Kyle Martino is one of the most familiar names in the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential race.
He has been well-known to American soccer fans since his days as a midfield playmaker in Major League Soccer. When injuries forced him off the field in 2008, he grew into one of the nation’s most respected TV commentators.
Over the years, he has worked for Fox, ESPN and most recently NBC. In 2010, he was the color analyst on the Union’s local broadcasts during the team’s inaugural season.
His resume’ over the years includes time as a booth analyst and studio analyst on broadcasts of the English Premier League, the Olympics, MLS, U.S. national team games and other soccer events.
Now Martino is evolving again. On Nov. 6, he announced that he is running for the biggest job in American soccer. He joins a crowded field that includes two other former players, Eric Wynalda and Paul Caligiuri, plus four administrators: U.S. Soccer vice president Carlos Cordeiro, New York-based lawyer Michael Winograd, and Massachussetts-based lawyer Steve Gans and soccer administrator Paul Lapointe.
This is clearly a project of passion for you. In October, you said publicly that you did not want to run, in part because of the financial burden that the task requires. Then, a few weeks later, you changed your mind. What went into that decision?
For me, in putting out the article saying that I wasn’t going to run, I was trying to accomplish two things, ostensibly.
One was to put focus on a rule that I think is keeping quality candidates out. The fact that it’s a volunteer, unpaid position is the reason that great candidates like Julie Foudy and others that I’ve suggested should run can’t get involved in this race. And I just wanted to bring attention to that, because I think it’s something that could be changed, and internally there’s an appetite to change it.
It has been brought up several times, and they haven’t executed on it. I just wanted to highlight that it would improve the quality of candidates moving forward if it is a full time job that has a salary.
It would also create accountability. That’s something that we desperately need right now within U.S. soccer. The three pillars of my platform are transparency, equality and progress. The first one is transparency, because we need to be able to know what’s going on, and we need to hold the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation accountable, and I think a salary goes a long way to doing that.
The next thing I wanted to accomplish with that announcement was, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t a distraction anymore. There were a lot of people calling me behind the scenes. There were a lot of people hopeful that I would step up and be the one to save U.S. soccer at this low point. At this inflection point, we needed a soccer visionary to come forward, and many wanted me to be that person.
It just, for myriad reasons, was going to be so difficult for me to do that. So I thought, “Why don’t I just get rid of the speculation and announce this? That will take this entire soccer community that has been calling me on the phone, and they will move their efforts somewhere else, and try to get another qualified candidate into this race.”
The announcement did not accomplish that. It did the opposite. When I said I wasn’t running, my phone rang 10 times more than what it was ringing before, with the same people and even more just saying that they needed me to step forward for U.S. soccer right now.
So I had a really difficult conversation with my wife, until 4 a.m., in the kitchen. I just looked her in her eyes and told her that the thing I love the most outside of my family is this game. And my dream ever since I was little was not to be the U.S. Soccer Federation president, it was to see the game in this country treated the way it is around the world. And for my kids to grow up in a soccer nation that I didn’t have when I grew up.
I just knew that dream was in jeopardy, and if I didn’t step forward right now, I wasn’t doing enough to ensure that we move in that direction — that we got U.S. soccer back on track.
After I convinced my wife, I moved on to NBC, because that was the next-hardest decision. I have my dream job right now with them. I absolutely love what I’m doing. I love who I’m doing it with. I’m fortunate to have been given that opportunity, and lucky that we have created such a great product. To leave that right now, with five more years of rights [in NBC’s deal with the English Premier League], seems crazy to everyone. So I had to convince NBC that this is something I have to do.
They saw in my eyes, they knew that this was everything to me: to step up and serve our soccer country, and make a difference. So they supported me right from the beginning, and said they’d let me out of my contract to do it.
What changed was, I wasn’t seeing the people come forward I was hoping for. The people I would have trusted to take U.S. soccer forward and solve this enormous soccer problem we have right now at the lowest point in our soccer history. I just didn’t see anyone in the race that I could trust to take U.S. soccer where it needs to go.
The excuses I had before weren’t big enough, and I needed to jump into the fray and take a massive risk and put my family in a tough situation. Because at the end of the day, I knew that when I was 70, I wasn’t going to be able to forgive myself for not being able to do what I can do for U.S. soccer right now.
If you do not win the election, will you return to NBC?
