations, many of whom have dedicated thousands of their own volunteer hours to the betterment of the sport. Their opposition, in a way, speaks to a broader disconnect between them and the federation and begs a broader question: What, exactly, should U.S. Soccer be, and what, exactly, should its president do?
'It's not without considerable personal sacrifice'
Once upon a time, the U.S. Soccer presidency really was a volunteer side gig. In fact, “up until very recently,” as then-president Carlos Cordeiro said in 2019, “we still managed U.S. Soccer like it was some 50-person organization run out of some kitchen.” Because for a while, prior to its exponential, 21st-century growth, it essentially was.
Its CEO, who doubles as the secretary general, was and is responsible for day-to-day management and the execution of a vision. The president always set that vision, but “the responsibilities are more board chairman than anything else,” said Bob Contiguglia, a now-retired nephrologist who ran a private practice while he served as president from 1998 to 2006. “It's a ceremonial job.”
Or at least, it was. Then Sunil Gulati came along and treated it like a full-time job from 2006 to 2018. As did his successor, Cordeiro.
So the role evolved, perhaps irreversibly. Gulati and Cordeiro could do it because they were, respectively, a college professor with a flexible schedule and a retired Goldman Sachs executive. What many began to worry is that droves of qualified candidates didn’t have the time to fulfill the endless stream of responsibilities or the wealth to deprioritize or even leave their “day job” to create enough time.
“We feel that the way the position is currently structured, it is exclusionary in nature, in who can actually come forward,” Chris Ahrens, who chairs U.S. Soccer’s influential Athletes’ Council, said at last year’s AGM in a short speech advocating for the bylaw amendment. By not offering the president a salary, he argued, “I think we’re missing out on some really potentially great candidates that could fill the role for us going forward.”
Cone, who has a young son and still works as a director at a youth soccer club in North Carolina, has somehow found the time — but only barely. Last summer, the Athletes’ Council asked her assistant to log her U.S. Soccer-related working hours. The time study found that, from July through November, she spent weekly averages of 12-14 hours in scheduled meetings, 18-24 hours on unscheduled calls and nine hours reading emails or documents, according to Ahrens. Then there was the travel — on average, three days per week — which sometimes took her across the country or even across an ocean. And on top of all that, her actual job.
“Cindy has made the choice that she believes in the mission, and she's made it work,” said Michael Karon, a U.S. Soccer board member and president of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). “But it's not without considerable personal sacrifice.”
The bylaw amendment, its supporters argue, is not only fair to Cone and her eventual successors. The $150,000 salary and benefits would also allow them to make the presidency their only job and, therefore, devote more time to the mission.
“And by the way,” Karon said, “if you really believe in things like diversity and inclusion, you can't narrow the pool. You've gotta broaden the pool, in terms of availability and access.” As currently structured, most people without economic privilege or professional pliability couldn't even consider entering an election.
“Not compensating [the] president,” Uro wrote, “would discriminate against candidates under certain groups (e.g. age, socio-economics).”
Defending the status quo
The counterarguments to all of this vary in both their motives and their merit.
Supporters of the status quo point to national governing bodies of other sports in the U.S., most or all of which do not pay the chairman of their board. (Counterpoint: Most are nowhere near as big as U.S. Soccer.)
They also point to best practices for nonprofits, which the USSF is. “The IRS frowns on paying directors of nonprofit boards,” said Contiguglia, who “strongly” opposes the amendment.
And they point out that, though the role doesn’t offer a salary, it does offer significant power and prestige and opportunities to earn money elsewhere. Gulati served for years on both the CONCACAF and FIFA Councils, which pay members $125,000 and $250,000 annually, respectively. Gulati and Cordeiro also developed deep connections with international soccer powerbrokers and have since parlayed their relationships and experience into work with UEFA, the European soccer governing body, and FIFA, respectively.
Cone’s network is shallower, and her status as U.S. Soccer president doesn’t automatically translate to any of those positions. But she was elected to CONCACAF’s Council — essentially the board overseeing soccer in North and Central America — last month. She’ll now receive $125,000 in annual compensation, which has become another reason some believe U.S. Soccer shouldn’t pay her.
