Sunil Gulati: On Jurgen Klinsmann, FIFA election, USMNT, much more

Sunil Gulati opened up to a group of reporters on Jurgen Klinsmann's job status, the FIFA election, the U.S. men's national team and much more in a lengthy discussion. Brian Straus has the details.
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ST. LOUIS — U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who also sits on FIFA’s embattled Executive Committee, met with a small group of reporters here in St. Louis several hours before the U.S. national team took on St. Vincent and the Grenadines in a 2018 World Cup qualifier. Gulati touched on coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s performance and job security, the ongoing scandals and reform efforts at FIFA and CONCACAF and the state of the professional and women’s games in the U.S.  

He wouldn’t go into details concerning the ongoing federal investigations into soccer’s governing bodies and wouldn’t confirm whether he has met with authorities. But he did discuss the failed bid for the 2022 World Cup, his relationship with indicted American soccer executive Chuck Blazer and why he failed to appear at a contentious U.S. Senate hearing over the summer.

Here are excerpts from Gulati’s comments:

On meeting with Klinsmann following the October loss to Mexico and the manager’s job security heading into World Cup qualifying

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I don’t know that we have ever given any coach of our teams a specific metric and a specific result and said, "If this happens, everything’s good. If this happens, it’s not." We have certain targets and goals that are different for each of our teams, but I’m not sure it would be appropriate to have a specific metric for a game or two games. Qualifying for the World Cup—that’s a pretty important metric.

We didn’t get into specific, ‘We need to win these two games or we need to beat St. Vincent by this amount of goals,’ or anything like that. The goal is qualifying for the World Cup.

We expect to qualify. We expect Jurgen to be the coach. But I don’t think anybody would honestly say, "Regardless of what happens, this is what we’re going to do." … I haven’t figured out the right way to give the right level of support to the coach, that actually has credibility, without outright saying things that won’t be accurate. Nobody’s got that sort of job security. Not me, not [USSF CEO] Dan [Flynn], not Jurgen, none of the players.

On the national team’s form

We’ve had some results that didn’t go our way both in terms of wins and losses and in terms of play, so of course that raises concerns. The more of those you have the more concerns it raises, and they compound very quickly. It’s not about individual games, wins or losses … much of the [concern] is salvageable if you win the game against Mexico. We didn’t do that. And that wouldn’t erase the fact that we didn’t get those results.

We’re talking about a relative short period of time—four months, five months—three, four games … Sure we’re concerned by that.

You have to balance those peaks and valleys … We didn’t too get caught up in 12 wins in a row [in 2013] but I didn’t completely panic before the Denver game three years ago. That’s where we are. This has been a tough period, for sure—the hardest period since Jurgen’s been coach. Pretty clearly, both in terms of results and in terms of, let’s say, the public questioning of what he’s doing and what we’re doing. That’s normal. When you’ve got the worst results, that’s when you get the most questions.

On the perception that Klinsmann blames others (players, officials, etc.) for U.S. losses

Noticed and discussed. I think you saw some of that in Washington before the Peru game, and then there were also another set of comments [in The Washington Post] that got a lot of publicity. Listen, everyone has their own style. It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t do things in the same way that Dan would do them and that’s true with our coach as well. In the end, he’s the coach. But we’ve talked about some of those issues, for sure.

On Klinsmann’s role and progress as technical director

That part of it is two-fold…there are results in that, short-term results, and then there’s the long-term player development part of that. Clearly the long-term player development, you don’t know the results until much further down the road. But we’ve done a lot of things there that Jurgen has been in the middle of, whether it’s the expansion of the academy or the age group rules. That doesn’t necessarily mean he created all of those things. On the other side of it, the results of the youth teams and the Under-23 team, you know, [U-17 coach] Richie Williams was involved in our program before Jurgen was national team coach. [U-20 coach] Tab Ramos was involved in our program before Jurgen was national team coach. [U-23 coach] Andi Herzog clearly wasn’t. So it’s not as if we’re changing all the coaches and Jurgen said, "These are the next [coaches]." That’s not the way the process works. The results this year are mixed, obviously, for the youth teams.

For USA, World Cup qualifying opener vs. St. Vincent comes at perfect time

I was at the [U-17 World Cup] in Chile. What was as disappointing as not getting through to the second round and the team doing better was looking at the finalists and seeing what the games were like. We are a long way off from where Nigeria and Mali were at, and frankly, from where Mexico was in the [bronze] medal game against Belgium. That raises some concerns in terms of the player development side, for sure.

