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Sunil Gulati

US Soccer Federation faces three critical short-term issues


Sunil Gulati is entering perhaps the most critical three-week period of his tenure as US Soccer Federation (USSF) President today. Gulati, who has served since 2006 as the leader of the governing body for the sport in the United States, faces three separate and distinct challenges he must navigate through.

1- US Women’s Equal Pay

The ongoing controversy over a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) hit a new level of national conversation Sunday with the airing of a feature on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes.

At issue is why exactly the World Champion USWNT is making far less money than their male counterparts who have not advanced past the Round of 16 of a World Cup since 2002. The USWNT, led by captain Carli Lloyd, have publicly demanded nothing less than equal pay.

Defenders of the USSF stance will point to TV ratings and revenue generation as a defense. However, that ignores the reality that the USWNT are a side that adds value to major international women’s soccer tournaments, while the US men benefit off an existing infrastructure for the game to which they contribute little in the way of global interest or revenue.

It can also be argued that the US men are marketed to a broader audience than women, with the USSF wrapping the men in jingoistic terms and the American flag while the USWNT are marketed to a niche audience by comparison. The US women have argued this point repeatedly that the men are given favorable treatment by the USSF not just in terms of pay but in the areas of marketing and exposure as well.

Wherever you come down on the equal pay dispute, the 60 Minutes segment has thrown this topic to the top of the list of pressing concerns for US Soccer. While many of the top soccer writers in the US remain focused on discussions related to the next two points we will cover, the mainstream sporting and news media have picked up on the USWNT story, ensuring it will have plenty of oxygen for the foreseeable future.

2- NASL vs USL for D2 sanctioning

The Soccerwarz have intensified in the last month with the defection of two leading NASL clubs, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC, to the rival USL. NASL is currently sanctioned as a Division 2 men’s league while USL is sanctioned as a Division 3 men’s league. The USL has formally applied for Division 2 status. And with 31 teams currently in tow for next season, they appear on the surface to be healthier than the NASL which will likely be a 10-team league next season. However, NASL boasts, among other clubs, the world-famous New York Cosmos, giving the league a star power and claim to higher division status that USL lacks. US Soccer has a Board of Governors meeting scheduled for the weekend of MLS Cup (December 8-10) where the sanctioning issue might be determined.

President Gulati has attempted to forge a compromise or consensus by meeting with leaders of both leagues and facilitating conversations about sanctioning. Gulati tweeted on November 3 that he had productive meetings with both leagues.

The USL season begins in March 2017, and the NASL season begins in April 2017. Both leagues are in a certain degree of limbo in terms of marketing and compiling plans for 2017 while this situation remains unresolved. It is noteworthy that under US Soccer bylaws, multiple D2 men’s leagues can be sanctioned. However’s Brian Strauss has reported that the USSF would be reluctant to set this precedent of sanctioning two D2 men’s leagues concurrently.

Gulati has proactively sought to resolve this crisis but his efforts now might be overcome by other events related to the women’s and men’s national teams.

3- Jurgen Klinsmann

Many fans of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) often forget the USSF is the governing body for the sport at all levels in this country, not simply the administrators for the men’s national team program. As detailed above, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati has serious and pressing matters to deal with on other fronts. But for USMNT fans the continued bewildering form of the team and strange coaching decisions by Jurgen Klinsmann are weighing heavy.

The United States had a historically bad week during the international break, recording the first home World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico since 1972. And with a 4-0 loss in San Jose to Costa Rica, the USMNT recorded its worst loss in any World Cup qualifier since 1957. These results are not completely out of context when you consider that the US lost its first-ever CONCACAF Gold Cup match to a Caribbean nation last year when eliminated by Jamaica in the semifinals and could not even muster a shot in the 4-0 loss to Argentina in the Copa America semifinals.

But Klinsmann is Gulati’s man – the US Soccer President spent five years pursuing the former German World Cup winner and has seemed reluctant to part company with him. Klinsmann had vowed to make the USMNT a consistent top 10-15 international side but the results since 2014 are not just poor for this era – they are historically bad with even prominent media members now mocking the US head coach.

Gulati’s legacy with many fans is tied to the Klinsmann hire. This pulls at the emotions of the US Soccer President who might be better served historically to let Klinsmann try and right the ship. But the very real possibility that the USMNT could miss a World Cup for the first time since 1986 looms as the team sits dead last in the six-team hexagonal, which is the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

These three issues all will test the leadership ability of Sunil Gulati who must answer to a wide array of constituencies in his role as President of US Soccer. How Gulati manages each and every one of these issues will factor into his legacy and the long-term governance of the game in this country.

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  1. Lawrence Dockery

    November 21, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    The thing that pisses a lot of people of about the WNT pay situation is that they’ve made the MNT and it’s players the bad guys in this. That 60 minutes segment was nothing more than a hit piece. It’s not Tim Howard’s fault that he makes more money than Hope Solo. And the number of people that buy into the false narrative that the WNT is as or more popular than the MNT is astounding. The MNT has more people watching them on TV and more people going to their games. Those are two of the biggest metrics that we can use to gauge popularity. And if US Soccer really doesn’t care about the WNT then the worst thing they could do is go on strike because if US Soccer doesn’t care about them, why would they try to get that resolved? And why is the WNT not fighting for equal pay in the NWSl? They seem to be perfectly content to make much more money than their non-WNT counterparts in the league (which is funded almost entirely by US Soccer, I might add).

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      November 21, 2016 at 12:41 pm

      I don’t disagree that they have more people watching them. I do disagree however that they are the driver of that. The men’s game is better built-out and better publicized than the women’s game. The men all make money at their clubs sides. If the US Men didn’t qualify for a World Cup, I don’t think the competition would be impacted dramatically in terms of revenue, fan interest or quality of football. If the US Women missed a major tournament, the event would be largely ignored. US women’s soccer is the driver of the popularity of the international game at the women’s level whereas the US men are simply beneficiaries of the strength of the men’s game as established by other national teams.

      It’s worth noting when the US Men play meaningless friendlies against second and third tier opposition they draw fewer fans than the US Women against similar type opposition. The men’s team benefits from the environment they are in whereas the women’s team has had to create that environment all on their own.

      To me that makes them more worthy of good pay than the men who are to a certain extent freeloaders off a system already established and the quality of opposition they face.

      • Lawrence Dockery

        November 21, 2016 at 4:29 pm

        I do think that a big reason that the last 6 MNT friendlies have done so poorly has more to do with the fact that lots of people were angry with Klinsmann than the WNT being a bigger draw. Fans were voting with their wallets so to speak. The MNT has always played meaningless friendlies against weak opposition but has always done reasonably well at drawing a crowd for them. With Klinsmann gone it will be interesting to see what happens next year. And the WNT has an uphill battle because they don’t have another competitive game until 2018 at the earliest (sorry the She Believes Cup are just glorified friendlies).

    • David

      November 22, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      Lawrence…great points. Another factor that adds to the false narrative the WNT is more popular than the men’s is when the equal pay issue first came up. The WNT were trying to make you believe they are more popular than the men, but they were comparing a World Cup year for the women to a non World Cup year for the men. That is completely misleading.

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