On Tuesday, March 24, U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone and new CEO/Secretary General Will Wilson spoke with media members via conference call one day after Wilson was unveiled as U.S. Soccer’s newest CEO. The two leaders addressed a range of topics about U.S. Soccer’s current and future business. A full transcript of the press conference that was held via conference call is available below.
CINDY PARLOW CONE: Thank you all for joining us today. The entire country, in fact most of the world, is dealing with the Coronavirus crisis. I trust all of you are staying healthy and safe.
This has been an interesting and challenging time for everyone. When Carlos resigned just a mere 10, 11 days ago, I understood immediately that I would have to step up and lead as the President of U.S. Soccer. Those of you that know me well know this is not a role I was seeking, but I believe sometimes we are asked to step forth to do unexpected things.
I wholeheartedly accept this responsibility to serve the Federation and will work tirelessly to lead the Board, the Members, our players and our staff through these challenging times.
As you all know, the search for a CEO has been a long one. We had a large, diverse pool, diverse both in gender and ethnicity. This exhaustive search led us to hiring Will Wilson as our new CEO and General Secretary, which begins a new chapter for the Federation.
Will brings a wealth of diverse experience and abilities. The combination of my deep background in soccer at all levels in this country, and Will's business and sports acumen, positions the Federation to serve all stakeholders in the U.S. Soccer family and provide strong leadership into the future.
Will understands there are real challenges he needs to handle from the start and has already been thinking about how to tackle those as soon as possible. We've been working closely together, but still keeping our social distance, since we are both here in North Carolina.
With that, I would like to introduce you all to Will Wilson. I will turn it over to him.
WILL WILSON: Thank you. Good afternoon, good morning everybody. I also want to echo the earlier sentiments about all the unprecedented things we're dealing with right now with COVID-19 globally and in our country. I certainly hope everyone is staying safe and healthy and coping as best you can. Obviously, these are difficult times.
For me, I'm really, really, really excited to come into the Federation and have this roll as CEO and General Secretary. It's truly an honor and privilege to be in this role.
I'm excited and energized about the opportunity ahead. I know we have many challenges, but I have nothing but my full work ethic and desire to work through these things with Cindy and everyone else at Soccer House, the entire soccer ecosystem to come to good conclusions and positive directions as we go forward.
I've admired the Federation for many years. To be honest with you, I go through a process every two years of highlighting things I'd like to work at and things I'd like to do. U.S. Soccer has been on that list for a long time. I had no idea it would be this role at this time, but I am very excited about taking this role and moving forward.
I think it's a great brand with a huge opportunity. I will tell you as a job, I was very interested once I realized that there was a search going on for it.
What do I bring to the Federation? I'll tell you that I have almost 30 years of experience, internationally and domestically, at league, team and agency level, both in emerging sports as well as mainstream sports.
I think I bring a broad, diverse business background to the equation as well as the understanding of different cultures, the ability to speak other languages, the understanding of how things get done and how you approach problems. I think I am a problem solver, something that I embrace, and embrace the challenges around it.
We have a number of issues to address as a Federation, not the least of which is the Women's National Team and the filing that took place the other week. There are other issues as well. Trust we are focused on them, are willing and able to look for solutions and move forward.
Q. Will, what from afar do you think the Federation has done well and what has it not done well over the last period of years?
WW: I'll tell you the opportunity to play for your country, to watch National Teams, Women's and Men's National Teams compete on the global scale is an awesome experience.
I think U.S. Soccer has done a great job of fielding teams, putting competitive teams out there. The Women's team is the best in the world. The men clearly didn't qualify for last World Cup, but have had a good run and have a great coach in place and have an opportunity to continue to grow, and field a team that can compete on the world stage.
The business has grown a lot. The programs around the Federation have grown a lot. They've put a lot of things in place that have helped the sport grow in this country.
The things that have not been done well, if you want to call it that, are the issues that have been addressed many times over the recent weeks and months, are those are things that have to be addressed.
I think communication and engaging folks, trying to find solutions. That's not to denigrate what happened in the past, more of a direction going forward is what we need to focus on.
