Los Angeles - The United States' humiliating failure to qualify for the 2018 Soccer World Cup may have left millions of fans across the country in shock, but for Steve Gans, the debacle had been a long time coming.
The 57-year-old Boston attorney's worst fears came to fruition last month when the USA were eliminated after a 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago in their final qualifying game.
The defeat means the United States will be frustrated spectators when next year's finals in Russia kick off, the first time since 1986 that the country has missed the world's greatest tournament.
Gans is now one of the front-runners in a crowded field bidding to unseat United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati when his post comes up for re-election next February.
So far, seven challengers to Gulati's 11-year reign have emerged for an election that promises to be the most significant for US soccer in decades.
"The future of soccer in America is at stake here, including the future of the United States men's national team, which is going in the wrong direction," Gans told AFP in an interview.
Gans was one of the first to declare against Gulati, having embarked on a nationwide "listening tour" in May to take the temperature of American soccer at all levels of the game. He confirmed his plan to run before the US World Cup exit.
"I wanted to hear if the things that I was hearing from the people urging me to run, were representative of the wider soccer community," Gans said, revealing that common themes soon emerged from different constituencies within the sport.
Many youth and adult soccer officials from different states expressed frustration with the USSF leadership, Gans said.
"They have felt ignored, they have felt marginalized, and they're a very important historical part of US soccer," Gans said.
"The reality is they need to be shown respect. Their ideas, their programs, should be given seriousness of purpose. And they need to have input rather than top down edicts coming from US Soccer telling them how it's going to be."
At the top of the pyramid, Gans emphasizes the importance of making the right appointment to coach the US national team.
Although he is open to appointing an overseas coach, he believes the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann in 2011 was a mistake. Klinsmann was fired in 2016 after losing the two opening games of the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers, picking up a severance package worth $6.2 million on his way out.
"I would have handled that completely differently," Gans said. "I'd pick a better manager in the first place. I wouldn't pick the biggest name just to pick the biggest name."
Appointing an overseas coach would hinge on whether the candidate could demonstrate an understanding of the challenges of the job.
"You do your due diligence on every single person you bring into this league, country or national team," Gans said.
"It's slightly different with a national team coach. It's not about 'Would they treat it as a holiday?' It's more, 'Would they understand what is different about America?' - the vastness of the country, the amount of travel, playing on artificial turf, the American personality, those kind of issues.
"You need to make sure that they 'get' it."
Creating 'joyless robots'
At the other end of the spectrum, Gans promises an overhaul of youth development. The current system is producing "joyless" players, he said.
"There's a lot wrong with development. We're creating better players technically but we're creating players sometimes who are robotic. And even when they're not robotic, they're joyless," he said.
"And what I do know is that you can't play great unless you have joy, at any level. You can't play well if you don't love playing. So why did the US fail? It goes all the way back to youth level."
Gans, meanwhile, said he would make working conditions for the US men's and women's teams identical if elected.
The successful US women's team, the reigning world champions, have been at loggerheads with the USSF under Gulati over a range of issues, particularly having to play fixtures on artificial turf.
"That to me will immediately change," Gans said. "If the men don't have to play on it to any extent, then the women shouldn't have to. It's a question of safety and fairness."
While other candidates in the race have advocated the introduction of promotion and relegation in Major League Soccer, Gans advances a more cautious approach.
"In principal it's great. It's how the game works around the world. We all love looking at the table on the last day of the season to figure out who is going to stay up or go down," he said. "It's exciting and enthralling.
"That said, you can't just snap your fingers and make it happen. It has to be considered within the framework of American sports economics. Some people say 'Well, so what if the MLS owners pull their money out. Let's just introduce it and figure it out.'
"But I've lived this game since I was kid. And I lived through the period from 1985 to 1996 when the United States did not have a professional outdoors league. It was a wasteland for players, fans, player development. And I never want to go back to that."