With qualification for South Africa wrapped up and—for better or worse—the 23 man roster just about selected, the most important job heading into the 2010 World Cup falls on the shoulders of Sunil Gulati—as it is not only Bob Bradley’s position on the line, but the person who hired him.
Gulati has had it rough from the outset of his tenure as USSF president. Gulati had to not only find a replacement for the most successful coach in USMNT history at the time, Bruce Arena.
Following the team’s dismal performance at the 2006 World Cup, he was forced to reorganize the entire program as international stalwarts Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride decided to retire from international play.
But with Jurgen Klinsman interested in rebuilding the US program early on, it looked likely Gulati was going to pull it all off.
Apparently though, soccer fortunes change just as quickly off the field as on it. At the worst time possible, Gulati was in the media dodging questions about Klinsman’s prolonged interview process, finally announcing that the USSF could not come to terms with the German manager.
Gulati tried to atone for the disastrous affair with Klinsman by claiming that he would hire the perfect high profile manager.
In the end, he was forced to promote interim coach Bob Bradley to full time employment after a prolonged and painful search for any coach with an international reputation interested in the position.
Other than Klinsman, what half-decent international manager would want to coach the USMNT?
Bradley’s appointment was the first sign of Gulati’s inability to assess the international soccer landscape.
Compared to the prestige and perks afforded to elite managers in other countries, a job living in relative anonymity of the United States is not that appealing to top European managers: Less money, little fame, few adoring fans, and no media coverage is only attractive to poorly performing managers wanting to avoid criticism.
Without the promise of accolades, the U.S.'s job isn’t at the top of the list for the likes of Gus Hiddink, Luiz Felipe Scolari, or Roberto Mancini, all the more reason why Klinsman’s interest could never have been overstated, or the failure for the federation to come to an agreement with the German understated enough.
It is highly unlikely that an arguably elite, top flight European manager will so unabashedly announce his desire to coach the United States national team again.
This all happened at the beginning of his term. Then the USMNT won a couple of games.
Bradley’s appointment seemed to work out, or a stable domestic league with improved play along with a couple of standout performers (Donovan, Dempsey, etc.) allowed the US to handle the mediocre competition found in the CONCACAF region. In any case, Gulati did enough to avoid criticism.
But the writing was on the wall for Gulati and the national team. Inconsistent performances, a lack of development and progress from USMNT pool players, and a failure to win big games started to haunt Bradley and the US team.
And even as outspoken as Gulati was during the search for a manager, he became strangely quiet just as the pressure mounted.
With no international managerial experience, little individual, or domestic fame, and a lack of media-friendly panache, Bradley was an easy scapegoat for fans and critics of American soccer that had seen the team’s early successes disappear.
Arguably, Gulati should have been deflecting attention from his coach.
It wasn’t because Gulati was too busy with the international community. He did not speak out against the questionable refereeing the United States experienced during the 2009 Gold Cup, Confederations Cup, or qualifying matches.
It seems as if Gulati prefers to stay out of the limelight rather than take advantage of his position and lobby for the USMNT’s interests.
Still, with qualifying over, Gulati needs to stay in the spotlight rather than disappear once things get difficult, and since the United States is unlikely to be given an automatic seeding (based on FIFA’s formula), the team will need his support this summer.
Here are some recommendations:
1. Put pressure on FIFA and CONFACAF to select the best officials for American’s matches from here on out.
It’s going to be hard enough for the national team to play the opposition, let alone the officials. There have been too many instances where American players have been dismissed on dubious penalties, and too many opposing infractions ignored.
Granted, the American players need to make better decisions, but it’s clear a pattern has been set.
When a dangerous play ensues, it’s very likely that an American player will see a card, and there have been many instances where an equivalent foul has been ignored from a higher profile team or player.
It may not be the referee’s fault. He may only be trying to protect the player worth $10 million from an unwieldy $30 thousand American athlete, but U.S. players have just as much right as Cristiano Ronaldo to be judged by the same criteria.
Normally, it’s the coach’s role to criticize officiating, but Bradley doesn’t have the international notoriety Gulati carries. Some will listen when Gulati speaks; it is unlikely any one of import will listen if Bradley criticizes the officials.
There are two more reasons why Gulati should speak up on this matter: First, if even for a moment a referee hesitates in giving an American player a card, that may be the difference between winning, and losing a match.
Too many times the U.S. team has played numbers down and lost a game it could have won if both teams were even in strength, not to mention a player has had to change his entire game in order to avoid being dismissed.
One careless card may be the difference between advancing through the group stage, and going home early. A little criticism may go a long way.
Hopefully, a call for better referees will force FIFA to assign their best to US matches, or at the very least, unwritten instructions might be handed down to the officiating crew that they need to be cautious with the cards and calls.
