Sunil Gulati has run unopposed in his three campaigns for U.S. Soccer Federation president, but if he decides to seek reelection next year, he might have competition.
“What I am hearing is a lot of unhappiness and people want change,” he said. “I agree that change is good, not for its own sake, but especially in this case when the leadership has some question marks about it.”
Gans, 56, said he will solicit feedback from the soccer community before deciding whether to run, but at the moment, he said he’s leaning toward launching a formal campaign.
“This is America, and it’s amazing to me that such a big position, no one has ever run against Sunil,” Gans said. “There needs to be a challenger. He hasn’t demonstrated such a great track record. I don’t think the direction at the pro and youth level is so great. There are a lot of disenchanted people out there.”
Gans faces a daunting task. Gulati, 57, has served in the upper levels of USSF leadership since 2000, won his first presidential race in 2006 and, in 2013, was elected to the executive committee of FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.
He is at the forefront of the campaign for the United States, partnering with Mexico and Canada, to host the 2026 World Cup. Barring unexpected complications, FIFA will award the competition next summer to North America for the first time since the 1994 tournament in the United States.
Gulati — who, under new USSF guidelines, is allowed to serve one more term — has not announced his plans. Many in soccer circles, though, expect him to run again. He did not want to comment for this story.
The next election will take place at the federation’s annual general meeting in February in Orlando.
The presidency of the nonprofit organization is an unpaid position. Secretary General Dan Flynn, a salaried employee, runs day-to-day and business operations from the federation’s Chicago headquarters. Gulati lives in New York and is a senior lecturer in economics at Columbia University.
Gulati’s critics, including Gans, point to fractures in youth soccer and Jurgen Klinsmann’s high-priced tenure as coach of the men’s national team, one that ended in his firing in November with two years left on his contract and jeopardized the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. About 2 1/2 years into the job, Klinsmann received a contract extension through the 2018 World Cup before his team even participated in the 2014 tournament.
“The Klinsmann fiasco is just one example of bad judgment,” Gans said. “It’s a nonprofit organization; it’s cost them millions of dollars.”
Gans acknowledges the improved financial state of the USSF under Gulati’s leadership, but, he added, “Has he used those resources well?”
“I’ll give Sunil his due: He is a very bright guy and has his strengths,” Gans said. “But I’ve known him for 26 years, and I know his strengths and I know his foibles. I don’t think he is well-rounded in the game, quite frankly. A lot of good things have happened, for sure, but part of it is just the inexorable force about how great this sport is and how it’s finally clicking in this country. You have to be a custodian; there’s a public trust in a role like this.”
Gans also cites transparency as a major issue at the USSF. “People who contact me and urged me to run are frustrated,” he said. “They feel like it’s their governing body and they know nothing” about its inner workings.
Gans also believes Gulati’s deep ties to FIFA, a scandal-ridden organization, could work against Gulati.
However, Gulati is regarded as a FIFA reformer.
“There’s no question one of the strongest parts to his experience is FIFA connections,” Gans said, “but in this world right now, to be entrenched with FIFA cuts both ways.”
Under Gulati’s leadership, Gans said, the “direction of national team has not been great, the youth has been fragmented and state associations have been marginalized.”
He also criticized Gulati’s handling of the women’s national team labor issues.
Gans said he would bring an understanding of the sport from top to bottom and a successful business background.
He played at Cornell and Brandeis, and, while still in school, was a member of the New England Tea Men’s junior team while also serving as the NASL club’s statistician and official scorer. He was an executive and briefly a player with the Baltimore Blast indoor team before pursuing full-time opportunities off the field. “People say they had a cup of coffee in the pros; for me, it was a half a cup,” he joked.
Gans was legal counsel for Boston’s successful effort to host 1994 World Cup matches. He has represented pro players and, in 2006, founded Professional Soccer Advisors, which worked with clubs overseas pursuing U.S. commercial opportunities. In 2009, he began brokering a commercial relationship between English club Fulham and Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox and, since 2010, Liverpool.
From 2010 to 2015, Gans served on the board of directors of and acted as legal counsel to FC Boston, a member of the USSF’s development academy.
Since joining Prince Lobel in Boston two years ago, he has focused on corporate, sports and employment law. For 18 years, Gans was chief operating officer and general counsel of New England Mobile Book Fair, one of the nation’s largest independent book and publishing companies.
Soccer, though, has remained his passion. And the state of the USSF, he said, has motivated him to consider the presidential run.
“I think I can add something that can elevate the program,” he said, “the stature of U.S. soccer nationally and in the world.”