A Tough Year Requires Real Leadership

Last year this time no one thought 2020 would be a year overrun by a virus that created a global crisis. The Coronavirus pandemic impacted the beautiful game on every soccer field across America and beyond. With unprecedented disruptions, cancelations, furloughs, and frustrations, COVID-19 brought out the worst and best of all of us.

While many people wondered what to do when schedules were interrupted, there were those who reflected and seized the opportunity with determination to make a difference. From finding ways to keep the ball rolling on and off the field, there are those who led us, inspired us and perhaps just pushed us through these dark days.

We thank everyone who rose to keep the beautiful game growing in the USA, and we salute those who went above and beyond.


Leaders by example, on and off the field, these individuals show us what is possible, regardless of a pandemic.

#1. Landon Donovan Earns the Top Spot as SoccerToday’s MOST INFLUENTIAL LEADER in SOCCER … A person who used his influence for good.

Landon Donovan — 2020’s MOST INFLUENTIAL LEADER

Landon Donovan — One of America’s greatest humanitarians and a living soccer legend, is the former captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) as well as the MLS’ LA Galaxy. Now retired from playing soccer, Donovan is the manager, co-founder, and vice-president of soccer operations for USL Championship side San Diego Loyal SC and a fierce advocate for what is right.

Making headlines around the country, Landon Donovan set the bar for standing up for human rights. In an environment brimming with urgency to play the game and secure a playoff spot, Donovan led his players off the field in the USL Championship match against Phoenix Rising after an anti-gay slur.

“We are people first and players second.”

Landon Donovan told

Earlier in San Diego Loyal’s inaugural season, Donovan stood up against racism and in support of Black Lives Matter. In one word, Donovan earns the SoccerToday top spot for Leadership by simplifying how people should be united against hate, ignorance, and sheer stupidity.

The order should not be considered important. The individual accomplishments of the leaders are what is valuable, and deserving of recognition.


#2. Lynn Berling-Manuel — CEO of United Soccer Coaches, the first female to lead the organization in its 79-year history. From reinventing the United Soccer Coaches Convention as a digital event, to leading her team through the pandemic so coaches around the country can rely upon the association’s advocacy, Berling-Manuel clearly deserves recognition.

#3. Skip Gilbert — CEO of US Youth Soccer, the largest youth sports organization took advantage of the time off the field to refocus the mission of this 3 million+ strong membership. Determined to help more people enjoy soccer as a lifelong passion, Gilbert’s big-picture leadership to grow the game earns top marks.

#4. Gavin Owen-Thomas — CEO of GotSoccer. More than just providing software to the soccer industry, Owen-Thomas has spent years making sure soccer in America had the technology required to grow the game. Never content to waste a moment, this visionary entrepreneur led his company to expand its products and customers in the pandemic. From pioneering the online tool for social distancing at youth soccer tournaments to providing analytics complete with U.S. census data enabling the youth soccer market to make informed plans for the future, Owen-Thomas makes a difference in more lives than he could ever imagine.

#5. Lesle D. Gallimore — Commissioner of the Girls Academy League and former head coach of the University of Washington. Gallimore retired as the winningest coach in program history and is always willing to share her knowledge in pursuit of improving soccer in the USA. This former president of United Soccer Coaches works tirelessly to collaborate in a highly fractioned youth soccer landscape — which just may be better off after the pandemic than before.

#6. Gregg BerhalterU.S. Soccer Men’s National Team (USMNT) head coach has ended 2020 capping off a strong season with a good performance even with all the problems and disadvantages of COVID. From providing young player an opportunity to inspiring dedication, Berhalter earns recognition for bringing real leadership to the future of the American game.

#7. Jill Ellis — Former U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) head coach, Ellis’ leadership in American soccer did not end after she coached our women to win two consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cups. Always inspiring greatness in those around her, Ellis has turned her attention to the persistent gender gap in top-level coaching. Her leadership alone assured that more women will have great opportunities to become amazing coaches. And, yes, launching the Jill Ellis Scholarship Fund and the SheChampions Mentorship program with U.S. Soccer helps too.

