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Q&A with USSF prez Sunil Gulati


From the 86th floor of the Jin Mao Tower, nearly 1,200 feet above the bustling Pudong business district, the views of the skyline here are awe-inspiring. And so it seemed like a good place to have lunch with U.S. Soccer president SunilGulati at the swanky Club Jin Mao on Friday afternoon and talk about U.S. Olympic soccer (men's and women's) with the man in charge, a few hours before the U.S. women's quarterfinal showdown against Canada.

Here's what the prez had to say: What's your sense of the Olympic tournament for the eliminated U.S. men's team?

Gulati: Well, we're not at a stage anymore where there are moral victories in tournaments like this. We're well past that. And so I think what's really frustrating when I look at it is we didn't lose to superior teams necessarily. So if we go out and play Argentina at Giants Stadium with the senior team, when we get that result [0-0 in July], it's a great result, because we played well against a team that technically is better.

In this tournament, I can't say that. When a team like Argentina is a lot better than you man for man and you get a result out of it, that's fantastic, because you had to play well to do it. It's not something where you can control how good they are. In this tournament it's frustrating because we blew up on things that we can control. Disciplinary issues, mental breakdowns. And I'm not talking about this sort of mental breakdown where everybody says it's a mental breakdown if somebody plays a ball back and a player walks in and steals it. That's a mental breakdown also, a technical breakdown.

But in this case, to have in the last 20, 25 minutes of the Holland game and the first five minutes of this [Nigeria] game to make what are four very costly mistakes -- four cards -- and all of them hurt us, that's very frustrating.

Did we have some bright spots in terms of play of certain players and 70 very good minutes against Holland? Sure. I'm not going to say it was all negative. But when you've got it in your hands, you know, that's pretty frustrating. Pretty frustrating. Does it rub you the wrong way when players make excuses about that a lot, after the fact?

Gulati: I didn't hear a lot of the comments of the player. Look, I view it as pretty simple: We had it in our hands, and we didn't get it done. So are we going to blame any referees for any things that happened? The answer is no in my book. I didn't see the red-card offense, but an experienced German referee three minutes into a critical game with sight throws a player out. I'm assuming he was within his prerogative to do that.

Could he have also given a yellow card? Probably. Would other referees have given a yellow card? Possibly. But in the end you don't put yourself in that situation. I've heard the comment "We didn't get any breaks." We didn't need any breaks. We needed to just not lose our mind on a few cases. And if CharlieDavies' ball goes in, sure we get a tie. But it wouldn't have exactly been a draw with the run of play. Fine, we've lost games when we've had the run of play. But that game became completely artificial as soon as Michael [Orozco] he went off. We're on our heels and planning to be on our heels.

So I don't look for excuses from [head coach] Peter [Nowak], from me, from the players. And I don't think Peter does either. I think Peter was emotional after the game. I think upon reflection he'll look at things differently. You know, it's not for me to say things like "I'm proud of the effort" or whatnot. That's Peter's role. I think we'd all be happy if we were playing tomorrow. What did you think of Nowak's performance in this tournament?

Gulati: You know, aside from extraordinary moves of taking an unproven player and making a player out of him, things like that, you end up judging coaches mostly on results. And so we didn't advance, so he's disappointed like I'm disappointed in that. With the exception of an incident in this city 11 months ago [Greg Ryan's move to bench Hope Solo for the World Cup semifinal], I don't usually second-guess playing decisions of coaches very often or who should have been subbed earlier or not.

So I've read things that Dax [McCarty] should have played and Robbie [Rogers] shouldn't have played, and why did Jozy [Altidore] play less or play more, or whatever. I talk about those things with Peter to understand his logic. I certainly asked him why he chose to pull Freddy [Adu] off in game two. What did Nowak say?

Gulati: That's for you to ask Peter. I wanted to understand it. So there were large segments of the tournament where we played well. So that's a plus for sure. But this isn't like the under-17 or under-20 team where you say, hey, the main thing here is to develop players for the senior team. Because a number of these players are in the senior team. And since you can never say, "We've developed a lot of good players," we don't know that until they're in the senior team and so on. And you get these players primarily not as finished products, but Peter has had the team for less than a year essentially.

