An era of arrogance and excess at US Soccer has yielded what in hindsight was a predictable result. The United States have missed the FIFA World Cup for the first time in over thirty years.
Despite the good fortune the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) received with the weakness of CONCACAF opposition – Honduras is going through a rebuilding phase and Panama’s aging “Golden Generation” seemed to have missed their best shot at qualifying for the World Cup or winning continental silverware in the last cycle – the USMNT still managed to miss qualification. Despite beating those two opponents by a combined scoreline of 10-0 in home qualifiers this year, the United States finished behind both and missed the World Cup after a stunning 2-1 loss in Couva against last-place Trinidad and Tobago.
In the match, the US was second best most of the night showing none of the fight or determination that proponents of the USMNT program claim is inherent in American players. In fact the US men looked a spent and defeated force most of the night, one that could not be bothered to toughen up and get a result. That reflects on the culture of entitlement and lack of accountability that has permeated US Soccer for years.
The failure of the United States falls squarely at the feet of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and its president Sunil Gulati, who has had a leading role in the game in this country for thirty years.
Under Gulati’s watch in his most recent term as USSF President that began in 2014, we’ve witnessed the following calamities under his leadership:
1) A promising generation of US Soccer players missed qualification for the 2016 Summer Olympics despite hosting the qualifying tournament. This was a stunning failure given the number of young US players already featured at professional clubs in the US and abroad when compared to the CONCACAF opposition.
2) The FIFA scandal erupted with much of the wrongdoing having taken place on US soil. Gulati and his allies acted as if they were innocent or even worse yet victims. The USSF for years had benefited from the relationship Chuck Blazer, but whose corrupt behavior was the genesis of the initial investigations by the DOJ and FBI. Gulati’s relationship with Blazer was never fully scrutinized by most in the US media as an effort was made to project the scandal as revolving around foreigners and Americans involved in NASL, a rogue second division that had clashed with Gulati’s USSF.
3) MLS, the United States’ first division, has publicly linked itself to the USMNT and has an established commercial relationship with Gulati’s USSF. But the league has very quietly moved away from building its product around American players and coaches, shifting toward a model that scouts well in Latin America and promotes those players. Currently you could argue none of the top ten players in MLS are Americans for the first time in the league’s history.
4) The US Women’s National Team (USWNT), the reigning world champions who have accomplished a lot more than the men both on and off the field, were locked in an equal pay dispute with Gulati’s USSF. The USWNT players eventually agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which gave higher pay but still not equal pay to the men who have now missed qualification for a 32 team World Cup in Russia.
5) The USSF under Gulati now face a major antitrust lawsuit filed by the NASL who claim the nation’s soccer governing body have engaged in anticompetitive practices to promote MLS. A preliminary hearing has been set for October 31.
6) And perhaps most importantly, it was not only Sunil Gulati’s decision to appoint Jurgen Klinsmann as coach of the US Men’s National Team, but Gulati made the calculated error of also making Klinsmann the technical director. By doing so, it gave Klinsmann too much power at a critical time when the US team needed someone with a better vision and tactical plan to improve the national team. Gulati’s decision to put all of his eggs in one basket with Klinsmann ultimately ensured that the German coach stayed in his position for longer than he deserved. His successor, Bruce Arena, was thrown in near the end of the World Cup qualification cycle with little time or prowess to make improvements.
While all this has gone on in the last few years, many in the US Soccer media who have viewed advocacy of the USMNT and protection of the program as a “cause,” have allowed Gulati a free hand. Few have questioned his leadership beyond the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann whose criticisms of MLS rubbed many of the insiders the wrong way. Klinsmann was a poor manager and deserved to be sacked by the USSF – but his replacement Bruce Arena was an establishment choice that indicated a certain doubling-down on the current system and leadership.
The lack of accountability in US Soccer is astounding. Large elements of the media won’t ask the tough questions and seem more invested in protecting access and the parties in power than forcing effective change. The leadership in US Soccer always wants to blame others and projects massive insecurities and an inferiority complex with the rest of the world through public statements. These comments are often parroted by media members and others invested in protecting the status quo – a status quo that has now resulted in massive failure.
Sunil Gulati and the US Soccer Federation are to blame for the failure of the US to advance to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Now will those who cover and enjoy the game in this country finally force positive change?
Photo credit: Steven Goff