Why US Soccer is ready for a new president to take over for Sunil Gulati

(Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
(Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images) /

US Soccer has gone through a tumultuous 12 years under president Sunil Gulati. Despite highs and lows, the American federation is ready for new leadership.

Visiting the United Soccer Coaches convention on Thursday, lame duck US Soccer president Sunil Gulati spoke at a public forum hosted by US soccer legend and current Fox Sports commentator Alexi Lalas. At the forum, the three-term head of the US national federation dismissed several candidates’ ideas as nonsensical. Though he has not directly endorsed any of the candidates for his post, Gulati was effectively dismissing some of the hopefuls.

To be fair, Gulati did admit that there is major work to be done. The outgoing president, though, has had a dozen years to do that work. Soccer has grown leaps and bounds over the past three World Cup cycles before the Americans missed this year’s tournament. But, American soccer has backtracked over that period.

Yes, the US women’s national team remains among the top squads in the world. Until the shock defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, the men’s side had gone to seven straight World Cups. They even reached the knockout stage both times during Gulati’s tenure as president. But there is stagnation that goes deeper than just  what happens at the major tournaments.

US Soccer’s issues are far more systemic than the World Cup.

Yes, missing the 2018 World Cup hurt US Soccer’s continued growth pattern. From a long-term growth potential, though, the ability of MLS to dictate its own terms on a regular basis and stamp out any potential competition in the marketplace is far more detrimental.

The inability to grow professional opportunities more abundantly is the direct result of decisions made by US Soccer toward sanctioning leagues and choosing favorites.

Gulati, an economics professor by day, came into running woefully underfunded organization. US Soccer has $150 million in reserves — the same expansion fee paid by a single new MLS club — after more than a decade of Gulati at the helm. It isn’t chump change, but it is hardly the padded coffers of a powerhouse national federation.

Speaking of MLS, the league continues to grow after its early-2000s nadir.

But the battle at the lower tiers of the professional game, as US Soccer has consistently picked the MLS position to the detriment of other pro clubs. US Soccer under Gulati undercut the reborn NASL throughout the years, preventing the league from having any real chance at solvency.

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The insistence on creating effective monopolies for the sport has stunted development as well. Because lower-division clubs have no opportunity to grow without spending exorbitant expansion fees that divert money from player development, the system has stunted a legitimate growth potential for soccer in the US. Money is certainly an issue, but the real question is how US Soccer has been so bad at generating revenue given its partnership with Soccer United Marketing and MLS.

That brings up the issue around conflicts of interest. The candidacy of Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing, is especially disconcerting. After all, the US Soccer president is unpaid. Whoever gets elected president will likely keep their day job. As US Soccer president, Carter would have the power to influence business even more thoroughly toward the corporation she leads than is already taking place between the partners.

What US Soccer needs is a visionary, not more of the status quo.

Americans who follow soccer imagine a day when the men’s national team can boast a success rate anywhere near the women’s team. That would obviously help with the business of funding, but it cannot be counted upon as a guarantee. After all, Italy and the Netherlands aren’t going to the World Cup. Neither is two-time defending Copa América champion Chile. And soccer is as healthy as ever in those countries.

Talk of a competitive disadvantage in the United States compared to football and baseball is an excuse that allows US Soccer to remain at a disadvantage. Stasis is what got US Soccer to the point where Gulati decided not to seek a fourth term at the head of the federation.

And if American soccer is going to push forward, stasis must be confronted headlong and with a broader long-term vision for the game. Reaching the Round of 16 in perpetuity is a great plateau if that level of consistency can be maintained. As we saw this year, though, depending on that benchmark to maintain interest in the game is unsustainable.

National team results do not reinforce and perpetuate themselves.

Strong and deep pools of players at all levels are required. Youth participation is high, but how many more than the three million per year that play soccer might take up the sport if access was increased with a diminution of pay-for-play? Would they be more likely to do so if there were more viable professional opportunities to make a living in the game?

Institutional intransigence toward efforts to grow the game at lower professional levels is impacting the ability to saturate the market effectively. The unwillingness to break from pay-for-play dependence hinders the ability to develop future generations of talent.

Gulati believes both to be perfectly reasonable solutions to get the United States to the Promised Land. But that won’t win the international glory that comes with hoisting the World Cup as champions. If the federation elects a candidate like Carter or former Gulati understudy Carlos Cordeiro, business as usual will continue to be the mantra of US Soccer.

Next: USMNT: Blow it up from bottom to top after World Cup disaster

It has now been 88 years since the US men’s national team made a World Cup semifinal. And if a status-quo candidate is elected, American fans better resign themselves to the possibility of waiting another 88 years before even coming close to seeing another semifinal.