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Sunil Gulati offers a disconnected defense of the USSF and criticizes detractors

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘18

MLS: MLS CUP-United World Cup Bid Presentation Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Hunter S. Thompson isn’t alive anymore and it’s a real shame, our current political era would be his kind of horror show. In addition to being a counter culture icon, he covered politics, and even did sports writing. I like to think if Thompson were still alive he would have really enjoyed the spectacle of the 2018 USSF presidential race. Perhaps he’d have written something like this about it:

Wynalda/Solo/Martino/Ganz/Winograd/Caligiuri made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Gulati does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be USSF President?

Sunil Gulati stooped pretty low when he took to the stage at the 2018 Youth Soccer Awards. Rather than talk about youth soccer, he spoke for nearly 20 minutes about what he called misconceptions about the state of soccer in the US. Gulati also detailed falsehoods, as he sees them, that have been brought up by campaigns other than the ones run by Carlos Cordeiro and Kathy Carter.

Take it all in...

If your device is still functioning after watching that, welcome back.

Misinformation, tone, and conflicts of interest

Gulati begins by proclaiming that he wants to address misinformation in the USSF campaign. The current USSF president did this by illustrating that truth is a subjective idea, creating a narrative around the federation that diminishes its failures while passive-aggressively criticizing the ideas of some candidates. None of what Gulati brings up responds to why there is so much discontent with the federation that he led for almost 12 years, or even acknowledges that there are challenges that need to be overcome in the next four years and beyond.

To Gulati, “we’re in pretty good shape.”

The federation president decries the tone of the campaign, saying “there’s also ways to have, obviously, elections with a positive tone, and the tone in this particular election is far from that.” This is fairly surprising given that the rhetoric has been fairly civil and personal attacks by candidates against one another haven’t surfaced. However, rather than point to comments by candidates to illustrate his point, Gulati discussed the ridiculous van that was parked in front of the United Soccer Coaches Convention last month as an example.

While there’s nothing defensible about a stunt that proves nothing more than the complete and utter failure of the #ProRel4USA hashtag activism, his comments seem to conflate the rhetoric of online soccer nihilists and real life van-renting anonymous trolls with that of candidates who oppose Cordeiro and Carter. The false equivalence that Gulati makes is especially ironic given that it comes while he is hectoring unnamed candidates from notes off of his phone.

One issue that Gulati discusses in relation to the candidates is conflicts of interest. He notes, correctly, that they truly are inherent in a member based organization like USSF. Gulati rightly points out that, “it changes a little bit when someone is receiving compensation.” How he thinks it might change with Kathy Carter, president of SUM, running to lead her company’s biggest account while Don Garber, CEO of SUM, sits on the USSF Board of Directors is unknown because Gulati didn’t discuss how the conversation about conflicts changes when compensation is clearly being received by them.

While Gulati set out to correct misconceptions about the federation with facts, he seems more interested in taking shots at his critics than having an honest, good faith discussion about the state of the federation and the sport.

“Pretty good shape”

To Sunil, the discontent with the federation seems to all stem from the match in Trinidad and Tobago. In discussing that result, he seeks to minimize the relevance of other failures of the federation saying, “we sent the most successful coach in the history of American soccer... with virtually a healthy team, and we lost a game.”

That’s it - one game. A single game to Trinidad and Tobago. That is the entirety of the problems the federation has.

Not losing four games, including two at home, in the Hex. Not failing to appear in the men’s Olympic tournament since 2008. Not failing to win more than two Men’s World Cup games since 2002. Not the fact that the USWNT scored just one goal in their last tournament. The idea that losing one game - one - to Trinidad and Tobago is why discussions have emerged about the federation’s challenges is a mind-bogglingly obtuse premise upon which to base a defense of the federation.

This narrative severely undermines the credibility of his other statement that, “I’m saying today, it’s on me. I haven’t heard a lot of other people say it’s on them, but that’s OK because we’re in charge and we’re in the leadership position.” In no way shape or form is he sincerely taking responsibility for anything if on the one hand he says missing the World Cup is his fault, but then spends nearly 20 minutes failing to acknowledge or take responsibility for the other shortcomings and failures that the federation has suffered under his tenure.