Yes. NBC has already agreed to have me back if I lose. I’d come back and continue life at my dream job, and I did what I could.
If I win, here’s the other thing: I am part of the ownership group at [Spanish club] Mallorca. I will sell out of that or they’ll buy me out of my investment. I also have an investment in a soccer technology company that I would sell or have them buy me out of.
You are crowd-funding your candidacy, at least in part. What should people who donate expect their money to go to?
Well, I’ll start by saying what they shouldn’t expect. They shouldn’t expect any quid pro quo in terms of: I’m not getting your NASL team into Major League Soccer, I’m not getting your club team into the [U.S. Soccer Development] Academy, I’m not getting your kid into the University of Virginia [Martino’s alma mater].
You donate money toward my campaign because you never again want to sit on the couch in the summer and watch a World Cup without your team in it. You never again sit on the couch and watch our women’s national team, the beacon of success in our sport, being caught up with and surpassed by nations that we’ve been superior to for many years.
You’re donating to this campaign because you’re sick and tired of your kid not being able to get into the system. You donate because you think you’re over-paying for your soccer education and you want someone to lead us in the right direction, to train kids the right way and set them up for success — whatever success means. Whether it’s enjoying playing the game, and learning about live through it, or playing Division I [college] soccer, or becoming a pro. You just want to believe in this soccer nation, and you want to believe in the person leading it.
So my GoFundMe [platform] is an opportunity to give fans a vested interest in the movement to change U.S. soccer, and improve it. What that goes toward is the progress plan that we’re building.
I’m having a summit in New York City from Dec. 4-6, and I’m flying in some of the best soccer minds, from the top of the pyramid all the way to the bottom around this country. These are many of the people who have been calling me from day one after the Trinidad & Tobago game and urging me to run.
I’m going to get us all in a room, and the time for bumper sticker slogans is over. We need to create a substantive plan. We need to create a document that shows how we are going to solve this soccer problem. That two-day summit will be a tireless effort to leave with a piece of intellectual property that is public, that will be our mission statement on what I will do when I am in office.
And if February 10 comes and I’m not voted president, it will be the standard that we hold the president to, whoever that would be if it’s not me.
From the sound of it, the chief expense you’ve got is travel.
I’ve got travel, I’ve got hotels, I’ve got board rooms. I’ve got my campaign that I’m building, which involves a social media strategy and website. Up to this point, I’ve been paying for everything out of my pocket, and I don’t have a salary anymore. I’m unemployed, currently.
So people are helping me to not only create an opportunity for that progress plan that we’re going to create at the summit, but also, I’ve got to fly around the country and make sure that progress plan has everyone’s voice in it. It has to have the voice of the billionaire franchise owner, but it also has to have the voice of the mom and dad in Los Angeles who can’t afford to get their kid into the system.
I need to cover every inch of this country. To first hear what keeps people up at night. What are they worried about, in terms of our soccer country? What do they see from a president? That’s the most important thing.
The most important thing is not to sell myself. The most important thing is, before we figure out who we need, we have to really determine what we need. And in order to answer that question, I’ve got to fly around and find out what people want.
You’ve got some endorsements already. David Beckham and Thierry Henry are the big ones, though they don’t have votes in the election. When it comes to people or entities who do have votes — specifically, those who would formally nominate you for the election — who do you have?
At this point, I’m in the process of gathering information from delegates, and the next step is to get nominations. I’m on the phone all day long every day talking with these people. Before I ask them to put me into this race, they have to believe I’m the right person to do this. They have to believe that if on Feb. 10, I win the election, I can do what I say. So I’m starting all of these calls not by selling myself and asking them to nominate me.
Of course, eventually, that’s where I want to get to. But before I get there, and reach Dec. 12 and make sure my campaign has the required three nominations behind it — and I have the belief of people — I need to hear what people are worried about. I think it’s disingenuous to ask them to support me before I hear what they want, and what concerns them.
I will have my three nominations. But at this point I’m not talking about the people supporting me, whether they be voters or non-voters, because I don’t think that is important right now. That’s a bit of a distraction.
The reason I brought Thierry Henry and David Beckham’s names forward with the letters that they sent for me is, I wanted to illustrate my reach. There are many people around the world that can help us solve this soccer problem, and David Beckham and Thierry Henry are two people that care very much about the product in this country.
