A Q&A with Roger Allaway on the National Soccer Hall of Fame election process

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On March 28, ballots for the Player, Veteran Player, and Builder categories for the 2016 National Soccer Hall of Fame class were announced. We talked to National Soccer Hall of Fame historian and SASH member Roger Allaway about the process involved in election to the Hall of Fame.

Can you talk about your role in the Hall of Fame nomination process?

For 17 years, I have been the person who compiles and maintains the eligibility lists. Those lists are the same thing as the ballots (and I’ll use those terms interchangeably here). When I send them to the person running the election, they are eligibility lists, and when that person sends them to the voters a while later, they are the ballots, but they are the same lists. I would describe my role as sort of the traffic cop of eligibility matters. I enforce the eligibility criteria and study the records to see who has and who hasn’t met those criteria. This often has involved saying no concerning candidates I like and saying yes concerning candidates I don’t like, but in a way, that makes it easier. I don’t have to make any subjective decisions. I just enforce the rules.

Incidentally, I really don’t like the word nomination, as it implies that someone or some group of people are selecting the candidates, and at least for the Players Election, this is not true. The candidates are selecting themselves via their playing accomplishments. On the Veterans Election and Builders Election, it is a bit more complicated, as it is a two-step processes, and in the first step, a screening committee is selecting who the finalists will be. I’ll get to that later.

In addition to compiling and maintaining the eligibility lists, I am the person who writes all the mini-bios of candidates that are sent to voters. I’ve never counted how many mini-bios of candidates, former candidates and Hall of Famers I have on my computer, but it might be over 1,000.

A few paragraphs ago, I referred to “the person running the election.” That has meant several different people over the years. From 2000 to 2009, it was Jack Huckel at the Hall of Fame in Oneonta. From 2010 to 2015, it was Amy Hopfinger at the USSF in Chicago. In 2016, it is Linda Cardenas at the USSF in Chicago. At some point in the near future, I presume that it will become someone at the Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas.

When/how did you become involved?

The eligibility criteria were developed at a series of meetings in early 1999, particularly one during the NSCAA Convention in Philadelphia in January 1999. I was at that meeting and participated in the discussions about what the criteria should be. I thought that the procedure developed at those meetings was a vast improvement over the one used previously (which I will discuss further on), but I felt that unless someone were continuously keeping track of who was meeting the criteria and what their accomplishments were, that this new system would be impossibly cumbersome. Compiling the list from scratch every year would be too large a task.

Those criteria and that new procedure had to be approved by the Board of Directors of the USSF, which has had jurisdiction over the Hall of Fame since 1953, and that approval came in March 1999. I was in Oneonta the week that the USSF approval was received by the Hall of Fame. I was very eager for this new election procedure to work, so I volunteered to take on the job of compiling and maintaining the eligibility lists (when I refer to the lists, plural, I mean the Players Eligibility List, the Veterans Eligibility List and the Builders Eligibility List). I remember compiling the original Players Eligibility List the next week, after driving home from Oneonta, while sitting in a chair in my living room near Philadelphia, surrounded by NASL, MLS and USSF media guides and Colin Jose’s books about the NASL and the ASL. As I got started on this project, the idea of compiling and maintaining the lists sounded like fun, and it certainly has been. I think that the enjoyment I get out of it may be very similar to the enjoyment that people get out of managing fantasy teams in various sports.

Can you talk about the criteria involved in determining eligibility for the Players categories?

I’ll begin by mentioning the fact that the process is very different for Players (and Veterans, who are also players) and Builders, mostly for the reason that the accomplishments by Players during their careers are much easier to measure in numbers than the accomplishments by Builders (a category that includes all non-players, such as coaches, referees, administrators and team owners).

The criteria that Players must meet in order to become eligible for the Hall of Fame are largely the same as what was developed in 1999. There have been some tweaks in them over the years, many of which have had the effect of simplifying the criteria rather than making them more complicated.

In addition to the retirement requirement (which states that a person has to have been retired for at least three full calendar years), there are two basic ways that a player can become eligible for the Hall of Fame.

