A few hours before the U.S. World Cup qualifying opener in St. Louis on Friday, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati met with a group of reporters to discuss Jurgen Klinsmann, the national team, the broader program, FIFA and other matters, including everyone’s favorite, promotion and relegation.
Is there a performance metric Jurgen needs to reach early in World Cup qualifying?
“We did meet after the Mexico game very briefly and in New Jersey [before the Costa Rica friendly]. And then when we met two weeks ago – [CEO] Dan [Flynn], Jurgen and I – in Washington when the women’s team was there [for the White House ceremony]. That was certainly the most in-depth of the discussions because it was after the two [October] games. But I don’t know if we have ever given any coach of our teams a specific metric and specific result and said, ‘If this happens, everything’s good. If this happens, it’s not.’
“We have certain targets and goals that are different for each of our teams, but I am not sure it would be appropriate to have a specific metric for a game or two games. But it’s pretty well understood qualifying for the World Cup is the specific target and many of our agreements with coaches, not just in the senior team, there are clauses in terms of continued employment if X, Y or Z doesn’t happen, in terms of our desire to make a change. But we didn’t get into specific ‘We need to win these two games’ or ‘We need to beat St. Vincent by this amount of goals.’ ”
Is there a level of concern about whether you are on the right path?
“Of course, there is a concern. We have had some results which didn’t go our way, both in terms of wins and losses and play. Of course, that raises concerns. The more of those you have, the more concerns are raised, and they compound very quickly. But it’s not about individual games – wins or losses. We didn’t get too exuberant about beating Germany and Holland away [in June friendlies]. When you lose a single game at the Gold Cup, it’s a huge disappointment and then not winning the third-place game adds a little bit to that and then having not a good result against Brazil compounds that. In some sense, that is salvageable if you win the game against Mexico. We didn’t do that. It wouldn’t erase the fact we didn’t get those results. We had a chance for a mulligan [with a second opportunity to qualify for the Confederations Cup] and missed it. That’s a huge opportunity missed.”
Beyond the results, how concerned are you about the way the team is playing and the direction of the team?
“I don’t think we’ve been on a good run. There are concerns. I don’t mean they get masked by good results, but we’re talking about a relative short amount of time. Sure, we are concerned about that.”
Do you see progress on Klinsmann’s job as the technical director?
“That part of it is two-fold because there are short-term results and long-term player development. Clearly, the long-term player development, you don’t know the results until much further down the road. We’ve done a lot of things there that Jurgen has been in the middle of, whether it’s the expansion of the academy or the age-group rules. That doesn’t mean he necessarily created all those things. On the other side of it, the results of the youth teams and under-23 team, Richie Williams and Tab Ramos were involved before Jurgen was national team coach. Andi Herzog wasn’t. So it’s not as if we are changing all the coaches and Jurgen said these are next. The results this year are mixed. If the Olympic team qualifies and the under-20s lost to Serbia in the quarters on penalty kicks, that’s not bad. The under-17s were obviously disappointing. If the Olympic team doesn’t qualify, the whole experience is tougher. With the under-17s, we thought we had a good cycle and a good group of players.
“I was at the final games in Chile. Looking at the finalists and seeing what the games were like, we are long way off from what Nigeria and Mali were at and frankly Mexico against Belgium. So that raises some concerns on the player development side, for sure.”
Is your confidence in Jurgen been shaken amid this run of results?
“Every time you don’t win a game, you think differently about everything. Every time you win a game, the same. But you have to balance those peaks and valleys. … This has been a tough period, for sure, the hardest period since Jurgen has been coach, both in terms of results and in terms of the public questioning of what he’s doing and what we’re doing. That’s normal. When you have the worst results, that’s when you get the most questions.”
The meeting in D.C., which lasted more than two hours, what can you say about the exchange?
“Jurgen didn’t need to hear from Dan or I that we have concerns. He knew that based on the results. We made that very clear and we raised some specifics concerns – quite an open dialogue about some of the issues he has seen, some of the issues we’ve seen. But I am not going to get into his response on X, Y and Z. We clearly weren’t in a good place, and the fundamental question is: What are we doing to make sure this string of results and the way we are headed is not the way we are going to be in November, January and beyond.”
Jurgen seems to find scapegoats and place blame. He seems to want to deflect. Is it something you’ve noticed and does it bother you?
“Noticed and discussed. Everyone has their own style. In the end, he’s the coach, but we’ve talked about some of those issues, for sure.”
There have been some reports Jurgen has had some technical responsibilities taken away. Is that true?
“They are incorrect. … There has been no change.”
What is more important: the short-term results or the long-term reforms?
“It’s both. The problem is, you can’t measure the second until much further down the road.”
Can it be said Jurgen has the job through the World Cup cycle?
