Kyle Martino Believes Grass Roots Are Key to U.S. Soccer
December 01, 2017
WHILE THE UNITED STATES men's national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup will create a void of on-field excitement next year, the reality of the situation is that 2018 will be an extraordinarily important year for American soccer.
At some point the U.S. will have a new head coach who will try to rebuild the team around a group of very promising young players. But at the top of the organization’s hierarchy, current U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is being challenged for his job. Candidates are stepping forward to offer a new vision and direction.
Kyle Martino, 36, is one such person who is running for the job. As a youth player, Martino excelled as a midfielder and was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year for Staples High School in Connecticut. He then went on to play for the University of Virginia where he was the ACC Player of the Year in 2001.
He played professionally for the Columbus Crew and the LA Galaxy while also earning eight caps for the United States national team. On October 12, 2005 he scored his only international goal in a 2-0 win over Panama in a World Cup qualifier.
But toward the end of his career, Martino struggled with injuries and had two hip surgeries. That forced him into an early retirement at age 26. But after stepping away from the field, Martino moved into television where he served as an MLS analyst for ESPN and most recently for NBC Sports for its Premier League coverage.
After seeing the U.S. men miss their first World Cup since 1986, Martino believes he is the right person to run U.S. Soccer. ASN spoke with him about his candidacy.
Brian Sciaretta for ASN: Like many former players, you were frustrated with the national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup. After toying with the idea, you stepped forward. What made you officially throw your hat into the ring?
Kyle Martino: The thing I've had in the back of my mind for a long time is that I've been concerned with the direction of U.S. Soccer and from my platform I've tried to do what I can to point to issues that I see. The best example I can give is when we were covering an MLS game at halftime at RFK, we were talking about the U.S. national team for a segment. I had asked around with a bunch of players who had played under Jurgen Klinsmann—with Bayern Munich and Germany—I had done my due diligence. And a bunch of U.S. players told me that there were some issues going on. Then I went and watched training and it confirmed what they were talking about. Jurgen is a great coach when he has the right situation. With Germany he had the right situation with Joachim Löw as the tactical mind to execute Jurgen's vision. Jurgen is a visionary and a charismatic person. He's a remarkable player. With Low, he had someone who could plan and execute. I just thought it was too much pressure and too much responsibility to put on Martin Vazquez. So I said it at halftime.
Then I got a phone call afterward and it was from U.S. Soccer saying Jurgen would like to speak with you. I thought I was getting called into the principal's office. He really laid into me and was upset I was critical of his coaching staff. At the end of it we had a really good conversation and it ended unemotional and with respect for each other. Then about a week later we were supposed to go to a press conference and I was told by U.S. Soccer that I was banned from the press conference. NBC's response was that we are not going to send anyone to the press conference because we support Kyle and he did his job in the way he was supposed to. U.S. Soccer then immediately reversed it.
A few months later we know what happened. He ended up firing Martin Vazquez. Of course that is not because of me, but right before the World Cup it shocked everyone.
But for a long time I've been trying to affect the game by teaching and growing it through my passion for the game and my avenue on television is to kids and parents of kids that are new to the game to help them fall in love with it. If they've been in love with the game, keep them in love with it. That was my place in the soccer world.
Recently, after the Trinidad & Tobago game, I didn't think. "You know what? I need to be U.S. Soccer president." I just sat back and waited to see if there was going to be some accountability from the top. But in the comments after that game from Sunil blaming bad bounces and inches, I got so upset and was concerned that we were going to be bragging about profit and overshadowing a lack of progress. That is when I really started to really think about it. It wasn't until I got several phone calls from people I trust and respect in the soccer community urging me to run, that I even considered it.
ASN: Just how influential can the president of U.S. Soccer be on the entire sport here in this country? Aside from having a role in picking the next national team coach, what do you think you can accomplish in this position?
Martino: That position can be integral in the development of soccer in this country. U.S. Soccer is really soccer in America. I think the lack progress is really because of a lack of leadership. Sunil has done a lot of good things for American soccer, for sure. For growing the budget, he and Dan Flynn deserve a lot of credit for that. Same with getting on the FIFA council and putting together a very compelling bid for 2026. There are many great things he's done but he has a blind spot on the soccer side. And he's had too much power in technical decisions and he's made a lot of bad ones. Here's the thing: I may be qualified to pick a head coach and I may be in a small group of people qualified to pick a head coach. But I should never do that. There should never be one person with enough unilateral power to make massive technical decisions for our soccer nation.
With that being said, I worry about an over-correction to take the president positon and make it more of a peripheral figure as a chairman of the board and a non-executive member. I think that's a massive mistake at this point. What you need right now is a soccer visionary who can not only keep progress on the business side.
I see a lot of opportunity cost of what is sitting inside of U.S. Soccer's account. I see ways of subsidizing the game and improving coaching—a lot of things that can help the game. Right now you need a visionary who has the wisdom to look at what's wrong with the soccer landscape, the courage to challenge it, but also the humility to admit they're not the expert in everything and they don't have all the answers.
