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Steve Gans, the original Gulati challenger, still the first torchbearer for U.S. Soccer reform

(Photo: Prince Lobel)

On the morning after Hope Solo stunned the American soccer universe with her announcement, the Friday after Sunil Gulati effectively dropped out of the U.S. Soccer presidential race and Kathy Carter entered, Steve Gans’ cell phone is ringing. He picks up, but can’t talk right now. He’ll return the call in 30 minutes. But before he gets back to work, he has time for a little humor.

“Hey, has anything happened in this race the past few days?” he asks with a chuckle, as the most insane week of a turbulent election campaign winds down.

Gans has been on the trail for months. He’s been grinding out 18-, sometimes 20-hour days. He’s almost a seasoned veteran by now. And he has a team of seasoned veterans – including a former U.S. senator’s press secretary, and the former executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party – working alongside him. But even they are astonished. The team’s lawyer sent a letter to the federation last week calling it “woefully unprepared for this election.” The former director, Stacey Monahan, Gans’ campaign manager, told him the week before that it was the craziest campaign she’d ever been a part of.

And Gans’ life is crazy, too. It has been ever since the Boston-based attorney emerged as a potential Gulati challenger back in May, and especially since September, when the 57-year-old announced he would indeed be the first to ever oppose the 12-year incumbent. He’s flown across the country and made countless phone calls, all while maintaining his job at his law firm, Prince Lobel.

On this particular Friday, Gans is working on deadline. As we speak, he’s on the move. He laments printer issues and shoots off emails. He pauses for two separate calls to or from family members. His voice is slightly hoarse. He was at a campaign event the night before. “It’s been mind-boggling,” he says of the entire experience.

A few weeks of it would wear the average person down, let alone several months. But Gans takes pride in being immersed in this since the beginning. He takes pride in being “the first one, by far.” At one point, a youth state association sent out a candidate questionnaire that included two questions he loved: “Did you declare before the U.S. lost [to Trinidad and Tobago]?” he recalls being asked. “And if not, why? What didn’t you see?”

Gans is the only one of eight candidates who can answer, “I did,” and “I did.”

“I didn’t jump in after the U.S. lost saying, ‘We have a problem,'” he reiterates. “I’ve been saying we have a problem for a very long time.”

That’s not to say others hadn’t thought about running, or weren’t plotting a campaign; some had, and were. And it’s not to say others are running because what happened in Trinidad is the problem – rather, the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup provided opportunity that wouldn’t have otherwise arrived. But Gans repeatedly mentions that he was first.

“It doesn’t mean I should win because I was the first,” he clarifies. “But people are giving me credit.”

Whether or not his early entry will ultimately be advantageous is up for debate. On one hand, every day he spent in the race while others remained on the sidelines was an extra day for him to build relationships, share his story and spread his message. “But, obviously, two months is a long time,” he notes.

As others have joined him in targeting the presidency, his message has become less and less distinct. Many of the lines that came out of his mouth in September are now coming out of the mouths of others. Now almost every candidate talks about the fractured youth system, and marginalized constituents, and edicts from 30,000 feet, or from an ivory tower, or whatever the metaphor of choice. Now every candidate talks about the need for inclusiveness, and task forces, and transparency.

That’s not because others have co-opted Gans’ platform. It’s because others developed platforms using similar processes. Gans built his based on research and a “listening tour” – on conversations with stakeholders throughout American soccer. Others have built theirs by talking to the same or similar people, from whom they’ve heard the same or similar things.

But the echoes won’t compel him to change. They don’t necessitate a revamp. Gans still wants to bring together representatives from state associations, clubs and the federation to address “counterproductive competition” at youth levels. He still wants to reform the Development Academy. He still wants to ensure equal working conditions for the women’s national team, and form a search committee to hire the next men’s national team head coach. Much of his 21-point platform was drawn up before others announced their candidacies.

In a way, the campaign changes without Gulati. Many of Gans’ early comments were critical of the current president, his governing style and his decision making. “It does shift a little,” he admits, “because you’re not running against an incumbent.”

“But some of the issues are still there,” he concludes. “The complaints I hear about how the [federation] treats people, all that staff is still there. The whole ethos of U.S. Soccer still needs to change. It’s about respect, and being allowed to have a meaningful voice. The issues are still there until there’s a new sheriff in town who sets that ethos.”

Gans is convinced he should be that sheriff – and not only because he was the first of the eight candidates to publicly set his sights on the position.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.