What’s the difference between FIFA, CONCACAF, and USSF?


When we talk about soccer (or football, if you want to sound like the rest of the world), we often talk about how the governing federations influence the game and how it is run. If you’ve primarily followed women’s soccer, you may have heard of FIFA, CONCACAF, and the USSF (if you’re American) as the three main governing bodies that determine – and often mess up – how the women’s game is developed, funded, and marketed to the world.

However, hearing about them all the time doesn’t really give you a good picture of what the organizations actually do for the game as a whole, and how they work together to make sure the game of soccer is somewhat uniform around the world.


Let’s start with FIFA. FIFA stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Their headquarters are based in Zurich, Switzerland. They are the overarching governing body that sets the rules, regulations, and laws of the game for every level of soccer, from youth programs to international federations, for every country around the world.

Their current President is Gianni Infantino, who was recently elected to replace long-standing former president Sepp Blatter, infamous not only for multiple accusations of corruption but also for his comment on how the women’s game would be more popular if the women wore shorter shorts.

FIFA is an extremely complex organization with multiple levels of governing bodies and more committees than you can shake a stick at. The main thing you need to know about them is that they perform two very important functions for the game of soccer worldwide:

  1. They set the laws of the game, which dictate how the game is played and what the fields of play should look like.
  2. They distribute money to the regional bodies and countries of the world who have soccer federations for the development of national, professional league, and youth programs.


Next level down from FIFA is not actually the USSF but CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football), which is the regional body that governs USA and its neighbors. CONCACAF runs tournaments at the international level (e.g. the Gold Cup) and at the league level (e.g. the Champions League, where clubs from different leagues in the region play each other).

They also provide the first hurdle for those teams vying for spots at World Cups and Olympics, organizing qualifying tournaments that are supposed to provide a testing ground for any team who wants to advance to a major international tournament. But just how well that the system works depends greatly on whether you are referring to the men’s game or the women’s game. In the men’s game, the CONCACAF international field is full of competitive teams that can (and often have) soundly beaten the USMNT.

On the women’s side, there is… slightly less of a challenge.

The major reason for this is that of the many federations who have women’s teams under CONCACAF’s jurisdiction, only two have consistently dedicated funds for the growth of the women’s game: the US and Canada. 

Basically every other country barely manages to scrape together a team to field, a task made difficult due to spotty youth development, rampant sexism in cultures that look down on women who want to play soccer professionally, and a general unwillingness to pay the players and often the coaches. Though this is not unique to CONCACAF, we do have some of the worst examples in the world.

This results in a lot of qualifying matches that end with the USWNT basically playing a scrimmage against a youth team, padding their goal and assist stats while the goalkeeper makes daisy chains at the top of the 18-yard box. One notable example of this was the Olympic Qualifying match in 2012, where the US beat the Dominican Republic 12-0, a game that saw multiple players record hat tricks.


Finally, we have the USSF, the United States Soccer Federation. Sunil Gulati is the name you will likely hear the most, as he is the president and the public face of the federation. The USSF is the organization in charge of the day-to-day running of the men’s and women’s National Team programs, facilitating professional leagues, and creating and running youth programs that keep our future bright.

The USSF is the organization which, as you may have heard, is in the process of “negotiating” a new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) with the USWNT. It is also directly involved in the pay structure of the NWSL, subsidizing the league by paying the allocated national team players instead of having the teams control their individual salaries. While this is unusual, it was the only way to ensure that everyone would get paid at the start of the league. It was also a way  to “encourage” (read: ensure) National Team players would stay in the country and help build the league, with many players coming back from their European clubs only because USSF promised to match their salary. Additionally, USSF has exercised some control over the NWSL clubs to ensure that allocated players are always available to leave their clubs for NT camps and friendlies, something that European clubs have the right to refuse.

Whether or not this is still a valid set-up now four years into the league is a  topic for a different article. It’s safe to say that until a new CBA is negotiated with the USWNT, the federation’s relationship with the NWSL will remain as it is.

For the record, MLS had no such set-up when it was begun. A product the US winning the 1994 World Cup bid, MLS was set up as part of the agreement for countries to use some of the proceeds to establish a Division One league if one did not already exist. To do this, USSF created a second USSF (United States Soccer Foundation) which is technically a charitable organization that happened to give charitably to the MLS in the first years of its existence, and they were a sponsor for many years afterward. 

There is an allocation process for the MLS, but it is tied to the league, not directly to the USSF, although select USMNT players are on the allocation list, eligible for extra salary funds above the league maxiumum salary cap. Like the allocations in the NWSL, this money is given to them so they can get players who warrant a larger paycheck. For instance, Tim Howard, an allocated player for the Colorado Rapids.

