March 5, 2019
For the past year and a half, the United States Soccer Federation (US Soccer) has been engaged in a master class in crisis communication. Unfortunately, the title of the class is “What Not to Do.”
US Soccer needs to grow viewership. Every World Cup since 1990 has attracted new viewers, but the game has failed to take off the way it has in other countries. In addition to the financial implications, lack of popular support means talented kids continue to choose other sports. US Soccer also has a huge financial stake in the success of MLS, the American professional league.
The US men’s national team (USMNT) not only failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, it bombed out in spectacular fashion. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was fired early on and it appeared that his vocal concerns about MLS contributed. He was replaced by former MLS and USMNT coach Bruce Arena. After a disastrous campaign, they were eliminated by Trinidad and Tobago, a team that’d lost 8 of 9 games. Sports analysts and social media alike blamed insularity and corruption at US Soccer.
Had US Soccer adhered to the following crisis communication guidelines, they could’ve rebuilt trust. The fact that the new coach’s first game was attended by fewer than 9,000 fans in a stadium of 63,000 seats should tell you how they did.
The first step to gaining back trust is to show that you know where you went wrong. Arena was allowed to gracefully resign, a courtesy not extended to his MLS-doubting predecessors. Days later, his TV commentary defending US Soccer and the status quo enraged the still-grieving fan base. Neither Arena nor long-standing US Soccer President Sunil Gulati ever publicly admitted fault for the rocky disqualification.
People recognize substantive change and they know window dressing. Gulati should have resigned so rebuilding could start. It took two months of public pressure before he finally conceded his job, though only by not seeking re-election on February 10, 2018. In a demonstration of the principle that failure to acknowledge responsibility prolongs negative coverage, every week saw a new screed against US Soccer. The furor ramped up when Gulati’s second-in-command, Carlos Cordeiro, was elected on the back of vague promises to address conflicts of interest but no specific actions. At this point, it had been four months with no acknowledgment of problems, no coach and no real changes.
Cordeiro had the chance to signal his regime was a fresh start by quickly appointing a new coach. He could have given fans the hope that the problems were gone with Gulati and Arena. Instead, he said nothing about the timeline for getting a new coach. Fans and analysts were left to hope that the plan was to recruit a World Cup manager once it was over. Cordeiro wanted the new General Manager to hire the coach, but the new GM didn’t start until August 1, nearly 10 months after the disastrous defeat and six months into Cordeiro’s tenure. It then took the GM four months to announce the new coach, despite a maelstrom of leaks that it would be Gregg Berhalter, manager of a popular but not victorious MLS team.
Even here, US Soccer had the chance to get the fans and pundits invested by setting forth criteria, candidates, and timeline. Instead, the GM alluded during media grilling to “conversations” and “interviews,” but wouldn’t say how many there were, nor who was included. The first detailed criteria were part of the press release announcing Berhalter and they read like backfill tailored to him. It said the GM had a list of 33 candidates that he narrowed to 11 then down to two. In the subsequent press conference, US Soccer confirmed that Berhalter was one of only two interviewed. The speculation swirling in the sports media overshadowed Berhalter’s first two months and confirmed that the other interviewee was a former MLS coach with no international experience. Interested World Cup coaches like Juan Carlos Osorio, Bob Bradley, and Julen Lopetegui weren’t interviewed. Which brings us to one of the most important rules.
Remember the crisis of faith was not that the US didn’t qualify for the World Cup, but that the corruption and insularity of US Soccer prevented qualification. Gregg Berhalter’s brother is at the very top tier of US Soccer, was influential in the hiring of the GM, and is considered a likely replacement for the US Soccer CEO stepping down soon. The fact that Berhalter appears to have gotten a no-bid position reinforces everything the soccer media has been howling about. National teams can sometimes take their fans for granted, but soccer doesn’t have a monopoly in the US. Disaffected fans turn to basketball or baseball or American football or hockey, all of which have thriving leagues that are more popular than soccer.
Berhalter may turn out to be the best person for the job, but US Soccer’s crisis communication has seriously undercut his ability to do it. By way of comparison, look at England’s Gareth Southgate. Both are former players whose national team performance included a serious lowlight and whose coaching career included only minor successes when they were tapped to lead a national team in crisis. Despite the UK media’s history of soccer coverage as a blood sport, however, Southgate was largely given the space to thrive due to the way the English Football Association rolled out his appointment. By reinforcing the perception of an insular and blinded organization, US Soccer may be hurting American game far more than the failure to qualify for one World Cup.