Sunil Gulati has decided to end his 12-year reign as U.S. Soccer president by not running in February’s election, and the initial reaction is: Maybe the United States is finally becoming a soccer country. It was clear to most people that Gulati didn’t deserve to be rewarded with another four years on the job in the wake of the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for World Cup 2018.
It took Gulati a bit longer to realize that, but he finally did, telling ESPN.com’s Sam Borden on Monday that he wouldn’t be running for re-election. (SI.com had reported Saturday night that Gulati was strongly considering not running and may support Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter, who is expected to announce her candidacy this week.)
Here are three thoughts on Gulati’s decision:
Gulati will still have a big role in American soccer
The Columbia University economics lecturer wears many hats, and the U.S. Soccer presidency was only one of them. I fully expect Gulati will serve out his four-year term on the powerful FIFA Council through 2021, a job that pays him around $300,000 a year. (The USSF presidency has paid him nothing.) Also, Gulati will potentially head the organizing committee for World Cup 2026 if the combined USA-Mexico-Canada bid beats Morocco to win the hosting rights next June 13 in Moscow.
Gulati has spearheaded the efforts for the 2026 bid committee, and his power base inside FIFA remains high. Keep in mind: Alan Rothenberg, who chaired the organizing committee for World Cup 1994, was given a $7 million bonus afterward for his efforts. If World Cup 2026 is as successful as many would imagine, Gulati could walk away with far more than that. In some ways, U.S. Soccer president is the least powerful of those three positions.
Gulati’s legacy as U.S. Soccer president includes some big highs and crushing lows
The high points were significant: Gulati hired Jill Ellis just a year before the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and Ellis went on to lead the team to the title. He also hired Pia Sundhage a year before the 2008 Olympics, and she led the USWNT to two Olympic gold medals. In the three full men’s World Cup cycles of Gulati’s reign, the U.S. advanced to the knockout rounds in two (good!) but then failed to qualify at all for Russia 2018 (disaster). Gulati certainly deserved his share of the blame for that disaster, not least because of his dubious decisions to extend Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract months before Brazil 2014 and his far-too-late removal of Klinsmann in November 2016.
The business side of U.S. Soccer certainly expanded during Gulati’s tenure—though much of that is due to CEO Dan Flynn. One area where Gulati’s achievements are unquestioned is his raising of the U.S.’s status at FIFA. He helped swing the FIFA presidential election to Gianni Infantino in 2016, and even though losing out to Qatar on hosting World Cup 2022 to Qatar was a crushing defeat, Gulati is in position to gain redemption with the World Cup 2026 decision coming in June.
The U.S. Soccer presidential campaign is wide open now
If Carter enters the race, that would be eight declared candidates ahead of the deadline for nominations on Dec. 12. Not all the candidates will get the required three nominations to be official candidates in the February election, but it’s likely that five or six will do so. The current candidates are (in alphabetical order): Paul Caligiuri, Carlos Cordeiro, Steve Gans, Paul Lapointe, Kyle Martino, Michael Winograd and Eric Wynalda. The voting blocs include the pro council, the youth council, the amateur council and the athletes council, as well as the board of directors.
There hasn’t been a contested U.S. Soccer presidential election since 1998, but with Gulati out of the race you can be certain that it will be a wild next couple of months.