Q. How big a priority is it for you at this point to reach a resolution with the U.S. Women's National Team players in their lawsuit before it goes to court?
CPC: I think that's one of our top priorities right now. I don't think a trial is good for either party or for soccer both in this country or internationally. Our Women's team is the best team in the world. I am hopeful we can find a resolution before this goes to trial.
WW: I would echo that. It's a priority. Finding a solution would be the best way to go forward.
Q. Will, you mentioned some of your previous experience, living abroad, speaking a different language. There's at least a large portion of the Latino community in the United States that feels the Federation hasn't been there for them, hasn't reached out or included them at times. What are you going to do specifically to engage that community and how your experience can help? Cindy, wondering how important that part of Will's resume was and how much of a focus reaching out to the huge Latino community in the U.S. is for you guys going forward?
WW: I will say for me, I think a huge priority in terms of growing the game, growing the interest, and making soccer the preeminent sport in this country, is really uniting the various soccer demographics across the country.
There's an old saying that 'demography is destiny'. There's no denying the census and population in this country. We're doing a disservice to the soccer ecosystem if we're not communicating with all the folks, all the nationalities, who live in this country who love soccer. Clearly the Mexican demographic, Hispanic demographic is a big part of that.
What you'll see from me over time is a very concerted effort to engage directly with all the demographics who love soccer in this country, try to find a way to unite these Bedouin tribes, if you like.
CPC: I think it was very important in our decision to choose Will Wilson as our CEO. As I said in my opening statement, I really like that he had diverse experiences, he's lived in foreign countries, and he has an understanding and appreciation of different cultures.
I would like to echo his statements, as well. This is something that U.S. Soccer is doing a little bit of but is not doing a good enough job of right now. So, bringing Will in with his understanding of different cultures, also speaking Spanish, was a huge plus in bringing him in.
Q. You said you were going to investigate the process by which some of the more incendiary legal findings were made. What is your role in the legal strategy that was formulated?
CPC: First of all we have hired an outside firm to do a review of our processes to see where that process broke down because I never saw the filing before it went public.
Q. Are there any settlement talks scheduled? Do you see a path forward in terms of reaching a settlement with the players?
CPC: Right now, there's not one that's on the schedule, but we are hopeful we can schedule one very soon. I think it's challenging right now with the backdrop of coronavirus. I'm a big believer in getting people in the same room and finding resolutions. In the meantime, we may have to settle with jumping on phone calls. I'm hopeful this will be the case in the coming weeks.
Q. Cindy, with the postponement of the Olympics announced today, obviously you couldn't have been surprised by that, but what is your reaction and how do you prepare moving forward?
CPC: I think it's a great decision. We don't want to put anyone's health at risk, the athletes or fans going over to Japan.
I was in communication with the players and coaches to see what their sentiment was. The decision that the IOC came out with this morning is right in line with the topics that the players and coaches were thinking.
Q. You get together and discuss the way forward? Is that what happens next? Is it too early to tell?
CPC: It is different on the men’s side and the women's side. The men still have to go through qualification. We need to get the new dates, what are the qualification dates for the men? There's a lot of questions still that we will try to find out in a short period of time.
I think it's challenging right now because we don't have a date as to when we can get back out on the field. I think all these decisions will come in time.
First and foremost, we want to make sure our athletes and staff remain healthy, not only from coronavirus but when they start back up that we have sufficient timelines to get fit so we're not risking injury, as well.
Q. A lot of people are a little bit concerned Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing have perhaps too much influence within U.S. Soccer. With this hiring, how would you address that concern? Were people recused from this decision?
CPC: I think it's a plus. Will, as he said before, he's had 30 years of experience in the sports industry, I believe four of those were at SUM and MLS. He has a good understanding of the processes.
Soccer is a very complex game and complex business. I think it would be very difficult for someone to come in from the outside not knowing that business to step in and hit the ground running. I think that's a plus on our side for Will.
On your question about recusal, I asked Don Garber to recuse himself when Will came into the mix as a CEO candidate out of an overabundance of caution.
WW: I echo what Cindy said. My experience at SUM will actually be a big assist to the process. As men and women who report on sport, understand it and love it so deeply, you know it's a complicated game, all the various tournaments, all the various competitions, the way leagues work. Soccer is the only sport in the world literally with infrastructure in every country. It's a complex landscape.
I think my time there will be a benefit quite frankly, like Cindy said, getting on the ground running, able to assess issues and figure out ways forward on things that are important for us.
It is just a slice of my experience. I do think my other experience also comes into bear in this particular situation. From that perspective, I only see it as a positive.
Q. Beyond the actual logistics of settlement, there's obviously also the work ahead of both regaining the trust of players and fans, the relationship between the Federation and the U.S. Women's National Team. Obviously, settlement has to come first, but what is the work ahead on that front to continue to grow the game?
CPC: You're absolutely right. Settling this dispute is only the first step. The next step is a long process. I think a lot of damage has been done and I think we are going to have to rebuild that trust and rebuild the relationship.
It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take a lot of effort and time and energy from the U.S. Soccer side to rebuild that trust not only with our U.S. Women's National Team players but with our fans and everyone engaged in the sport.
I think the comments and the language in the last filing I think not only hurt our relationship with our Women's National Team but hurt women and girls in general. As a former National Team player, they were personally hurtful to me. I think we have a lot of work in that area to do. But I'm willing to jump in and work tirelessly to help build that relationship and that trust.
WW: Obviously the wording, the comments in the filing were quite frankly shocking and very, very disappointing to me when I read them. From my perspective, I have the benefit of being the new guy on the block, if you will, as we go forward.
Absolutely my commitment will be to find solutions, to engage at every level for our players, our members, our fans to grow this game, continue to push this forward, be the preeminent sport in this country, which I believe we can be.
Q. Cindy, in early December Carlos said before the Board meeting in Chicago y'all did interviews with any number of candidates. Why did it take so long to hire someone, about three and a half months? Was Will one of the candidates interviewed in December? Was anybody else previously offered the job?
CPC: Thanks for the questions or several questions.
The process did take a long time. But from my perspective, I was willing to take as long as it took to get the right person in the job. Many of the candidates we interviewed early on we didn't feel like were the best fit. We had to basically restart the process. We did so. I think it's been challenging to get it started back up again.
But through that process I think we came to the best candidate for U.S. Soccer. Will has met with every board member except for Don Garber. It was a unanimous vote. Don recused himself in that vote, to bring Will onboard as our CEO and General Secretary.
Q. Will, while they were evaluating you, I assume you were evaluating U.S. Soccer, whether this is a place you wanted to work. After a traumatic few years, the lawsuits, the conflict of interest accusations, the legal filings, all that stuff, did you see an organization that needed some fundamental fixes? If so, what are they? Or is all of that kind of the cost of doing business and you weren't too concerned about it?
WW: I think there's definitely things that need to be addressed, there's no question, a lot of them very public.
For me, I view it as a huge opportunity. I believe that U.S. Soccer has in and of itself a great opportunity on the horizon with the 2026 World Cup, Olympics and other things that are coming. There's no doubt that there's this tremendous opportunity.
What I would like to try to address really is trying to create a culture, a work environment that makes U.S. Soccer an admired place to work, where everyone feels valued and wants to continue to move forward. Because everyone there loves soccer and takes a ton of pride in what they do and in the National Teams. We want to develop a very positive culture going forward.
Yes, there are issues. That's obvious. For me it was the fact we had to address those, find resolutions, attack the culture, create a place that people want to be and work and really support our members in growing the game.
Then we have a ton of I think long-term opportunities. For me it was a combination of short-term and long-term, if you will.
Q. Cindy, you mentioned the legal strategies and so on, your involvement. Would you mind clarifying who oversees the in-house legal team at U.S. Soccer? How does that chain of command work?
CPC: So, we have a special litigation committee that was formed under Carlos to oversee the filing. As I stated before, there was a fundamental error in our processes that the special litigation committee didn't see it and neither did the other board members.
Q. Would you mind sharing who is on the committee?
CPC: I don't mind. I don't know if they want me to share. Can I get back to you on that? I have no problem with sharing it.
