It was Tuesday night all over again in Friday’s media conference call with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
Much like the entitled and almost disinterested Americans seemingly expected to beat Trinidad and Tobago with minimal effort and/or urgency, Gulati brushed off any criticism of U.S. Soccer in the wake of the USMNT’s first missed World Cup in four decades.
[ ICYMI: Running diary of Gulati’s conference call ]
The way the call began, with a prepared statement from Gulati claiming “full responsibility” for the abject failure to qualify, quickly turned into the president consistently stating that his body of work makes him the right man for the job moving forward. While he wouldn’t commit to running for the presidency in February — because who could possibly be that audacious two days from an international debacle — he admitted to seeking endorsements and knowing the nomination process well. He even said something about “if the voting delegates” wanted him.
So, yeah, he’s running.
[ MORE: What’s next for U.S. Soccer? ]
That’s not the end of the world, though it also isn’t the start of anything better.
Gulati is a whip smart man who’s done a lot of good for the United States. He’s also seen the level of the men’s and women’s program drop considerably (the women’s drop more short-term and due more to the progressive nature of other nations). The men have now missed a World Cup, two Olympics, and the Confederations Cup. The women bowed out of the Olympics before the medal stand, at the quarterfinals, despite having the richest wealth of talent in the world.
Men in Blazers said it well, too:
Here’s the thing: the United States can still qualify for World Cups on a fairly religious basis without a change at the helm. After all, it’s been doing so for years and arguably outperforming its skill set, and the field is about to expand which will likely make Panama’s stunning work in this tournament closer to commonplace (or at least less impressive). And one of Gulati’s more recent hires, Jurgen Klinsmann, led the team from the Group of Death while an iconic goalkeeper nearly got them to the quarterfinals.
But if the United States wants to move forward on the men’s side, it needs a stronger and visible division between a business side which can include a super intelligent economics professor who can drive the money side and the way the technical development and international performance on the pitch is directed. That’s not to say you have to have a killer playing career to choose a coach (or type an Internet column, I hope). Too often skill with your feet is a pre-qualifier, but cutting ties with Klinsmann to go back to the familiar, ‘Merica-approved well should’ve signaled a problem in vision and/or confidence. And, as supporters and media, we need to move past our silly divisions. Not every failure or success is a reason to toot some horn about promotion/relegation, MLS being just behind Ligue 1, the women being better than the men, or some other obstacle to unity in the goals of putting the best teams forward.
It’s funny that it took this for higher-ups to fall back on concepts like “pay to play” and inner city soccer, as if those concepts didn’t help pad the accounts of so many people currently in charge of soccer here. In a way, it seems an attempt to overshadow the concrete examples we saw from the United States men’s national team over both rounds of qualifying.
Remember, these players lost to Guatemala in the fourth round and technically were in danger of missing the Hex. They lost to Mexico for a Confederations Cup berth, then the first two games of the Hex. Players were said to be tired of Klinsmann and not performing for him. Unfortunately for that excuse, a change in coaches didn’t help. It was very much endemic, and Arena either didn’t see the need to push the buttons, instead shelving the complacency onto Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron, or his words went unheeded. This team showed a willingness to throttle teams when fired up and motivated. Somehow, simply drawing in Trinidad and Tobago to make a World Cup didn’t qualify (Pun. In. Tended).
A few days after the elimination, one of my gut feelings remains as it has for some time: The entitlement of U.S. Soccer is unacceptable, the arrogance embarrassing. Qualifying for a World Cup had become a birthright. Unbridled power, as we heard today, bristling at any question with even the slightest hint of displeasure with “the way things are done.” A few scholarships given from a youth club to a family doesn’t mean you rest your crossed arms and shrug when the Americans lose multiple home qualifiers to players who would nearly kill to qualify for a World Cup.
As long as the Bruce Arenas and Sunil Gulatis of this world are content with the process and, you could say, content in their positions, nothing big is going to change. Maybe there will more World Cup groups like 2002, when a lone win over a down Portugal and a knockout round date with Mexico will bring it to the precipice of the semis.
Should that happen, will we crown that group forever and lean on their accolades? It feels like U.S. Soccer supporters, coaches, and players don’t want a part of that. But there’s a certain group who sees it as safe and able to be lauded magnificent.
It screams complacency with what’s “worked” so far. In Gulati’s case, it doesn’t scream, it says it plainly, “I’ve done a lot of good. And I’m going to keep doing good. Are we really questioning this? Soccer used to be a laughingstock, and now people care.”
There’s a bit of “one newspaper town” to U.S. Soccer. It’s coming from mostly the same group, and the naysayers can be so brash that it emboldens the buttoned up and proper. To be honest, there are lessons U.S. Soccer needs to take from the actual U.S. president election in 2016. At some point, people reject “the same” for anything that feels like it might be different. Different isn’t always good. In fact, sometimes it’s terrible. And if you’re unwilling to question the powerful for fear of exclusion? Stare down that mirror, kid.
That’s why Gulati could’ve done well by relinquishing any say in the on-field process, puff his chest at the exceptional growth of U.S. Soccer away from the playing field and admit there are better men to make the final say than him. Say he’ll oversee FIFA matters, and land the 2026 World Cup for North America. May even nod to the plebes with a wink about improving MLS and pro/rel.
He’d have to believe that, though, and that goes back to Tuesday. The players on the field, perhaps sated by their coach, thought it was just going to happen for them. When it didn’t, we heard from the coach that he was disappointed but wouldn’t change a thing. Essentially we heard the same from the president today.
Not encouraging and, honestly, a waste of time.
It would be hyperbole to say that this conference was just as infuriating as the performance on Tuesday, but there are scary, top-down similarities between the, “Can you believe CONCACAF?!?” coach quips and today’s call.