- The U.S. men's national team's World Cup qualifying failure is a chance for U.S. Soccer to make some needed structural changes to secure a brighter future across the program.
In the wake of the U.S. men’s national team’s embarrassing failure to qualify for World Cup 2018, the push for an overhaul of the U.S. Soccer Federation will be stronger than ever from fans, from media and from American soccer stakeholders who’ve invested millions of dollars in the growth of the sport—including USSF sponsors like Nike, Coca-Cola and Budweiser, MLS owners and television rights-holders like Fox Sports, ESPN and Univision.
That’s as it should be. A massive reboot needs to happen in a federation that has too often been opaque, insular and woefully resistant to change over the years, and it has to start at the top with the replacement of U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
It’s time. Gulati has been the president since 2006, and as coincidence would have it, the next election for a new president is in February. Recently enacted term limit rules would allow Gulati to run for one more term, but he would be wise to announce as soon as possible that he will not seek another four years.
Gulati has had successes under his watch. His coaching hires, Jill Ellis and Pia Sundhage, led the U.S. women’s national team to titles at the 2015 Women’s World Cup (Ellis) and the 2008 and ’12 Olympics (Sundhage). The USMNT has advanced to the knockout rounds in two of the four men’s World Cups in which Gulati has been in charge—a decent but not exceptional record. And U.S. Soccer has certainly found economic stability over the last decade, with general secretary Dan Flynn overseeing the business side and the generation of a surplus currently well in excess of $100 million.
What’s more, thanks to Gulati (and to the U.S. governmental investigation of the FIFA scandal), U.S. Soccer has a more powerful voice than ever in the halls of FIFA. That’s not a small thing, and it’s a big reason why the World Cup is almost certainly coming to a U.S.-led North American bid in 2026—which has been spearheaded by Gulati.
But 12 years at the top is plenty for any U.S. Soccer president, and the trends on the field have been backsliding dramatically. Failing to qualify for World Cup 2018 tops the list, obviously, but the USWNT’s earliest-ever exit from a major tournament (at the 2016 Olympics) was another giant red flag, and the U.S. men’s Under-23 team’s inability to qualify for the last two Olympics has prevented a generation—the one that’s largely absent from today’s senior men's team—from gaining valuable experience in an international tournament setting.
In pure soccer hiring terms, Gulati has made some big mistakes. National team coaches should almost never stick around for more than one four-year World Cup cycle. They’re invariably tuned out by players and historically perform worse in their second term than in their first. Gulati shouldn’t have extended Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract before World Cup 2014 and promoted Klinsmann to technical director. Nor after two years of steady decline should Gulati have waited as long as he did before firing Klinsmann in November 2016. Bruce Arena was an obvious short-term choice to try and pick up the pieces to qualify for Russia, but Arena fell apart in the final four games of the Hexagonal, the victim of sticking too much with “his guys” like Omar Gonzalez instead of Geoff Cameron (an English Premier League starter who should be the most important player in the U.S. defense).
What U.S. Soccer needs at the top are fewer social connectors, backroom operators and business experts and more people who are truly savvy when it comes to soccer. The federation also would be better off electing not just a new president but also going through a restructuring that would bring U.S. Soccer out of its lingering mom-and-pop mentality and into the modern era.
What does that mean? For starters, the position of president should become a paid job instead of an unpaid volunteer position. The USSF president has to devote far too many hours per week to the job to keep it unpaid, which prevents people with expertise and interest from wanting to run for it. The U.S. Soccer board has to make this change now, in an emergency session if necessary—the better to draw the best candidates for the February election.
Another giant structural change that should happen is the creation of a U.S. Soccer general manager who is soccer savvy and would have the power to control budgets and dictate strategy in the key area of player development. You can’t have a non-soccer business person holding those pursestrings. In a federation that has too often been driven by small-time operators with their personal fiefdoms, there must be broad political support for this general manager to make the necessary changes, which will no doubt be disruptive to the system. (Klinsmann was ostensibly a disruptor, but he just wasn’t very good at his job.)
The general manager and the president could in theory be the same person, or it could be two people who would work in tandem to hire national team coaches.
Who would I nominate for these positions? Finding a capable new president by February is the most pressing concern time-wise. While you have to admire their ambition, none of the candidates who have expressed their interest so far—Eric Wynalda, Paul Lapointe and Steve Gans—has enough of a track record to suggest he should take over as president. My choice from the U.S. soccer community would be Julie Foudy, a former U.S. captain who has a clear grasp of the issues that matter most, not to mention experience as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The new U.S. Soccer president should be someone with a real presence who gets things done, a change agent who has broad respect, not unlike Alan Rothenberg was when he took over the position in 1991 ahead of hosting the 1994 World Cup. If Foudy isn’t interested, then U.S. Soccer stakeholders should try to draft a terrific soccer-savvy candidate in time for the February election.
And what about the GM position? The best candidate in my opinion would be Garth Lagerwey, the whipsmart Seattle Sounders GM (and former MLS goalkeeper) who has become the Theo Epstein of MLS, bringing championships to Seattle and Salt Lake not long after his arrival. Few people in the U.S. soccer community know the development landscape better than Lagerwey, who has shown the diligence and the smarts to excel in that area.
Once you have a new U.S. Soccer president and a powerful GM in place, they should hire the new USMNT coach, who will have plenty of time to experiment with new players since the U.S.’s next competitive game won’t be until the 2019 Gold Cup. The top American coaching candidates are Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes and U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos. But non-U.S. candidates should be considered as well, including Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio, Atlanta’s Tata Martino, NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira, Belgium’s Roberto Martínez, Lille’s Marcelo Bielsa, Huddersfield’s David Wagner (a German-American who played for the U.S. but views himself as German) and former Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel.
Finally, all the new leaders that come into U.S. Soccer should have a healthy dose of humility. The USMNT, in particular, has a long way to go to compete to win World Cups, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. The World Cup 2018 qualifying debacle should keep everyone in check. Arena, Klinsmann and Gulati have often been lacking in the humility department, as if the USMNT has achieved far more on the world stage than it has actually accomplished.
Some of the most frustrating comments after Tuesday's fiasco came from Arena (who literally said of the future, "Nothing has to change.") and Gulati, who said this when asked if wholesale changes were needed, in reference to Clint Dempsey's late chance that could have preserved the USA's World Cup fate: "You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in."
Taken together, those two statements revealed plenty about U.S. Soccer's resistance to calls for new ideas and strategies.
For his part, Gulati can still play a valuable role in areas where he excels. His term on the FIFA Council runs through 2021, which will allow him to continue to represent the best interests of the U.S. and CONCACAF in a venue where he has acquired considerable power. (It’s no exaggeration to say that Gulati was one of the primary actors who swung last year’s FIFA presidential election to Gianni Infantino.) There’s also little reason to remove Gulati from a position in charge of organizing World Cup ’26 in the U.S., Mexico and Canada—a project where he can leave a lasting legacy.
He just shouldn’t be the U.S. Soccer president anymore. U.S. Soccer won’t get many obvious opportunities to make the necessary changes to join the modern era. The time is now.