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U.S. Soccer’s $100 million surplus raises the question: What will they do with it?

Written by Will Parchman

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The news itself was almost casual, as if a friend was mulling over what to do with the cash he allows himself to spend once a week at lunch on the food truck row outside the office building. U.S. Soccer, suddenly flush with money after the Copa America Centenario cash grab last summer, might spend a hefty chunk of its surplus on a dedicated national training center.

From Grant Wahl’s report.

“Talks have begun about building a new dedicated national training center that would be like the one France has at Clairefontaine and Italy has at Coverciano, though it is too early in the discussion to identify a location.”

Let’s back this up a bit. How much of a surplus are we talking here? Clairefontaine in particular was built in 1988 at not insignificant cost, and no doubt U.S. Soccer would spare as few expenses as possible to create a training environment worthy of its ambitions. So let’s scan back up the article.

“U.S. Soccer made a $46 million net profit off the Copa America Centenario last year…”

What

“…and now has a surplus in excess of $100 million.”

Excuse me

Setting aside the initial shockwaves coursing through your veins at breakneck speed, that is an extraordinary amount of money. There was much gnashing of teeth over the exorbitant cost of some tickets for last summer’s Copa America in the U.S. A cheap seat to Peru-Haiti? $75. But it was all targeted, all taken with the long view of economic viability into account while fans wrung their hands over the cost to see Messi. Sunil Gulati defended his decision last summer, unsurprisingly, with a rooted economic take practically ripped from the pages of his Columbia syllabus.

“It’s not cheap,” Gulati told SI’s Brian Straus last year. “We have an economic model we think will work. There was never the expectation to sell out every game … Some markets have done very well where there are popular teams or ethnic fan bases or whatever it might be, and other games are slower in sales, which is true for every tournament whether it’s the World Cup, Euro or the Gold Cup. At the World Cup, almost everything eventually sells because it’s the World Cup.”

We have an economic model we think will work. Yes. Indeed. In the span of 22 days, U.S. Soccer nearly doubled its spending budget. They did so at the expense of some fan goodwill and with cold, calculating fiscal policy in mind, but the financial returns are what they are.

U.S. Soccer clearly doesn’t much care that these figures are now loose in the public purview, because they are, and that speaks for itself. But whether the federation realizes it or chooses to bull ahead ignorant of the reality, the surplus itself is speaking to each corner of the soccer machinery in this country in stridently different ways. And it increases the pressure significantly on how U.S. Soccer spends the money it now so lavishly harbors. Just think of the myriad competing interests vying for a cut of the surplus. Imagine a den of wolves who’ve been living off the meager pickings of the forest for weeks as its pack of hunters brings back the fruit of a bountiful chase. Am I going to get a cut of this? you can almost hear them asking.

As for those interests? You can almost see the various advocates lining up outside the door, like candidates on Shark Tank, to make their impassioned pleas.

Up first is the delegation from the scouting department

Pitch: Invest in the overall scouting budget and personnel

The U.S. is 27 times the size of Germany, the most recent World Cup winner, and yet has nine full-time scouts, some of whom don’t even spend the lion’s share of their time scouting. Juan Carlos Michia, for example, was one of the federation’s top scouts for years but was put on advanced first team opposition scouting under Jurgen Klinsmann. He still followed scouting leads, but for the most part his hands were tied.

Other federations, like Germany’s DFB, have invested millions in their own infrastructures in order to support the local league and drill down into regional scouting and local talent identification. Toni Kroos, for instance, was unearthed in a small hamlet called Griefswald closer to Poland than any major German metropolitan center. The difference in Germany is that the clubs themselves do most of the scouting. When I visited Bayer Leverkusen last fall, they told me they use a staggering 33 scouts for a 70 kilometer bubble.

Here’s where the U.S.’s unique geographical reality comes into play. MLS clubs don’t have those resources. So either we cling to these romantic notions that a decentralized U.S. Soccer is best for all while players continue to go un-scouted outside well-worn paths, or we throw our shoulder into U.S. Soccer’s budgeting surplus and live inside the bounds of reality.

U.S. Soccer has a meager nine full-time scouts and a network of more than 100 part-timers. Use a portion of this money to fund the salaries of more scouts to open up new areas to the federation’s sweeping lens.

Next we have representatives from the USWNT

Pitch: Give us equal pay

The 2017 CBA was notable because it represented a muscular pull on the tug-of-war rope from the USWNT. On the heels of a World Cup title, the women’s side pried out of U.S. Soccer’s grasp increased national team pay, bonuses, lifestyle benefits, and more. But it did not equalize the pay gap, a point of contention that will continue to rise in fervor with each passing year.

So you can imagine the USWNT response to such a dramatic surplus number. After all, before the most recent CBA, USWNT players on average earned about half as much as their USMNT counterparts despite bringing in more revenue than the senior team in 2015 and ultimately winning the World Cup.

Based on our findings — using financial statements released by the soccer federation for fiscal year 2015, along with the USWNT’s collective bargaining agreement and memo of understanding released in court after the federation sued the players union over an earlier negotiating dispute — top men’s players earned almost twice as much as top women’s players from the federation during their respective World Cup years, despite the women’s victory in 2015 and the men’s early knockout elimination in 2014.

Whether you agree with the USWNT’s push for equal pay or not – the numbers certainly support a more equitable money share – the argument is sound, logical and likely given the money available. The second that $100 million-plus number hit the public, you could see the USWNT rise as one with furrowed brows.

Finally, the group from the Development Academy strides to the dais

Pitch: Up the investment in the USSDA for the benefit of both men’s and women’s development

By now, the segment of the country even moderately interested in American soccer has either heard of or had some passing experience with the U.S. Soccer-run Development Academy. It’s now a decade old, and an increasing number of MLS stars are issuing forth from its ranks. It now includes a U12 division, meaning an MLS prospect can matriculate up the ranks at a single pro club from the time he’s 10 to the time he’s 18 and walk a congruent path the entire time.

What those same people might not know is that U.S. Soccer is preparing to shoulder the burden of a Girls Development Academy for the first time this fall. It enters a crowded market, promising upped training standards and a more robust development model aped from its own decade-old boys league. This, it should go without saying, is not without its expenses.

Development Academy officials on the boys side have no doubt felt the budget squeeze already. U.S. Soccer has put a not insignificant amount of financial gravitas into its DA project, but it’s largely beholden on its MLS sides to fill up the bucket with investment. As is, MLS clubs tend to spend in the $1-3 million range per year, which isn’t insignificant. But U.S. Soccer could use the increased budget to beef up its showcase events, replicate and even improve upon things like the Nike International Friendlies, subsidize the cost of the academy for more non-MLS DA players and maybe even expand its ranks from its typical number of around 80 teams to something north of 100 to better regionalize its ranks. With the caveat that it wouldn’t want to water down the competition, expansion shouldn’t be off U.S. Soccer’s table.

And then there’s the cost of getting the Girls DA off the ground. U.S. Soccer will be able to borrow from its well of experience on the boys side, but doing things well costs money. Especially in the first year.

The revelation that U.S. Soccer was sitting on a hunt this bountiful will bring the wolves from their caves. U.S. Soccer is hardly holding back investment, and the federation can take some measure of pride in what it’s been able to accomplish since the days it was basically an insolvent shell of a company in the 1990’s. But there is more to be done, and there is apparently now a war chest with which to do it.

What U.S. Soccer ultimately chooses to do with that war chest is now of the utmost public interest. And everyone’s watching.

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