The record-breaking goalkeeper hopes to become US Soccer’s new president in this weekend’s election. She says football in the States needs an urgent change
So, Hope Solo is running for president of the US Soccer Federation. It turns out the record-breaking goalkeeper is also trying to solve a mystery. When she is asked why the federation’s relationship with Soccer United Marketing (SUM) – a for-profit company owned by Major League Soccer that includes MLS commissioner Don Garber as its CEO and Solo’s rival candidate Kathy Carter as its president – is the subject of debate within football circles the World Cup winner is quick to pounce.
“We have to get to the bottom of it,” Solo tells the Guardian in a rare interview from her home in North Carolina. “I have my own opinions about it … I think it has to do with money.”
So here we are. While the soccer chatterati in at least 32 other countries is discussing the upcoming World Cup, the talk in the US is about a vote this Saturday to elect a new president of US soccer’s governing body. Normally, most people couldn’t care less. But the US men’s failure to qualify for Russia triggered a blame game and an election campaign that outgoing president Sunil Gulati has described on more than one occasion as “disgusting”.
Last October’s defeat against Trinidad and Tobago is no longer about an Omar Gonzalez own goal. It’s about youth development, the Latino community, top-down governance, the possible demise of MLS side Columbus Crew, and the role of SUM.
SUM is a marketing, media, and sponsorship company created by the owners of MLS in 2002. As crazy as it sounds now, back then no US media company was interested in acquiring broadcast rights to that year’s World Cup (or for the 2006 tournament). SUM stepped up and years later is a major commercial partner of US Soccer, among others. Garber says the company will have injected $300m into the USSF, between 2002 and 2022, when its current agreement expires.
SUM is a cash cow for soccer in the US. Here’s where it gets tricky. The company’s board members are MLS owners. Its offices are within MLS offices. Its online presence is one page on the MLS website with email addresses on how to advertise or partner with “passionate sports fans” and “the #1 soccer network in North America”.
Solo knows all that. She knows a lot about money in US Soccer. She is an advocate for payment parity between the men’s and women’s national teams and is among a group of players that filed a wage discrimination complaint against the federation. She says her interest in SUM was piqued over the use of her image in a sponsored promotional video for which she didn’t receive payment.
“I didn’t see a dime of it,” Solo claims. “I started to ask questions and told them I didn’t approve the video to go public before the  Olympics. I started to get emails back that were complete attorney jargon basically saying ‘Hope, this is above your pay grade’. Basically, shut your mouth and play soccer. That is when I knew I was barking up a tree they didn’t want me to bark up. Pretty soon after that is when [USSF] fired me for – quote unquote – saying the word ‘coward’.”
Solo is one of eight candidates vying for the USSF top job, an unpaid position. The new president will be elected by stakeholders that include a mish-mash of state federations, representatives of professional and amateur players, and even fans. In a process so complicated, some candidates say they aren’t yet sure who all the voting delegates actually are.
Gulati, unopposed for 12 years, declined to run in 2018. In a heated campaign, the field is roughly divided into two camps: those representing a status quo and those calling for change. Any type of change. Wait. Where have we heard this story before?
Solo is so adamant the federation is in need of a shake up that last week she filed a complaint against the USSF with the US Olympic Committee, which broadly oversees the organization. The gist of the complaint is that the federation neglects youth development in favor of chasing money and has “institutional bias in favor of MLS” and SUM.
Solo’s top targets are MLS, SUM, Gulati, Garber (also a USSF board member), Carter (SUM President and USSF candidate), and Carlos Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs executive who is also Gulati’s vice president. Cordeiro is another candidate for president. Gulati and Garber support Carter’s candidacy.
“I’ve been in the game for so long and have been an employee of [USSF] for so long that I know Soccer United Marketing as much as I can now,” says Solo, who played over 200 times for the women’s national team. “Throughout our negotiations [for the Collective Bargaining Agreement], players – as well as US senators [Feinstein and Murray] – asked SUM and US Soccer for full financial disclosures from SUM and they absolutely refused to give them to us.”
Solo pauses to fire a direct shot at her election rival Carter: “You were the one responsible for not divulging the full financials of SUM when we directly asked you for them, as well as representatives of the United States senate.”
“This relationship [between US Soccer and SUM] impacts all of us,” Solo adds. “It is so convoluted.”
Gulati drew deep on his skills as a university lecturer for an address at a dinner during the annual United Soccer Coaches convention in Philadelphia last month. Earlier in the day, a truck parked outside the convention venue carried a giant billboard screen that played a video starring Gulati as a puppeteer controlling Carter and Cordeiro. Garber also appeared in the video, as did Chuck Blazer, a top American soccer official who was involved in fraud, tax evasion, racketeering, and money laundering. Blazer died last year and no one with any integrity would want to be associated with him. Neither Garber, Gulati or anyone else at USSF or SUM has been implicated in any of Blazer’s criminal activity.
“The tone in this election is far from [positive] … and that is disgraceful,” Gulati said in a 20-minute speech.
“Everyone is conflicted in one way or another,” he added, referring to US Soccer’s relationship with SUM. Surprised about the heat on his administration, he warned the audience: “All that glitters is not gold.”
Solo, 36, shares her birthday with 58-year-old Gulati. Each year, as president, he’s sent a “Happy Birthday” text to the goalkeeper. They have little else in common and have gone toe-to-toe on several issues over the years. Solo says she thinks Gulati considers her “a worthy adversary” after their encounters.
Solo maintains the federation’s priority should be youth development and making the game accessible to all – not just “rich white kids” who can afford pay-to-play development programs, a system where talented players have to pay fees to join elite pathways. USSF’s pursuit of profit, she says, has disconnected the organization’s top level from its grassroots.
“The federation has the ability to do some wonderful things for soccer and they have done some wonderful things for soccer but they have lost touch with what is important,” Solo says. “Oftentimes, money can do that. When you become so successful, money can be the driving force of your next decision until you lose sight of why you are there to begin with.”
Critics can claim Solo brings her own baggage to a presidency. As well as a disciplinary issues as a player, a legal problem stemming from a 2014 domestic incident involving two family members remains stuck in courts. A judge dismissed charges against Solo but prosecutors appealed the dismissal. Still, Solo received enough endorsements to get on the USSF ballot and passed a background check for candidates.
Solo has an impressive roster of supporters. They include Japan national team captain Aya Miyama, astronaut Ron Garan, civil rights activist Michael Skolnik, and the Portuguese Football Players’ Union. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates also defended Solo after her domestic violence incident: “There is a reason why we call it the ‘Violence Against Women Act’ and not the ‘Brawling With Families Act’.”
The catch is that, while making for an incredible dinner party, those people don’t vote to elect the president of the USSF. Still, stranger things have happened in US elections – and important soccer-related votes – in recent years. Anyone with election experience knows the only vote you can depend on is the one you know isn’t for you. Solo can discount Gulati’s vote. As for the others?
“I’m the only candidate who has a track record where you can see I continue to push against the status quo, where I continue to fight for equality, where I continue to hold the federation accountable,” Solo says. “Somebody has to really stand in the face of US Soccer and demand change.”