Two weeks ago, Sunil Gulati made the personally difficult but professionally prudent move to fire Jurgen Klinsmann. Now, the U.S. Soccer Federation president needs to make another hard but necessary decision: announce he will not seek reelection in 2018.
He said he hasn’t decided whether to pursue a fourth term. He has always run unopposed, and unless a serious challenger were to come forth, he would win again. Which isn’t a terrible thing. American soccer could do a whole lot worse than re-electing Gulati.
The federation, though, recognizes the importance of new ideas and fresh perspectives. That’s why, under Gulati’s leadership, it is seeking to revise the bylaws and introduce term limits for elected officials.
Consider this quote: “Reinvigorating with new people is something that makes sense.”
Who said it? Gulati. A month ago while discussing the reform package.
Were the USSF to approve term limits, Gulati could still remain in power. The proposal calls for a maximum of three four-year terms, which Gulati will have exhausted. But it also includes a provision allowing anyone at his limit when the rule was implemented to run for one last term. In which case, he wouldn’t have to yield until 2022.
It shouldn’t come to that. The federation needs change to come about not only through bylaws but self-inspection.
Gulati has served atop the USSF hierarchy for more than a decade, introducing important initiatives, untangling bureaucratic messes and working international soccer’s halls of power. It shouldn’t take failure of a World Cup qualifying campaign or a pack of pitchfork-carrying zealots demanding promotion and relegation in the pro game to run him off. He needs to accept that, for the betterment of the federation and the sport, he should stand down and welcome a successor in 2018. A dozen years is plenty.
Gulati has been good for the game in the United States. While a full-time staff in Chicago powers the federation on a daily basis, the Columbia University senior lecturer is the unpaid face of the non-profit American soccer governance. One moment, he’s explaining the complexity of developing economies in Asia; the next, he’s breaking down the pros and cons of a five-man midfield.
With 40 years of involvement in the sport, from coaching to administration, he’s hardly an empty suit. Prior to the presidency, he was the executive vice president for six years. He is smart, articulate and polished. The USSF has been in good hands.
As a member of the FIFA Council, the decision-making board for the sport’s international governing body, he has injected an American voice. He helped implement reform into scandal-scarred regional and global organizations and brokered Gianni Infantino’s victory in the FIFA presidential election earlier this year. Someday, Gulati might, too, reign over the soccer world.
When his USSF tenure ends, he will not disappear from the soccer scene. Ambition will keep him involved with FIFA. As an American soccer statesman, he could – and should — continue to lead efforts to bring the World Cup to the United States in 2026.
This year, though, was not a good one for Gulati and the USSF.
The women’s team lost at the earliest stage of a major tournament in its illustrious history (Olympic quarterfinals) and is now locked in a nasty labor dispute with the federation. The under-23 men were absent from the Olympics for the third time in four cycles; the U-17 women faltered in the World Cup group stage; and the three-time champion U-20 women finished fourth in their World Cup.
Worst of all, the men’s senior national team is in danger of missing the World Cup (and the enormous revenue and publicity windfall that accompanies it) for the first time since 1986. The squad regressed under Klinsmann the past two years and hasn’t drawn 10,000 spectators for a home friendly in 15 months.
Gulati was not to blame for the semifinal-round qualifying defeat to Guatemala, for the home setback to Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals or the debacle in Costa Rica last month. He wasn’t the one setting puzzling formations and lineups or calling out players who had been assigned unfamiliar positions. It wasn’t his byzantine ways that left players unsure of what was around the next corner. Those were the harebrained antics of the head coach.
Gulati, though, was responsible for hiring Klinsmann and, until the recent rough patches, offered unwavering support.
For years, Gulati pined for the former German superstar to oversee the program and set a new course for U.S. soccer at large. Klinsmann was his guy. From the hiring in 2011, they were inextricably linked.
Before Klinsmann even got to prove his worth at the 2014 World Cup, the USSF awarded him a lucrative contract extension and the additional title of technical director. (Who gets a new contract for a second World Cup before their first one?)
No U.S. coach had ever earned close to what Klinsmann was taking home ($3.2 million) — and, with some 20 months left on his contract, he pocketed a cool severance check.
Focused on the big picture, Gulati stuck with Klinsmann after disappointment at the 2015 Gold Cup and CONCACAF Cup. He stood by Klinsmann when the Americans sputtered through the semifinal round of 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Given the amount of time and money the federation had invested, Gulati was not going to pull the plug unless the situation took a turn for the worst. With a home defeat to Mexico and the horror show in Costa Rica this fall, it did. Klinsmann was done, leaving Bruce Arena to pick up the pieces on short, urgent notice.
Klinsmann’s failure was Gulati’s failure. For Gulati to resign, though, would prove counterproductive. More than ever, amid a teetering qualifying campaign, a coaching switch, the women’s labor talks and the sad demise of the second-tier North American Soccer League, the USSF requires a steady hand.
Gulati will continue providing leadership until his term ends in early 2018. And while doing so, he should recognize that, like an influential player who has tweaked a hamstring in the 85th minute, it will be time to signal for a substitute.