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Three burning issues for new USWNT GM Kate Markgraf

The U.S. women have their general manager. One of the worst kept secrets of the summer was finally unveiled Monday with the announcement that 1999 world champion Kate Markgraf would be the first hire to a post that was created largely due to the inadequacies of the men’s team during qualifying for their last World Cup. The immediate focus for Markgraf—who was Kate Sobrero when she served as a backup defender on the 1999 World Cup team—will be hiring a coach to replace Jill Ellis. In the bigger picture she will be working with newly minted sporting director Earnie Stewart in an effort to streamligne the women’s program from the senior team down through the youth levels.

“All of my life experiences both on and off the field have led me to this opportunity and I cannot wait to get started,” Markgraf said.

As a trailblazer in a job that did not exist before her arrival, Markgraf has the opportunity to set a tone not only for her tenure but for what the general manager position could look like for a generation or more. U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro called it part of his plan to let the soccer experts make the soccer decisions. Nevertheless Markgraf has never run a soccer team before and has only minimal coaching experience.

Here are three burning issues as Markgraf begins her tenure as general manager:

What will the coach look like

As previously documented, the next U.S. coach is going to have her/his hands full early trying to get the roster pared down to 18 for an Olympic tournament where anything short of a win will put said coach in the crosshairs. During Monday’s introductory conference call, Markgraf was well prepared for the inevitable question about whether she will look to hire a woman to lead the highest profile women’s sports team in the world.

“It is about hiring the best candidate for the job,” Markgraf said. “We will select the person that can help drive development and involvement on the women’s senior side. As far as it related to men and women, all things being equal we of course would consider both candidates. I would of course like to hire a woman if all things were being equal. But in the end it will come down to the best candidate regardless of gender.”

That is the canned answer given ahead of most coaching hires around women’s sports these days. Considering that most of the perceived candidate pools have more men than women near the top, it could be difficult for Markgraf to make her first hire a woman.

That doesn’t mean that Markgraf is not uniquely positioned to have a long-term impact on the gender issue in coaching. The national team coach will be her highest profile move, but with Markgraf slated to have her fingerprints on the entire women’s program down through all levels of development, she will be able to greatly enhance the overall pool of female coach that will be coming up through the ranks in the coming years. And that could do much more for female coaches than just hiring a woman to coach the national team.

Not just a veteran of USWNT

Markgraf is best known for her 201 caps with the national team but she was also prominent in WUSA and WPS, the two forerunners to the NWSL. Former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage coached three seasons in WUSA—her one year as head coach for Markgraf’s Breakers—but other than that there has not been a person in any sort of prominent leadership position at U.S. Soccer with ties to a professional league until Cindy Parlow Cone became vice president of the organization.

Parlow Cone, who also played on the ’99 World Cup team, wound up leading the search, first making contact with Markgraf about the general manager position in February.

Markgraf was asked point blank about what sort of role the NWSL will play in the future development of the national team, especially with the business relationship between the league and federation expected to transition at the end of the year.

“I played in two iterations of professional soccer domestically here, and the NWSL is by far the most successful out of all of them. Not just because of its tenure but because of the quality that it’s producing on the field. That quality is increasing every single year. I look at that, as well as U.S. Soccer who helps subsidize the national team salaries, as a growing ground for our next best talent as well as refining our world class players in competition week in and week out. So I look forward to a continued partnership and working closely with those involved in the NWSL.”

The role of the NWSL in molding this year’s World Cup squad has probably been undersold, and that is probably because Jill Ellis rarely made public mention of the league or player performances. But hearing the words come directly from Markgraf, who has served in a broadcasting role at times for NWSL, should be music to the ears of the league and its fans.

The national team still has a reach that is exponentially greater than that of the NWSL and having the general manager of the team, particularly one with the profile and credibility of Markgraf, speaking in positive tones about the league can only be helpful. The league and federation have been awkward partners over the years and while Markgraf likely won’t be in a position to make long-term financial decisions, here’s hoping she can serve as something of a bridge to normalizing that relationship.

After all, by the end of the next cycle, the NWSL could well be older than the tenure of any players still on the national team. In other words, it is a vital cog in the operation and Markgraf appears well-tailored to honing it.

The process was rigorous

The discussions began in February and the announcement could have been made sooner but Markgraf, Cordeiro, and Parlow Cone agreed that the focus should remain on the team trying to retain the World Cup. That went along with a shift in the timeline as it was originally planned that the general manager would be in place before the World Cup and act in an advisory role until it was over. That never made sense and was quickly abandoned in favor of letting the World Cup play out before making any kind of announcement.

Markgraf said the process was a rigorous one but that going through it crystallized her desire to take on the job.

“It was a pretty rigorous interview process but one I found enjoyable which I took as a sign that I really wanted the job. Because if it felt like work then obviously I was barking up the wrong tree.”

Now comes the daunting work of doing the job. And all Markgraf has to do is maintain the simple status quo of having the women be the best team in the World. In some ways she is in a position similar to the head coach that she’ll hire. If the U.S. win the next World Cup then why did they need a GM in the first place? If they don’t, then what did this GM do to throw things off course?

One point of emphasis figures to be the youth side. The U.S. senior women have continued to reign despite some downright awful results and performances at the U-20 and U-17 levels. Markgraf was quick to caution against putting too much attention on those results, especially seeing that crack youth sides like North Korea and more recently Spain have yet to find a way to translate that to the senior level.

“Part of this position was trying to figure out how best to situate our full team as well as our youth teams and positioning them for success through building an infrastructure that can be institutionalized so it’s not person dependent.

“The whole focus for us is development. The pathway we want for development of world class players at every level. The results matter, but development is the primary interest. We need to keep doing our work and giving our players exposure to the best training, competition, and everything else needed to realize their potential.”

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