#8. Fred LipkaMLS Technical Director of Youth Development saw the need for the MLS Next after the U.S. Soccer Development Academy shuttered and forged ahead despite the ravages of the pandemic and its impact on scheduling games. Devoted to ensuring the success of talented Homegrown players, Lipka went from concept to construction and then rolled out the MLS NEXT, paving the road for player development in the USA. This took real leadership and the self-confidence of someone outside the problems which had plagued youth soccer for so long.

#9. Cindy Parlow Cone — President of the United States Soccer Federation took over the reins when Carlos Cordeiro resigned, just days before the pandemic was announced. U.S. Soccer’s first woman president, Parlow Cone became the head of our sport’s federation at a critical time with a gender-based discrimination lawsuit hanging overhead. A former pro who played for the U.S. Women’s National Team from 1996-2004, during which she won the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup and two Olympic Gold medals, Parlow Cone’s leadership through adversity brings new life to the new “U.S. Soccer.”

#10. Sunil Gulati — Former President of the United States Soccer Federation from 2006 to 2018, Gulati is also a professor of economics at New York’s Columbia University. Gulati is one of the main reason’s the US won its bid to host the 2026 World Cup and he has spent decades resolving the challenges of growing the world’s most popular sport in America. Never flinching from a loss on the field or in the boardroom, Gulati’s calm reserve and leadership still impact the trajectory of the game.

#11A. Don Garber — Commissioner of Major League Soccer. Garber has built professional soccer in America. The Commissioner of the MLS since 1999 took the pandemic in stride as soccer came to a halt around the globe. Creating the MLS is Back to launch the return of the professional game in the USA, Garber insisted on a ‘bubble’ to keep players safe and didn’t hesitate when Coronavirus tests came back positive to kick teams to the curb when necessary.

#11B. Lisa Baird — Commissioner of National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has raised the profile of women’s soccer in the USA in the short times has taken over the leadership role. Baird took over in February just one month before the pandemic impacted soccer around the world. Baird responded by having the NWSL be the first professional sports league to Return To Play with the one-month Challenge Cup. Baird also created a protective ‘bubble’ for players.

#12. Christian Lavers — President of ECNL. Relentlessly invigorating ECNL and creating a soccer culture in the USA, Lavers is a student of the game who reinvents what works to make it better. A seasoned leader in the youth soccer landscape, Lavers is also one of the most popular authors on SoccerToday too.

#13. Kevin Payne — CEO of US Club Soccer, Payne has worked in leadership positions within U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer. Not everyone realizes that Payne has been part of the fabric of American soccer for decades. In 1994, he assembled the first ownership group for D.C. United and when the MLS began in 1996, Payne served as the President and GM of the founding club. Responsible for US Club Soccer, Payne’s leadership has protected players and allowed them to play the game, when guidelines permitted.

#14. Pete Zopfi — US Youth Soccer Association chair. With more than 30 years of coaching experience, Dr. Zopfi’s goal is always to make the game more accessible to young players, regardless of their level of play. A general surgeon in Northern California, Dr. Zopfi’s medical background and leadership has been invaluable during the uncertainty of the Coronavirus. US Youth Soccer has taken an exemplary role in keeping players safe during the pandemic.

#15. Anson Dorrance — Head coach of the University of North Carolina and the former head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team. With a record 22 national championships to his name, this legendary coach has one of the most successful coaching records in the history of athletics. A distinguished 1974 Tar Heel alumnus, Dorrance’s leadership style is both proactive and protective. Creating a bubble early on to keep players safe from the Coronavirus, Dorrance led by example in collegiate sports.

#16. John Motta — President of the United States Adult Soccer Association since 2014, Motta continuously looks for ways to grow the game. The former U.S. Soccer Vice President has spent years volunteering in American soccer and his leadership is well known internationally.

#17. Yan Skwara — Commissioner UPSL. Few people have ever grown an organization as well as Skwara has grown the UPSL. Starting with just a few teams, Skwara worked with the leagues’ founder Leonel Lopez to build a thriving league with hundreds of clubs and a promotion/relegation system. A former player, coach, and team owner, Skwara lives what he preaches — dedication to building the beautiful game in the USA.

