Had Sunil Gulati run for a fourth term as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, he might have won again. Gulati has strong allies in the membership and, despite his shortcomings and the epic failure of the U.S. men’s team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, he has done many good things for the development of the sport in this country.
But in the wake of the October fiasco in Trinidad and Tobago, Gulati finally came to the realization that the organization needed new leadership. He announced his decision in an ESPN.com interview Monday. “In the end, I think the best thing for me personally, and for the federation, is to see someone new in the job,” he said.
He perhaps should’ve grasped that last winter when the World Cup effort first fell into peril and he had no choice but to fire his handpicked coach, Jurgen Klinsmann — a decision that cost the federation an astounding $6.2 million in severance.
It should’ve struck him as complaints from the youth soccer sector about his inattention to its needs grew louder, or as board members became increasingly troubled about his unilateral power. He does work in tandem with Secretary General Dan Flynn and report to a board. But the USSF is based in Chicago, and Gulati lives in New York, where he is a Columbia University senior lecturer disconnected from the daily governance done by Flynn’s full-time staff.
The World Cup malfunction forced the issue. Had the U.S. squad earned a measly point against a last-place foe and clinched a berth in next summer’s tournament in Russia, the pressure on Gulati would have eased until after the World Cup.
But on that unfathomable night in a sleepy town in the Caribbean, Gulati was wounded. As Klinsmann’s replacement, Bruce Arena, tried explaining the inexplicable, Gulati sat amid reporters in the front row of a crowded conference room, his body and eyes slumped in defeat.
Arena resigned a week later. Gulati didn’t budge.
At first, Gulati was defiant, dismissing calls from reporters and fans to quit while plotting strategies to cure the program’s ills and set a new course for the 2022 World Cup while outlining plans for the sport as a whole.
As time went by, though, he began to question whether he wanted to serve anymore. Even without the U.S. Soccer Federation title that he had held since 2006, he would remain an influential figure at FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, and as the head of the North American campaign bidding to host the 2026 World Cup.
Gulati had run unopposed in every election, but in the wake of the World Cup blunder, an eclectic mix of candidates sharpened their knives: three former national team players, two attorneys with soccer backgrounds, even his executive vice president. Unimpressed with the group, Gulati thought about sticking it out. He didn’t feel comfortable leaving the USSF’s business in the hands of anyone from that swelling — and, in his mind, inadequate — group.
In recent weeks, though, a candidate he could back emerged: Kathy Carter, an executive at MLS-owned Soccer United Marketing, which does business with the USSF. With a Dec. 12 deadline looming, Gulati revealed his plans. A day later, Carter announced her candidacy. Gulati has not endorsed her, but it’s clear she has his support.
To earn a place on the Feb. 10 ballot in Orlando, a candidate must secure three nominations from membership. Carter will undoubtedly get them. Being the only female in the field should help her chances, even though the voting delegation is largely male. The lingering perception is that the USSF has not done enough for women’s soccer, even though it is the world’s standard-bearer for the female game.
All 11 USSF presidents have been men.
Carter, 48, was a goalkeeper at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., and in college at William & Mary. At both schools, she was a teammate of forward Jill Ellis, the current U.S. women’s national team coach who oversaw a World Cup championship in 2015. Carter is not a USSF insider, but SUM’s ties to the federation intrinsically link her to the organization.
USSF Vice President Carlos Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs executive with a 10-year association with the USSF, is very much an insider, which probably won’t sit well with voting members seeking fresh ideas. He is trying to carve an identity separate from Gulati’s, and the fact that he and Gulati had differences will help his cause.
The three former players have high profiles but no executive experience. Eric Wynalda, an outspoken and sometimes controversial figure, delved into coaching and TV punditry after a standout career with the national team and clubs here and abroad. Paul Caligiuri, who scored the famous goal in 1989 that ended a 40-year World Cup drought, followed a similar path on and off the field. Kyle Martino, a former University of Virginia star who played six years in MLS, took a leave of absence from his full-job as an NBC Sports soccer analyst to run for office.
The attorneys are Boston-based Steve Gans, who has a long history in the sport, and New York’s Michael Winograd, a former player and executive. Paul Lapointe, a coach and administrator from western Massachusetts, also says he’s running.
Not all, however, are expected to receive the necessary nominations.
And while his potential successors battle it out, Gulati will remain engaged. He was instrumental in soccer’s growth here over 25 years and gave the United States a voice in FIFA circles. At the moment, he is tied to the World Cup qualifying flop, which ended a run of seven consecutive appearances.
But by not seeking another term, and by successfully leading the bid to win the 2026 World Cup hosting rights, his legacy is sure to evolve.
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