The future of U.S. Soccer could end up in the hands of a Miami Beach High grad of Colombian-Portuguese-Indian heritage “and now a proud American,” who spent his teen years working in the produce department at Publix on Dade Boulevard to help his widowed mother of four pay rent on their one-bedroom apartment in Normandy Isle.
Carlos Cordeiro, 61, went on to earn a scholarship to Harvard, become an executive with Goldman Sachs, and is now one of eight candidates on the ballot to replace U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who is stepping down after serving three terms since 2006.
The election is Feb. 10 in Orlando at the meeting of the U.S. Soccer National Council, which consists of more than 100 organizations representing state and national youth and adult leagues, pro leagues, and many individuals such as board members and athletes.
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This is the first contested presidential race in two decades, and has gotten much more attention than others because of the failure of the men’s national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Also, because four players who have worn the U.S. national team jersey are on the ballot — Eric Wynalda, Kyle Martino, Hope Solo and Paul Caligiuri. The other candidates are attorneys Steve Gans and Michael Winograd, and Kathy Carter.
“U.S. Soccer has had a great run, but it is at a critical juncture and I believe with the right leadership we can think bigger and aim higher,” said Cordeiro, a U.S. Soccer vice president who has been on the board as an independent director since 2007.
“I arrived in this country at age 15, and I’ve been blessed with the American Dream. Beach High was the perfect foundation for everything I’ve achieved since — a great education at a public high school, lifelong friends and roots in this community even though I’ve been able to work and live abroad all over the world. My getting involved in soccer is all about giving back and wanting to make sure our young people today can live their dreams, too.”
He remembers arriving in Miami Beach five years after the untimely death of his father, Pedrito Souza Cordeiro, who was killed in a car accident when Carlos was 10. His parents had met in Boston, while his father was a student at Tufts University and his mother was on a fellowship. They married, had four children, and lived in Bombay and Goa, a coastal state of India that was a Portuguese colony until 1961.
His mother, Graciela, became a widow at 39 and moved to Miami with the kids and her parents. They all lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. All four children — Carlos, Peter, Patricia and Eduardo — attended Beach High and got scholarships to Harvard. Carlos played soccer and ran cross country for the high school, and graduated in 1974. Graciela, now in her late 80s, still lives in Miami and is a longtime docent at Vizcaya. Carlos also has a home in Miami Beach.
“I have vivid memories of our arrival in Miami in 1971,” Cordeiro told the Miami Herald during a recent interview on the sideline of a Miami-Dade girls high school soccer game. “I knew nothing about American football, and our first Christmas in Miami, we went to mass and everyone was talking about the Dolphins’ double-overtime win over the Chiefs, the longest game in history. That was my first exposure to the NFL.”
Cordeiro’s immigrant experience is a big reason his platform includes a plan to significantly increase the U.S. Soccer budget to strengthen and expand grassroots programs, making soccer more affordable for disadvantaged youth by lowering coach costs and subsidizing scholarships.
“My vision is really about reinvigorating our grass roots, which I think over the last 10 to 15 years has suffered as a huge amount of resources have gone into our elite players and national teams,” he said. “We have three or four times as many kids playing soccer outside the umbrella of U.S. Soccer than inside. So, if the numbers are 3 or 3.5 million kids registered to us, the reality is there are so many more kids not registered, kids from underserved communities, more diverse communities.
“How do we bring them in? Part of it is making soccer more affordable. That is absolutely essential to making our sport more inclusive. If we capture even 10 or 15 percent of those kids, it will help. We will never max our potential in the sport if we don’t bring everyone in. It’s like saying we’re going to create the best baseball team in the world but only go after 25 percent of the kids who want to play.”
Cordeiro also says it is vital to change the organization’s power structure to get more people involved in the day-to-day operations and major decisions. He proposes two separate men’s and women’s general managers to oversee player and coach development, and the hiring and firing of national coaches.
“What’s happened is in the last few years, the president [Gulati] has ended up doing everything,” Cordeiro said. “He’s negotiating business contracts, talking to FIFA about the World Cup and he’s appointing and firing coaches. This is more than any one person can do.
“In my view, given the complexity of the businesses involved, you have to delegate and collaborate, get more people involved. The board has to be engaged by giving them responsibilities by putting them on committees. We’ve got to move away from one person doing everything.”
Although Cordeiro and Gulati worked closely together at U.S. Soccer for many years, and Cordeiro was viewed as Gulati’s right-hand man, he says he has a different management style and ideas of his own. Donna Shalala, a member of the U.S. Soccer board for 11 years, agreed.
“I like Sunil, but Carlos will be a completely different leader,” Shalala said. “He will do less micro-managing. He will let experts make decisions. He will strengthen the organization and he is very committed to minority kids and expanding our talent pool. He was a very successful investment banker, so he knows the business side. He’s also warm, very thoughtful, has great interpersonal skills, builds consensus and is extremely well-liked by international soccer leaders.”
The fact that he’s a Hispanic immigrant is a plus, she said.
“He didn’t grow up rich, he earned everything he got,” Shalala said. “He’s the true Miami story, the true American story, he really is.”