Philadelphia has a long and proud history of hosting the United Soccer Coaches' convention, the largest annual gathering of American soccer thinkers, influencers and power-brokers. Since the event began in 1942, this city has welcomed it 11 times.
But there has never been one quite like this year's, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
With only a few weeks to go until the hotly contested U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election in early February, Philadelphia will serve as one of the last big stages for candidates to make their cases.
The nationwide groundswell of anger at the U.S. men's national team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has turned the campaign into an unprecedented spectacle. Eight candidates are in the field, with a range of views on problems from youth development to the pro game.
There will be plenty of election voters among the more than 12,000 attendees, most of whom are coaches at the youth, college and high school levels. Every local youth and adult amateur soccer association in the country will cast a ballot, along with the professional leagues and a council of current and former players.
"People from every different level of our system are there, so you can really address the people and the problems directly in a way that you can't sometimes do elsewhere," said Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas, who will be among the convention's many speakers. "This spotlight that now has been cast on people and things that in the past just went about their business without much attention. … I think you have to understand the groundswell out there and the sentiment out there about change, and the need for a new direction — or at least new leadership."
The public can't vote as it does for political elections. But there have been plenty of attempts to sway opinion on social media, especially by backers of former U.S. men's national team forward Eric Wynalda. He's one of eight candidates in the field.
Three others are former players. Paul Caligiuri scored the most famous goal in American history, and played at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. Kyle Martino turned an injury-shortened MLS career into success as a TV pundit. Hope Solo was a star goalkeeper for the women's national team, but has a checkered resume off the field.
Four candidates have administrative backgrounds. Kathy Carter is the president of Major League Soccer marketing arm Soccer United Marketing. Carlos Cordeiro is the Federation's vice president and was a longtime member of its board. Steve Gans is a Boston-area lawyer and soccer consultant. Michael Winograd is a northern New Jersey-based lawyer who played at Lafayette and professionally in Israel.
The conventional wisdom among media and insiders is that Carter and Wynalda are the front-runners. Lalas agreed with that when asked for his view.
Carter is a consummate insider. She has played a key role in turning American soccer into a profitable business while in charge of SUM. But the entity, which markets the national team as well as MLS, has long been criticized for a lack of transparency.
While Carter drew praise for being the first woman to enter the race, voters wanting change see her as part of the status quo — and carrying conflicts of interest. MLS nominated her, and she entered the race only after current president Sunil Gulati announced his departure.
"It's definitely something that she needs to deal with, and deal with head-on," Lalas said. "But she's a very smart woman, and she is, I think, formidable when it comes to this race."
Wynalda turned his on-field stardom into high-profile TV jobs with ESPN and Fox, plus coaching roles in lower leagues. He's using his bullhorn to call for a dramatic overhaul of the American soccer landscape.
His highest-profile plank is adopting the promotion-relegation system used to crown winners and losers in the rest of the world. It would force MLS' lesser teams — and yes, the Union are one — to step up their games or risk falling down to minor leagues. The establishment fears watching small cities overtake big ones. Would fans and TV money keep coming? We don't know, and won't unless the change happens.
Wynalda also wants to shift the MLS calendar to the fall-to-spring schedule that Europe uses, with a winter break when the weather turns bad. That would make it easier for American clubs to buy and sell players worldwide. It's harder to buy when European leagues are in midseason, and it hurts to sell in the middle of MLS' campaign.
But the switch would take games out of summer months when soccer gets more attention here. And good luck selling fans in northern cities on going outside in February.
Lalas called it a "populist" campaign, and a successful one. Wynalda's support among fans is clear even to his critics.
"Eric wins no matter what," Lalas said. "If he wins [the election], he's off to the races as the president of the United States Soccer Federation, and he is brought in under a mandate of sweeping change. If he doesn't win, he remains a martyr and a beacon of hope for the disenfranchised and disillusioned out there."
