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Tuesday, March 20 News

Woog’s World / Westport’s Kyle Martino is looking to lead US Soccer

The next president may be a Staples High School graduate.

Okay, so Kyle Martino is not running to be president of United States. He’s gunning for the post of president of US Soccer, a different — if equally political — position. But it’s a hugely important post. The organization oversees every level of the sport in this country, from the youngest recreational player to the pros and national teams. Throw in the fact that the U.S. is bidding for the 2026 World Cup — a multi-billion-dollar event — and you’ll understand that this is a job with power and prestige. And plenty of pitfalls and perils.

Martino is one of eight candidates. The election is set for next month, in Orlando. It’s a complex process, with voting by representatives of various constituencies: youth, adult, pro and miscellaneous.

Martino — who took a leave of absence from his job as a well-respected, articulate and highly rated English Premier League analyst and color commentator for NBC Sports to run for president — has tremendous qualifications. He learned the game at the grassroots, playing in the Westport Soccer Association. He honed his skills in the club system, first with Beachside and then traveling several times a week to Long Island. He was a rare freshman on the Staples High School varsity. After starring for two seasons he took a year off to attend a residential academy in Florida, then returned to the Wreckers as a senior. In 1998 he was named Gatorade National High School Player of the Year.

He played for the University of Virginia; was drafted by Major League, and in 2002 was selected as Rookie of the Year with Columbus. He was traded to the Los Angeles Galaxy, where his teammates included David Beckham. Martino’s career included eight caps as a national team player.

Today — living in Weston with his wife, actress Eva Amurri, and their two young children — the 36-year-old still plays, in a local league. He participates avidly in Staples soccer activities, like alumni games. His passion for the game is stronger than ever. And his goal is to make it better than ever.

Martino has assembled a strong campaign team. The creative mix of business executives, sports marketers, professional players and college students has helped him map out a plan to reach all sectors of the sport. He’s spent the last two months crisscrossing the country, talking to administrators, coaches, players, parents, journalists and others.

His platform has three prongs: transparency, equality and progress. Martino wants more openness in the historically opaque organization. He believes the women’s national team — which has achieved much greater success internationally than the men — should enjoy the same level of financial support, in areas like pay and travel conditions. He is addressing financial barriers that keep many promising boys and girls from pursuing the game. Martino knows from experience that youngsters in towns like Westport have many more soccer advantages than those in neighboring Bridgeport.

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As for progress: “When a nation of more than 300 million fails to qualify for the World Cup, it’s not because of a few bad bounces on a less-than-perfect pitch,” Martino says, referring to excuses made after the U.S. lost a devastating match in Trinidad and Tobago. “It’s because of systemic failures across all levels of the game.” He promises to step aside if the men’s team fails to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, or the women don’t reach the semifinals from 2023 on.

Martino is considered to be in the top tier of candidates. He’ll spend the rest of the campaign spreading his message to movers-and-shakers and the grassroots alike, including an important candidates’ forum next week in Philadelphia.

He has his finger on the pulse of the game, in all its forms. But wherever Martino goes, he hearkens back to his youth in Westport.

“I have a pride and a passion to have played for Staples High School that I really only feel like I had at the national team level to that extent,” Martino told New England Soccer Journal. “There is an honor in wearing that jersey and being a part of that local team.”

He wants to make sure Westport’s soccer culture can be replicated everywhere. That means embracing future players, coaches, referees and fans. It also means ensuring that futsal (small-sided) courts are as ubiquitous in America’s schools and playgrounds as basketball courts. Westport’s “pick-up” culture of soccer — which nurtured Martino when he was a child, testing himself against older boys and men — helps drive him forward.

We’ll know next month whether Kyle Martino is the new US Soccer president, or if he returns to his NBC job. But one thing is certain: You’ll still find him kicking the ball around, right here in Westport.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.