They believe that soccer will grow here, and that we will be a great soccer nation. That’s why they turned down amazing opportunities to keep playing abroad and come and be part of the project of growing the game here. I use their names because they are not a part of the politics of this, so they’re immune to any political retribution from being linked to me.
I don’t want to marginalize great soccer minds by asking them to come forward to support me right now, because they are needed whether I’m president or not. And I don’t want to dis-incentivize anyone from using them moving forward.
Right now is not the time to brag about who I have behind me. Right now it’s time to answer the question: “What do we need?” That’s what I’m on the phone all day talking to delegates about.
What is your position on bringing promotion and relegation to American soccer?
I’m open to anything that grows the game in this country. I cover a league that has and relegation, and every Saturday and Sunday — sometimes even Fridays and Mondays — we get to tell these amazing stories. One of the greatest sports stories of all time is 5,000-to-1 Leicester City winning the Premier League. That story doesn’t exist without an open system. So I won’t rule out anything that grows this game.
I also, at the same time, am someone who came through Major League Soccer, that commentated in my first profession on Major League Soccer. My first job was with the Philadelphia Union, something that I enjoyed and that put me on the path to where I am now.
I watch it now as a fan. I believe in Major League Soccer. It came along at a time where it was desperately needed, and I understand the challenges that we have in our landscape that make an open system very difficult. But I’m open to anything that can help grow this game.
I’ve heard many of your fellow candidates speak about the importance of equal pay for the U.S. women’s national team. Some of them have defined it, some of them haven’t. How do you define equal pay? Or do you use some other standard?
My definition is really simple. The number on the paycheck that you send to a men’s player should be the exact number on a paycheck that you send to a women’s player. They are U.S. national team players, and they should make the same salary.
Since the men don’t draw a salary from the Federation, does that mean the women shouldn’t either?
You’re getting into a very nuanced discussion. I think the bigger issue, and what is more important, is we need to do a better job of growing the league for the women so that they can earn a living off of being professional soccer players, and not be reliant on a U.S. Soccer Federation salary.
What would you do to help the NWSL get further onto its own two feet so that it is generating enough revenue to pay players full salaries, whether they are national team stars or not?
First off, I would attack the women’s soccer pyramid the same way I would attack the men’s soccer pyramid. It is the same pyramid. The men have missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986, but we’re not talking about the fact that the women — who are the Argentina, the Brazil, the Spain, the Germany of the women’s game — their competition is catching up with and surpassing them because we are not putting enough investment into developing players.
There’s not enough investment in the youth game on both sides, and there’s not enough investment in coaching.
So the one thing I want to do is improve the product on the field for both men and women, and you start at the youth level. By creating a better pipeline up to the professional level and to the national team. By casting a wider net, making it much more affordable for kids to play. By making it more affordable to get a coaching license. And by making the coaching courses better in terms of preparing coaches to train kids in a way that will prepare kids for the next level, whatever that next level is for them.
Growing the women’s league, if you just focus on the top, I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been struggling. Of course, you need to get the strategic partners. You need to talk with all of these corporations that are vested in this game, and ask them to dig into their pockets and help us solve these soccer problems.
But you also have to go to some of our strategic partners — Merritt Paulson and some others — who believe very much in growing the women’s league, and help them to do what they already want to do. Which is build facilities, build academies, and grow the interest in the game.
At the end of all of this, the thing that’s not growing fast enough is the ratings. The interest is growing: there are more people in the seats, there are more people in the bars, there are more people enjoying this game than ever before. But we haven’t been able to make substantial progress on the ratings front.
We have to first focus on the biggest thing that will do that: improving the quality of the product. That is a youth development discussion, and that’s where the focus needs to be.
You mentioned earlier that you decided to run in part because you weren’t satisfied with the rest of the field of candidates. You are the third former player in the field, along with Eric Wynalda and Paul Caligiuri. What do you think separates you from those two?
I think I don’t need to tell you what separates me from them. Throughout the campaign, it’s going to become clear. I again don’t want to get lost in the individuals.
I just got done saying that this is not one-person-solves-the-problem. First, we need to identify what we need from a president. At some point in this race, it could come down to a binary choice.
Let’s take Carlos Cordeiro — who, by the way, I’ve heard great things about. Internally, people like him. He has experience, he has relationships. Let’s say it comes down to him and me. You’ve got a really tough decision. Do you want the soccer guy who’s going to hire the business guy, or do you want the business guy that’s going to hire the soccer guy?