The prevailing rationale, however, is part altruistic, part personal. Many of the folks who run amateur soccer associations across the country and who vote at AGMs are themselves unpaid. They see serving American soccer, whether in the federation’s highest chair or at lower levels, as an honor and a privilege, a passion project for the betterment of the sport.
“I would suggest to you that our clubs, the tens of thousands of clubs who are led by presidents who are volunteers — [they] probably invest as much time in their work life as they do in their volunteer job,” Dave Guthrie, Indiana Soccer’s executive director, said at last year’s AGM. “So I don’t know that that justification [for paying the USSF president] holds true unless we somehow want to pay all of our presidents of all of our member organizations. Which I don’t think we’re prepared to do.”
'The bigger issue: Are you on my side?'
A natural rebuttal to that flawed logic would be that the U.S. Soccer presidency is a much higher-profile, higher-leverage, more time-intensive position. And besides, the entire point of paying any federation employee, whether a top official or an entry-level coordinator, is to allow that person to develop the sport. The president, in theory, would work to support and align the missions of everyone throughout the soccer ecosystem; a salary would maximize their ability to do that work.
The deeper problem, though, is that many throughout the ecosystem feel overlooked by the federation.
"There's almost a total lack of support for the youth and adult organizations in the United States," North Texas Soccer Association president Janet Campbell said at last year’s AGM.
“If the grassroots, as a group of folks, believed that what the federation was doing was value added to the membership, I doubt [paying the president] would be much of an issue,” Karon, the AYSO president, said. “But that's not a sentiment that's widely held.”
Karon, who leans in favor of the amendment, explains further: “What do grassroots members care about? [They care about], ‘How do I get more referees on the field? How do I get them trained? How do I get coaches trained? How do I make sure the kids are safe? How do I create registration systems that get kids organized and on the field with a minimal amount of work and effort? How can I leverage messaging that the federation might provide to me around parental education and player pathways and things of that nature?’
“Those are the nuts and bolts issues that people really want to have help on. And candidly, at least in my experience, the federation has been more focused on being a regulator instead of a trade association. … The federation's gotta do more at the grassroots than just be a regulator. They've got to actually be aligned with the interests of their members. And that's been tough.”
That, to him and others, is “the bigger issue: Are you on my side? Are you advocating for me and doing the things that are gonna help me grow and maintain my programs?”
Cone has “done a really good job of identifying what the issues are and trying to promote an agenda here that's more inclusive,” Karon clarified. “But we've got a transition to make as a governing body.”
And while one could argue that paying the president would promote that transition, there’s no proof of concept. The “value proposition,” as Karon said, has not been demonstrated to members. According to several sources familiar with their consensus thinking, most of the youth and adult councils, which comprise 40% of the vote, remain somewhere between wary and staunchly opposed to paying the president.
Breaking down the vote
The amendment’s potential passage will likely depend on how many of those youth and adult administrators ultimately support it. Individually, each of their votes are the least influential; they constitute a majority of delegates but, thanks to weighting in favor of athletes, a minority of the electorate.
The 24-member Athletes' Council, as a representative body, holds 33.3% of the vote, and will likely unanimously support the amendment.
The Pro Council, which comprises executives from Major League Soccer, the National Women’s Soccer League and other leagues and which gets 20% of the vote, is also expected to support it.
To get to 66.7%, though, proponents will need miscellaneous members and meaningful chunks of the youth and adult delegations to climb aboard. Some athlete reps, such as Ahrens, have been calling members to explain their reasoning and advocate for the amendment. Everybody expects the politicking to accelerate next week.
And when they all gather in San Diego for a multiday slate of meetings and informal gatherings and other events, they will find out just how many have done what Karon did not too long ago.
“I, myself, have sorta done an about-face on this,” he said of paying the USSF president.
He, like many, acknowledges and appreciates that there are legitimate cons and pros. But he now believes the pros outweigh cons. He believes that the goal, above all, should be to find leaders who can connect U.S. Soccer’s mission to those of its members. And if a salary and benefits help attract and enable those leaders?
“I think that if we could get more people with the right skill set involved,” Karon said, “the fact that we have to pay them or compensate them in some way, I think we oughtta be much more open to that.”