Martino and Cordeiro have the best odds of staking a middle ground. Martino stepped up Monday by publishing a campaign manifesto with plans for reform. He also has endorsements from multiple current and former U.S. national team players. Cordeiro has been building quietly, though perhaps too quietly.
Solo, Caligiuri, Gans and Winograd have lesser chances.
Seven of the eight candidates are scheduled for solo speaking sessions on stage at the convention. Cordeiro is the only one who isn't. Sources said he moved to get a slot too late in the process.
He will be here Saturday, when all the candidates will take part in a forum at 1 p.m. The event will be streamed online live via YouTube and Facebook. JP Dellacamera, the Philadelphia Union and Fox Sports play-by-play voice, will be the moderator.
It was to be a debate with all eight candidates on stage together, but the format was changed on Tuesday. Now each candidate will appear individually. U.S. Youth Soccer CEO Chris Moore told the Inquirer and Daily News on Tuesday afternoon that his organization made "a determination that it would be in the best interest of the U.S. Youth Soccer membership to have a series of one on one sessions with each of the eight candidates as opposed to a debate."
Moore said that some U.S. presidential debates with many candidates have been cumbersome as events, and he didn't want to encounter similar problems.
"Given the amount of time we allocated to hold the event and the amount of candidates there were, we just didn't think it was conducive to a quality format with eight candidates on stage being posed the same question," he said. "If there were a situation where there were two or three candidates, it would have made more sense to have a debate format. But eight in a two hour period of time just seemed like a difficult thing to actually pull off for the audience."
The rest of the convention will be a whirlwind of seminars and teaching sessions. Notable speakers include French legend Thierry Henry, former U.S. national team captain John Harkes, longtime North Carolina women's coach Anson Dorrance, and former U.S. men's national team coach Bruce Arena.
Gulati will also be on stage, sitting for an hour-long interview with Lalas on Thursday.
"I have as many questions, I think, as anybody out there," Lalas said. "I want to know what this last year has been like for him — how he has come to decisions — and I want to also give him an opportunity to talk about everything that has happened. He's been very quiet, so I'm interested to see how he sees this incredible reaction."
Lalas added that Gulati is planning to take questions from the audience.
The convention is open to the public, but at a steep cost: $565 for a week-long pass and $165 for a single-day pass. Fans can get a taste of the spectacle Thursday night with a $20 ticket for the Exhibit Hall, a circus of soccer merchandise vendors,
Two events will be free of charge: the National Women's Soccer League and MLS drafts. They are Thursday at 10 a.m. and Friday at noon, respectively, in the Convention Center's grand ballroom. Entry will be separate from the convention, with seating areas reserved for fans.
Here's a schedule of some notable speakers at this week's convention. Click here for the full convention schedule.
- Anson Dorrance, University of North Carolina women's soccer head coach (8:45 p.m.)
- Thierry Henry, french soccer legend (9:30 a.m.)
- Kathy Carter, USSF presidential election candidate (9:30 a.m.)
- Michael Winograd, USSF presidential election candidate (11 a.m.)
- Sunil Gulati, outgoing U.S. Soccer Federation president (1 p.m.)
- Mark Pulisic, father of Christian Pulisic (1 p.m.)
- Paul Caligiuri, USSF presidential election candidate (2:30 p.m.)
- Tommy Wilson, Union academy chief, with colleagues (2:30 p.m.)
- Kyle Martino, USSF presidential election candidate (4 p.m.)
- Hope Solo, USSF presidential election candidate (9:30 a.m.)
- Hank Steinbrecher, former USSF secretary general, with fellow longtime administrators Joe Cummings and Thom Meredith (9:30 a.m.)
- Tab Ramos, U.S. under-20 national team coach (9:30 a.m.)
- Steve Gans, USSF presidential election candidate (11:30 a.m.)
- Laura Harvey, Utah Royals head coach; and Emma Hayes, Chelsea Ladies head coach (11:30 a.m.)
- Bruce Arena, former U.S. men's national team head coach (1 p.m.)
- Eric Wynalda, USSF presidential election candidate (2:30 p.m.)