When we get down to that decision, my pitch about my capabilities is: I’m much more of a business guy than Carlos is a soccer guy.
The business side of U.S. Soccer is the part that is not struggling. That’s one of Sunil Gulati’s and Dan Flynn’s great accomplishments: growing that budget, doubling it in an eight-year period. But it’s been at the cost of progress on the soccer side. So what we need right now is a soccer visionary.
I’m not critical of candidates individually. That’s really not my job. That’s the delegates’ job, and that’s the soccer community’s job: to vet these candidates and do the due diligence. You’ll find out who everyone is if you just do the research and ask around.
It is less about candidates not living up to some expectations. It is more about: I think I can do so much more for this soccer country than they are capable of. That’s why I’ve come into this race.
The candidates that I was thinking about — I mentioned Julie Foudy, and I tweeted about wanting her to run for president — the candidates I was hoping for, that I would have felt comfortable with, that I would have been able to sleep at night knowing they are leading U.S. soccer forward — none of them have come into the race. It’s more about their omission than it is about any of the current candidates who are in there.
I think it distracts away from what my message is, and what I hope to achieve, by spending time talking about other candidates. I will, throughout this process, reach out to each one, and I already have. I look forward to talking with each candidate.
I respect all of them for stepping forward and trying to serve U.S. soccer. That’s noble and everyone should respect that it’s a very challenging thing for all of these people to do. Many of these people are leaving their lives right now to go and do this thing. So I commend them, I respect them, and I can’t wait to connect with them — because what’s important for all of us is to keep the discourse high. We can’t let this become a political smear campaign.
This is about us all getting together and coming up with substantive ideas to change U.S. soccer. I want to keep the discourse high, and not get lost in the weeds of why I’m better than any individual in this race. I think that will be clear in the end, and if I don’t make that clear with my ideas and who I have behind me, then I shouldn’t be president.
What would current president Sunil Gulati’s role be if you win the election, and would you try to keep Dan Flynn as CEO?
Whether Sunil runs or not remains to be seen. I would be shocked if he gets into this race, based on the fact that one of his best friends, the Federation vice president [Cordeiro], has entered. I don’t need to say why that’s problematic.
Sunil Gulati has done a lot of great things for U.S. Soccer. Sunil would say this and I would say this: Sunil and I are not friends. We’ve butted heads on many things over the years. But I have respect for Sunil because he has served this country on the soccer side, and has pushed the program forward in many ways.
Being on the FIFA Council is an incredible accomplishment. He has the U.S. well-positioned for the 2026 bid, with a great idea to make it the three great soccer nations of our region — Mexico, Canada and the U.S. Whether he’s president or not, he will continue those great accomplishments.
He will be needed in his position on the FIFA Council. He will be needed on the 2026 bid committee. Missing out on the World Cup for the men [this year] will be nowhere near the catastrophe of not landing that 2026 World Cup. That can absolutely change the game for us in this country.
So I’m surprised, and a bit shocked, that there are presidential candidates who are disparaging Sunil and not realizing that you don’t have to like him, but you do have to work with him. You do have to have a symbiotic relationship with him. Because pointing out that Sunil has failed us on the soccer side — you can do that and still see where he’s helpful for us moving forward.
If I’m president, I push him. I help him with FIFA to try and make sure that they don’t create any rules or pass down any decrees that affect our soccer nation, because we’re different than every other country. I make sure that I push back on ideas I don’t agree with. But I give him every support I can to make sure we get that 2026 World Cup.
Then, as far as Dan Flynn, his name is not being mentioned enough. That budget being grown, and a lot of the great accomplishments on the business side — forgetting the blind spot on the soccer side — Dan Flynn is responsible for a lot of that stuff. He’s the day-to-day guy at Soccer House [the Federation’s offices] looking at the budget and determining how you run the company.
That kind of goes back to my point: all the more reason why a business guy isn’t essential right now. Dan Flynn is a business guy doing the day-to-day. We don’t know how much longer he wants to stay there. I hope he continues on for a few more years. It’s important to ask Dan Flynn if he can stick with us, because I believe a bit of continuity is good in transition right now.
And if he has plans to walk away from his job any time soon, also help us with a successor, so we can transition to someone that can continue where left off.