So I don't evaluate Peter, it's evaluating the team, and obviously Peter's the head of that team. And those reviews are we clearly didn't get done what we set out to do. But it's not all negative, for sure. Are there any other issues that stick out for you on the men's side heading out of this?

Gulati: You can walk through player by player, there were some very good performances. I think there are maybe three or four players that will be sought after this week and next based partly on their performances. And that generally means the MLS players to European clubs, but it could also be European teams that are looking at players in Europe. So that's good for the players. But it's not much consolation to say we were ninth, and that's where we ended up. Because we were the only team with four points that didn't make it.

But we're 30 seconds away from qualifying after two games. And then three minutes later we're playing a man short [against Nigeria]. I think those things highlight this tournament.

The other noteworthy thing about this tournament is it's the first time we've ever brought all professionals to a non-senior team competition. So that's a plus. It would be a lot easier to say that was a critical factor if we'd advanced. Which guys do you expect will get offers next week?

Gulati: I didn't say they'd get offers next week. I said, based on their performances, they'll hear from people in the next week or two, I think. There are some players that did well. I'm not going to comment on that, but my guess is there will be some interest in a few of the players. There will be on that will be public in the next day or two. On the women's side, we're speaking a few hours before the quarterfinal against Canada, so a lot remains to be seen. What are your impressions so far?

Gulati: Well, I think the team's done pretty well with the exception of five minutes. Those happened to be the first five minutes of game No. 1, so whether it was nerves or just a couple of mistakes or whatever, for sure the team has gotten better every game and played two good games and one not-bad game other than five minutes. When you're down 2-0 after five, it changes the game pretty dramatically.

The second game looks better in retrospect after Japan takes Norway to pieces. So people say it was only 1-0, well, Japan is a pretty good team, and when they score five against Norway everybody understands they're a pretty good team. It's pretty clear that the women's game, not just at the top three or four in terms of competing with the U.S., but that even in the middle parts the scores aren't as wide as they were even two or three years ago. And in an odd way one of the wide scores is the reverse in Japan against Norway.

I think our team has done fine here. Obviously a big blow to the team's efforts just before the tournament with Abby [Wambach's broken leg]. So, in general terms, everything's on track. And by that we won our group, we're not playing who we thought we'd avoid [Brazil in the quarters and potentially Germany in the semis]. I think people were pretty harsh on the team after game one, the dynasty's over and all that. The dynasty isn't the issue anymore. There are three, four, five, six teams that are equal favorites to us at this point -- Brazil and Germany certainly, as the gold and silver medalists at the Women's World Cup.

But I think in games two and three, and especially in game three, the team showed that it's going to take a lot to keep them off the medal stand. Is that possible? Sure. But if you win today then basically you've got two shots at a medal. I don't think there's anyone on that team or that staff that wants anything except a particular color of medal. But they understand that we're going to have to play well and get some bounces of the ball and that's going to have to happen. How much does Wambach's injury influence your decision on coach Pia Sundhage after this tournament since she's on a one-year contract?

Gulati: Look, we'll assess the whole thing. We don't make decisions only based on results at a particular tournament. Does it count a lot? Of course. But even last year's decision regarding the women's program wasn't based strictly on one loss against Brazil or even on one decision.

I think Pia's done a great job from everything we've seen. So we are very pleased with the way things have gone to this point, including how the team has played, including the feedback we've had from the team. So all of that's a big plus. So if we end up not achieving the goal that everyone wants, does that mean we make a certain decision and not continue [with Sundhage]? No. Does it mean if we lose a close game in the final game and say O.K., but if Abby had been there we would have won, so therefore ... ? It's not the way life works. So I think it's safe to say that Dan [Flynn, the USSF general secretary] and I understand how important Abby is and was to this team.

I often say this about coaches. If the ball from Charlie Davies goes in, we advance. I guess Peter should have said to Charlie, "If you get a chance in the 90th minute on a header, try to get it just below the bar..." My point: All of those things matter.