Later in the call, CONE shared the information:
CPC: Before I move on, I got an answer to your question. The other people that are on the special litigation committee are comfortable with me sharing it. Other than myself it is Tim Turney and Patti Hart.
Q. Will, you've worked a lot on the business side of soccer, but you've also worked on the labor side of sports generally. How does that inform you coming into this, looking at the situation that the Women's Team is in with the lawsuit, the Men's Team not having had a CBA for a while?
WW: I think that is experience I have that will be very beneficial quite frankly. I've been on both sides of the table if you will, at the league level for the last number of years representing athletes. I understand that athletes view the world differently. I think I've learned how to meet them where they're at, so to speak, the things that are important to them.
Obviously American football is a different sport than soccer, but there's a lot of common threads if you will on the things that concern athletes generally as it relates to their careers, the things that are important in going forward.
Yes, I do think my experience there, working in the construct of a CBA, engaging with my prior clients on labor issues when they were focused in dealing with the negotiations as it relates to the NFL CBA are all things that are going to be very beneficial in this job as well.
Q. Cindy, how far along was this process when Carlos resigned? With the comments that were made in the legal filing when you took over as president, did you see this hiring of Will or whoever you would choose as the CEO as being kind of something we need to do sooner than later because of the current environment?
CPC: First and foremost, I think we needed to hire a CEO about six, seven months ago. Unfortunately the process took us longer to get to this point.
We had been in communications with Will for, I don't know the exact timeline, but a few weeks before the legal filing that you're talking about.
Q. Obviously there's been a lot of conversation, you have both spoken about the mistakes in the previous filings. Even as we speak the current ask from U.S. Soccer is a summary judgment in your favor. I'd like to hear from each of you whether you see that as advisable, as a positive outcome, or something that will get in the way potentially of that reconciliation with the players you both have spoken about?
CPC: I think there's two things here: there's the legal case and the lawsuit, then also rebuilding the trust and the relationship. They are intertwined, but they are also having to be dealt with separately as the lawyers are having to deal with the lawsuit.
Will and I are more going to have to deal with how do we rebuild that trust and rebuild that relationship with the Women's National Team and our fans, basically with every woman and girl that has read those comments.
Q. Seems a lack of oversight is what led to the filings being at odds with the message that U.S. Soccer wanted. Are you at all concerned the further separation of those two things will be problematic?
CPC: They're not completely separate. As I said, they're also intertwined. I think it's challenging right now, especially with the lawsuit going on, the class action status, limiting communication because of that.
I'm doing everything from my end. I think we're looking to try to find a resolution before this goes to trial as I don't think that's good for either party or for soccer in this country or internationally.
We have the best women's team in the world. I'm a former player for that team. I would love nothing more than to find a good resolution for both parties.
WW: Just to add, I don't want to claim the new card, but it's new. I'm being brought up to speed on the nuances of all the legal arguments, that whole side of the equation.
I can tell you that Cindy and I are very motivated to mend relationships and find resolutions.
Q. Cindy, do you have any indication yet what the financial impact on the Federation's revenue is going to be given the cancellation of a myriad of sporting events at this point?
CPC: We are working through that very diligently. We have people from the Board as well as staff members working on different scenarios.
Obviously our first priority is to ensure the safety of all of our staff and our players, so that was first and foremost. Now that we have a better understanding of what things are looking like in terms of the Olympics, that will help formulate what we need to do.
This is affecting every business regardless of what business you are in. U.S. Soccer is not immune to this. So, I expect U.S. Soccer will take a significant hit with the coronavirus as we are not able to hold events.
Q. Any indication from SUM or Nike they will be providing the Federation with less funding given the current agreements they have with the Federation?
WW: That's currently unclear. We're not sure yet.
Q. Mr. Wilson, what role will the NWSL have in the U.S. Soccer Federation under your leadership? For Miss Cone, both NWSL and MLS are Division I sanctioned leagues per U.S. Soccer. As a president do you see their standing equal within the Federation?