Also, if Gulati comes out and claims that the U.S. team is being unfairly targeted by referees, then it creates a “Nobody believes in us,” underdog, “they’re out to get us,” mentality among the players and supporters.
If it appears like the world is against the U.S., then the team sets out with something to prove. A team with a chip on its shoulder is dangerous, and the U.S. team plays better with a chip on its collective shoulder.
And while the international community may not always enjoy the United States, everyone wants to root for the underdog—as long as they’re not playing your national team, or the United States hasn’t invaded that country.
It will only take one bad call for some of the casual fans to start wondering, “Maybe there is some truth to what the Americans are saying.” Very soon, the indifferent observer will start rooting for the persecuted players.
Gulati has had ample opportunities to criticize international decisions that affect the USMNT. He should have lobbied heavily for the Honduras game to be moved out of the country, even threatening an official appeal if we were to have lost the game.
It was unacceptable that any team should have to play in a war-torn country where their well-being is in jeopardy.
The only viable reason for his silence could be the worry that built up resentment could keep the U.S. from receiving the World Cup in 2018 or 2022, but after the Olympic decision, and the United State’s current international reputation, is the United States a likely choice for either World Cup?
Do we sacrifice our chances now for the small glimmer of hope that FIFA will bless us with another World Cup?
Gulati need only look as far as Croatia for an example of a strong Federation president. Before the Croatian/England qualifier, Vlatko Markovic claimed English players may be targeting Croatian stars in order to keep them out of important games.
While it was an outlandish accusation, it brought attention to the game, and to Croatian players, and scrutiny to the English national team, and the Premier League.
2. Speaking of the media, Gulati needs to leave the American press alone and focus on the international community.
Following the Honduras game, in more than one article Gulati was quoted as saying, "I'm sure somebody out there will criticize him because Conor didn't get a hat trick and Jozy might have or something."
Obviously, this remark was in response to the amount of criticism that Bradley has endured by just about anyone interested in American soccer.
While it’s admirable that Gulati was trying to protect his coach (I know I criticized Gulati for not standing up for his coach earlier, but notice, he finally came to Bradley’s aid after Bradley had won and least needed the support, not when his coach was struggling.), in any case, the attack against the U.S. media was misdirected, a waste of energy, and valuable press time.
Most of American sports media wasn’t paying any attention to American soccer, so Gulati was addressing a very small segment of the population, most of whom won’t be affected by his verbal barbs.
Not to mention, a number of the analysts have been more than fair with Bradley. They reward him when he produces, and question him when he fails: That’s their job.
Again, the team seems to play better when it feels persecuted. It was more energized, and played, perhaps, their best game to date against Spain after they were openly criticized by every soccer analyst in America. Why would anyone want to eradicate this mental weapon?
Instead, he should go after the international community and let the American media—those that are paying attention—be swayed by the team’s performance on the pitch.
Gulati should stop wasting valuable air time over small quibbles with the American media. He ends up coming across as petty.
3. No more double speak. Take one position on how you view the national team, and stick with your philosophy.
This recommendation is Public Relations 101. Public figures have a plan, and they repeat it until everyone gets it.
Granted, this approach can backfire, one only need to analyze a politician’s campaign, or a post-game interview with a star athlete to realize much of what is said doesn’t mean anything, but nothing is better than appearing out of touch and unaware.
After the Honduras game, Gulati was quoted as saying:
"He's got the winningest percentage of any coach we've ever had, we've gotten to the final of a major FIFA competition, we've qualified and are top of the group. We've won the Gold Cup that was critical to us and have gotten to the final of the other one with a relatively young team. I'm not sure how much more we can ask."
"A lot of 'big-name' teams would struggle to come in places like this, and Costa Rica and obviously Mexico City, to get results. So we've grinded some of those out. Winning here, when they've been 8-0 here is a pretty damn good result with how much this game meant to not just the team and the federation and the players, but the country."
Pretty positive and supportive, right? And given his analysis and examples, he has a valid point. But later he says,
"We don't have a lot of players playing at Man U and Barcelona. We're getting there. Those are some of the best clubs in the world, and it's not like we have a lot of players playing there, so for people's expectations to be that we're going to go out and play like that, or have a high-level performance every time, it's not the case."
On the surface these quotes aren’t completely contradictory, but deep down, they are. His initial comments make the United States out to have a pretty good national team. Their accomplishments are fairly impressive, so why such a derogatory language within the same interview?
He comes out and says that our players can’t play like elite players , or have high level performances every time out. These comments nullify all the praise he handed out right before, not to mention it puts into question the comments and opinions of important national team players like Landon Donovan.
After the game, Donovan said, “We know that if we play this way, we have enough talented players to play with the big teams in the world."
And at another point, Tim Howard responded with, “Hopefully the sky's the limit for us," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We've played some big games in the last few years, and I'm hoping that we go down there and we're not afraid of, you know, what they throw at us.”
