"It's Up to Us" - Chris Kessell's Unlikely Bid for USSF Vice-President

“We need to make sure this Federation is for everyone, not just the people at the top”

Chris Kessell announced his intention to run for Vice President of the United States Soccer Federation on November 30th. The Vice Presidential election had run a little under the radar compared to the high profile election for the Federation’s President but it is swiftly approaching. The deadline for interested candidates to declare interest and provide the 3 required Letters of Nomination to the Federation is December 18th. The field has been decidedly thin so Kessell’s announcement has started the build-up to the election in earnest.

While the announcement of Kessell’s candidacy was met with ringing endorsements from those who know him in West Virginia and indeed those contacts he has made through a long-standing impact on the sector of social media affectionately known as “Soccer Twitter,” it’s understandable that many associated with the game on a National level might ask, “Who?”

“I will be viewed by some people as, ‘This is just some guy from West Virginia who is trying to rock the boat’”

This will likely be the view of some of USSF’s board but Chris is anything but “just some guy.” Chris may be one of the foremost examples of leadership at the grassroots level in the country. He is the President of West Side Soccer Club, a club that provides playing and coaching opportunities to kids and adults in Charleston. As part of that he has run a coaching education and mentorship program at the club. This issue is one of the first on Chris’ platform in this election.

“Right now, we have a coaching licensure program masquerading as coaching education,” Chris wrote in his platform announcement. We are often guilty of conflating the two in coaching discussions in the US. Those coaches with the higher licenses are automatically seen as having received coaching education but the two are actually separate. He is calling for improved coaching education for those volunteer coaches that are so important at the grassroots level.

People from communities like the one I’m from oftentimes make amazing leaders because they bring a different perspective to organizations.
— Chris Kessell

The licenses are an issue as well because of their lack of accessibility. “I tried to get my ‘C’ license but I’m locked out because of geography. Even trying to work with the Federation to get a ‘C’ license course out here in West Virginia proved to be unfruitful,” Chris added. This point will certainly resonate with many grassroots level coaches, and to emphasize this point, this past year, National “C” license courses took place in just 24 states, missing huge geographical areas in the process.

Chris’ soccer leadership did not stop at the club or coaching education level, however. He is also the President of the Kanawha Valley Soccer League. During his time as President, he’s focused on expanding programs for the existing youth structure, added an adult league to the system, and increased the amount of girls’ youth teams to combat a gap that had led to many girls leaving the sport prematurely due to lack of opportunities.

He also founded Chemical Valley AC, an adult team that helped raise money to build a futsal court in Charleston where they host weekly meet-ups to provide kids and adults of all ages and skill levels another opportunity to play that they would not have otherwise. Then, having accomplished all that, he took the next step and now sits on the Board of the West Virginia Soccer Association, the state’s main governing body. This rise has come from a desire to “see things done for the good of the sport and those involved with it rather than the benefit of a few select people,” according to Kessell. This desire also lead to the second main point of his platform: Total Soccer Transparency.

I don’t think there’s a person in leadership at US Soccer right now that came up working with inner-city kids.
— Chris Kessell

Chris outlined twelve points in his quest for transparency in US Soccer, many of which seem extreme for an organization as opaque as our nation’s Federation. Among the points are posting financial records, contracts, executive’s tax documents, and lobbying activities online so the public can have access to them. Chris disagrees that it’s as radical as some might suggest. “That’s just good governance. I’ve worked in non-profits for about 15 years and this is not groundbreaking stuff. This is standard operating procedure. I don’t look at this as massive reform, I look at this as being good stewards of the game and being a great non-profit organization.”

The call for transparency has rang out from many people involved in soccer in the US, especially given the relationship between USSF, MLS, and SUM, which is still the subject of a rather high-profile lawsuit. This call grew even louder on December 2nd as Gregg Berhalter was named the manager for the Men’s National Team. Several reports emerged that in the end, Earnie Stewart, who had been hired as the Men’s National Team General Manager with the express role of hiring the next manager, had only formally interviewed two candidates for the role. Earnie had been hired by Jay Berhalter, Gregg’s brother who serves as USSF’s COO. This process, which has lacked any modicum of transparency, speaks right to Chris’ point. “The conversation around his hire has nothing to do with the game. All of the talk is about his brother. Until we have faith that everything is on the up-and-up, every decision that is made is going to be second guessed.”

As part of rebuilding people’s faith in the Federation and providing further teeth to cleaning up the game in the US, Chris also wants to establish an Anti-Corruption Task Force, which would provide independent checks to USSF as well as investigative power to help root out corruption at the national levels of the game. However, included in this would be a hotline, that anyone with an issue at any level could report suspicions of corruption. “If the Federation can become a watchdog and help root that stuff out across the board, it’s good for the game. What happens if something is going on at a State Association right now? Who are you going to call? The police? There has to be a place for people to call to report.”

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His final point is the one that is maybe most ambitious given what has been said about USSF over the years. He wants to develop a strategic plan that is publicized. “I have never been a part of an organization that didn’t have one. I feel if you have one, you have measurables that you can be critiqued on.” The idea of metrics and measures of effectiveness outside of financial gain and National Team wins driving stakeholders and the press to be more critical of the Federation does seem to be counter to much of how USSF currently does business.

Chris’ pedigree at the local level is sterling, and he has done a ton for the game in West Virginia, but how would he handle the move from the sideline to the boardrooms full of former Wall Street Executives? “People from communities like the one I’m from oftentimes make amazing leaders because they bring a different perspective to organizations. They see things through a lens that is a little bit different than the status quo.”

His difference in perspective to the usual suspects at USSF is also driven by his background. “I don’t think there’s a person in leadership at US Soccer right now that came up working with inner-city kids. That’s what I did as a professional for 12 years.” This perspective and experience could bring a person to USSF who would represent groups of people that the Federation has at least said they want to provide more opportunities to. Chris added, “We hear all the time that we need more minority participation, more inner city kids, more rural kids. I was a rural kid. I worked with inner city kids. I think I bring something to the table here that a lot of people involved in the governance of the game in this country don’t have.”

Chris, being the outsider reform candidate will certainly face an uphill battle to win the Vice Presidency at US Soccer, but regardless of whether he wins, he will continue to fight for the people that the Federation has marginalized. “I just want us to not forget that there’s more to the game...there’s more to the Federation than the National Teams and Professional Leagues. There’s millions of kids who play the sport because they love it every weekend, and there are millions of adults who play every weekend because they love it and they need the Federation’s support too.” Chris may be a longshot to win, but his impact on the local game has been undeniable, and his refreshing approach to the game makes him the...Protagonist in this election.

- Phil Baki

Lola VaughnComment