Kyle Martino has his dream job. But he nevertheless contemplated leaving it.
Martino was a six-year Major League Soccer player and occasional U.S. national teamer before injuries cut his career short. Now, he's a respected English Premier League analyst with NBC Sports. Together with Rebecca Lowe, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, he forms a much-laureled broadcast team that has helped push the EPL deeper into the American mainstream.
But something is nagging at the 36-year-old Martino.
He is a product and proponent of the American game. And he can't abide its recent direction, or, as he sees it, the lack thereof. Like many, he felt deeply disillusioned by the shocking failure of the United States men's national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer. But unlike most, he has the resume, connections and fame to attempt to do something about it.
Martino tells Bleacher Report that he seriously considered a run for the U.S. Soccer presidency, but he ultimately decided against it.
Sunil Gulati has held that job for almost a dozen years, winning three terms without ever facing a challenger. He's up for re-election in February. Following the elimination and resignation of head coach Bruce Arena, the clamor for Gulati to leave his post as well—or at least to not seek another term—has grown loud. It's unclear whether the 58-year-old will run for a fourth four-year term, although it's widely expected that he will.
Several men have already announced their intention to oppose him, but none seem to be especially viable candidates. Martino, on the other hand, actually could have made such a race competitive. He's bright, well-spoken, recognizable and runs over with ideas and enthusiasm.
But Gulati isn't the biggest hurdle standing in Martino's way, in spite of the enormous power the Indian-born economics lecturer at Columbia University wields within both American soccer and its voting constituency (made up of youth, amateur and professional soccer representatives) and FIFA, where he has become a king-maker of sorts in recent years. The far bigger issue is the salary paid to the president of soccer's national governing body: zero.
Martino would have to leave NBC to kick off a presidential campaign because one of the key points of his would-be platform is to root out the conflicts of interest within the federation, which mingles its business with Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, the league's commercial arm.
"The last thing I'm going to do when I'm being critical of conflict of interest is start the job with a conflict of interest," Martino said.
But the former midfielder has a wife and two young children and has recently relocated from Los Angeles to Connecticut for his current job. He can't afford not to bring home a paycheck. And while he might convince the federation's board to make the presidency a paid position if he were to win—which would still be a long shot—the uncertainty is too great for him.
"It's something I've really been torturing myself over for a while now. I want what's best for U.S. Soccer. But I'm not in a position where I can be the person right now to move it forward," Martino said. "The problem is the risk and the sacrifice you have to make to get into that role. Not to mention to challenge someone who has been unchallenged and who carries a lot of clout and power. It's a daunting and intimidating task."
"I already have my dream job, and my job takes care of my family," Martino added. "I can't justify leaving that to take on such a big challenge. I've got a very special situation going on at NBC Sports. So to leave that is a very tough decision. But I can't even really get into that decision because I can't afford to run for U.S. Soccer president."
This is the inherent advantage Gulati has had for more than a decade. The job of U.S. Soccer president is hands-on and requires a great deal of time and travel—especially because Gulati also oversees the joint-bid with Mexico and Canada to host the 2026 World Cup.
But few have a day job that's as permissive as Gulati's gig with Columbia, where he can stagger his workload to fit his soccer work. In time, that allowed him to burrow into the leadership core of FIFA as well. Gulati is now a member of the FIFA Council where, like all members, he receives a $300,000 annual stipend in addition to various allowances for travel and committee work.
So if Martino was unable to run, why is he speaking out about it at all?
"This is not a PR move," Martino said. "This is not about bringing attention to myself. This is about bringing attention to what I consider to be a major problem. Because there are capable candidates that are not going to come forth [because of the lack of a salary]. This is too important to have someone doing it part-time. And giving someone a salary means accountability."
"The fact that Sunil has gone unchallenged in his entire tenure speaks to several major problems," Martino added. "One of them being that on a simple level, the fact that it's a volunteer position keeps credible and viable candidates from stepping up to challenge his authority and move things forward."
Most of all, Martino is frustrated. Frustrated that progress has ground to a halt, and that the American men will be absent from a World Cup for the first time since 1986. And frustrated that Gulati resorted to unlucky bounces to explain away systemic failures in the fateful 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago.
"I'm very disappointed in Sunil that he's going to those excuses," said Martino. "This is not about a goal that didn't cross the line. This is about the lowest moment in U.S. Soccer history that should bring about the change that everyone knows isn't being addressed. It's not as if we can't point to some of these structural issues and concerns about development in this country and the way things are set up. Those concerns are known, but I don't really see any suggestions for solutions. In the aftermath of, in my lifetime, the worst moment for U.S. Soccer, I saw excuses, I saw faux responsibility."
Like other insiders, Martino called for Gulati's resignation after the loss. "The fact that he's not stepping down right now is bad in so many different ways, on so many different levels, and it's just hard to understand. He's a very, very smart man; how he doesn't see that," said Martino. "We have to be grateful for Sunil Gulati and others negotiating some rocky waters and helping keep things stable and making tough decisions. But I think they're kidding themselves if we're not admitting that this failure is a sign that we're moving in a wrong direction and it's time for a new vision."
Martino has a plan for how he'd do things himself. First, he'd undertake an external review to eliminate those aforementioned conflicts of interests. Then, he'd set about making the game more affordable and inclusive at the youth level, where enormous participation fees make the sport prohibitively expensive for large swaths of the population. Finally, he'd set about finding a mechanism for introducing promotion and relegation between the now-closed professional leagues.
"I also want to see our women's national team treated like the World Cup winners they are," Martino added. "I want more time and resources to go towards them and building the next generation of women's stars."
But for the ambition and appeal of Martino's ideas, he likely won't be the one to implement them. Because he won't run. He can't. It's the wrong time in his life. The way the job is structured will keep the talent pool of applicants small and shallow. And from the sound of things, it will stop Martino from running.
"The irony of why I'm not running is that kids are being priced out and can't afford to get into the game," Martino said. "I want to fix that, but the reason I can't run for the U.S. presidency is that I can't afford to do so."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a sports communication lecturer at Marist College and a freelance sports writer. Follow him on Twitter: @LeanderAlphabet.