WW: Regarding the NWSL, it's a continued evolution. We think it's very important to have a professional league where women can compete and compete at the highest level in this country. That's something that is definitely of importance to us.
CPC: As far as the MLS and NWSL, they are different. MLS has been around a lot longer in some stable business perspective, is in a different place than the NWSL.
In terms of being of equal importance to U.S. Soccer, they are definitely of equal importance.
Q. Will, you mentioned at the beginning of the call your interest in this position once you learned there was a search for it. How did you learn there was a search for this position? Regarding your time at Wasserman, how much if any interaction did you have with the soccer group at Wasserman, Rich Motzkin or Dan Levy in North Carolina?
WW: I became aware of the opportunity really through networking. I reached out directly to the search firm who U.S. Soccer had employed, expressed my interest in putting my name in the hat. That's how that started. That would have been just prior to the holidays, somewhere in that timeframe.
Your second question, I was in the football group, the American football group. I know Rich Motzkin, I know Dan Levy as colleagues. My interactions in terms of working on soccer business was nonexistent.
Q. Both of you have been clear that the language in the recent filing was unacceptable. For the past year U.S. Soccer has vigorously fought the women players' lawsuits at every turn. Besides the language in the recent filing, do you feel the entire legal strategy has been misguided?
CPC: I come to this from the perspective of a former player. I know how important it is both for the Federation and the players to move beyond this and to keep working together on what unites us.
We only have one Federation and one senior Women's National Team. We have to work together to work towards our shared goals of winning and growing the game. Now that I'm in this position, I plan to see if I can continue to help that process move along. We remain hopeful that we can come to a positive resolution.
As far as the language in the filing, I think I've already covered how I personally felt about it. I know the board feels the same way as I do. We are working to find out where that breakdown in communication in our processes happened so that we can ensure this never happens again.
Obviously that filing made me very angry as well, as well as every female that read it.
Q. What I'm trying to ask is, to me the filing doesn't seem markedly different, the language is more incendiary, but the filing doesn't seem markedly different than the dozen filings that came before that. What did you think about those in the broader strategy?
CPC: Yeah, okay, sorry. I misunderstood your question.
In the previous filing, I think it's one thing to argue that men and women play in different tournaments, play against different teams. It's altogether a different statement to say that, therefore, the women carry less responsibility or have less ability.
I think where I personally was set off and didn't really appreciate the language in there, tweeted out my displeasure, disavowing the language 'therefore' that we play different teams, for some reason we have less ability or less responsibility.
Q. Cindy, given that you said you haven't been seeking this role, do you intend to run for President again in February? Do you see this now as a long-term role for yourself? Will, on the line of length of deals and roles, what is the length of your deal as CEO?
CPC: I'll start off. With so many things going on in the Federation and world right now, I am literally working day and night to make sure we have a smooth transition from Carlos to me as President and with the hiring of Will as our CEO. As you can imagine, I didn't plan to find myself in this position.
The decision to run for President will come in time. Right now I'm focused on onboarding Will as quickly as we can and getting him ready to hit the ground running.
WW: I would just say it's a multi-year, not dissimilar to what anyone in my position would have.
Q. I'm curious about what role or how you see the Men's National Team playing into the resolution of the Women's National Team lawsuit. Would you like to see both the men and the women negotiate Collective Bargaining Agreements together? Could you give us an update on the U.S. Open Cup. USL has reportedly said they were not going to participate this year. Do you have a date or deadline by which you'll need to cancel the tournament?
U.S. Soccer Chief Communications Officer NEIL BUETHE: We obviously postponed the tournament for the time being. We are having conversations with all the leagues and part of it is to see if we could figure out a way to have the tournament continue this year. But we haven't made any final decisions at this point.
CPC: As a Federation, we're definitely open to the Men's and Women's unions sitting down together and negotiating together with us. But as a Federation, we can't enforce them to do this. They have to be willing to do it.
Q. I would like to know your idea of promotion and regulation in professional soccer in the United States?
WW: Obviously, it's a topic of much debate. I wouldn't say I have a developed answer for you at this point in time. It's something to be considered over time. If it ever makes sense in this country, it would be addressed at that particular point in time.