The primary way that the USSF supports the MLS is through Soccer United Marketing (SUM), a marketing company that basically exists entirely to promote the USSF and MLS – though notably, not the NWSL. The connections between the USSF, SUM and the MLS are somewhat shady, and their exclusion of the NWSL from their deals warrants significant ire from many WoSo fans. It also makes it difficult to track how marketing dollars are allocated to the USMNT vs. the USWNT, a key issue in the Equal Play, Equal Pay discussion. 

So, What Can Be Done?

The common characteristic between all of these organizations is that they are still pretty clueless on how to treat the women’s side of the game equally to the men’s. FIFA runs the World Cup and the Women’s World Cup completely differently. FIFA allowed the 2015 tournament in Canada to be played entirely on turf fields, leading to general outrage from the players who understandably hate playing on turf, particularly in the middle of the summer when field temps can reach up to 120°F. The potential for injuries is also greater, and the turf also plays differently enough that many countries who had trained on grass had trouble adjusting. The argument was made that FIFA would never have considered such a set-up for men, a statement supported by history. 

Besides providing substandard playing surfaces, FIFA traditionally has not demanded that the money they give the federations be put to use in women’s programs, except in insignificant amounts. This accounts for part of the disparity in quality of play between the top five women’s teams and the rest of the world, though many countries are finally catching on and catching up. FIFA also puts much less money towards the marketing and the prize money attached to the Women’s World Cup.

Furthermore, until this last year when the leadership of FIFA was shaken up by a slew of corruption and embezzling lawsuits, there was no system in place for women to obtain any positions of power in FIFA. Since those shake-ups, they have taken steps to fix the problem. They are making an effort to appoint women to open positions in various levels of leadership. To their credit, they are attempting to build a base. However, it is still only 15% of the money sent to federations, which is a very small step. And as Julie Foudy pointed out (http://www.espn.com/espnw/news-commentary/2015worldcup/article/13224279/fifa-do-more-develop-women-game-globally), while their words are very encouraging, we need to have some receipts to see how their 10 Keys for developing Women’s football are being implemented and followed. 

This is especially important because many federations, particularly small CONCACAF federations, are still not spending this money fully on women’s soccer. We still have countries that are not paying their players, we still have countries that don’t even have a registration system for their female players, and we have countries to whom the idea of a professional league is up there with the idea of a unicorn. In these countries, FIFA needs to step in and mandate the changes it outlines in its development keys, and then make sure these mandates are being followed. FIFA has said that they’re committed to developing the women’s game, and they need to follow through. This is the essential job of an International governing body. 

The USSF is an interesting case when it comes to equality of treatment. On the one hand, we have probably the best-funded women’s program in the world, leading to our team being a consistent contender in top competitions since the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. We have a youth system that registers huge numbers of girls into their programs every year, youth national teams that compete in the top tournaments at their level, a college system that takes their women’s soccer very seriously, and a professional league in the NWSL that is incredibly competitive. The USA is often considered to be the world leader in all categories considered when it comes to developing the women’s game.

And yet, not everything is rosy in USSF-land when it comes to women’s soccer. The USSF also got caught up in the turf war post-World Cup, after it was revealed that the USWNT played over half their matches of the year on turf fields, including the match in Hawaii that was boycotted after a stadium walkthrough revealed unsafe playing conditions. After the team boycotted, USSF sued them for violating their contract. In contrast, the USMNT played none of their 2015 matches on turf fields, sometimes even requiring that stadiums lay down new sod to provide a grass field to play on. 

Furthermore, five (at the time) members of the USWNT filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that they have brought in more money for the federation than the men have and have not been compensated accordingly. While that is still being investigated, they are also in talks with USSF about a new CBA after the old one expired in 2012 and was extended with a Memorandum of Understanding that expires in December of this year. Their main goal is to increase how they are paid to match the men, who have a completely different, much more lucrative, pay system. 

What this all boils down to is this: Leadership needs to improve at all levels to grow the women’s game. If FIFA says they’re going to be dedicated to supporting this growth, they need to act on that. They need to put their money there, and they need to make sure the money is being used for the right purposes. If USSF wants to continue to be the top women’s program in the world, they need to continue leading the way. They have coasted for so long on the coattails of being one of the only in the world to actually support the women’s team, even if it wasn’t equal to the men’s program. Now, they need to take it a step farther and show the world what actual equal treatment looks like. The world needs a model and USSF is perfectly poised to lead the charge.


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