[Reports that some of Klinsmann’s technical director responsibilities have been transferred to USSF chief commercial officer Jay Berhalter are] incorrect. They’re incorrect. It has not changed at all. Never changed. So we’re clear, there’s lots of people that work in our programs. Jay is an important executive in our organization, so a lot of what gets done or decided gets operationalized by someone other than Jurgen. So it’s not as if Jurgen is now meeting with all the Development Academy coaches five times a year. So Jay’s got some responsibilities in there along with others … and there may have been a miscommunication on one or two things. But that’s it. There’s been no change.

On hosting and playing in next summer’s Copa America Centenario

We’re going to take that tournament very seriously, put out the best team we possibly can. It maybe takes on even a little bit more importance because we’re not in the Confederations Cup because we’ve got a chance to get series of very good games … We expect all of the teams in Copa America to be bringing their best players, and that’s what we’ll be doing.

Jay Berhalter will be the chief executive officer of Centenario, the local organizing committee … I think before the end of the month you’ll have lots of news on Centenario, in terms of … at least a timeline.

On FIFA’s votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and the possibility of ‘agreements’ made to steer the tournaments toward Russia and Qatar

If the U.S. Soccer board or some subset of the U.S. Soccer board has an agreement about something, how they’re going to vote on an issue in two weeks, and three of their people change their mind, that’s fine. It’s fine for a subset of a board to have an agreement on whatever they want to do, unless that agreement is reached for inappropriate reasons. That would be different.

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The first thing Mr. Blatter said was that we had an agreement to go to Russia because it was a big country and so on and so forth, and that’s what set off a lot of the issues in Europe … A board can decide and then change their mind—pretty simple. Unless the agreement was based on something inappropriate and that’s not what he suggested … three or four European voters changed their mind. They’ve got the right to do that.

I don’t attach too much to all that. That’s different than saying I don’t any concerns to the whole process.

We ran a bid that we’re very proud of and we’ll continue to watch events as they unfold … [We spent] lot of time and a lot less money than anyone else. The simple reason for that is that we didn’t have to do anything about showing architectural designs of stadiums and how were going to build them. Our bid, because really for the most part it was done internally at U.S. Soccer [and ] we had office space from MLS, lots of donated resources, was far, far less expensive than any other bid. And rated at the top end of the bids by all the various metrics. This a place where there should be more metrics … the technical standards should mean something.

On the progress and potential of reform at FIFA

To say it’s been tumultuous is an understatement, obviously. The news and the shoes dropping have been, I’d like to say beyond belief but one’s benchmark for beyond belief changes given some of what we’ve found out. We’ll know, I think, much more when, hopefully, my colleagues at the Executive Committee submit a set of recommendations to the organization for some pretty substantial changes and the Congress approves them. But the first part of the process isn’t even done yet because authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have said there’s more to come. And so we’re going through a very painful process … We’re doing everything we can from our end to push reform in the right direction.

This reform wasn’t out of a process that, "O.K., it’s time. We’ve had some concerns, so let’s do things." This was a process that was initiated in the first case by what happened five years ago [following the votes for the 2018 and ’22 World Cups] and that reform process and in its most recent case by the actions of governmental authorities. So, it’s already external in that sense. The pressure is being brought externally … I’m hopeful there will be a serious set of reforms and a big part of that has to be kind of a cultural change. It’s not just about rules, but a cultural change that starts at the top and has to go throughout the entire organization.

Most of the things that are likely to get adopted by FIFA, or will hopefully get adopted, we’ve had in place a long time at U.S. Soccer—compliance issues, independent directors … publication transparency on salaries, all of those things. Some of which are required by American law. Even with all of that, we’re looking at ourselves. We’re going through a compliance review. We’ve engaged McKinsey to give us an analysis of a number of issues regarding governance … not because of any external pressure to do that, but looking at ourselves and saying, "How can we do better in these areas as the organization has grown rapidly?"

On U.S. Soccer’s favored candidate in February’s FIFA presidential election

We haven’t, at this point, made any public declaration of what we’re going to do. As we did the last time, we will meet with all of the candidates … Last go around we nominated Prince Ali [Hussein of Jordan] but we met with all of the candidates and will do that again. I’ve met with some of them already … And then we’ll make a decision.

I think very, very highly of Prince Ali but in fairness to the process we’ll meet everyone and then make a decision.

