U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati addressed a variety of subjects during a 30-minute roundtable discussion with American reporters Wednesday in Recife. Excerpts:
On the critical Germany match Thursday …
“It’s a huge game. The emotions of three nights ago were up and down. If you said you would be on four points, you would have taken it. So that part is on schedule: You wanted to be Ghana and get at least a point against Portugal. The way the game ended was obviously disappointing to all of us but we go into the Germany game with a chance to win the group, a chance to advance, and so that is exciting. It’s exciting not only for the team, but it’s exciting and important for everything that is going on back home. To be able to keep that level of interest for another 4, 5, 6 and hopefully more days would be great for the sport.”
Is advancing necessary to justify Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract extension? “If we needed that, we would have made the contract conditional. Clearly there is a difference in going 0-3 and getting hammered in three games than going out in one of the toughest groups and getting four points. In both scenarios, you don’t advance. That’s not good. The expectations of the odds-makers may have been different, but the hopes and expectations that Jurgen had, that I had, that [USSF CEO] Dan [Flynn] had are no different: We want to get out of this group. Will there be less heat about that if we get four points and don’t advance? Of course. If we advance, then Dan is a genius!”
What convinced you to commit to Jurgen for an additional four years?
“It’s not just about a game or the result. It’s about everything we are seeing, where the program is heading, the message that is going out from top to bottom. It’s about player development, and you will see Jurgen more involved in those sorts of things in this next cycle, partly because in the first year  we are not involved in [World Cup] qualifying. We decided, even given the risks of three important games, that we were willing to make that commitment.”
Is there anything you can point to in terms of player development that Jurgen has done better than his predecessors?
“If we hadn’t had the last 20 years, I don’t think Jurgen could have walked in and had the success he has had on the field. So this has been a process. What Bruce did with the team over his tenure, what Bob Bradley took us to, now Jurgen is taking us to another level in terms of the whole picture. It’s a number of things. Maybe one of the things I often talk about [concerning] Jurgen, it’s confidence. It fits perfectly with the American mentality, which is, ‘We can.’ Now there is a difference between believing that we can be capable in getting players to believe it than saying we are going to win World Cup. I fully appreciate the minute the draw ended and we got the tough group, he said we are going to get through the group, and he meant it and believed it.”
Are you surprised where the team is right now under Jurgen?
“We have done almost everything we had hoped for. We’ve got the best record we’ve ever had over a two-year period. We’ve won the Gold Cup. We were first in qualifying. And we are sitting in position to win the group. We have a lot of people talking and getting excited. Jurgen is also part of that. The brand of U.S. soccer, there is certainly a lot more interest in the team and there is more interest in him than any coach we have had. He is unique in that way – that is partly the German-American issue, the American family, who he is as coach, who he was as a player.”
About the United States being an underdog …
“Jurgen is right when he says that we are not underdogs. Our players don’t believe we are underdogs. For the first time in our recent history, our players believe they are capable of beating anyone. That doesn’t mean we think we are the favorites in any game, but we are capable of beating anyone. Our players, our coach, we all believe that. Our play has demonstrated that is the case.”
After success in Brazil, is CONCACAF in line for additional World Cup slots in the future?
“I don’t know. So much of that ends up in negotiation and it’s early to say that. It’s not based on one World Cup. Clearly the Asian teams’ [performance], the African teams’ [performance], that would certainly be a very positive sign [for CONCACAF], but it’s not just about advancing; it’s about what happens from there. You get a couple of CONCACAF teams in the quarters, that would go a long way and send a pretty strong message.”
Your reaction to Klinsmann’s comments about a scheduling bias toward bigger teams?
“There are advantages to being a seeded team. That is the reality of it. We weren’t that far from being a seeded team. It’s not just the big teams that are seeded, now that FIFA has gone to a system where it’s based purely on their ranking. It wasn’t necessarily the traditional powers.”
It’s harder to raise your ranking and improve your chances for seeding when you play in CONCACAF, right?
“No. You have to do really well here. You get big points for big competitions. The only reason it’s tougher in CONCACAF is because the Gold Cup doesn’t have a lot of [highly] ranked teams. But we play a lot of ranked teams these days. We’ve played Russia, we’ve played Germany, we’ve played Italy – that is why we are sitting at 13 right now [in the FIFA rankings]. If we do well here, my guess is we would get into the top 10.”