We need a soccer person to finally change the structure in how U.S. Soccer is run and put experts in departments to make democratic decisions. No one person should have that much power. There should be committees making decisions and who are qualified to make those decisions.
But more importantly, we need to empower the president of U.S. Soccer to sell this game. This is the greatest sport in the world but it's also the most challenging sport to grow based on the strength of the incumbents and the head start they've had. That's a paradigm that needs a lot time to shift.
Right now you need a president who can stop talking about bad bounces and start talking about too many kids who never played the game or are priced out of this game and disappear. We need to flip the pyramid and focus on the youth and get out there and sell this incredible sport.
With my experience on television, it is part of what I do—but it's also much bigger than that. We have to make an argument why soccer will be treated at a level it is around the globe. If we start pulling in the same direction and have a leader with a soccer vision, we can achieve the goal I had when I was a little kid and that is to live in a true soccer nation.
ASN: Jurgen Klinsmann briefly held the positon as technical director while he was also the head coach. Aside from that time, the federation has never had a technical director. Is that sort of a function you would like to have while president of U.S. Soccer? Would you hire a technical director?
Martino: I am definitely not going to be the technical director and I shouldn't be. The idea is to find the experts and I have been talking with many of them. There are some people already working for U.S. Soccer who just haven't been empowered to help make great technical soccer decisions and they're frustrated about it. I've also spoken with people from outside the system who aren't being asked how they can help or what can be done.
I'll give you an example, I've spoken with some of the associations on the amateur level and many people don't consider the amateur game important for helping our national team but it is absolutely integral. One of the best parts of my soccer education is that I used to pay $5 on a Tuesday night and $5 on a Saturday night to play soccer with Hispanic adults and Jamaican adults and it was some of the best soccer education I ever got. No one is talking about one of the biggest deterrents for amateur leagues growing and getting more members is that facilities are so expensive. These guys are desperate for U.S. Soccer to listen to them.
We have to build a soccer culture. I grew up in a Notre Dame football household. My brother and I found Serie A, and we fell in love it. We were seeking out the soccer community. At the time it was difficult to find and it was kind of an underground thing you had to seek it out. Now the game is on everyone's TV and it is coming from all over the world. People are growing up in soccer households. But if we don't pay attention to building up that soccer culture, then we're going to continue to miss out on great athletes—many won't make it professionally, but when you're a soccer player, you're a soccer player for life. I've been a part of the entire spectrum. I've played rec, I've played travelling, I've played high school, ODP, youth national team, PDL. Now I am back playing amateur where I am paying to play. You realize that every piece is so important to growing the soccer culture here and every piece is what U.S. Soccer needs to be paying attention to. If they're sitting at the Soccer House and trying to figure out how to get the men's team back in the World Cup, then we're in big trouble.
ASN: As U.S. Soccer president, what will your relationship be with Major League Soccer, the USL, the NASL as the country’s top professional leagues?
Martino: All of them are integral in building part of the soccer culture. I played for the Brooklyn Italians when I was little. Every single level of this game is part of the fabric of the soccer culture. People consume this game in different ways and that is the beauty of this huge country that is the size of Europe. You can celebrate a team even if it is not at the top division.
Where I stand on that is that I came through Major League Soccer. When I was little, there wasn't a league for a long time. Then all of a sudden we had a league of our own. I told Alexi Lalas this but I went to a game at Giants Stadium to watch the New England Revolution and the Metrostars. I went up and got Alexi's autograph on the program cover and went home and hung it up. I dreamed one day I could be in that stadium. Then fast forward to being in that stadium alongside David Beckham in front of 68,000, that dream was impossible without MLS stepping up and a lot of people willing to lose a lot of money to grow a league and create stability after the failure of the NASL.
If opening up the system and involving more teams helps grow this game, people need to look at that. Everyone keeps asking me about pro/rel and that is a hot button topic but of course people should be interested in an idea that could help grow the game. But you have to realize that we are in a very unique sports landscape that isn't like any other sports landscape across this country. If you want to create a road there, then let's talk about it. But if you do it emotionally without thinking about it, then you're going to create a cliff.
But if we're focusing too much on the top of the pyramid and professional soccer, then we're really, really missing the point. The focus on the very beginning has to be on where people come into this game. I am on the phone with all these different organizations and all they want is a federation they can trust. It reminds me of when I was little and my parents would leave the house without a babysitter and leave my older brother in charge. It was like "Lord of the Flies." [laughter] We almost killed each other. Sometimes I feel that is what happens with our federation and they just leave the youth game to fend for themselves. What happens is that there is going to be in-fighting.
A lot of these groups are doing great things and if they could just be brought to one table and we can help them see that growing the game, making it more accessible means not fighting over a little pie but rather we grow the pie and that's great for everyone. Most importantly it's great for the sport. U.S. Soccer needs to grow soccer in an America. The business over U.S. Soccer isn't growing its budget but it is growing this game. It starts with good leadership.