On why Flynn and not Gulati represented U.S. Soccer at a July U.S. Senate hearing

When we were first asked, it was a pretty broad range of topics that were suggested—everything from obviously the FIFA issues, to concussion issues to the gender issues to field issues to human rights issues and so on. And Dan is as versed in those, if not better in some of those, than I am. It’s not as if we sent our summer intern. We sent the CEO of the organization and frankly didn’t know the other participants in the panel until a couple days before … Once you saw the other members of the panel then it was clear it was going to be more about [FIFA], but that wasn’t the focus early on.

On issues of gender equality in the U.S. and around the world

We haven’t slowed down at all. We’ve doubled down. We’ve been very integral in the formation of a professional league in a way that no federation in the world is. The compensation levels for the players and for the staff and the number of staff available and the resources around the [women’s] national team programs are far in excess of anything they’ve ever been … and we’re well ahead of all those countries in this area. That doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game, so we’re continuing to do that.

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It’s a far bigger issue at the international level than it is for us. We’ve been world leaders on this and fully support the set of proposals that Moya Dodd and her committee have made to FIFA, in terms of representation. Many of the things that they’re proposing are things that have happened in the United States. It’s not just about numbers of people on a board … it’s also about resources at grassroots level. We got handed that in a big way by Title IX.

That wasn’t anything we did … The economics are different in the two programs, even at the World Cup, even with 25 million people watching. I think we’ve done a lot and we’ll continue. We’re not there yet. We have [three] women on our board, not five or six. But we have 45-47% of the registered players in the United States are women. That is off the charts compared to any other country in the world.

We’re well ahead of the game, but with plenty more to do, for sure.

On his relationship with indicted former FIFA and CONCACAF executive Chuck Blazer and signs about corruption at CONCACAF

For sure, Chuck and I were close for a long time. That’s true … Chuck was a good friend for a long time and a lifestyle that was different than mine, but was involved in financial markets separate and apart from what he did in the soccer world.

We had audited financials [at CONCACAF]. You rely on people that are in charge, especially when you have audited financials, that those are representing the organization. That’s completely separate from the things that were talked about in May [when indictments were handed down]. None of those would have ever gotten to the financials. So you’ve got two separate things. Think of the following: CONCACAF engaged in an integrity report and published results two or three years ago that looked a whole series of things. None of the things that came out in May were part of that report. Because when you have subpoena power and access to bank records and so on and so forth, you have a very different set of results that one can achieve … It was four years of an investigation that got us to 2015.

We’re doing everything we can to make sure going forward that things are run in a more professional and more appropriate way. [Previously] you get financial reports that are audited … as it turns out after the fact we found that out [that the CPA had a relationship with former CONCACAF president Jack Warner]. You have a CPA that’s doing the financials and then we found out some other things, which got exposed not by the most recent investigation but by the integrity report.

On the prospect of promotion and relegation in U.S. pro soccer leagues

The landscape in the United States when it comes to sports is completely different than it is the rest of the world … The origins of the games are quite different and the way that promotion and relegation started organically in Europe and Latin America, with what in some cases were company teams and so on, it’s just completely different. That’s not saying that one is better than the other. It’s just the reality of it.

When people enter, whether it’s into USL or NASL or MLS or any other league we might have here, under one set of rules, to change those rules by a third party—in this case a governing body, admittedly—I think is fraught with peril. Does that mean promotion and relegation can never happen? No, I’m not saying that. But to think that we would, from the Federation’s point of view, say it’s happening or "This is what you’re doing," I think that’s a rather different set up than when it’s happened organically and people knew the rules coming in.

There’s one contractual relationship [between USSF and MLS], which is between Soccer United Marketing and U.S. Soccer. They represent our commercial interests. There’s not support provided in other areas … We sign off on every contract that is offered up and eventually entered into on commercial rights with third parties. If we don’t like our share of the deal, we don’t sign the deal. So there is no transfer … and support. It’s just not the case. Might there be separation? Sure, and we might have different partners in the future. But right now we have the [SUM], which is the largest company representing soccer interests in the United States. And obviously they’re linked with MLS. We understand that. We’re not being naïve about that.

On whether there’s pressure on him and the fact that he’s run for USSF president unopposed

I’ve run without [opposing] candidates. There have been many opposed ... There’s lots of dissenting voices both within our board [and on the outside] and that’s a healthy thing. Is there more commentary out there about me? Sure. I understand that totally … That’s part of the deal. I get that. I also get that there’s a lot more traffic by email when we lose games then when we win a bunch of games. That’s also normal.