One way is through their play in a first-division United States league, which currently means MLS for men and any combination of the WUSA and WPS for women (no one who played in the NWSL has yet been retired long enough to be eligible for the Hall of Fame). To become eligible this way, someone has to have played at least five seasons in those leagues and been named to the postseason Best XI at least once. (There also are routes through some older, defunct leagues, particularly the original NASL and the original ASL, but everyone who played in those leagues has been retired for so long that these routes don’t affect the Players Eligibility List, only the Veterans Eligibility List).

The other way is through their play in the U.S. national team, for either men or women. To become eligible via this way, someone has to have at least 20 caps. (For purposes of the Veterans Eligibility List, this 20-cap requirement is reduced to 10 caps if they were before 1990 and to five caps if they were before 1960. This is to account for the fact that the national team used to play far fewer games than it does now.)

About those tweaks that I mentioned. In the original 1999 criteria, the league route for becoming eligible stated that someone had to have played at least five seasons in a United States first division league and either have been chosen to the postseason Best XI at least once or played on a league or U.S. Open Cup champion team at least once. After a while, it was realized that because of the provision concerning league or cup championships, the list was going to fill up with journeyman who were not really outstanding players but had happened to be in the right place at the right time to win a title. So, between the 2008 and 2009 elections, that provision was deleted. There already were a few people on the eligibility list who had met the criteria that way, and they were not dropped from the list, as it was not considered fair to pull the rug out from under them after they were already on the list. Only people who were not yet retired at that point were affected by this tweak. Also in the original 1999 criteria, the national-team route for becoming eligible stated that someone had to have at least 20 caps, and that at least one of those caps had to be in the World Cup or World Cup qualifying. Between the 2004 and 2005 elections, the provision about the World Cup or World Cup qualifying was deleted, because it was realized how many good people there were whose national-team careers had come between World Cups, particularly in the early 1990s.

I should note here that one misconception some people have had, although they wouldn’t have it if they read the criteria more carefully, is the idea that in order to become eligible, someone has to have met both the first-division league requirement and the national-team caps requirement. They don’t have to meet both (although some people do). They have to meet one or the other.

Between the 2007 and 2008 elections a “Sunset Law” was put into effect. At that time, the ballot had grown to about twice the size that it is now. In the 2007 election, there were 62 candidates on the ballot, a great many of whom had little or no hope of being elected. This new rule stated that any candidate who was named on less than five percent of the returned ballots in any Players election would be dropped from the ballot for future elections. However, they are not eliminated from future eligibility. They are put into limbo until they have been retired for 11 years, at which time they are put onto the Veterans Eligibility List. The first year that this rule was in effect, the size of the ballot was reduced from 62 candidates to 35 candidates.

Now, I am going to talk a bit about Veterans. Veterans are generally the same people as Players, with most of the same eligibility criteria. The main difference is that they have been retired longer. All the players on the Veterans Eligibility List have been retired for at least 11 years. In addition to the routes by which Players can become eligible, Veterans also can gain eligibility through play in any of a dozen or so earlier leagues, and the requirement of 20 national team caps is reduced if the caps were early enough.

Only a few years ago, the Veterans Eligibility List was far larger than it is now, growing to nearly 400 candidates, many of whom had never received a single vote. It was obvious that with no way for someone to be dropped from the list other than being elected to the Hall, the list was just going to continue growing. So, between the 2013 and 2014 elections, a “Sunset Law” was added to the Veterans eligibility process. This new rule stated that if a person had gone eight consecutive elections without ever being a finalist (in other words, without advancing past the first step of the two-step election process) they would be dropped from the list for future elections. However, this new rule also contained a provision that if the Hall of Fame receives an appeal on behalf of any candidate who has been dropped because of this rule, asking that that they be reinstated to the list, that appeal will automatically be accepted. In the first year that this rule was in effect, 281 candidates were dropped from the list because of it, reducing the list to a far more manageable size. So far, there has been an appeal on behalf of one person, and they have been reinstated to the list.

How about the criteria Builders?

