“When a club in England is failing and they’re in jeopardy of going into administration and disappearing, fans, former players, business people — they all get together with their time, experiences and resources with the sole purpose of saving a club they love. We need to do that with U.S. Soccer.
“We need a group, to step up and say, ‘Enough is enough, we’re here to save this thing.’ I can mobilize that group.”
After having worked the weekend in his usual studio role, as the lone American on NBC’s team of Premier League broadcasters, Martino, 36, is leaving the network immediately to begin traveling the country to build out his consortium and learn to “speak every language of the U.S. soccer community” in advance of the federation’s election on Feb. 10. Candidates have until Dec. 12 to announce their intention to run and submit the required nominations.
Martino is the third prominent ex-U.S. player to announce his intention to run for the presidency, joining his fellow broadcaster Eric Wynalda and the two-time World Cup veteran Paul Caligiuri, who scored the 1989 goal that ended a 40-year absence for the United States from soccer’s biggest event and started a run of seven straight World Cup appearances.
But Martino’s profile could make him the biggest threat to Gulati, who has held the position since 2006. Gulati coasted to victory unopposed in the last three elections, but the entry into the race last week of his longtime aide, the U.S. Soccer executive vice president Carlos Cordeiro, led many to wonder whether that was a signal that Gulati, 58, would opt not to run.
Gulati, who holds a seat on the governing council of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, and serves as chairman of the United States’ joint bid for the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, has been cagey about whether he will enter the race. But his connections, built over three decades in the federation, would make him a formidable opponent should he decide to run.
The election for president of U.S. Soccer is not so much a popularity contest as it is a coalition-building proposition. U.S. Soccer’s president is elected in a vote of representatives of its various councils: 25 percent shares for the youth, adult and pro councils; 20 percent to an athletes council; and the rest to a small group that includes board members, life members and even a fan representative.
Even as he began his campaign to supplant him, Martino stressed that he wants to work “in lock step” with Gulati in the future, despite the fact that he was one of the loudest voices calling for Gulati’s resignation after a 2-1 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10 eliminated the Americans from next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
“Whoever is president has to genuinely want to work with Sunil, because that’s the only way we can bring U.S. Soccer forward,” Martino said. “Sunil has gotten us a seat at the head table. But whether Sunil runs again or not, my motivation will always be to protect U.S. Soccer from a president not capable of fixing our soccer problems. Who we need right now is secondary to what we need, which is a soccer vision.
“Carlos entering the race raises the quality of the candidates. But he’s admitted he’s not a soccer guy, and he’s saying he’s going to hire the soccer guy. I’m saying the complete opposite. I am the soccer guy. And hiring the business guy is a lot easier when that part of the company is working so well.
“The first thing people are going to say when they see that I’ve come forward is, ‘What does he know about running a $100 million company?’ But the business side of U.S. soccer is thriving. We don’t need an M.B.A. right now. We need a soccer Ph.D. And that’s what I have.”
Martino said he would run on a three-pronged blueprint that he is calling “The Progress Plan,” which he spells out on his campaign website, everyonesgameusa.com, that was to go live Monday. Martino said he intends to keep building upon the plan, in part through his listening tour but also via a national soccer summit he is hoping to convene soon in New York.
The three pillars of Martino’s plan are:
■ Transparency. Chief among his goals are commissioning an outside audit to study “the ethics of how U.S. Soccer is being run” and to make the position of federation president a full-time, paid post. Martino said one of his initial motivations in publicly declaring that he would not run recently was to highlight the fact that the position is currently unpaid, because that “creates a barrier for entry to qualified candidates.”
■ Equality. A prime area of concern for Martino, he said, is youth players who are being priced out of the game by the financial barriers they encounter, but also players at all levels who feel “unsafe” in locker rooms and what he calls “the mistreatment of our female athletes.”
“Our women are World Cup winners,” Martino said. “Why are they playing on artificial surfaces? Why are they sleeping in beds with bed bugs? Why aren’t they paid the same as the men? And if you look at the U.S. soccer structure, why don’t women have positions of influence? There are no good answers to these questions.”
■ Progress. Martino wants to enact new standards to measure it and to create centers throughout the country to foster it by teaching a curriculum “aggregated from some of the business soccer academies around the world” — for free — to the top youth players in the sport after casting “a wider net” find more prospects that the current system is missing. He also wants to assemble an advisory board of former players, top coaches and representatives from a variety of levels to make recommendations to the president on major decisions, such as hiring the head coach or technical director for the men’s national team.
Martino said he had the backing of several well-known men and women in American soccer but was not yet prepared to reveal names because he wants “to make sure these people are not marginalized or punished for aligning themselves with a candidate.”
But to illustrate the sort of reach he has with influencers in the game, Martino, a former rookie of the year in Major League Soccer, provided The New York Times with letters of recommendation he has received from David Beckham and Thierry Henry, arguably the two most famous imports in M.L.S. history.
“I have support from high-profile U.S. players, but I’ve asked them not to back me publicly to protect them from the potential political retribution Thierry and David are immune to,” Martino said.
Other candidates who have publicly declared their intention to run include the Boston lawyer Steve Gans; the soccer administrator Paul Lapointe; and the New York lawyer Michael Winograd, who played professionally in Israel.
Martino, whose unpaid hiatus began Monday, said NBC would invite him to return to his broadcasting role in the event he does not win the February election. He said he would start a fund-raising drive to finance his campaign, and that he will promptly sell his minority share in the Spanish third division club Real Mallorca to its majority owner Robert Sarver, who also owns the Phoenix Suns.
“I just got to the point where I felt I had to serve — I had to take the leap,” Martino said. “I had a conversation with my wife in our kitchen, which went into the wee hours of the morning, and I told her I won’t be able to forgive myself if I don’t stand up for U.S. Soccer right now.
“I didn’t dream of doing this job, but I know I have to do it. And if Feb. 10 comes and goes and I’m not the president of U.S. Soccer, I can promise that whoever is, I will make sure that, if they beat me, they have soccer’s best interests at heart. And that they know the soccer community can mobilize and we’re watching them.”