Reaction to World Cup TV ratings back home …
“The ratings are fantastic. It’s one of those few times where it’s predicted. I said if the U.S. does well here, we are going to set ratings records, and we have. I think it will continue if we do well. Thursday will be a little trickier because it’s a day-time game on a weekday. What else is going on in the States — fanfests, stadiums opening up to put on the games, water-cooler talk, bars that aren’t traditionally showing soccer, where you [used to] have to bay the bartender to put soccer on — those of us who have been involved in the game for a long time would dream of, and hopefully we can keep that level of intensity where it is. That won’t continue after the World Cup; no one imagines that is what it’s going to be like the following week for national team games. But we’re on a positive trend line in this sport; what this does is jump us up to a much higher trend line.”
Is the reaction back home what you expected?
“It’s better than I expected. It’s not better than what we dream about, but it’s better than expected. The pictures we are getting, the messages we are getting, it’s fantastic. It’s pretty easy to get emotional. You are wanting to see this day happen. It’s not THE day. That day is to come. That day is still to come. That day has got a trophy involved.”
Does the criticism of having German-American players bother you?
“It doesn’t bother me. A little bit of it, I understand. I don’t agree with it — the notion that those players are any less American. We’ve got [four] players who were born outside the United States because they have a serviceman father who was serving the country. It’s pretty hard to convince me or anybody else that they have less of a right to play for the United States than others. … We take those players that are eligible to play for us. We can talk about those players that played in the last World Cup for Serbia or Mexico or missed out on the last two World Cups for Italy because of an injury. It’s a globalized world. We haven’t done anything to expedite citizenship for any players. Those guys were all American at birth.”
Those players, however, were developed in another country. Does it concern you that the national team has had to rely on players developed outside the U.S.?
“I believe development begins at conception. [laughter] Not all of them are on the field. So there are still a lot of players on the field who came through the U.S. system. And you have players with other national teams in the World Cup that came through MLS. So I don’t worry too much about what signals that sends on our development system. Compared to years ago, we obviously have far more [national team] players who are playing in MLS currently – or have played in MLS. We are not satisfied where we are in the development process; we’re satisfied we’re moving in the right direction.”
Have you noticed a sense of a changing perception about the U.S. team?
“No doubt about it. It’s no longer the perception of, say, 20 years ago: The U.S. will fight and is strong and fast and will keep working. Now, especially after that Portugal game, people are saying, ‘Wow, they played.’ To keep those perceptions moving in the right direction, we’ve got to get results. The perceptions would have been a lot better if we had held on to the win, but I don’t think anyone has underestimated us for a long time. People are saying, ‘This is a real team.’ ”
Do you appreciate how the narrative can change with this one game after maybe getting lucky against Ghana and blowing the lead against Portugal?
“Absolutely. It spins completely on a missed putt, a missed jump shot. Go back to 2002: We were, but not for a handball, [maybe] going to the semifinals. There is another narrative: We are already out of the tournament if Portugal doesn’t self-destructs to South Korea. This is razor-thin stuff, and it’s true for everybody. The narrative that is consistent and constant is that the sport is in a different place. What is going on back home is completely different than it was even four years ago. It’s as if we have had 10 consecutive nights of Landon’s goal. And that means the sport is in a different place. Will the trend line be a little higher and little steeper if we get through tomorrow’s game? Yes. We are confident that will happen.”
On MLS’s impact on the national team …
“The league is absolutely critical not only to where we are today, but where we want to go in the future. It’s not just the players that are here; it’s what is going on in MLS markets, it’s the youth system that we have been able to change pretty dramatically with the support of the league. I don’t believe that the United States with 320 million people is going to have an export-driven model in terms of player development. We are not going to have all of our best players playing overseas forever. While that may be a great model for Denmark, Holland, we have 320 million people. We are going to have a first-rate league, and a league that will be able to attract and retain most of our best players. We are getting there.”
Hope Solo is back in the news, and not for good reasons. How much does it trouble you that one of American soccer’s most recognizable soccer players finds herself in this situation again? “We’ll be talking to Hope and her representatives in the next 24 hours and it’s inappropriate to say anything else until some of these processes play out.”