#18. Rick Kelsey — CEO of Arizona Soccer Association (ASA) is a leader who made a difference in the lives of Arizona soccer lovers. Kelsey and his team established clear Return To Play protocols early on and communicated them clearly. From helping lead the “No Place for Hate” initiative with the Anti-Defamation League to creating an online EA Sports FIFA 20 tournament and gathering 1,000+ toys after COVID caused the cancellation of the Annual Salvation Army Christmas Angel Soccer Tournament, Kelsey stands out as one of the best CEO’s in US Youth Soccer’s associations.

#19. Paul Riley — Head coach of the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage has always led his players to great achievements and is a key influencer in the American women’s game. Demanding excellence is second nature for Riley who manages to inspire his players far beyond what most other coaches can dream of. Coach of midfielder Samantha Mewis who was voted the 2020 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year, Riley has single-handedly helped countless players develop into professionals who make an impact on the field.

#20. Keith Tozer — Longtime former head coach of the U.S. Futsal National Team, Tozer is the Commissioner of the PFL (Professional Futsal League), a FIFA and CONCACAF Futsal Instructor, Technical Director for U.S. Youth Futsal as well as the President of the Wisconsin Sports Group. Not content with all those titles and responsibilities, Tozer launched a weekly podcast series, the World of Futsal, to share the sport with listeners. Tozer’s leadership behind the microphone or on the futsal court makes the sport better and was not dampened by COVID-19.

#21. Evan Dabby — Executive Director of New Jersey Youth Soccer (NJYS) is a leader among leaders. Dabby’s collaborative approach breaks down barriers and reflects his commitment to always remembering youth soccer should be focused on the kids. After 16 seasons with Major League Soccer, Dabby leads his state and influences others with his passion for the game.

#22. Paul Caligiuri — U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer, coach, mentor, and UPSL Women’s National Director, Caligiuri never stops working to make soccer better in the USA. Sharing his innate and natural passion for soccer, Caligiuri’s leadership focuses on creating positive environments and opportunities for players, clubs, and the game itself. Irrespective of the Coronavirus, Caligiuri tirelessly devotes every day to improving our soccer world.

#23. Tim Turney — Vice-chair of the US Youth Soccer Association and member of the Board of Directors of U.S. Soccer is a voice of reason in American soccer. With decades of experience and an open mind to new ideas, Turney’s leadership is often best seen in quiet moments behind closed doors but is nevertheless strong, vibrant, and important.

#24. Duncan Riddle — CEO of the United States Adult Soccer Association. Riddle’s leadership managing a membership association during the economically challenging pandemic has generated a safe haven for his organization. Never afraid of making tough decisions, Riddle has an extensive background on both sides of the Atlantic to manage these unfathomable times.

And here are young professional players who lead by doing and inspire a generation to follow in their footsteps:

#25. Geo Reyna — Midfielder for Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund, and the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT)

#26. Christian Pulisic — Midfielder for Chelsea, and the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT)

#27. Weston McKennie — Midfielder for Juventus, on loan from Bundesliga club Schalke 04, and the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT)

#28. Samantha Mewis — Midfielder for English FA WSL team Manchester City and the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) and  U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year.

#29. Catarina MacarioStanford University player, and a member of the United States U-23 national team as well as a two-time MAC Hermann Trophy winner.

#30. Megan Rapinoe — Star Soccer Player, Equal Rights Spokesperson, Captain of OL Reign, and U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT). No list of influential people would be complete without Rapinoe. A constant voice and advocate for gender equality and Black Lives Matter, Rapinoe has never shrunk away from standing up for what she believes is right. From equal pay and LGBT rights, this two-time World Cup winner and recipient of the Best FIFA Women’s Player never backed down, even when Trump attacked.

#31. Amanda Vandervort — Chief Women’s Football Officer at FIFPRO, the global football players union has always been dedicated to pushing the game, and its players forward. Her track record of leadership and innovation really does stretch across all areas of the game and her inspiring, positive attitude is a breath of fresh air.

More of 2020’s Most Influential Leaders in Soccer to be added soon.