As I said above, Builders is a category that means all non-players, such as coaches, referees, administrators and team owners (at one time, it also included journalists, but they were eliminated when the Hall instituted the Colin Jose Media Award in 2004). The original 1999 criteria stated that a person had to have had a “sustained, positive impact on American soccer at the first-division or national federation level” in order to become eligible. There have been many discussions over the years as to just what this means. Maybe we could have been more specific when the criteria were formulated in 1999. In 2003, there was a meeting in Oneonta among Jack Huckel, Colin Jose, George Brown and myself at which we made a number of decisions concerning the Builders. We decided to place the definition of “sustained” at 10 years. We sort of picked the number out of a hat, but it seems reasonable. The definition of “positive” is a little trickier. Basically, what we decided is that being in the position for 10 years is positive enough. Whether you did a worthy job in that position is for the voters to decide. For that reason, there are many people in the Builders Eligibility List who many fans consider to have been a bad referee, a bad general manager, a bad team owner, etc.

Another important difference between Players and Builders is that Players nearly all retire by their early 40s, if not earlier, whereas Builders do not. There are a number of Builders in the Hall of Fame who continued in the roles that earned them election until the day they died. A perfect example of that is Lamar Hunt, but there are many others. So retirement obviously was not a good yardstick to use with Builders. What we came up with instead is age. A Builder candidate becomes eligible in the year in which they turn 50, even if their birthday is late in the year, after the election (and if someone who has met the 10 years positive impact standard dies before reaching 50, they become eligible immediately).

There is a bit of decision-making involved in putting together the Builders Eligibility List that is not present with the Players. Sometimes, the Hall of Fame receives suggestions from people who think that this person or that person deserves to be added to the Builders ballot. I then look at their accomplishments to see if they meet the 10-year impact standard, and if they do, I add them to the list. This sort of decision-making is relatively rare, however. For the most part, I keep a very close watch on people who might be getting close to meeting the Builders criteria, looking for people who I should add to the list. There are not many people who meet the criteria that I am not aware of.

What are some of the misconceptions people might have about the eligibility process?

The most common misconception that many people have is that the Hall of Fame somehow “selects” the people on the Players ballot. In actuality, all that the Hall (or in recent years in the USSF) does is to announce who has met the eligibility criteria. It doesn’t select anybody. If you have met the criteria, you are on the ballot. If you have not met the criteria, you are not on the ballot. No selecting involved. This is a major objective of the criteria-based eligibility system that has been in use since 1999, to take the making of subjective decisions out of the eligibility process. The Hall of Fame selects who will be eligible to about the same degree as a rooster selects whether the sun will rise.

I also have seen a misconception here and there occasionally that becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame means the same thing as being inducted into the Hall of Fame. It does not. It’s the same as any other election. Being on the ballot and winning the election are not the same thing. Becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame simply means that you will be on the ballot from which the people to be inducted into the Hall of Fame will be selected.

Another misconception, which I have seen from some very knowledgeable people, is that if you’re going to get into the Hall of Fame, you have to get in on your first try, in the first year that you’re eligible. I think that this misimpression arose from events in 2004 through 2007, when nearly all of the people who got in were in their first year of eligibility (Wynalda, Caligiuri, Akers, Harkes, Ramos, Balboa, Lalas, Overbeck, Hamm).

Some people got the impression that if you didn’t get in on your first try, that meant that the Hall of Fame had rejected you. But Thomas Dooley didn’t get in until his seventh try, Earnie Stewart got in on his fourth try, Joy Fawcett got in on her third try, Hugo Perez got in on his eighth try, Bruce Murray got in on his 10th try.

The most ridiculous misconception that I have seen was one stated by someone posting on the Big Soccer website in 2009 (and which inspired me to join that website, so I could begin replying to statements like this one). What they said was that the Hall of Fame’s rules require that the ballot must include at least one player from each MLS team. This is about as accurate as if he had said that the ballot is made of green cheese.

Another misconception, related to the first one that I talked about here, has to do with players on the eligibility list who inspire fans to say things online like “Why is he on the list? He wasn’t in a class with these other candidates.” In most of these cases, I tend to agree with the statement that this person wasn’t in a class with the others, but if they’ve met the eligibility criteria, they go onto the list regardless of what anybody thinks about them. Concerning the occasional presence of lesser players on the ballot, I wish that it were possible to devise a set of criteria that would guarantee that every person who meets them is unquestionably better than every person who doesn’t meet them, but I don’t think that’s possible in the real world.

Some older retired players have never become aware of the change to a criteria-based eligibility system. I have heard several cases over the years of people asking friends who were Hall of Famers “Hey, can you get me into the Hall of Fame.” They seem completely unaware that it doesn’t work that way any more.

