In the coming days and weeks and months, everything will be under the microscope. An ocean of time stretches out before U.S. Soccer to set things right. To correct the many things that have gone wrong, the series of events that ultimately manifested into the senior men’s national team’s inability to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018 — the first edition the Americans will miss since 1986.
There is almost a half-decade for review and reform before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is here. And in the immediate aftermath, everything will be assessed. Everything. From the very bottom of the food chain, where soccer is played at the youngest age groups, all the way to the top-end of the United States Soccer Federation administration. Well, almost all the way.
Because everything, it seems, will be scrutinized except for one thing.
Actually, make that one person.
Sunil Gulati. The president of the United States Soccer Federation since 2006 and an influential member at the federation for the last three decades.
While head coach Bruce Arena has resigned and the clamor for Gulati’s ouster has risen sharply since Tuesday’s debacle, the 58-year-old, who also sits on FIFA’s powerful Council and is a noted mover within the global governing body, ruled out an early departure on a conference call with journalists on Friday.
“I’m not planning to,” Gulati said, while indicating that he had not yet decided if he would run for a fourth four-year term in February – when he will likely face a challenger, or several, for the very first time.
“I take full responsibility,” said Gulati. “No, I don’t plan to resign. It’s not the right day for me talk about my personal future plans in terms of the federation’s presidency.”
It begs the question when, if not in the aftermath of the most startling failure of either national team in the federation’s 104-year history, it actually is the right day to talk about the continued service of its highest-ranking official. Those “future plans” after all, are not “personal.” They concern the entire, unwieldy vastness of soccer in the United States.
If not now, when do we ask how key hiring decisions are made — that the president of U.S. Soccer signs off on by himself? It not now, when do we question such a top-heavy governance? Or the process by which the steady decline of a national team is rationalized for year after year?
Everything else will be examined and assessed and pored over. “We are going to look at everything we do on the technical side, on the men’s side,” Gulati said. “And it’s something we do after every major competition, whether we’ve been successful or unsuccessful. This will obviously be a much deeper dive, given that we haven’t qualified for the first time in 28 years. But we’ll look at everything, from our player development programs, to our coaching, to our refereeing, to our facilities, to the pay-to-play model, to the role of education and universities; all of those things.”
Note the glaring omission there: the role and accountability of the president.
“Where we need to make major changes, we’ll do that,” Gulati continued. “Where we need to make incremental changes, we’ll do that. We’ll take our time with that. We will take a deep dive into that. We’ll probably get some external help, so as not to be insular in how we look at these things. But basically everything will be looked at.”
Everything? Not quite.
Because time and again, when Gulati deflected questions about his own position, and whether it was being considered – by himself, primarily, since the rest of the Board of Directors doesn’t seem to have the authority to oust an elected president.
“I don’t think that’s a decision that you or I get to make,” said Gulati. “That’s a decision that people that get to vote make.”
Instead of addressing his future, Gulati defended his record. “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 of those things, those things didn’t happen overnight,” Gulati said. “Those things 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.”
He isn’t resigning, Gulati said, “Because of everything – 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 [ongoing 2026] World Cup bid. The sport is in a very, very different place than it was 10 years ago, or 30 years ago when I first got involved. So it’s all of that.”
The enormous body of work that Gulati has toiled toward over three decades to further the sport does indeed merit consideration. But it also distracts from his shortcomings in the much more recent past.
In the immediate wake of the fateful loss in Trinidad and Tobago, Gulati blamed the bounces of the game. This neglects the years of problems that preceded the moments where a bounce or two were given the chance to lead to a ruinous outcome for U.S. Soccer. Blaming the brief thud of Clint Dempsey’s late shot off the post for a cavalcade of disappointments and failures is akin to blaming a flood on the final wave to breach the levee.
Gulati acknowledged the disappointment and calls for his head, yet seemed to suggest that there’s too much going on for him to step away from the job now. “Sure, I can understand the frustration with people,” Gulati said. “We’ve got a lot of things on our agenda, including a World Cup bid that is due in the end of March, and a decision that is due in June.”
By distracting from recent losses by pointing to the horizon, Gulati attempts to gloss over a series of personnel decisions that can be questioned. Was Arena the right hire? Even in retrospect, it seems that he probably was. Gulati may well have gotten that right, because the team was digging out of a hole so deep plenty of others would have fared worse. But that it got that far at all, that Jurgen Klinsmann was retained long enough to get the U.S. in so much trouble – in the standings, but much more so in the form of a broken team – is a fault in oversight. And that has to be laid at Gulati’s feet.
But then somebody has to place it there. And if the president himself won’t, there isn’t the governance structure at the federation for someone else to do it.
And in any honest evaluation of where it all went wrong, you have to go all the way to the top.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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