The fallout from the U.S. failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup hit Friday with Bruce Arena resigning as head coach and executive Sunil Gulati saying the organization would take a “deep dive” into what ails the men’s program.
Under fire for his role as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Gulati said he would not step down from a position he has held since 2006 and that he has yet to decide whether to seek a fourth term in February.
American soccer is reeling after a 2-1 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday ended a streak of seven consecutive appearances in the sport’s quadrennial championship. A regional power for 25 years, the U.S. squad finished fifth in CONCACAF’s six-nation group for three places in next summer’s tournament in Russia.
Arena, in his second tour with the national team, announced his resignation Friday morning, one day after telling The Washington Post that he would “do whatever is right” in terms of his immediate future with the program.
“No excuses,” Arena said in a statement issued Friday by the USSF. “We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”
The federation plans to name an interim coach in seven to 10 days to oversee one or two friendlies next month, Gulati said. The search for a permanent replacement is likely to last several months, he suggested.
Tab Ramos, a former U.S. national team star who coaches the under-20 team and serves as youth technical director, would seem to be a prime candidate for the short-term role.
The federation is likely to expand its search internationally for the long-term hire. From MLS, Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes is highly regarded.
Arena, a Hall of Fame coach who guided the squad to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, was summoned last winter to rescue a 2018 qualifying campaign that had gone awry under Jurgen Klinsmann. He restored stability, steering the team back into contention, but couldn’t finish the job.
The Americans needed only a draw in the last match to secure passage but fell behind by two goals in the first half to the worst team in the group and lost. Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama clinched the automatic berths and, coupled with the other results in the region, the United States also missed out on a playoff slot against Australia.
“When I took the job last November, I knew there was a great challenge ahead, probably more than most people could appreciate,” Arena said.
The United States had been among seven countries to participate in every World Cup since 1990.
“This certainly is a major setback for the program, and questions rightly should be asked about how we can improve,” said Arena, 66, who won five NCAA titles at the University of Virginia, two MLS Cup trophies with D.C. United and three league crowns with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“No doubt, this process already has started and will continue so that U.S. Soccer can progress.”
In a conference call with reporters after Arena’s announcement, Gulati said he would not step down. He also said he would decide in a few weeks whether to seek reelection.
Steve Gans, a Boston attorney with a long history in soccer, and Paul Lapointe, a coach and administrator from western Massachusetts, said they plan to enter the race.
Gulati, who sits on the powerful FIFA Council at soccer’s international governing body, ran unopposed in his first three elections.
Gulati said he won’t resign “because of everything where the sport is now and the role I played in it and the role I think I can play going forward if I choose to run. The sport is in a very different place than it was 10 years ago or 30 years ago when I first got involved.”
Gulati also said continuity is necessary as the USSF works with Mexico and Canada on a shared bid to host the 2026 World Cup. The formal bid is due in March, with North America heavily favored to defeat Morocco when FIFA votes in June.
Many critics, however, say broad changes are necessary in the wake of not just the failed World Cup campaign but the direction of the USSF at large.
“There are real problems systemically, and they need to be improved,” Gans said. “There are real leadership and judgment problems, and they need to be improved.”
The defeat in Trinidad and Tobago “was a shock and a horror, and to say that I was surprised, of course I was,” he continued. “On the other hand, there’s an aspect that wasn’t a surprise because there have been real problems.”
The federation will take a closer look at how to improve everything from youth development to the performance of senior national teams, Gulati said. He said he was open to outside help, as well.
“We looked over the last several years at a lot of different models around the world and tried to adapt some of them to the unique circumstances of the United States,” he said. “That will continue, and we’ll try to get some outside expertise to look at what we’re doing, so we’re not doing things in an insular way. Maybe we’re not on track in some areas and we’ll make adjustments.”
Whatever happens, it will be without Arena in the primary men’s job.
“I believe in the American player and the American coach, and with our combined efforts the future remains bright,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I can say this from the bottom of my heart: From the high of reaching the quarterfinal of the 2002 World Cup to the low of a few days ago, I have appreciated every minute of being a part of this program.”