The narrative that Gulati has put forward about the election is based on the idea that the US lost “a hugely important game in October, but the world - whether that game is won or lost - isn’t different. All of our shortcomings that we had the day before still exist, and no one has ever said they’re perfect.” Gulati then went on to describe how everything is “pretty good” and generally asserted that from a governance and transparency perspective, the federation is exceptional compared to other federations in the world. He also attacked all of the points of reform that have been proposed from addressing pay to play, promotion and relegation, MLS adopting the international calendar, solidarity payments, and the discussion around Jonathan Gonzalez.

To Sunil, pay-to-play is a necessity for soccer that isn’t going away despite the fact that it prices players out of the game and hurts the growth of the sport. Promotion and relegation is not be a panacea, but MLS owners’ investments shouldn’t end the discussion about implementing it. The international calendar may not have given Qatar an edge in being awarded the World Cup, but adopting it would have advantages for U.S. professional leagues and the national teams that should be considered. While the MLS Players’ Association is blocking solidarity payments, this seems like an opportunity to reform a system rather than the end of a discussion.

When it comes to Jonathan Gonzalez, Gulati seems to think that the issue is merely that a talented player decided not to play for the U.S. Based on his comments, Gulati fails to consider that Gonzalez’s choice is also an illustration of the federation’s systemic neglect of its relationship with the Latino community in general.

In fact, mentioning that “Tab Ramos, our youth technical director, in a session yesterday talked exactly about how many times he talked to Jonathan Gonzalez” may not be the vindicating statement that Gulati wants it to be. Rather, it also shows that USSF was pandering to Gonzalez by sending a Latino to recruit him despite the fact that Ramos had cut Gonzalez from the U-20 World Cup roster last year. Indeed, the history between the two may have further alienated Gonzalez.

Looking beyond one game

His speech also mentioned the USWNT once when he said, “on the women’s side, I don’t need to get into that. We lost a game in penalty kicks in the Olympics, but we’re still world champions.” Gulati said this about a team he believes shouldn’t be paid as much as the men despite the latter failing to even qualify for the World Cup and the Olympics (for those counting, in addition to the game in Trinidad, that’s the second refrain of “We lost a game”).

In fact, he is on the wrong side of every single candidate running to replace him, in one way or another, and the entire U.S. Senate on the issue of equal pay for the USWNT. Additionally, using the USWNT as an example of a success of the sport in the US while he spent nearly two years explaining why revenue needed to guide the pay structure of a non-profit - that was building a $150 million surplus - in their contract negotiation is blatant hypocrisy and exploitation.

Overall, Gulati ignores that soccer in the United States faces serious challenges. The federation is beset by an official USOC complaint from Hope Solo, legal action from the NASL, and there was a complaint to the US Equal Opportunity Commission filed by its own employees. Youth soccer participation rates are falling as the cost of playing a sport that children in lesser developed countries play with sacks of rags continues to rise. Furthermore, dozens of teams have folded in recent years including the NASL champion San Francisco Deltas along with the Rochester Rhinos and the Boston Breakers, the longest running women’s professional team in the country.

Meanwhile, Columbus Crew SC, a marquee franchise that plays in the stadium that USSF has built up as a fortress against the biggest rival of the USMNT, is poised to move while Don Garber, a USSF board member, seems almost gleeful in his condescension to fans leading a grassroots movement to save the club about why the move is so economically necessary.

Contrary to what Gulati thinks, we are not “in pretty good shape.”

There are many other points that are striking in how detached from reality and defensive they are at a time when the federation should be looking forward. Gulati’s thoughts as he leaves the federation seem to be based on the idea that there is nothing wrong, nothing that needs to be reformed, or nothing that he could have done about the problems that do exist. It illustrates the dire need for new ideas and a new voice leading the federation. If anyone is looking for why there is such a disconnect between the leadership of the federation and the fans that it is increasingly alienating, this speech exemplifies it.

The USSF Presidential election is less than a week away. Whether a candidate who is deeply rooted in the current leadership of the federation or an outsider wins, change is coming, and it won’t get here a moment too soon.