A week ago, the U.S. men’s national soccer team suffered a surprising loss to Trinidad and Tobago, a stunning defeat that besides humbling one of North America’s dominant soccer powers, resulted in this country failing to qualify for its first World Cup since 1986.
The recriminations came quickly.
Bruce Arena, head of the men’s team, submitted his resignation, as analysts and pundits tried to piece together how a squad with a 93 percent chance of making the World Cup in Russia next summer fell short. The U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body for the sport in the U.S., also came under fire, as the organization’s president, Sunil Gulati, resisted calls to resign.
Enter Steven Gans, a partner at Prince Lobel Tye, a 79-lawyer firm based in Boston. In September, Gans confirmed his intention to challenge Gulati for leadership of the USSF in an election next February. Gulati, who has led the organization since 2006, has run unopposed in his three previous campaigns.
In addition to building out a lucrative sports and employment law practice at Prince Lobel, Gans is a former soccer player himself who has spent years working in and around professional soccer organizations, experience that he said makes him the right choice to fix the issues plaguing American soccer.
“I live everything from the youth game to adult and [professional soccer],” said Gans. “I have a good pulse on what’s going right and what’s going wrong and clearly the sense [is] things [aren’t] going in the right direction and I think I can do a better job.”
Gans’ involvement with the sport, known as football in most parts of the world, began at a very early age.
“My dad came from Germany and escaped the Holocaust but he brought the love and passion for soccer and passed it onto me,” Gans said. “So it became a passion of mine, playing it and then also trying to [make] the sport, which was kind of an outcast sport professionally in this country, successful.”
Gans spent his teenage years playing soccer in and around Boston and was ultimately recruited to play at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. While there, he developed a relationship with the New England Tea Men, a Boston-based pro team in the old North American Soccer League, which prompted his transfer to Brandeis University in 1979. After graduation, he joined the front office of the Baltimore Blast, a team in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
After two years playing for and working with the Blast, Gans headed off to law school, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. Shortly thereafter, he took a position as an associate at Am Law 200 firm Goulston & Storrs, where he received a rather fortuitous assignment at the end of his first year to assist Boston in its bid to become one of the host cities for the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. (Several matches were hosted outside Boston in Foxborough, Massachusetts.)
Gans had not expected his soccer background to come in handy in the legal world, but after that initial assignment, his work related to the sport continued.
“It’s been a continuous involvement one way or the other, whether it be as a lawyer or as a consultant on the business side [in] everything from youth soccer to pro soccer in America, all the way to the English Premier League,” Gans said.
In 1993, Gans joined Broude & Hochberg, eventually becoming of counsel at the Boston-based firm, where in 2006 he founded Professional Soccer Advisors Inc. Gans is a principal at the consulting firm, which advises North American and English professional and youth soccer clubs on commercial growth opportunities. (PSA and Gans helped broker a relationship between EPL club Fulham F.C. and the Fenway Sports Group that led the latter to buy Liverpool F.C., the eighth most valuable soccer team in the world, in 2010.)
If elected president of the USSF, Gans said he plans on making a series of changes, the first of them being to reform the organization’s youth development system, which he described as pay-to-play.
“Deserving players who are shut out of the system because they can’t afford it, that’s an issue of ethnic diversity and socioeconomic diversity and it needs to be addressed right away,” said Gans, noting that if elected he plans to use a $150 million surplus in the USSF’s coffers to help rectify the gap in resources.
“It’s inextricably interlinked,” added Gans. “You’re not going to produce great national and [Olympic] team players if you don’t have a successful and happy youth system.”
Gans demurred when asked about an antitrust suit filed in late September against the USSF by a revived version of the NASL, which has accused the Chicago-based nonprofit of pursuing policies that favor Major League Soccer, the top professional league in North America. Gans declined to comment about the case, claiming that he is not familiar with the underlying details in the dispute. (The USSF, advised by Latham & Watkins, filed papers Monday opposing a preliminary junction sought by the NASL, which is represented by Winston & Strawn.)
Seeking to focus on creating a better youth development system, Gans said such a plan will produce better players that will lead to better results on the men’s national team. Gans also said that if elected to head the USSF, he will work to provide the U.S. women’s national team, which last year filed a wage discrimination complaint against the USSF, with more equal working conditions to that of their male colleagues.
“Every constituency matters and, in my opinion, every constituency matters equally,” Gans said.