Is there anyone in the US soccer establishment more ready for 2015 to be over than federation president Sunil Gulati? Well, check that … in this glorious year of FIFA comeuppance, perhaps we should say it this way: “Is there anyone associated with US soccer not headed to jail who is more ready for 2015 to over and done with already?” The point is, it’s been a pretty rough year for one of US Soccer’s most influential figures, punctuated by this latest bungle, this PR tire fire in Hawaii, a mess completely of US Soccer’s creation.
Yep. It’s been one black eye after another American soccer’s governing body.
On the latest imbroglio, US Soccer has officially copped to this one, to erring on the thoughtless scheduling and lack of oversight that led to cancellation of a women’s national team match against Trinidad and Tobago at Aloha Stadium. When a decision for mea culpa is one of your organization’s better choices of the year, well, that’s a bad year. (Seriously, admit the error, apologize and move on. It remains absolutely head spinning how so many important folks and big organizations, swimming in their own arrogance, simply refuse to recognize this as the fastest way to rescue a story from the news cycle.)
Gulati has had a bad year, and a lot of it is his fault. Not all of it, but a lot of it. The bottom line is this: A bad year for U.S. Soccer means a bad year for one of US Soccer’s foremost leaders, and Gulati needs to up his game for 2016.
The roiling FIFA scandal may never actually land at Gulati’s feet (let’s hope not), but Gulati did himself no favors by mostly hiding from it all, staying as far away as possible in a safe, defensive crouch. In his capacity as leader of US Soccer – especially as the man in charge of soccer in the country that has made all this happen – the “safe position” is hardly the right position. He needs to be out front in all of this.
Gulati declined to testify before a US Senate subcommittee in July, instead dispatching US Soccer CEO Dan Flynn for several hours of questioning about US Soccer’s knowledge of corruption at CONCACAF and FIFA.
Similarly, Gulati has mostly balked at questions about his relationship with Chuck Blazer, the disgraced US Soccer and CONCACAF official who helped topple the FIFA house, cooperating with FBI and IRS agents to help expose the rampant corruption. Blazer was “Co-conspirator #1” in the federal indictment last May, so Gulati’s relationship with him seems like fair game for journalists.
All of that was happening around the time the United States women’s soccer team was plowing successfully through the Women’s World Cup in Canada. Which was all well and good … except that it didn’t come without a piping hot side of controversy. No, not the artificial turf fields; that completely avoidable entanglement was still ahead for US Soccer. Rather, it was about Hope Solo. Of course it was; drama follows Solo the way microphones follow Donald Trump.
That put US Soccer in a bad spot, and criticism fell hard when Solo was allowed to represent the United States despite concerns over episodes of domestic violence. And you thought it was the NFL’s job to be tone deaf on this matter.
USA Today columnist Christine Brennan chided “Do-nothing US Soccer” and its permissive stance. “The renowned US women’s national soccer team, which has historically stood for what is best in sports, and the best of us, is now protecting – even promoting – an alleged domestic abuser.”
It wasn’t just media in this dog pile. US Senator Richard Blumenthal wasted no harsh words in a letter to Gulati, admonishing US Soccer for leniency in allowing Solo to wear the US colors in the Women’s World Cup.
The women ultimately prevailed in the Women’s World Cup. While that certainly didn’t excuse the fed’s handling of Solo, it did serve as useful distraction, providing everyone something else to write and talk about. By contrast, performance was precisely the concern for the men’s team. Dissatisfaction with the Jurgen Klinsmann rose to such a level that blame began falling at Gulati’s feet.
There were days in 2015 when Gulati would have preferred to deal with l’affaire FIFA rather than field questions about his hand-picked US national team manager. Klinsmann’s time in charge has hardly been the complete fiasco that some have painted, but we’re not talking Steve Jobs-level success, either. Connecting the dots between Klinsmann and Gulati became blood sport as one disappointing result after another filled a summer of mounting national team discontent.
Along the way, there were little brush fires, as well. Anyone remember the pitiful field conditions in San Antonio for an otherwise enjoyable US-Mexico friendly? (Seriously, guys … it’s 2015. Get this right. Get out of the temporary field business or create more reliable processes for usage.) Later came the US under-23 efforts, which fell short of qualifying for next year’s Rio Olympics. There bid isn’t dead, but with a playoff ahead against Colombia, it seems mostly dead. And that (apparently impending) failure is largely a failure of Klinsmann. He picked the coach, Andi Herzog. Once we finish drawing the circles, they point back to the top, where the “buck stops” and all that. That, of course, is US Soccer’s president.
In reality, Flynn, as US Soccer CEO, makes a lot of decisions around the US Soccer office in Chicago. But Gulati is the face, and his was surely a long one for most of 2015. This episode in Hawaii has poor management – inattentive at best, just plain shoddy at worst – written all over it.
Everyone agrees that the field at Aloha Stadium is a scourge. Given the ongoing, difficult conversations on the women’s national team and artificial turf, you would think US Soccer would have been particularly cautious and sensitive on this matter. Instead, US Soccer flubbed this one about as badly as possible. Unfortunately, this one seems to be a “defining the culture” moment, and that falls on the big bosses.
There were surely a lot of fingerprints on the Hawaii hiccup including, at some point, Flynn’s. But Gulati is the organizational face, the first stop on the accountability express; it comes with the job.
It’s been a bad year. It needs to be better in 2016. Gulati has to lead the way in getting there.
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