01 Mar 2019

A Wider Net

Professional soccer has never been more popular in the United States. So why aren’t more kids playing it? US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro says the problem isn’t a lack of interest—it’s a lack of access
by Dan Morrell


Illustration by Neil Webb

When the United States men’s National Soccer Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup—for the first time in 32 years—the critiques were scathing. Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl deemed it “the most embarrassing failure in US Soccer history.” “It’s time for a change,” sportswriter Brian Phillips wrote in the New York Times. “The next thing I want to see from United States soccer is a jackhammer, not a news conference.”

“It was heartbreaking,” says Carlos Cordeiro (MBA 1980), who at the time was vice president of US Soccer, the sport’s nonprofit national governing body, which he joined as a volunteer in 2007 after a lengthy career in global finance, including more than 25 years at Goldman Sachs. “For many of us, it was another reminder that things needed to change—not just with the men’s team but at all levels.”

In December 2017, Cordeiro became one of eight candidates for president—including former national team stars like Hope Solo and Eric Wynalda—making it the first contested election for the position in 20 years, a sign of how high emotions were running at the time. In a three-month campaign, Cordeiro traveled the country and met with constituents from the hundreds of youth and adult state associations, clubs, and professional leagues, offering his comprehensive platform to transform soccer in America: investing more in world-class national teams, growing participation at the youth level, making US Soccer more open and inclusive, and winning the rights to cohost the World Cup in 2026.

His platform reflected what Cordeiro knows to be a potential crisis for American soccer: Youth participation has stagnated. It’s not that soccer isn’t popular with younger Americans. A January 2018 Gallup poll found that it was the second favorite sport of those aged 18 to 34, tied with basketball at 11 percent and trailing only football, and a recent Nielsen survey found that 55 percent of 16to-24-year old Americans were “interested” or “very interested” in soccer. That makes it harder to blame whatever digital distractions might be keeping kids from getting outside. The problem, according to Cordeiro, is access. “The number of registered players is flat, but there are millions of kids out there playing soccer in unaffiliated leagues,” he says. “There are kids who can’t afford to play in travel programs and the like because it costs thousands of dollars to do so. That’s our number one challenge right now: how to visibly grow the participation levels in US Soccer Federation programs and bring in more of the underserved communities.”

The mission is personal for him. Soccer was a childhood passion that went unnurtured. When he arrived in Miami at age 15 from India, organized sports weren’t an easy option. “I had to work, because my family came here as immigrants with nothing,” he says. “So my day job was high school, and my evening job was at the Publix supermarket.”

Since being elected in February of last year, Cordeiro has started putting his ideas into action. At a high level, he has led a restructuring of the organization’s all-volunteer board, creating technical and commercial committees to focus on strategy and better involve the board members in the goal of growing the game. “Our board is more engaged than ever,” he says. “This is just good governance.”

Under Cordeiro, the first-ever general manager has been hired for the men’s national team, with a GM coming soon for the women’s national team, which will be defending their title at this year’s Women’s World Cup in France. “Successful soccer federations around the world manage business and soccer operations separately,” says Cordeiro. “From now on, our soccer operations will be managed by soccer experts.”

There are ground-level fixes too. At Cordeiro’s urging, youth groups have formed a first-ever task force to tackle the myriad challenges they face. Among the goals: making youth soccer more affordable and more accessible, including for underserved and immigrant communities—hopefully helping to uncover the next Mia Hamm or US men’s wunderkind Christian Pulisic before they find another path. “As we bring millions more kids into the umbrella,” he says, “there should also be many more elite players emerging.”

Cordeiro spent his first few months in office dedicated to another surefire way to energize interest: successfully leading the three-country bid by the United States, Mexico, and Canada to host the World Cup in 2026. “It was just tremendously important,” he says. “We hope it will inspire a new generation of players and fans—and turbocharge soccer in America at all levels.”

As for the men’s team’s untimely fall, Cordeiro sees it as a turning point. But a year into his tenure at US Soccer, he hasn’t spent much time dwelling on the past. “With the changes we’ve made—including a new head coach—it’s a time of rebuilding,” he says, “and the foundation for lasting success is being set.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1980, Section A

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