The departures of Men’s National Team Sporting Director Earnie Stewart and General Manager Brian McBride represent a post-World Cup housecleaning, but they also underline the stubbornly clubby, insular nature of soccer administration in this country. The installation of former players to coach and direct national team programs, to head up entire federations, is not uncommon in world futbol. For too long, however, U.S. Soccer has promoted strictly from within. For a time, this was the only option. In 2023, in our ever more mature futbol culture, HR for the USMNT should start looking and thinking outside the box.
Stewart and McBride were both on-field stalwarts during the 1990s and early 2000s. Gregg Berhalter, still the putative national team skipper, represents yet another former player from this era. In one sense, their respective tenures are the function of simple math: 20 years on from their competitive heydays, it’s only natural that this cohort would be coaching and leading professional programs somewhere.
If we dig a little deeper, however, we see a small pool of candidates for these positions, sometimes vanishingly so. The U.S. Soccer Federation hired Berhalter in 2019 without any sort of proper search, during a period when Berhalter’s brother, Jay, served the Federation as chief commercial officer. Bad optics. They would get worse: Berhalter’s contract with the Federation expired Dec. 31, 2022. He did not oversee the USMNT’s late-January camp or friendlies because the Federation is investigating a 30-year-old domestic battery incident alleged by yet another former USMNT teammate, Claudio Reyna, who resigned his position as sporting director at Austin FC on Jan. 26.
Stewart is the oldest of this group, and the most accomplished. In August 2022 he signed a Federation contract through 2026, but considering all the Berhalter-Reyna drama, his move to director of futbol at PSV Eindhoven appears logical, perhaps even a step up. Market demand often speaks louder on personnel matters than anything else. Federation President Cindy Parlow Cone insists Berhalter “remains a candidate” for the USMNT coaching position, though it’s difficult to envision his return. Have you read much about clubs seeking Berhalter’s services? Me neither. Ditto for McBride. Indeed, the Federation indicated it may not fill that now-vacant position — as no one appears exactly sure what a USMNT general manager does. Austin FC enjoyed a spectacular season in 2022. Reyna’s currently dealing with a world of shit, much of it his own making. But it’s telling the MLS club felt it could do without Reyna’s contributions as sporting director, and that no rival club has yet come calling.
According to a Jan. 26 Federation press release, “During the search for a new Sporting Director, all sporting staff will report to U.S. Soccer CEO J.T. Batson. Once the Sporting Director is hired, that individual will oversee the process of hiring the new USMNT head coach. In the interim, Anthony Hudson will serve as the USMNT head coach until a permanent head coach is named… U.S. Soccer has retained Sportsology Group to consult on the search for the organization’s next Sporting Director. Working with key U.S. Soccer leadership, Sportsology has also already begun a full review of U.S. Soccer’s sporting department.”
Cone has indicated she expects a hire by the Women’s World Cup this summer. Let the search for more seasoned, savvy staff begin.
Hands up if you knew who J.T. Batson was. Can you name the respective executive persons who run USA Basketball these days, or USA Hockey? What about the coaches of those respective national teams? If these questions, the above data points, and the Federation’s retention of Sportsology Group didn’t make it plain, allow me to emphasize here how differently soccer operates in this country, compared to American professional sporting norms/models.
Hoop fans don’t know who runs USA Basketball, for example, because the NBA and its domestic competition dominate the game here. The NBA, WNBA, NHL do supply players to national teams, but only episodically, and American fans pay no attention to international basketball and hockey competitions, not until the Olympics roll around — whereas the USMNT and USWNT remain soccer’s primary draws all year ’round.
American futbol fans likely understand this already, intellectually. But every once in a while, it’s useful to step back and assess just how differently this sport operates here, structurally. Essentially, soccer in the U.S. operates as it does in England or Japan or Mexico: A league apparatus administers the domestic club competition (MLS, NWSL), while a separate futbol federation/association looks after the national teams. In most countries, the professional league and futbol association vie for power, money and exposure. Therein lies the famous club v. country dynamic.
Major League Soccer is growing in popularity. However, because club soccer and its attendant domestic competitions didn’t exist in the U.S. when the game finally mainstreamed itself, early in the 1990s, fans here still follow the national team programs in a uniquely outsized way. What’s more, the field remains wide open in this regard: No other major U.S. sports maintain active national teams year around. American football and baseball include no international components whatsoever.
For these and a dozen other reasons, the subtext of my new modern history of American soccer, “Generation Zero,” remains true and unrelenting: Our peculiar futbol history continues to affect the soccer we observe and consume here today. Let’s unpack the administrative example, which, thanks to Stewart, McBride, Cone, Reyna and Berhalter, continues to make headlines.