“I don’t know anyone who would say, ‘No matter what happens, this is what we are going to do.’ That would be silly. We expect to qualify, we expect Jurgen to be the coach, but I don’t think anyone can honestly say, ‘Regardless of what happens, this is what we’re going to do.’ It’s unrealistic.”
You are on the FIFA executive committee. Have you seen progress with FIFA since the fallout last May?
“To say it’s been tumultuous is an understatement. The news and the shoes dropping, I’d like to say were beyond belief, but one’s benchmark for ‘beyond belief’ changes given some of the things we’ve found out. We’ll know much more when my colleagues at the executive committee submit a set of recommendations for substantial changes and the congress approves them. The first part of the process isn’t done yet because authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have said there is more to come. And so we are going through a very painful process. We’re doing everything we can from our end to push reform in the right direction that are pretty much the norm in a number of organizations around the world. Sports, in general, has under-prepared in this area – overwhelmed. Even FIFA got displaced by the events at IAAF [track and field scandal]. … A difficult period, lot of chapters still to go, I think.”
Will the USSF support Jordan’s Prince Ali again for FIFA president this winter?
“We haven’t, at this point, made any public declaration of what we’re going to do. As we did last time, we will meet with all of the candidates. I’ve met with some of them already and then we will make a decision.”
Why not back Prince Ali right away this time around?
“I think very highly of Prince Ali, but in fairness to the process, we will meet everyone and then make a decision.”
Do you think FIFA can reform from within?
“I hope so. Right now, it’s not purely internal. This reform wasn’t out of a process, ‘Okay, it’s time, we’ve had some concerns, let’s do things.’ This was a process that was initiated in the first case by what happened five years ago [with World Cup venue selections]. In this most recent case, by the action of governmental authorities. It’s already external in that sense. Pressure is being brought externally, whether it’s commercial partners or legal authorities. I am hopeful there will be a serious set of reforms, and a big part of that has to be a cultural change. It’s not just about rules. It starts at the top and has to go through the entire organization.”
Have you met with investigators concerning the FIFA scandal?
“I don’t think anyone at U.S. Soccer is going to comment on anything to do with on-going investigations.”
Why didn’t you appear at the congressional hearing in July instead of Flynn?
“When we were first asked, it was a pretty broad range of subjects that were suggested, everything from FIFA to concussions to the general issues to the human rights issues. Dan is as versed in those, if not better in some of those, than I am. It’s not as if we sent our summer intern; we sent the CEO of the organization. Frankly, we didn’t know the other participants in the panel until a couple of days before. Once you saw the other members, it was clear it was going to be more about [FIFA]. Might we have done some things differently? Perhaps. But that was the rationale and I think it made sense.”
Were you advised by counsel not to go?
“We talked about it with counsel. We came to a decision that made the most sense for the organization.”
Can you understand the perception that you dodged the committee?
“I am not going to comment on the perception. If the people there had been three others, it would have been completely different, but that’s hindsight. … If I had been there, it’s pretty hard to differentiate between a FIFA role and a U.S. Soccer role. That probably played into it, as well.”
Were you suspicious of Chuck Blazer’s activities, given the opulence of his life?
“Chuck was a good friend for a long time and had a lifestyle that was different than mine but was involved in financial markets separate from what he did in the soccer world.”
As one of the two largest federations in this part of the world, how much responsibility does USSF have to make sure things at CONCACAF are on the up and up?
“We certainly have a responsibility in that area. We are doing everything we can going forward that things are run in a more appropriate and professional way.”
Where was that five, 10, 15 years ago?
“You get financial reports that are audited. I am not sure, as one of 35 federations getting those, what you are supposed to uncover when you have audited financials.”
When Jack Warner was in charge, wasn’t it someone close to him involved in that process?
“As it turns out, after the fact, yes. It got exposed not by the investigation but by the integrity report.”
Andrew Jennings was writing about this stuff for a long time. Were you aware of what was going on?
“Of course, you would have heard those things. But with all of that out there, if the investigation started is 2011, four years later is when indictments came with the full force of the Swiss and American governments. I don’t know how one reacts to rumors and anything else.”
Thoughts on promotion and relegation being implemented into the U.S. pro system …
“The landscape of the United States, when it comes to sports, is completely different than the rest of the world. In all of our major team sports, we have playoffs. That’s not the norm everywhere else. The origins of the game are quite different and the way promotion and relegation started organically in Europe and Latin America with, in some cases, company teams, it’s just completely different. That’s not saying one is better than the other – it’s just the reality of it.
“And when people enter [a league here] under one set of rules, to change those rules by a third party, in this case a governing body, is fraught with peril. Does that mean promotion and relegation could never happen? No, I’m not saying that. But to think that we, from the federation’s standpoint, say, ‘It’s happening,’ that is different than when it happens organically.”
Does the federation have the power to dictate promotion and relegation?
“I think it’s say to safe that if the federation imposed all the powers it might have there would be very long discussions with many people with high LSAT scores.”