The United States Soccer Federation is scheduled to elect a new President at its National Council Meeting on February 10 in Orlando, Florida. Eight candidates are running to succeed Sunil Gulati, who previously announced his intention not to seek another term. Putting aside discussions about ProRel, the MLS schedule, conflicts of interest and the existence of concrete plans, one should not forget that seven of the eight candidates entered this presidential race after a single event – the United States Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The result in Trinidad, as improbable as it may have seemed beforehand, was an utter catastrophe. Off the field, it ripped open many American soccer fans’ dissatisfaction with the United States Soccer Federation, a dissatisfaction borne of arrogance and ineptitude that started much earlier in the previous cycle and has continued to this day.
Too much confidence in coaches
To start, let’s go back to December 12, 2013 when U.S. Soccer agreed to a four year contract extension with Jurgen Klinsmann. As part of the agreement Klinsmann would continue as USMNT coach through 2018 and receive a promotion to Technical Director of U.S. Soccer. Klinsmann had guided the USMNT to a first place finish in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and a fifth Gold Cup in 2013. Nevertheless, his grandiose promises to transform the team’s style of play on the field had yet to materialize, while damning reports were emerging of team unrest and division. Fans questioned why the federation would commit to a man who had yet to prove himself on the sport’s biggest stage and whose tactical acumen and player-management abilities were questioned by fans, media and current players alike. USSF President Sunil Gulati discarded fan doubts. In response to a question about whether the USMNT needed to advance to justify Klinsmann’s contract extension, Gulati answered, “If we needed that, we would have made the contract conditional. That’s the reality of it. Clearly there’s a difference between going 0-3 and getting hammered in three games than going out in what most people recognize as one of the toughest groups and getting four points.”
The team’s advancement to the 2014 World Cup round of 16 and Tim Howard’s goaltending heroics concealed several underwhelming performances, ones which could have been different had Klinsmann not shockingly cut Landon Donovan from the final roster. Regardless, Klinsmann saw the MNT as being on the path to even greater success in 2018, telling FourFourTwo, “We set an ambitious goal for the 2018 World Cup - to reach the semi-finals. And, if we start with the end goal in mind, we obviously want to win the World Cup one day.”
The Federation, and Sunil Gulati in particular, entrusted Klinsmann to accomplish that goal. Fans, however, grew increasingly frustrated with Klinsmann’s incessant tendency to field players out of position, blame external sources for the team’s poor play and question the American soccer fan’s knowledge of the sport. The tipping point came at the 2015 Gold Cup where the USMNT was unbelievably outshot by Haiti, Honduras and Panama in a pitiful group stage. The lackluster Gold Cup performance was punctuated by a 2-1 defeat to Jamaica in the semifinals and an embarrassing fourth-place finish. The fans saw it as the final nail in Klinsmann’s coffin, as the same tournament had been for Bob Bradley four years prior. Sunil Gulati, however, simply saw a tiny hiccup. “Progress is not linear for anyone,” he said. “There are bumps along the way. This is totally a bump. The team was certainly on a high in the spring. And today’s a low. But those are the norms for everyone.”
For years Klinsmann’s weaknesses and missteps were quickly dismissed by Gulati while his successes were praised effusively. Gulati tethered himself to Klinsmann until the opening Hexagonal losses to Mexico and Costa Rica made that partnership untenable.
More money more problems
The Federation and Gulati’s arrogance extended off the field as well. Rising ticket prices and questionable match locations added to the fans’ ire. Worse yet, it appears the Federation not only recognizes it, but trumpets it.
Smaller stadiums, pricier tix is USSF's qualifying model pic.twitter.com/oSscdLk7bn— Brian Straus (@BrianStraus) December 10, 2017
Immediately, one notices the average attendance figures decreased significantly since the 1998 and 2002 World Cup Cycles. This is a direct result of the proliferation of soccer specific stadiums and the Federation’s insistence on hosting USMNT World Cup Qualifying home matches in these venues. Although average attendance has decreased at these matches due to venue capacity, match revenues have noticeably increased. That increase is a direct result of the surging ticket prices. The table below displays the percentage increase of the average ticket cost between individual cycles and between every two cycles.
For example, the average cost of a ticket to a USMNT WCQ home match between the 2014 cycle and the 2018 cycle increased 50%. The average cost of a ticket to a USMNT WCQ home match between the 2010 cycle and the 2018 cycle increased 102%. Yes, inflation, past qualifying success, and fan growth all factor in, but ticket prices have clearly soared to obscene levels. Couple the above figures with the team’s disastrous failures and fans will certainly look for the federation to adjust accordingly.
Attendance to MNT matches dropped precipitously in 2016 alone. Home attendance dipped 23% when compared to the 2015 numbers. Exclude the Copa America Centenario matches and the average attendance dropped 64%.
Blind to talent
Just last week young Mexican-American phenom Jonathan Gonzalez announced his intention to file a one-time switch to represent Mexico internationally. One reason given was no one from U.S. Soccer contacted him to participate against Portugal in the federation’s most meaningless friendly. Bruce Arena, one of the men responsible for the USMNT’s cataclysmic failure, disagreed that USSF was unnecessarily losing talent during halftime of that match. “I do not agree with [the idea there are talented players falling through the cracks of the U.S. system] at all,” he said. “I think all the talented players are involved in our systems. We need to do a better job developing them. “
In addition to serving as a heart-breaking reminder of Neven Subotic and Giuseppe Rossi, Gonzalez’s decision highlighted the Federation’s failure to identify, scout, recruit, and keep young soccer players from underprivileged communities, notably Latino communities. Brad Rothenberg, son of former USSF President Alan Rothenberg and co-founder of Alianza de Futbol, painted a disturbing picture when he recently said, “If anybody at U.S. Soccer thinks they did enough to keep Jonathan, then they should resign before the new Federation president fires them. Our Federation lost Jonathan either by its own arrogance, apathy or incompetence. I’ve grown tired of watching our federation neglect this community.”
U.S. fans understand the program is not at the level of Germany, Spain, or France. If U.S. Soccer loses a player due to injury, yellow-card accumulation or to another country, a potential World Best XI replacement is not sitting on the bench ready to step in. Therefore, talent identification, development and retention is critical to becoming a top five soccer nation. Right now, a Liga MX Best XI player just rejected a nation who failed to even qualify for the World Cup.
Disconnected from the fanbase
Since the catastrophic World Cup Qualifying failure, the federation and Sunil Gulati remain defiant. Gulati refused to resign in the immediate aftermath of the team’s qualifying failure and has still yet to do so. In fact, Gulati had a telling quote when he announced he would not seek re-election. He said, “Look, the general perception in the soccer community versus the people who vote in elections may be different right now.” This implies that the priorities of USSF voters does not align with the priorities of fans.
The perception of the soccer community is a federation and leadership in shambles. The troubling pattern of disorganization, ambiguity and persistence on the status quo has led to several public relations nightmares.
The fans who debate, comment, and cheer in stadiums, on websites, blogs, boards and articles throughout the world are fed up. The negligence, arrogance and obscurity displayed by the federation have damaged the sport in this country. Now is the most crucial time in U.S. Soccer history. And ugly recent history is bound to repeat itself if U.S. Soccer continues to disregard the voices of their soccer community.