When does the eligibility process begin for a Hall of Fame class?

It begins in earnest when the people who will be in a particular year’s class of first-time candidates begin to retire, at which point it begins to be known when they will be added to the ballot. For instance, the process for the people who will be added to the ballot in 2019 began last fall, when a large number of people who had met the criteria and who last played in 2015 retired. Currently, there is no one who has played in 2016 who has already retired, so the 2020 class of first-time candidates has not yet begun to form, and I wouldn’t expect it to this early in the year. With the American schedule of spring-to-fall leagues, most people don’t retire until the latter part of the year, although some, who are playing for European clubs, do retire in the spring. I am, however, currently trying to keep a particularly close watch on several players who last played in 2015, who are currently out of contract and who might announce their retirement any day now. (Does this job sometimes feel a little ghoulish, like being the devil waiting for souls to drop into his basket? Yes.) If they do retire without having played again, they will go onto the ballot in 2019.

However, in one sense, the process begins years earlier, when those people begin to meet the eligibility criteria for the first time, playing their 20th full international or their fifth MLS season. I’ll tell you a very extreme example of this. In March 1999, after I had compiled the first Players Eligibility List, I compiled, just for my own interest and use, a list of players who had met the eligibility criteria in terms of their playing accomplishments, but who were still playing. I called that the “Future List,” and I am still using it, constantly updating the information in it, adding players to it as they meet the criteria and removing players from it as they retire. It has made the compiling of the eligibility lists vastly easier. I have kept a record of who the 57 players were on that original Future List. Gradually, over the years, they have retired, but there is one player who was on that original Future List who is still playing today. That is Christie Rampone, who in March 1999 already had 43 caps. So in her case (and to a less extreme degree in many other cases), the nomination process really began much, much earlier.

For the most part, however, I would say that the process begins four years before a particular class joins the list. The criteria say that a player must be retired for three full calendar years before becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame (a calendar year is defined as a Jan. 1-Dec. 31 year). So someone who last played in 2015 will have 2016, 2017 and 2018 as their waiting period and then will become eligible in 2019. Incidentally, for purposes of Hall of Fame eligibility, the year of a player’s retirement is considered to be determined by when they played their last official game, rather than by when they announced their retirement, because there is no centralized list of retirement announcement dates as there is with playing statistics, and because some players never do announce their retirement (except maybe to their families).

Can you talk about the voting process? Who votes on the nominees?

The voting process for the Players Election is not the same as the ones for the Veterans Election and the Builders Election. I am not personally involved in those elections, and I find out the results of them at the same time the rest of the public does, but I am well acquainted with those processes.

The Players Election is, in most years, a one-step process. The voters (of whom I am not one) receive their ballots via email and cast them via email, voting for up to 10 candidates. Any candidate who is named on at least two-thirds of the returned ballots (66.7 percent) is elected to the Hall. The last time that I saw the list of voters was in 2008, so I am only guessing about who they are at this point. But I believe that they are members of the American soccer news media, MLS coaches and officials, current Hall of Famers and various other American soccer officials.

The standard for being elected to the Hall of Fame was not always 66.7 percent, even in the years after Hall of Fame eligibility and elections were overhauled in 1999. Up through the 2007 election, the standard was that the first two finishers in the election were elected if they were named on at least 50 percent of the ballots, and the third-place finisher was elected of they were named on at least 80 percent of the ballots. In 2008, this was changed so that anyone who was named on 75 percent of the ballots was elected, with no upper or lower limits no how many there could be. And that year, no one met that standard, so no one was elected (fortunately, there were a Veteran and a Builder elected that year, so there was an induction ceremony). Because of that washout in 2008, the standard was lowered beginning in 2009 to 66.7 percent, and a provision was added for a runoff among the top five finishers if no one reached the 66.7 mark (that runoff provision has been used once, in 2013, when Joe-Max Moore was elected).

