Tag Archives: US Soccer

The World Cup Comes Here. Thanks, Brian Reich!

The World Cup began yesterday in Russia. Americans are watching wistfully. For the first time since 1986, we failed to qualify for the biggest sports event on the planet. (Let’s go, Iceland!).

But we’ll be there in 2026.

On Wednesday, FIFA announced that — after 2022 in Qatar — the World Cup will be hosted jointly by the US, Canada and Mexico.

We beat back a bid by Morocco — and ran up the score, 134 votes to 65 — thanks in part to a Westport native.

Brian Reich

Brian Reich grew up here, playing goalkeeper on local travel teams and for Greens Farms Academy.

A huge fan, he sat several rows away from Pele at the opening match of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. He and his wife Karen Dahl — a former standout player at Danbury High School — took their 2 soccer-playing kids to the Women’s World Cup final in Vancouver in 2015.

Brian blogged every day about the 2014 World Cup. He loves the game’s simplicity, beauty and accessibility — and the excitement that comes every 4 years, when the entire globe stops for a month, to share the sport.

But for years, he made his living in politics. He worked as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House, and served as Vice President Al Gore’s briefing director.

He formed a digital strategy company that consulted on political campaigns around the country, then branched out to areas like global branding, media, startups and non-profits. 

Brian wrote for the New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, Tech Crunch, Vice, Wired and AdAge, and appeared on NPR and Fox News.

Yet the pull of soccer remained strong. Brian analyzed and developed data to push groups like US Soccer and Major League Soccer to think differently about fan engagement.

Last August, he began a new gig: communications director for what was called the “United Bid.”

His primary responsibility was writing the Bid Book. Submitted to FIFA, it laid out the vision and strategy for how the 3 North American countries would host the 2026 World Cup.

He also helped shape the message and media strategy, and worked wth all cities involved in the bid. The small team — 6 full-time staffers — communicated not only with FIFA, but 3 very different national soccer federations.

Since signing on last summer, Brian says, “it’s been a sprint to the finish.” He and his colleagues hosted FIFA officials for visits, and answered countless questions.

A week ago, he flew to Moscow for bid rehearsals and final preparations. On the final day he was the first person in the building, running one last set of technical checks.

When Brian walked into the building at 6:30 a.m. to check on final preparations, he saw this: the actual World Cup. (Photo/Brian Reich)

Six hours later, United Bid officials delivered their final argument. Brian had slept only 3 to 4 hours a night for 10 days. But he was not tired.

Or nervous.

“I was excited,” he recalls. “I knew we had done everything possible to put ourselves in a position to win. The rest was out of our hands.”

He was careful not to be too confident. He’d been in war rooms on election nights — and was on Gore’s campaign during the long 2000 recount.

Some members of his group had been part of the American bid 7 years ago, when Russia and Qatar pulled the rug out from under us.

Still, FIFA’s general secretary showed a giant slide, comparing the United and Morocco bids. It was clear to all that the North American one was vastly superior.

The final presentation in Moscow. (Photo/Brian Reich)

Suddenly, the announcement came. Hugs were shared. Tears flowed. It was, Brian says, “an incredible moment.”

He’s already looking forward to 2026. First though, there’s the little matter of the current World Cup.

The US is not playing. But like most soccer fans, Brian loves the international game.

Spain could contend for the title this year, he says. France is interesting. It’s hard to bet against the Germans. Iceland could shock the world, and go deep.

He has no favorite team this year. Instead, he headed to the opening match — Saudi Arabia versus host Russia — and then flew home.

He’ll watch the rest of the games with his family on TV.

The entire world will do the same 8 years from now. Except for those of us lucky enough to watch in person, when — thanks in part to Brian Reich — the World Cup comes to North America.

Brian Reich near Red Square.

Meet Mark Noonan: Ghana’s Head Phobian

Togbe Afede XIV found Mark Noonan through LinkedIn.

The president of Ghana’s National House of Chiefs, and king of the Asogli state, wanted to chat.

Togbe — yes, he really is the 14th — also happens to be majority owner of Accra Hearts of Oak. It’s one of Africa’s top soccer clubs.

Noonan has his own great resume. After leading Staples High School to 2 state soccer championships in 1981 and ’82, then starring on Duke University’s national championship team, he’s served as director of marketing for Gatorade, chief marketing officer for US Soccer, executive vice president of Major League Soccer, and chief commercial officer for the World Surf League.

Togbe Afede XIV

There’s more to Togbe than tribal chief and soccer club owner, too. An entrepreneur with an MBA from Yale, he owns Africa World Airlines, a major finance company and an important utilty.

In October, they met in New York. A few days later, Noonan was in Accra. Hearts — whose nickname is The Phobia — took on their archrivals Asante Kotoko (“The Porcupine Warriors”). It was every bit a classic as Arsenal vs. Spurs.

“The atmosphere was off the hook,” Noonan recalls. “There were colors, horns, singing, and an ambulance on the pitch only to see a guy rise from the dead to score a hat trick.”

Noonan did his homework. He learned about Ghana’s stable democracy and booming economy. And he discovered that Togbe’s role as chief of all chiefs is a very big deal.

Soccer is a religion in Ghana. American fans know the country well: It knocked the US out of the last 2 World Cups. World-class players like Michael Essien hail from there. Twenty Ghanaians playing right now in MLS, with more on the way via US colleges.

Amazingly, Noonan says, the country has done it despite a lack of infrastructure, training and education.

