As U.S. Soccer's 2018 election nears, its last contested election provides stark contrast

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Bob Contiguglia (right) with MLS commissioner Don Garber. Contiguglia was U.S. Soccer’s president from 1998-2006. (Getty)
Bob Contiguglia (right) with MLS commissioner Don Garber. Contiguglia was U.S. Soccer’s president from 1998-2006. (Getty)

It was supposed to be a night of celebration. Instead, the evening of Jan. 20 in Philadelphia was the setting for 17 of the more remarkable minutes of a dizzying four months in American soccer.

Sunil Gulati strode briskly to a convention center lectern at the U.S. Youth Soccer awards gala that night, and eschewed thank yous in favor of a “fact check.” He ripped off a scathing speech, aimed at the majority of the eight candidates hoping to succeed him as United States Soccer Federation president. He lambasted them for what he labeled lies, unrealistic promises and ugly discourse.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a presidential election,” he said. “And that’s generally not a good thing. Elections are good things.

“But there’s also ways to have elections with a positive tone. And the tone in this particular election is far from that.”

It’s a tone unlike anything U.S. Soccer has ever heard, because the 2018 election is unlike anything U.S. Soccer has ever had. It’s been a foray into uncharted, murky waters, and often a tumultuous one.

It’s the first contested USSF presidential election in 20 years. And there’s no better way to frame the insanity than to travel back to the last one. To 1998. The participants in that race tell a story far different than the one unfolding before our eyes.

“It was pretty respectful,” Dr. Bob Contiguglia, the victorious candidate in 1998, says of that campaign. “The tone of this current election is totally unusual for the federation.”

The 1998 race pitted Contiguglia, a USSF board member and former U.S. Youth Soccer president, against Larry Monaco, then the USSF vice president. In some ways, the mechanics of it were similar to today’s. Both candidates worked with teams of volunteers. Contiguglia’s “kitchen cabinet,” which was more extensive, featured Jon DeStefano, who had worked on outgoing president Alan Rothenberg’s 1994 campaign, and Marty Mankamyer, an experienced executive. Both candidates focused their efforts on contacting delegates, either by phone or in person.

But that’s where the similarities end. “Elections then are nothing like they are today,” says John Motta, a current USSF board member and the vice-presidential election winner in ’98.

Actually, there’s one more similarity. The 1998 election also unfolded on the back of a World Cup failure. Not a qualifying failure, but it was staged two months after the U.S. had crashed out of France ’98 without a point.

The response, though, was completely dissimilar. Contiguglia says he never felt the need to call for widespread change. And U.S. Soccer’s membership apparently didn’t thirst for it. No outsiders entered the fray, and the two experienced, qualified insiders didn’t drastically differ on much. Their platforms didn’t take many strong stances.

“I think the major difference between Larry and I was, I wanted to continue professionalizing the organization,” Contiguglia says. “Larry thought things could be done with volunteers.”

Monaco says even that is “overstating my position.” He notes Contiguglia might have been slightly more supportive of Major League Soccer.

Outgoing U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. (NBC Sports)
Outgoing U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. (NBC Sports)

But there were no attacks. Some disagreement, but none of it fierce. Whereas the 2018 election has turned into a wide-ranging debate over the direction of U.S. Soccer, a supposed fight for its future, in 1998 there was stability despite turnover.

The campaign was less about promises and rhetoric, more about relationships – many of them already developed. Contiguglia, for example, was close with early MLS owners Phil Anschutz, Robert Kraft (his college classmate), and the Hunt family. The MLS vote, according to Monaco, ultimately swung the election in favor of Contiguglia. The practicing nephrologist won with 57.6 percent on the first ballot.

Contiguglia, who also had the support of outgoing president Rothenberg, was the establishment candidate, an insight that perhaps sheds light on why some candidates have felt this campaign needed to go beyond pleasantries and good-natured discussion. Every elected USSF president since 1990 has been either incumbent or establishment choice. For 20 years, nobody even bothered to challenge for the office, in part because presidents were successful, but also in part because potential challengers understood the size of the task. If both an incumbent and MLS support one candidate, he or she has been difficult to beat.

Still, the past four months have, by USSF election standards, gone off the rails. Motta thinks social media and fan displeasure has played a part. Contiguglia thinks it’s a reflection of the current national political climate.

“Disagreement is fine. Lying is not,” he says, echoing some of Gulati’s statements. “Civility is gone. … There’s certainly a lack of professionalism with some of the candidates. I think it’s a reflection of their incompetence. Most of them don’t have the [necessary] experience.”

Contiguglia, as a past president, has a vote this Saturday in Orlando. He’s supporting Carlos Cordeiro. And he, like Gulati, doesn’t hold back on other candidates.

He says Eric Wynalda is “unfit to be president.” And “I’ve told him that to his face.” He says Hope Solo is “not equipped to be president” and “fragile.” He says Kyle Martino doesn’t have the “tools” nor the “experience.” He says “the two attorneys,” Steve Gans and Michael Winograd, are “well-meaning” but “naïve.”

It’s clear which side of the stable-vs.-disruptive debate he falls on. It’s therefore unsurprising he feels the discourse has been unhealthy, “discouraging” and “embarrassing.”

The counterargument is that it’s been productive.

“It brings out a lot of different points of view,” Motta says. “And it kind of forces the candidates to tread on some areas where they [otherwise] wouldn’t. Overall, there’s never been an election with more information and more points of view than this one. Having eight people has definitely forced all the candidates to come up with a good platform.”

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The question is whether lines have been crossed. The answer will come after a winner and seven losers emerge from Orlando.

Motta tells an instructive story. The concurrent presidential and vice presidential elections were separate in ’98, but Motta and Monaco supported each other. Contiguglia supported Motta’s opponent for VP, one Sunil Gulati. On election day in Maui, the presidential vote was first on the docket. After Contiguglia won it, Motta recalls, “Dr. Bob” endorsed Gulati to the room of delegates.

Nonetheless, Motta prevailed by 11 votes – 50.8 percent to 49.2. One of his first handshakes as VP was with Contiguglia. Dr. Bob, I know you didn’t support me, he remembers saying. You know I didn’t support you. But we’re in this together. Let’s move on. Let’s move the game forward.

Motta says the two then took a long walk on a Maui beach, discussing their upcoming terms as they went. They eventually developed a great working relationship, and remain good friends today.

Twenty years later, there is no VP election. But there are eight men and women who seek an office for the same reason. They, just like Contiguglia, Monaco, Motta and Gulati did, want to move American soccer forward. The worry is that the tone of the past four months has made their visions for how to do so incompatible; that Saturday’s decision is either-or; that the vote is a zero-sum game.

The hope should be that the incendiary rhetoric can be forgiven. That an empathetic winner and losers can recognize the merits of one another’s ideas and incorporate them. That good will come out of four months unlike any American soccer has ever seen.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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