It’s been almost two months since the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that Earnie Stewart and Brian McBride were resigning their positions as sporting director and men’s team general manager, respectively. The consulting firm Sportsology was brought in to lead the search and analyze the structure of the USSF’s sporting department.
And since then? Barely a peep. A sense of urgency has been difficult to spot, though that is due to the close-to-the-vest approach of USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO JT Batson. Following last weekend’s USSF Annual General Meeting, Cone and Batson said the Federation remains “on track” to hire the sporting director — a role that oversees both the men and women’s teams — by the start of the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off on July 20.
Interviews are ongoing, though neither Batson nor Cone provided details on the number of people interviewed or the particulars of the process. Multiple sources told ESPN that the interview process has reached “the second stage” with in-person interviews about to be scheduled.
“We’ve been very pleased with the people who’ve raised their hand, and the conversations we’ve had to date,” Batson told reporters last weekend. “Some of the feedback is we’re a very unique organization. We have more national teams than anyone else in the world. And so it’s an awesome opportunity, but it’s, it’s one that requires a level of sophistication…it’s exciting, but also a lot of work. So it’s been great conversations. We’ve learned a lot so far from the process. It’s been a global search. We’ve been interviewing people from all around the world. We’re excited about the traction we’ve made thus far.”
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The difficulty in filling the sporting director vacancy lies with the wide range of constituencies that must be dealt with. There’s a need for familiarity with the U.S. soccer landscape, especially given the demands of overseeing the various youth national teams. There’s also a need for interacting with international contacts, the better to finagle the release of players during international windows. Then there’s MLS and the NWSL, entities whose goals aren’t always in alignment with the respective senior national teams.
But arguably the top reason for the USSF to wrap up the search before the self-imposed deadline of late July would be to hire a new permanent coach for the men’s team. Anthony Hudson has served as interim coach after Gregg Berhalter’s contract expired on Dec. 31, 2022. Berhalter remains eligible as a candidate after an independent investigation found that both he and his wife, Rosalind, accurately portrayed the nature of a 1992 domestic incident.
Summer is when most of the high-profile managerial candidates will be available, but Cone said earlier this year that given the July deadline for a sporting director, it might not be until September until a new USMNT manager is hired. Waiting that long would be a mistake. One would expect that the top candidates will have long been snapped up by then.
About the most notable aspect of the sporting director search thus far is the list of people who have turned it down. It almost reads like a Who’s Who of MLS sporting directors, albeit an incomplete one. The list includes Sporting Kansas City‘s Peter Vermes (who is also the team’s coach), the Philadelphia Union‘s Ernst Tanner and Nashville SC‘s Mike Jacobs. The reason? It wasn’t considered an upgrade from where they are now.
“The reality is that the job that most appeals to me, intrigues me, and most excites me is the one that I have,” Jacobs told The Tennessean.
Fox Sports reported that another candidate is former U.S. international (and current USSF Board member) Oguchi Onyewu, who has also worked as a sporting director for Orlando City’s reserve side and as Secretary General of Belgian second-tier side Royal Excelsior Virton. Onyewu checks some of the boxes for the vacant role, but it’s unclear how he stacks up against whoever the remaining candidates.
One aspect that Batson and Cone did elaborate on was that the remit of the sporting director is being streamlined. Gone are responsibilities involving coaching education, referee development, and overseeing grassroots and amateur adult programs. Those aspects will be handled by a new position that will report directly to Batson. The sporting director will remain in charge of the USSF’s national teams — all 27 of them, including youth — and will set out the technical vision and still oversee talent identification.
There is also a question of how much money the USSF is willing to pay in order to attract a top coaching candidate. According to documents published by the USSF, Gregg Berhalter’s income for the 2022 fiscal year was $1.6 million. A top candidate is expected to require multiples of that number. While Batson stopped short of saying money was no object, the Board of Directors does appear to be giving him some wiggle room.
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“We have very clear support from our board around having it be a global market and understanding that anything’s on the table with regards to who the right person is to lead our men’s national team program,” he said. “Obviously, you want to be smart with regards to how you spend money, but there’s costs and there’s also opportunities for revenue. So as we think about our men’s national team program, we want to make sure we have the best person leading our men’s national team going forward. It’ll be a global market. We’re not starting with any restrictions in that regard.”
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It also remains to be seen if the GM position, previously held by McBride, will be kept. Batson said discussions about this shift started in Qatar when Stewart was in charge. They continued with the help of consultants Sportsology.
And what of Sportsology? It’s an organization that has had a hand in shaping the technical side of several MLS teams, including LAFC, FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire. Opinions as to their effectiveness vary as wildly as the fortunes of the abovementioned teams. One source spoke positively as to Sportsology’s impact with LAFC, though what was described sounded like the consultancy’s contribution was on a more ad hoc basis. Inter Miami CF sporting director Chris Henderson has raved about the help Sportsology provided in building out the organization’s sporting department. Another industry insider referred to the company as peddling “snake oil.”
As for Sportsology’s impact on the USSF, sources told ESPN that the company’s work is pretty much done. Sportsology did make recommendations to changes in terms of the management structure on the sporting side. As for the sporting director search, the firm did some work with initial outreach, supplied a list of candidates, but has now stepped away from that process, with the USSF taking over all of the interview responsibilities. Multiple sources indicated that Batson and Cone are leading the interview process but that people outside of both USSF and Sportsology are also participating.
Sportsology also provided a list of managerial candidates, even though it’s clear the sporting director will be hired first and have considerable say in that hiring. Sportsology’s presence seems incongruent with some of Batson’s and Cone’s public statements. Both Batson and Cone have lauded the existing structure and staff on the sporting side.
“Over the prior ‘x’ years, by virtue of building out an actual sporting department, we have a real department, we have a bench, we have leadership, we have a team that’s really impressive,” Batson said. “One of the big things is that reduces our key person risk.”
If that’s the case, why bring in Sportsology in the first place? It provides cover for the USSF on multiple fronts. Searches on the executive side in the past have been rife with allegations of conflict of interest. Former CCO Jay Berhalter’s involvement in the hiring of Stewart as GM, when his brother Gregg was a candidate for the USMNT manager’s job — and eventually landed it — is but one example.
Another is that Sportsology’s overseas contacts would help cast a wider net in terms of potential candidates. But with the Federation mum on the list of interviewees, it’s impossible to know if that actually came to pass.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Sportsology’s suggestions weren’t taken on. The firm was used by the San Jose Earthquakes after the firing of Jesse Fioranelli as sporting director in 2021, but the organization ultimately elected to hire from within.
But at this stage, it’s the Federation’s show. The coming months will determine if it receives positive reviews.