Soccer in Africa — and, specifically, a top club like the Phobians — is a sleeping giant. Founded in 1911, they have an estimated 10 million fans. That’s 1/3 of the entire nation. A few years ago they were rated the 8th best club in the world — ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea. They’re building a youth academy that will draw top young talent, to be properly trained and educated.

The potential is limitless.

Which is why, earlier this month, Noonan became CEO of Hearts of Oak.

His many friends — in Westport, and throughout the soccer world — were stunned. 

But they also knew it was a typical Mark Noonan move.

“If not now, when?” he asks. “I’ve always wanted to run a club. My wife Katie and I have always dreamed of living abroad, and embracing different cultures. Our youngest daughter Tess graduates from high school in June. We’re at a time in life where we can take a swing.”

Katie was very supportive. She loved Mark’s passion for the project, plus Ghana’s unique culture, tropical climate and thriving highlife music scene. (She’s a very talented musician).

During his trips to Ghana — and now that he’s settling in to his new role — Noonan was won over by the people. “They are passionate, God-loving, colorful — you should see the fabrics the women and men wear — and football-mad.

“Despite what is happening politically in our country — they are very aware of comments coming from the White House about Africa — they really  like Americans. I hope to contribute to that favorable impression.”

His vision is to make Hearts “one of the most cherished organizations in Ghana, with a mission of making its people happy, proud and respected. We’ll do that by running a business that makes significant contributions to its communities, and wins the most important trophies domestically, regionally and internationally.”

Mark Noonan (front row, 3rd from left), with Hearts of Oak players and directors.

Noonan knows that sports can make a difference in people’s lives. An international game like soccer has a particularly powerful role to play.

“Given the importance of football here, and Hearts specifically, if we do what we envision we can lift a lot of people up,” he says. “It can give happiness, pride, respect and a belief they can do anything. I’m not sure we could do that in a more developed country. So I’m hopeful that, if we leave the club in a better place than we found it, there will be a social legacy component to the project too.”

Noonan is grateful he grew up in Westport. As a community that “valued diversity, creativity and had a real soccer culture, it prepared me to undersetand and respect the wildly different place I now call home.”

One of the first things Mark Noonan saw, after arriving in Accra.

He asks anyone looking for a new (or other) club to support to become a Phobian. (The nickname came from fears other teams had facing Hearts of Oak. They knew they would not just lose, but be humiliated.)

It’s certainly a very cool club. And — perhaps unlike any other in the world — its colors are “the rainbow.”

Noonan acknowledged that uniqueness when he was introduced to players and staff.

“I’m the only white guy here,” he said. “But my heart is a rainbow.”

The new American CEO got a rousing, Ghanaian ovation.

Kyle Martino Runs For President

The president of US Soccer has a big job.

He oversees all levels of the sport in the United States — from the millions of kids playing to the pros, and of course the men’s and women’s national teams. By virtue of this country’s size and wealth — if not our international soccer prowess — he’s one of the most powerful people in the global sports world.

In the coming months, his job will be bigger than ever. He’ll help lead a US bid — with Canada and Mexico — to host the 2026 World Cup.

He’s also charged with naming a new men’s national team coach, and putting together that shattered program in the wake of the Americans’ dismal failure to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

If things work out, that new President of US Soccer may be 1999 Staples High School grad Kyle Martino.

Kyle Martino, in the 1999 Staples High School yearbook.

The New York Times calls the Weston resident “perhaps (the) biggest name yet” to enter the race — and “the biggest threat” to current president Sunil Gulati. The 3-term president — also a Connecticut native — has not yet announced if he will run again.

Though just 36 years old, Martino has strong credentials. A Wrecker star — and Gatorade National High School Player of the Year — who went on to college powerhouse the University of Virginia, he earned Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year honors with the Columbus Crew.

He later played with the Los Angeles Galaxy — where he teamed with the legendary David Beckham — and appeared 8 times with the US national team. He scored a goal in an important World Cup qualifier against Panama.

Kyle Martino

After retiring from pro soccer, Martino became a television analyst. He covers England’s Premier League for NBC Sports, and is known for his astute insights, strong personality and great TV presence.

Martino announced a 3-pronged plan on his website, EveryonesGameUSA.com. The components include “transparency, equality and progress” in American soccer. He is particularly concerned about the financial barriers that deter some youth players, and the “mistreatment” of female athletes.

One obstacle Martino faced is that the presidency is unpaid. He and his wife — actress and blogger Eva Amurri — have 2 young children. But he’s assembled a consortium of backers; he’s launched a GoFundMe campaign, and if elected he hopes to turn the job into a salaried post. (Gulati is a senior lecturer in economics at Columbia University, and receives a stipend for sitting on FIFA’s executive committee.)

Kyle Martino and his wife, actess Eva Amurri.

Martino — who has taken a leave from NBC Sports — says, “I won’t be able to forgive myself if I don’t stand up for US Soccer right now. I didn’t dream of doing this job, but I know I have to do it.”

Other candidates include former national team players Eric Wynalda and Paul Caligiuri, among others. The election is February 10.

Win or lose, Martino will retain his affection for Staples soccer. Most recently, he led a project called “Etched in Stone,” honoring former players who died young. He did it in memory of his friend Drew Tursi, brother of Martino’s ex-teammate Brad Tursi.

Martino appeared at the dedication ceremony last month. It was one small — but important — way for him to give back to the game.

(Click here for the full New York Times story.)

Kyle Martino, at last month’s “Etched in Stone” project dedication at Staples’ Loeffler Field.