By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 17, 2017) US Soccer Players - Sunil Gulati won election as US Soccer Federation president for the first time in 2006 by unanimous vote, just a few months ahead of the USMNT’s underwhelming World Cup campaign in Germany. Gulati ran unopposed, a clear indication of his popularity and ability to drive a large support base after years of serving as an executive in the organization.
While he was not directly responsible for the disappointing group stage ouster at that World Cup, Gulati hardly wasted time inserting his personal vision for the future of the USMNT into the search for a replacement for outgoing head coach Bruce Arena. Speculation centered around Jurgen Klinsmann, the playing great who had taken a young, unfancied German team to the semifinals in their home country.
It was a bold idea, to move on from the tradition of domestic coaches and defensively-minded foreign mercenaries that had led the Americans since the rebirth of the men’s program in the late 1980s. In Klinsmann, Gulati saw a coach who might not just help the team win, but could remold the infrastructure of the sport in the United States.
Klinsmann was not hired in 2006, reportedly because Gulati and US Soccer balked at giving him the breadth of control he demanded. The Federation instead hired American Bob Bradley, a solid, if unremarkable choice. Bradley took the USMNT to the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, them found himself dismissed the next year.
When given a second chance to hire his dream coach, Gulati did not hesitate. Klinsmann got the job and set in motion one of the stranger, and certainly most expensive, eras in USMNT history.
It' worth noting that Gulati won reelection as president in 2010 and 2014, the same year U.S. Soccer handed Klinsmann a lucrative contract extension before the coach’s first World Cup as head coach. In both elections, Gulati ran unopposed.
It’s for the Klinsmann decision, among others, that Gulati faces criticism from the man who wants to oust him as US Soccer president next February. Steven Gans, a Boston-based attorney with a deep history working as legal counsel for numerous soccer concerns, believes it’s time for a change. He also believes that Gulati should face a challenge.
“It’s not the that organization is rudderless. That would be unfair to say. But I do think that the direction has not been good lately, and maybe for several years,” Gans said on Tuesday.
“To have such an important organization and to have the specter of no challenger for the same president for four elections in a row is mind-boggling. Irrespective of the principle of pushing soccer forward, and pleasing all the constituents, the whole idea of credibility of a democracy is that there should be a challenger.”
“People kind of think it’s a fait-accompli given the way Sunil runs things,” Gans continued. “I don’t have that thought in my head, because I’m an independent person. Sunil doesn’t control my fate. He has control over my fate and I have no hesitation in potentially challenging him.”
Gans’s platform is non-specific at this point. He says he plans to do a listening tour to test the waters for a run. However, it does lean heavily on providing “good judgement” where he believes Gulati has failed. A focus on the youth soccer constituency and a desire to reconnect with state soccer bodies also feature prominently.
There are two things that must happen before any Gulati-Gans showdown at US Soccer’s Annual General Meeting in Orlando in February. Both men must decide to run, something that Gans is exploring and Gulati is pondering. The federation’s rules allow Gulati to serve one more term, but he has yet to commit.
If there is going to be choice for US Soccer’s member in Orlando, then the question will likely come down to Gans’s ability to layout an agenda that will appeal to all levels - professional, youth, and adult. Building some sort of consensus among those groups is key to any chance Gans might have. It’s not going to be enough to simply oppose Gulati, or point to the current president’s dodgy track record in areas like the Klinsmann tenure, the USWNT labor negotiations, or Gulati’s absence at a Senate subcommittee hearing on soccer corruption.
Gulati is a known quantity. That helped him win without competition in 2006. It's also something that will give him a massive advantage over Gans.
Just because Gulati will be the favorite in an election against anyone, Gans included, doesn’t mean change could do the federation good. Gulati has served as president during a remarkable era in American soccer, one that has seen immense change both at all levels. For all of the negatives Gans and others can point to, Gulati can respond with any number of metrics that show he’s done a good job.
New blood and new perspectives aren’t alway necessary only because of ineffectiveness. Without a change in vision and ideas, US Soccer is in danger of becoming stodgy and unresponsive to the changing needs of the game. The recent disclosure that US Soccer is considering using part of a $100 million surplus to build a national training center is case-in-point. What may make sense from an economic standpoint (the center as an asset) does little to push soccer forward.
The US Soccer presidency is an unpaid, volunteer position. The influence of the president is considerable, but he or she is not in charge of day-to-day operations. That makes it a unique position, more executive producer than director, more big picture figurehead than granular decision-maker.
Gulati achieved much in the role, but after 11 years, it might be time for a change. It could be up to Steven Gans and his commando campaign to make that change happen.
More From Jason Davis: