Carlos Cordeiro’s moment of truth
It hasn’t even been four months since Carlos Cordeiro took over as U.S. Soccer president, and he has already arrived at a moment that will instantly and permanently define his legacy.
On June 13, FIFA will vote in Moscow on which nation will host the 2026 World Cup: either the U.S., Canada and Mexico in a united bid, or Morocco.
If the united bid wins, the U.S. plans to host 60 of the 80 World Cup games, and to say that doing so would present an opportunity for a sea change for soccer in America is an understatement. Consider that the 1994 World Cup — the last and only time the U.S. has hosted the men’s event — helped lay the seeds for MLS, which launched two years later, and ushered in a wave of investment and an increase in popularity around the sport that soccer continues to ride upon more than two decades later. Hosting the event in 2026 would further fuel soccer’s growth in popularity and perhaps put it on a path to one day become America’s most popular sport.
It also comes at perhaps the most crucial time in the history of U.S. Soccer. While the success of the three-time World Cup-winning U.S. women’s team has helped hide many of the federation’s warts over the last decade, the failure of the U.S. men’s team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup that starts June 14 in Russia brought them to the surface. Those issues — most prominently youth development, pay-to-play and creating a more inclusive federation — saw further sunlight during the vitriolic campaigning before Cordeiro’s election in February.
That has left little time for Cordeiro, 62, to relax or celebrate his new position, but he has little doubt that he’s the right man for the job. “I don’t think, with very few exceptions if any, there would have been a better person to be in this seat,” he said.
“I don’t see myself as a freshman or a novice, I really don’t. I’ve lived this world now for many years. Is this [vote] a monumental decision? Yes, I can’t deny it. It’s hugely important, but I don’t think it would have mattered if the vote was a year from now instead. We are very well prepared.”
While Carlos Cordeiro called landing the 2026 World Cup “my single waking priority,” he hasn’t ignored the state of the federation back home. “That’s the whole point of our reorganization, that I’m able to delegate,” he says. “I’m not the guy punching every number, but nor should I ever be.” Here are three other things he’s already done to make an impact on U.S. Soccer:
1 Follow the leader
Using lessons learned from his three decades at Goldman Sachs, Cordeiro has aimed to usher in a new style of leadership, a more transparent and inclusive approach that aims to empower all of the voices across the U.S. Soccer pyramid.
2 Board games
Cordeiro has introduced two new board-level committees, rearranged members on all six of those committees to ensure that each group is represented, and shaken up the federation’s organizational chart and its reporting structure, all while overseeing a search for a new, independent director for the board.
3 General studies
Later this year Cordeiro is expected to appoint general managers to oversee the men’s and women’s national team programs, which would separate the president from coaches’ decisions.
— Ian Thomas
Cordeiro was speaking in late May from Kiev, where he had gone to meet with members of UEFA in hopes of winning their support ahead of the vote. In the previous week, he had been in six countries, meeting with many of the 207 associations that will cast votes for the World Cup host.
His pitch is simple: The united bid promises to deliver a level of financial success unheard of in FIFA’s 114-year history, to the tune of more than $14 billion in revenue. That would provide more than $11 billion in profits for FIFA and its member associations, a critical source of their funding, and would come at a key moment for its commercial business, which has slumped following recent corruption scandals. By comparison, FIFA’s revenue projections for the next four years, which includes the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, is only $6.56 billion, according to its financial reports.
“Our bid would be a whopping success for FIFA and its members,” Cordeiro said. “This is the signature tournament, this is their quadrennial source of revenue that has to drive investment over those next four years. The more they can generate, the more they will have to invest in development, the more money that can go to membership organizations for their programs.”
Morocco’s bid, meanwhile, is forecasting a profit of approximately $5 billion, but it will also require more than $15.8 billion in infrastructure spending to host the event, including more than $3 billion to build nine new stadiums. The united bid calls for no expenditures on stadiums or infrastructure.
However, while Morocco can’t match the united bid’s financial might, its small footprint would provide easier travel for fans and convenient time zones for European viewers, and it offers the chance to help grow the sport in the North African country of 35 million people.
The U.S., of course, is hoping to get a similar boost. The money and the increased focus that a future World Cup would bring would be transformative for both U.S. Soccer and the sport in North America.
“The No. 1 issue is in the grassroots, and that we’re not capturing enough of the potential of the group,” Cordeiro said. He noted that beyond the roughly 3 million registered youth soccer players in the U.S., there might be three to four times that amount playing in unaffiliated programs or that would play if they could afford it.
“How do you bring in those kids who are from some of the most disadvantaged communities?” he said. “This is a problem that has been festering for more than a decade if not longer, has been growing even more rapidly as it generally is the immigrant populations that are growing the fastest, so every year it compounds, and it gets bigger and bigger. If we don’t fix that, we won’t ever achieve our maximum potential.”
It’s a problem that hits close to home for Cordeiro, who moved to Miami with his widowed mother and his three younger siblings in the early 1970s from Goa, a former Portuguese province that was annexed by India in 1961. While he loved soccer even then, he had little time for the sport, as he worked evenings at Publix to help support his family all while studying enough to earn a scholarship to Harvard. After graduating from Harvard Business School and spending more than three decades working at Goldman Sachs in international finance, he was recruited by former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati to be the federation’s first independent director in 2007. He became the federation’s vice president in 2016.
“If I was growing up today, my single mother, being a widow and taking care of four kids, wouldn’t have been able to put any of us into soccer,” he said.
Cordeiro knows preventing other families from having the same problem will require more resources. “If you look at our budget today, it’s a relatively small piece of where our nation’s competitors are at annually.”
Indeed, in its 2017 financial report released this year, U.S. Soccer announced it had $148 million in net assets, up $50 million from the previous year, and $152 million in revenue. By comparison, the English Football Association had revenue of roughly $472 million last year. “We don’t have unlimited resources to throw at this problem,” Cordeiro said.
That’s where the World Cup comes in. If awarded to the united bid, the three federations would negotiate with FIFA their return for that $11 billion windfall, potentially receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to be shared, not to mention the overall financial boon that would come from hosting 80 games in North America, in addition to the eight years of run-up to the event.
On top of that, U.S. Soccer would be in a position to massively grow its business. Its broadcast and media rights deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision — currently done in conjunction with MLS — expires in 2022, as do all of its corporate sponsor deals, including its deal with Nike and its relationship with Soccer United Marketing, which serves as its commercial representative.
Cordeiro noted that in the period between 2014 and 2018, U.S. Soccer’s commercial revenue has increased roughly 35 percent. Potentially, Cordeiro said, that growth rate could be doubled or tripled between 2018 and 2022 with an influx of new corporate partners and patrons that would be looking to support the federation in the run-up to 2026.
All of that, of course, hinges on the outcome of the vote. Cordeiro will be in Moscow on June 13, ready to learn the fate of both the bid and the future of U.S. soccer — and, perhaps, his own.