PHILADELPHIA — Sunil Gulati decided about six weeks ago not to seek a fourth term as U.S. Soccer Federation president, but the eight-candidate battle royale that’ll determine his replacement next month has, at times, made him feel like he’s still in the thick of the race.
To one extent or another, all eight are running against Gulati’s record.
“I fully appreciate than when you’re running for office as a non-incumbent, you’ve got to say, ‘I’m in favor of change,’” he said.
During a Thursday Q&A at the annual United Soccer Coaches convention, Gulati acknowledged his record was sullied by the USA’s failure to qualify for this summer’s World Cup. But 12 years at the federation’s helm, and his more than three decades in the sport, shouldn’t be evaluated based on one result, he argued. That’s why Gulati said he didn’t resign immediately after the October loss in Trinidad and why he told moderator Alexi Lalas that some of the recent politicking has disappointed him.
“I have found a lot of the discourse depressing and disgusting, frankly,” Gulati told the gathering at the Philadelphia Convention Center. “I’ve been to the last 34 U.S. Soccer AGMs … and I’ve been to the last 30 out of 31 of these conventions, and at all those AGMs, the mood’s been really good. Finances, teams and everything else … across the board. And then it seems the world fell apart in the last 30 days.”
He continued, tongue-in-cheek, “There are [complaints] about the [qualifier]. But it’s about everything. It’s about transparency. It’s about on-field performance. It’s about decision making. It’s about the failure of everyone in the room, and I’m at the top of that. Because the sport is completely broken and nothing good is going on. That’s all nonsense.”
The eight presidential candidates also are at the convention, where more than 12,000 coaches and soccer stakeholders will be meeting through Sunday. They’ll participate in an open forum on Saturday. Among those vying for Gulati’s office are four former players (Paul Caligiuri, Kyle Martino, Hope Solo and Eric Wynalda), two current administrators (Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter and USSF VP Carlos Cordeiro) and two independent attorneys (Steve Gans and Michael Winograd).
Gulati, who attended a dinner last month with Carter, MLS commissioner Don Garber and voters from two state associations, answered, “possibly” when Lalas asked if he was supporting a particular candidate. But he stopped short of naming names.
“You can support someone without endorsing them. In the last week, I’ve talked to three candidates. Two have asked for advice and one got some advice without asking for it,” he said. “I’ll make a public endorsement when I’m ready to do that.”
Lalas wondered if Gulati was “impressed” with any of the eight candidates.
“We certainly have some I think are more qualified than others, and some that are far less qualified than what I think is appropriate for the office,” Gulati said.
“Can we make improvements in all those areas I just touched on? The answer is, of course we can,” he added.
But tough decisions, competing constituencies and financial realities make many of the “nonsensical solutions that are being proposed by candidates,” unrealistic for the USSF, Gulati said.
If there was a primary takeaway from the the Q&A, at least as far as the election is concerned, it’s that Gulati is convinced his successor will find sitting in his seat far more complicated than criticizing his performance.
“Like what,” Lalas asked.
“How many of them do you want? We only have an hour,” Gulati shot back.
He then rattled off three issues that fall into the far-easier-to-identify-than-solve category.
‘Pay to play’ in youth soccer
U.S. Soccer currently has a $150 million surplus, Gulati confirmed (a healthy chunk of which—around $60 million—was earned thanks to the Copa América Centenario in 2016). But he claimed the federation would have to “generate $150 million a month, every month,” to end pay-to-play.
“There’s nowhere in the world that has no play-to-play. What you want to do is make sure that anybody who can’t afford it [has access], but you’ve got millions of kids playing and the thought that we’re going to end pay-to-play is nonsensical,” he said.
Promotion and relegation
Gulati insisted he was “agnostic” on the issue of promotion and relegation, while stressing that instituting it “the day after tomorrow” also was an impossibility.
“There’s a whole bunch of people that came in on one set of rules. And some of them paid $150 million and built a stadium for another $250 million based on a certain set of rules,” Gulati said of MLS owners. “If they sit down and talk with other leagues and decide, ‘We want to do this, promotion and relegation, for all the reasons people think are positive’—fantastic. We, as a federation, aren’t going to be able to legislate it. And anyone who thinks we can without everyone’s agreement is going to end up with nine judges in Washington.”
Lalas asked if FIFA could force MLS’s collective hand.
“Then they’re going to end up with nine judges in Washington,” Gulati answered.
“There are some pros and there are some negatives. And I’ve read and looked at and talked to people about all of those things,” he continued. “In a salary cap world, when you don’t have 60 teams or three divisions and you’re starting from scratch, shouldn’t [pro/rel] be the way to go? There’s no evidence of that. There are some big-time pros … Is that possible? Sure. But my point is that it’s not in the hands of the federation president.”
The professional calendar
USSF presidential candidates aren’t the only ones suggesting that MLS (or American pro soccer in general) run a fall-to-spring season like the big European leagues. Long-time FIFA kingpin Sepp Blatter did as well as the USA was bidding to host the 2022 World Cup.
During that time, Gulati said, MLS “looked it at every which way, upside-down and backwards.”
Gulati said he told Blatter, “New York and Toronto are not London in January. They are Moscow and Helsinki in January.”
Blatter then made a curving motion with his hands and said, “You must do this…You must have domed stadiums.”
Gulati replied, “So now we’re going to build soccer-specific domed stadiums? And seven years ago, MLS wasn’t exactly cash positive. … I’d love to see the season a little bit longer, in terms of player development. And all the technical guys agree with me on that. But the thought that we can have a month break in December and January, what do you do? We’re going to play on March 4 in New York at Red Bull [Arena] with the women’s team. This isn’t worrying about the temperature being 12 degrees or 28 degrees. We could have two feet of snow on the ground.”
Ideally, MLS wouldn't play during FIFA international windows. The league feels the same way, Gulati said. But weather, TV considerations, stadium availability, the school year and a host of other factors compete for schedulers’ attention.
“My point about the nonsensical solutions—some of them may be solutions—but it’s not as if no one knows about it, or no one hasn’t thought about them,” he said. “It’s not of lack of knowledge of the issues. You just can’t do everything you want as quickly as you [want].”
Gulati said there were things he was proud of during his 12-year tenure, things he wish had gone better, criticism that was baseless and criticism that was fair. And he took “full blame” for the World Cup qualification failure. But his successor undoubtedly will leave with a nuanced legacy as well, and it didn’t sound like Gulati felt the candidates fully appreciate the complexity of his position. There, the questions are almost as convoluted as the answers.
“People are saying a lot of things they can’t possibly live up to,” Gulati said.
Why not invest a healthy chunk of that $150 million surplus in the U.S. Open Cup, an audience member wondered.
“So, the next question—and it’s not just for me, it’s for the board and four our membership—where do you want to spend [it]," Gulati said. "The ‘Why not spend it on the Open Cup,’ I can follow with the following questions: Why not spend it on more money for the NWSL? Why not spend it on more reductions or subsidizing coaching schools and coaching programs? Why not spend more on compensation for the women’s national team? Why not spend it more on entry-level refers programs, and 10 other things?
“The people who are elected to leadership positions have to make those decisions.”