Over its first 100 years in America, soccer failed to swim in the mainstream. As a result, the professional leagues that came and went, the national team program, such as it was, even nationwide competitions like the U.S. Open and National Amateur cups were coached and administered by a surprisingly small, dedicated-but-insular group of true believers. Quite naturally, most of those in charge were former players whose love for the game didn’t always translate into savvy management or leadership capabilities.
In 1984, American soccer got lucky: Werner Fricker replaced the well meaning but largely ineffectual Gene Edwards as U.S. Soccer Federation president. Fricker was certainly a Federation lifer/insider, but he nevertheless led U.S. Soccer with great vim, vigor and vision. Though he never played professionally, Fricker did compete for the U.S. Olympic Team and starred for his semi-professional club side, the United German-Hungarians of Philadelphia, throughout the 1960s.
As late as 1974, Fricker’s Federation was still officially known as the U.S. Soccer Football Association. While the North American Soccer League made progress during the ‘70s, by November 1984 it had dissolved — along with the second division American Soccer League. Six months later, the national team blew its 9th consecutive World Cup qualification opportunity. Fricker walked into this mess and proceeded to build the USMNT up from nothing. He founded the women’s national team program in 1985, then convinced FIFA to bring the 1994 World Cup to the United States.
In accomplishing all this, Fricker relied very little on his credibility as a player, his on-field technical abilities or understandings. Before, during and after his tenure, Fricker operated a successful construction and property development company in Greater Philadelphia. He understood finance. He was personally charismatic, if famously stern. He proved a capable delegator and a keen judge of organizational talent. These qualities surely mattered more to someone like Joao Havelange than Fricker’s on-field prowess.
For the record, Werner Fricker, who passed away in 2001, did lead UGH to the 1965 National Amateur Cup. What’s more, Stewart’s resignation was tendered on Jan. 24 — what would have been Fricker’s 87th birthday.
This administrative dynamic, embodied by Fricker, isn’t a soccer thing. The man credited with growing the National Football League out of its own insular, clubby redoubt? Pete Rozelle, a PR guy. Branch Rickey, who devised baseball’s farm system and ultimately broke MLB’s color line, had been a professional player — a terrible one. A catcher, Rickey played three season in the majors, batted less than .200 and, at one time, held the record for most stolen bases surrendered in a single game (13). Commissioner David Stern, whose leadership transformed the NBA into a major American sport, was a lawyer by trade — not a pass-first guard on the old Chicago Zephyrs.
Look at the men running NFL, NHL and NBA teams today — not the franchise owners, or the head coaches, but the general managers and directors of basketball operations: These folks are mainly former coaches, not necessarily former NBA players. Ditto for sporting directors in world futbol. They may have played the game at a decent level, but their experience in the game, in marketing and media, in contract law and top-to-bottom club structures, is far broader. And let’s credit the Federation where it’s due: CEO J.T. Batson arrived at the Federation in 2022, after serving as CEO of Hudson MX, a 425-person NYC- and Atlanta-based software company.
Former Federation president Sunil Gulati wasn’t any kind of player or coach, while current president Cindy Parlow Cone was capped 158 times. In most ways, they couldn’t be more different. What connects them? Each, along with Berhalter and McBride, ascended to their respective positions as pre-certified creatures of the Federation. The soccer world is big and broad — it its, in fact, more international than any sport on Earth. America is home to the largest, most diverse economy on the planet. To fill all its various job openings, surely the Federation need not hire from within.
Starting in 1990, with the USMNT’s qualification for the Italian World Cup, American soccer had finally mainstreamed itself. That’s the evolutionary story “Generation Zero” tells. From a participatory standpoint, the breakthrough had arrived 20 years earlier. However, once those products of the Youth Soccer Revolution grew up — and claimed a Women’s World Cup (1991), hosted the men’s World Cup (1994), then launched Major League Soccer (1996) — the U.S. soccer establishment was off and running.
A big part of that 90s-era success is down to the leadership, organizational savvy and marketing vision of Alan Rothenberg, not a former player but another lawyer who served as Federation president from 1991-98. In fact, he supplanted Fricker — and it was among the best things that ever happened to U.S. Soccer. Fricker was a builder, a link between the old guard and the new, a perfect man for his particular moment. Come the 1990s, the American game and the moment required more expansive leadership.
The respective tenures of all who served the USMNT and Federation through Qatar 2022 are certain to be tarnished by the PR nightmare that is the ongoing Berhalter-Reyna Family Barbecue. This isn’t necessarily fair. However, U.S. Soccer is too far along in its evolution to allow former USMNT players to so dominate national team and Federation affairs. Sporting director is clearly a job that requires futbol savvy — but there are a lot of clever soccer folks out there who didn’t play for Bruce Arena in 2002. Has the USSF been particularly well served by the presidential tenures of Gulati and Cone? Back in 1984, former players and Federation lifers might have been the only candidates applying/running for all these positions. In 2023, we can afford to widen the search.