Clearly, these players believe in their team because that’s what’s necessary to win. While Bradley has his flaws, he has instilled confidence in this team, which is exactly what they will need to win in South Africa.
Instead, Gulati responds with words like “Progress isn't linear. Brazil goes to the World Cup expecting to win. Everyone else goes to get through the first round. It's an impossible situation to say we're going to get better at every World Cup. It's not a time trial. Others teams are getting better."
How can these words help? Yes, there is a time and a place for a pragmatic, realistic assessment of American soccer, but it isn’t in front of the public (before the World Cup has even begun!), where he is ostensibly saying, “Don’t worry, we don’t expect you to win, and we don’t think you have what it takes to win, and by the way, we don’t think you’re very good. ”
Gulati needs to get on the same page with his coach, and team. They need to know that everyone close to them, and that includes everyone within the federation, believes in them.
The media can criticize the team and the coach—and that’s their job, but the team needs to feel like everyone “in the know” believes, and supports them.
It’s the only way they’re going to get through what happens next, especially with the mounting injuries to important players like Davies and Onyewu. Capitulating talk only makes them appear weak, and allows doubt to creep into the minds of the players.
4. Now that the National team is pretty much on autopilot until the summer, get the Federation in order, and improve relations with the MLS.
The U-20s were crushed at their World Cup. Out of the developmental programs, too many players have failed to reach their potential.
What’s even worse, Neven Subotic, a high profile defender with dual citizenship chose to play for Serbia over the United States, in part because he felt wronged by his national team coaches in America.
Supposedly, one of the sticking points for Klinsman was the Federation’s refusal to allow him control over all of the developmental teams at the national level. It doesn’t matter if the federation was right, or wrong in making this decision.
Klinsman saw problems with the current system, and they need to be fixed. Players need to develop, and they need to feel welcome and appreciated from the beginning, not after they have established themselves.
In recent years, the national developmental system has begun to track players at the regional level, train and instruct coaches, and implement productive training and game systems for youth development. But this is only the beginning.
The United States is a large country with a fragmented soccer infrastructure. Without lower division teams that develop younger players, it is difficult for a potential national team pool player in Anchorage Alaska to get noticed by the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The regional teams can use their federation connections in order to link their best players with the MLS. They shouldn’t have to go to college, or languish in the reserve teams overseas in order to be noticed by the domestic league.
It benefits the national team pool, and the MLS, when talented players from regional locales are given a shot. It saves precious time when potential players get connected with the best trainers and players as soon as possible.
Also, the USSF needs the MLS in order to fill its roster when European players aren’t available, or prepared for qualifiers. The National team has the best team it has ever had because of the MLS.
Gulati and the federation need to support, and work with, the MLS because it is integral for the National team’s success.
The MLS’s has agreed to stop play for the World Cup, and while the decision will probably affect revenue, in the long run, both the national team and the league should benefit from the international exposure and a good performance, but Gulati needs to make sure the MLS is rewarded by pushing the league when interviewed.
He needs to send the message to Americans that you can start your soccer career at home.
He also needs to use his position to make connections with Latin American and European countries that are much more representative of the USMNT’s make-up and demographic.
Traditionally, the U.S. has looked to England for inspiration and developmental coaches. But the U.S. doesn’t pull from the same sort of players; it doesn’t have the same environment, infrastructure, or the same amount of money available.
It’s inexcusable that there are not better relations with Mexico, many of the Central American countries, and South America. There should be an influx of coaches and players from these areas helping to make our game as diverse as possible.
Instead, we look to a country with a make-up we can’t hope to emulate. Why isn’t the U.S. sending players to Argentina and Brazil on loan? Why aren’t players coming to the MLS to play when Europe isn’t interested?
There has to be one, or two Costa Rican, Honduran, and Venezuelan players just about on the verge of signing with Europe that would be willing to play in the U.S. until a high profile club comes calling.
These doors need to be opened in order to continue to improve the MLS, especially with the rule changes. The president of the USSF can improve relations with these countries and their domestic leagues.
Finally, the U.S. needs to change its philosophy in its development to resemble a country much more like it.
Denmark is a good example. Denmark has a domestic coach. It has a handful of stars playing outside of its borders, and the rest playing at home. Denmark was also not expected to qualify, let alone win its group.
The team found a way to succeed, and the U.S. needs to find out why, and how. Gulati needs to reach out to countries that our similar to our own, because we’re never going to be better than the major soccer nations, but like Denmark, we can be a better team.
Scheduling a game with this comparable team was a good start, and should be a good measure of where we should be.
There are nine-and-a-half months until the World Cup. It may not be enough time for Sunil Gulati to deal with every challenge that faces him, but there is a lot of good he could do for American soccer before all eyes are back on the team and its coach.