Why Does No One Challenge Gulati's Re-Election As Head of U.S. Soccer?

Ben TrianaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2010

Sunil Gulati was recently elected—unanimously and unopposed—for a second four year term as president of United States Soccer Federation. 

While the most obvious question might be, "Why would you have an election right before the World Cup?" the election was held rather than postponed.

Gulati was re-elected, and as far as Gulati's accomplishments are concerned, the USSF states:

"Gulati has more than 30 years of experience at all levels of soccer in the United States and has helped the sport rise to new heights. During the past four years as President, Gulati has continued his mission of improving soccer in the United States by taking an active approach on improving the structure and development of the sport in the country, while also reaching out to broaden the organization’s relationships within the international community."

Not a very specific review of his accolades during his first term. Such vague endorsements do not bode well for the president of an organization. Which raises the question, why was he re-elected, and why did no one challenge his re-election?

Since I'm not an insider, nor do I know one, all I have is conjecture.

First, the process may be steeped in tradition. It may be rare for a president to be challenged for re-election.

Closely related to such a system is the backroom dealings that run rampant in high-level, high-profile, oft-times political positions. There may be an understanding that Gulati will go unopposed for a certain length of time, and in return, Gulati will support the next nominee (or some similar deal).

In either case, Gulati's re-election once his lack of substantial accomplishments are considered (a U.S. Men's National team with a winning record considering its region being an average to above-average accomplishment), especially when compared to his predecessor Bob Contiguglia (president from 1998-2006), raises the collective eyebrows of many U.S. soccer fans.

Hopefully, there are other reasons.  Perhaps the heir apparent is not ready, or he (possibly a she, but highly unlikely) is involved in other career endeavors and wishes to wait until the next election.

Overall, Gulati's first term was positive rather than negative if one considers the top men's and women's teams, but it's unclear as to what effect he had, or if he is having the same success with the developmental teams as they are not as high profile.

The truth is, U.S. soccer fans will never really know. More information comes out about Washington D.C. politics than information about the current status, inter-workings, and plans of American soccer.

Even if most of the political news is noise, rumors, gossip, or flat out lies, at least there is substantial information.

It took twelve years for Steve Sampson to finally admit that he did not call up John Harkes for the 1998 World Cup because he slept with Eric Wynalda's wife, even though many people knew. In fact, if you knew someone that knew someone on the staff of US Soccer, you knew.

In college, away from any soccer connections for two years, residing in Columbia, South Carolina, I knew about the affair just a few short weeks after the final squad was decided.

Why wait 12 years confess old and fairly important news that concerns athletes' reputations, career opportunities and legacies?

Now, it wasn't Sampson or Wynalda's fault for keeping silent. It was the right choice for the athletes to do, and yes, soccer probably isn't big enough to warrant the 1998 fiasco intense scrutiny by the media, but what role, blame, and responsibility should fall on the federation in such situations?

Currently, they take none. In the Wynalda/Harkes affair, Contiguglia claims ignorance. The federation's board unanimously re-elected Gulati. Individuals in important positions throughout the federation are a laundry list of insiders and good ol' boys that have done their time.

Outside hires are rare. Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Sunil Gulati, and newly hired assistant coach Jesse Marsch are all company men.

Furthermore, there have been a number of recent articles that have been critical of USSF's youth development program, claiming it is overly political and focused on improving the career opportunities of the coaches...more company men.

When Jurgen Klinsmann turned down the job as U.S. national team coach, one of the reasons cited was the failure to come to an agreement over "the control of the national team structure." These boys were not giving up any more power over the national team than they were required to, especially to a foreigner.

Making waves has never been part of the federation's makeup. The only time it is tolerated is by athletes because it is oftentimes ignored and expected. Once their time as a player is over, it's time for those athletes and their outspoken ways to move on.

Just as John Harkes and Eric Wynalda. 

The sex scandal aside, both of those accomplished individuals were outspoken and critical, and both have struggled to find relevant positions in the U.S. soccer industry outside of media commentary until recently. (Since Wynalda has calmed down following his dismissal from ESPN, he has gotten a part-time job coaching the U-20 men's team.)

There's no excuse for either of these players not being integral elements of United States' soccer's evolution.

But, all one has to do is return to the Sunil Gulati re-election to know that there's a plan. Granted, it's one developed behind close doors, one that few outside of the organization will ever really know (or understand), and the media interest is too low to force the USSF to come clean publicly.

The federation has always been quiet about its inter-workings. Few outsiders know much of Gulati's efforts to "broaden the organization’s relationships within the international community." Bob Bradley rarely speaks of his plans or soccer philosophies in any detail (I know he doesn't want to give anything important away, but he could divulge more than he chooses).

All of the USSF's actions send a message loud and clear that they will do things their way, and U.S. soccer fans don't need to worry about the details. Watch the games, buy the tickets, and make sure to purchase some merchandise. We'll take care of the rest.

In reality though, the United States Soccer Federation does owe its fans more. At the very least, there could be an explanation as to why Gulati was re-elected and why it was unanimous. What were the defining accomplishments that has impressed the board so completely?

The federation should attempt to be as transparent as possible, something many American citizens want from the country at large. The USSF, as insignificant as it is on the national stage, could lead the way.

It needs to make sure it is choosing the best possible candidates to continually improve U.S. soccer. While the organization has brought in outsiders in the past, over the past fifteen years, the trend has been towards promoting "company men."

The USSF represents the United States, and they need to embody the ideals of the country, not its more questionable habits.


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