The Veterans Election and the Builders Election are two-step processes, and are quite similar to each other. For each of them, the voters are the Veterans Committee, which is made of of all living Hall of Famers. In each of them, the first step consists of the full eligibility list (about 70 for the Builders and about 100 for the Veterans) being reviewed by a screening committee of Hall of Famers, who reduce the field to a smaller group of finalists by voting. The finalists are then voted on by the full Veterans Committee. In both the Builders Election and the Veterans Election, each voter votes for five candidates. In both the Builders Election and the Veterans Election, if the first-place finisher is named on at least 50 percent of the ballots, they are elected. If the first-place finisher is below 50 percent, there is no runoff and no one is elected (this has happened with the Veterans in 2009 and 2014, and with the Builders in 2009 and 2013).

During your time involved with the Hall of Fame, what are some notable changes that have occurred?

I haven’t yet discussed in much detail the greatest change that has occurred, one that dwarfs all the others. I mentioned the development of the criteria in 1999, but I haven’t described the system that they replaced. The replacement of that previous system is the reason why, despite any imperfections of the current system, I remain very much an advocate of the current system, because I know how much of an improvement it is over what went before. Let me describe the previous system:

There were no eligibility criteria other than the facts that players had to be retired for five years and all would-be candidates had to be capable of getting the support of their state soccer association or state youth soccer association. Candidates were nominated by those associations, a process that often forced would-be candidates into the uncomfortable position of having to promote themselves through the collecting of stacks of letters of recommendation on their own behalf. Those nominations went to the Hall of Fame committee at the USSF in Chicago, and to the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee at the USSF. There usually were six or eight nominations each year. The Hall of Fame Committee, which had a dozen or so members, voted. The chairman of the committee counted the votes and announced who would be inducted. He never announced the vote totals publically (nor, I’ve been told by someone who was a member of that committee, did he announce them to the other committee members). The Hall of Fame Veterans Committee also had the authority to elect one Hall of Famer per year, although it didn’t always exercise that authority. All in all, it was a process in which who you knew could be a larger factor than what you had done.

There were no separate Players and Builders elections, although people who had been elected to the Hall of Fame were designated at their induction as either Players or Builders, not always accurately. Some prominent administrators who had modest playing careers are in the Hall of Fame as Players.

A very important effect of this overhauling of the eligibility and elections procedures is that it has brought the Hall of Fame far more up-to-date in how quickly it recognizes retired players. Before 1999, most players in the Hall of Fame weren’t inducted until 25 or 30 years after they retired. Now, it is more like five or 10 years after they retired.

That change, which took place in 1999, dwarfs all others, but there have been a fair number of smaller ones. I have mentioned a number of them above, of which probably the most significant is the introduction of the Sunset Law on the Players Election in 2008. There is another (actually two at the same time) that was very significant and which I have not mentioned. In 2002, the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame approved two moves that greatly affected elections in subsequent years.

One of those moves suspended the usual elections for a year, and replaced them in 2003 with an NASL-only election, in which eight Players and eight Builders were elected. The reasoning behind this was that it could be seen that a wave of prominent U.S. national team players and MLS players was coming, and NASL players were going to be forgotten and swamped in future elections unless something was done for them first. There already were a number of NASL people in the Hall of Fame, but 2003 brought in 16 more, including such prominent Players as Carlos Alberto and such prominent Builders as Clive Toye.

At the same time, the Board approved a change in the usual elections when they resumed in 2004. In the original 1999 criteria, the dividing line between Players and Veterans had been 25 years after retirement. That is why, of the five people elected in the Players elections in 2000, 2001 and 2002, four had been retired for more than 10 years. As a result of a change approved in 2002, when the regular elections resumed in 2004, that dividing line between Players and Veterans had been lowered to 10 years after retirement, which is where it still is today.

Before I finish, I want to mention the fact that there have been complaints in recent years about the fact that certain groups of people tend to fare poorly in Hall of Fame elections. On the Builders side, this problem affects referees. On the Players side, it affects foreign MLS players with no U.S. national team credentials and American MLS players with great MLS careers but modest U.S. national team careers. The worry, which I share, is that it is becoming a Hall of Fame of the U.S. national teams rather than a Hall of Fame of American soccer. I can assure you that the people in charge of Hall of Fame matters at the USSF are aware of these problems. Whether they will manage to find a solution to them is another matter, but we shall see. In any case, they aren’t sweeping it under the rug.

Click here to view the eligibility requirements for election into the National Soccer Hall of Fame at the US Soccer Website.

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