Now the game last here here [against Brazil] was 4-0. So it wasn't much of a game. We understand Abby's importance to this team. And an evaluation of this team and the performance of this team wouldn't neglect that. That's the easiest way to say it. The men's [senior] team is different when Landon's on the field and not on the field, and Landon's scoring rate is nothing like Abby's. There aren't many players in the world, men or women, that have the scoring rate she does in international soccer. So to think that doesn't impact the performance of the team, and therefore the evaluation, would be silly. I had a question about women's player development in this country. Correct me if I'm wrong: There's a new program on the men's side for development that you and U.S. Soccer have put a lot into. And at this point there is not an equivalent for the women.

Gulati: Sure. O.K. All of that is right. What we had was, we had established it prior to the World Cup [in '06] that we were going to have a complete review of our technical programs on the men's side. I wanted to do that because I didn't want anybody to think we were reacting only to what happened at the World Cup. Which it turned out was a good thing.

So that process started earlier. Kevin Payne chairs that process. They're looking at everything we do, how we can do it better, where we should completely revamp and so on. Because the timing of that World Cup was a year earlier than the women's. That process started first. One of the things that came out of that was the development academy, along with a number of other things.

On the women's side, we started that process essentially at the beginning of this year with three former national-team coaches and Carin Gabarra-Jennings. And started with the premise of, look, you've got a clean piece of paper. So what we decided to do on the women's team -- and I had this conversation with Tony DiCicco and April Heinrichs -- may be very different from what we do on the men's side.

An obvious example: It's pretty clear that on the men's side, players of college age are doing something different in other countries, and doing something that's more developmentally beneficial. So on the men's side that was critical for us to have something that was better as an alternative.

On the women's, we have a lot of top college teams who could do just fine playing internationally. And the economic incentives for women's players are very different than for men's players. So we may not ever have a Project-40 or a Bradenton for women, or a development academy. So I think you will see some things on the women's side that'll come out of the group. It was a year on the men's side looking at stuff before we did anything.

But there will be some concerted efforts regardless of what happens here on what we do. It may be that we hire someone to focus on those efforts. But that's a process that's ongoing. So the timing is just slightly different, because in women's competition you have two major competitions every four years. Changing coaches is a timely place to review things. That happened earlier with the men, obviously.

On the women's side Pia hasn't been involved in the process of looking at it for the last year. Not because of the short-term nature of our first agreement with her, but because she's completely tied up with this team. Obviously Abby Wambach is the most accomplished player on this team. But is there a concern that losing one player can change things so much?

Gulati: No. I think that's a great thing. And by that I mean: We didn't lose three games in the first round. We're still a favorite for a medal here without that player. So I view it as just the opposite. What's the question that everyone asks on the men's side? When are we going to produce a player like fill in the blank: Wayne Rooney, Ronaldinho,Lionel Messi. Well, when you have a player that's at that level, clearly you're affected when the player's not there.

So that would be the equivalent of saying: Is it a concern that the Bulls were so reliant on Michael Jordan? Yeah, but if they do really well when he's not there, that's a pretty good thing. And you want a player like that. Abby Wambach on the women's side is a world-class player. In everybody's estimation one of the two or three or four best players in the world. That's a good thing for us. So let me rephrase it then. In last year's World Cup any Best XI would have had one surefire U.S. player: Wambach. And there'd be a lot of Brazilians and Germans on that team.

Gulati: But a lot of Germans and Brazilians tainted by the fact we got hammered in the semifinal. On the left [Lori] Chalupny for us had a pretty darn good tournament last year. If we're playing in the final I'm not sure she's not on a lot of all-tournament teams. Heather O'Reilly would have been on some people's list. I understand what you're saying, that you've got one person you're so reliant on, and you don't have enough other good players.

I disagree with that premise. I think we have a lot of good players. I don't think last September a few of them who are capable of it performed to the level we had expected and hoped. Any other women's team issues?

Gulati: No. We'll see how the next few days goes. And that will determine a lot of our views on things.