In the wake of the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying disaster and the press conference held by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati on Friday, the challenge is now clear: With Gulati extremely likely to run for another four-year term as president in February, a credible challenger needs to emerge before the nominating deadline on Dec. 10.
Right now, with all due respect to those who have announced their intentions, there isn’t one—which is to say, someone with the gravitas that Alan Rothenberg had when he took over as U.S. Soccer president in 1990 ahead of hosting World Cup 1994. Who’s going to step up to the plate and run?
What will the stakeholders that pour millions of dollars into U.S. Soccer do behind the scenes to make sure a credible candidate emerges? We’re talking about sponsors (Nike, Coca-Cola, Continental Tire, Liberty Mutual and others) and television rights holders (Fox Sports, ESPN, Univision). And once the election does take place in early February, will the voters introduce the notion of true accountability to the leadership of a U.S. Soccer Federation that acts too often like a mom-and-pop operation that doesn’t have any?
Accountability did apply to U.S. men's coach Bruce Arena, who resigned on Friday. But here was the exchange I had with Gulati—who refused to say he would not run for re-election—on Friday’s teleconference:
Question: “You have yet to announce that you will not run again for the U.S. Soccer presidency in February. Knowing that you have already had 12 years in the presidency and can still have a big impact on the FIFA Council until 2021 and by leading the organization of World Cup ’26, why would it be a good thing after this shock to the system—and your role in it—for you to be rewarded with four more years as U.S. Soccer president?”
Gulati: “I don’t think that’s a decision that you or I get to make. It’s a decision that people who get to vote make. I don’t judge … Bruce’s record on this last game but by the totality of everything he’s done. And if I look at the totality of where we’ve come from and where the game is generally now with our professional leagues, with player development, with our economic resources, all those things, those things don’t happen overnight. And they didn’t happen on their own. So I think if you look at all of that, then I’ll make a decision and voting delegates can make a decision.”
Later, Gulati was asked directly: Why are you not resigning right now? And why are you entertaining the prospect of another four years given what just happened?
His response: “Because of where the sport is now and the role I’ve played in it and the role I think I can play going forward if I choose to run. Plus we have the World Cup bid. The sport is in a very different place than it was 10 years ago or 30 years ago when I first got involved. So it’s all of that.”
Look, Gulati is a talented guy who has given a lot to the sport in the United States over the past 30 years. His current term on the FIFA board runs through 2021, and he gets a nice six-figure annual salary for that and can do what he does best: Work the corridors of power in FIFA, raise the U.S.’s standing there and help seal the deal next June for what should be a fait accompli: Winning the right for the U.S., Mexico and Canada to host World Cup 2026. Heck, Gulati can even run the World Cup 2026 organizing committee and leave a terrific legacy.
But he doesn’t need to be the U.S. Soccer president to do any of those things. Twelve years as president is enough, and accountability means making way for new leaders when things go horribly wrong under your watch. Yet Gulati is almost certain to run again. He acknowledged on Friday that he has reached out to constituents about endorsing and/or nominating him for re-election in the last few weeks.
Back in the late 1990s, when Gulati was the deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer, the running joke was that MLS stood for “More or Less Sunil.” His comments on Friday suggested that he feels U.S. Soccer is the same: L’état, c’est moi. But it isn’t, nor should it be. And just as MLS has grown and done well since Gulati departed in 1999, U.S. Soccer can do just fine without having Gulati wearing so many of the hats in power.
The fact remains, however, that as of now there is no credible candidate to challenge Gulati for the U.S. Soccer presidency. Part of that is due to the ludicrous rule that the USSF presidency is an unpaid position. That prevents all sorts of talented candidates from wanting to run for the office. The board of U.S. Soccer should change that rule in an emergency session as soon as possible. There’s no time to waste; the nomination deadline is in less than two months.
When the election for the U.S. Soccer president takes place in February, this is how the voting will break down:
Youth Council: 25.8%
Adult Council: 25.8%
Professional Council: 25.8%
Athletes Council: 20%
Obviously, U.S. Soccer has plenty of complex problems that need to be dealt with in the coming weeks, months and years. There are few easy answers, and Gulati was right to say that a massive examination of the U.S. Soccer system is necessary, including using the help of outside consultants.
But I would take it a step further and institute something similar to the Steinbrenner Commission, which issued a report in 1989, which prescribed sweeping changes to the U.S. Olympic Committee that placed an increased emphasis on winning medals after the U.S.’s fiasco at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. The recommendations from the Steinbrenner Commission are still followed today by U.S. Olympic athletes.
The most pressing matter right now, however, is for a dynamite U.S. Soccer presidential candidate to emerge in the next 58 days. Who wants the job?