The big winner in Philly’s U.S. Soccer presidential conversation is guaranteed to lose

Out of all the speakers I saw in Philadelphia, the person who looked best-suited to be U.S. Soccer president is …

OK, I should warn you. Some of you are going to hate this.

But bear with me. I’m not saying this person should be president on Feb. 11. I bring this up to point out the daunting challenges the next president will have not just in reforming the things U.S. Soccer is doing poorly but also in building upon the things U.S. Soccer has done well.

Some of you don’t want to hear that, I know. Again, not saying this is a vote for the status quo. I went into Philadelphia with severe reservations about Kathy Carter and Carlos Cordeiro, and if you read my FourFourTwo recap of the week’s campaign events, you’ll see they were not adequately addressed.

(And thanks to everyone for your kind words about that recap and about my hundreds of live tweets over those three days. I really appreciate it. And please bear it mind when you read this thing you’re going to hate.)

So, again, the big “winner” of the week was …

(Please don’t shoot the messenger.)

… Sunil Gulati.

Again, again — that’s not a voice of regret that his presidency is about to end. It might be a sign that a lame-duck Gulati, freed from the need to appease various voting blocs, is an entertaining interview. He and Alexi Lalas had a candid, searing and occasionally hilarious discussion. I know a youth soccer organization plans to post the candidate sessions, and I hope someone does the same with Gulati’s session.

You may have read the Soccer America and ESPN recaps. Here are a few comments you might not have expected:

He gave the most pointed defense (or perhaps the only pointed defense) of Soccer United Marketing that I’ve heard. It started in 2002 out of necessity, filling a vacuum IMG was leaving. Since then, they’ve renewed it three times. He insisted they’ve looked at alternatives but says there’s an advantage to renewing the deal before it expires, like a player having leverage before a contract expires. And the deal is always voted on by the non-recused (non-SUM-or-MLS-affiliated) members of the Board, and it has been renewed unanimously.

And then we had a few good zingers:

  • “Winning Twitter polls is not getting elected.”
  • In response to Alexi Lalas asking if he considered resigning after the Trinidad loss: “Did you quit after the 1998 World Cup?”
  • Anyone who thinks the Federation can legislate promotion/relegation “is going to end up in front of nine judges.” Lalas: What if FIFA pushes it? Gulati: “Then they’ll end up in front of nine judges.”
  • He says a lot of candidates are promising things they can’t deliver, something he refused to do even when it would help. He said a Central American FIFA voter once asked him for some sort of promise, and he declined. The response: “I like you, Sunil, but you’re a lousy politician.”

Some of it didn’t ring true. He said he’s not supporting a candidate but has recently given two candidates some solicited advice and one candidate some unsolicited advice. He finds a lot of the electoral discourse “depressing and disgusting” and claims all his past NSCAA Conventions and USSF Annual General Meetings have been positive — for a refutation of that, check out 2003 in my roundup of transcripts.

But is there more to this than just an entertaining session? Is it unfair to dump on the Gulati era?

A good take on that:

And how about Soccer United Marketing, which has been intertwined with the Federation throughout Gulati’s tenure as president? Merritt Paulson is an MLS (and NWSL) owner and former Board member, so feel free to consider all that, but he makes a few interesting points:

But what about transparency?

Want to dismiss Paulson? OK. Let’s look at the numbers from the Form 990s on the USSF site and ProPublica.

ussf-money

Here’s the funny thing: If I could extend this chart on each side, you’d see an even more dramatic increase. I didn’t include the numbers from the years four years before this because USSF changed its fiscal year from Aug. 31 to March 31, so it’s not a valid comparison. The annual revenue and expenses weren’t sharply different, but the net assets were far lower. The 2001 statement shows net assets of $14,054,712, and it lists the previous year’s assets at $6,683,668.

And though the March 31, 2017 numbers aren’t available yet, we’ve seen information that net assets will be up in the $140-$150 million realm, thanks in large part to the Copa America Centenario.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that, in 18 years, USSF has gone from a seven-figure organization to a nine-figure organization.

And they’re not just accumulating that money. (They did in the early 2000s, which I gather from Board minutes was a business strategy at the time to make sure they didn’t run into serious problems.) I included “expenses” here for a reason. The Federation spends a lot more than it used to.

(Note: Eric Wynalda claims to have $1 billion sitting on the table for the Open Cup, then says we’re leaving $120-$150 million out there through various mismanagements. I’d love to know details.)

So are we being unfair to the Gulati era and to Soccer United Marketing — and, perhaps, to Kathy Carter? Or Carlos Cordeiro, who also has played a role?

No. Because for better or for worse — and in this case, we’re looking at the “worse” — neither Carter nor Cordeiro is Sunil Gulati.

Gulati’s session probably hurt Carter by contrast. Carter comes off as corporate, speaking in vague business terms. Gulati doesn’t. You may hate what he says at times, but you know what he’s saying, which isn’t always true for Carter.

Then there’s Cordeiro. He didn’t do a one-on-one session, and he has done few interviews at all. He did pretty well in his 15-20 minutes on stage at the forum. Then he stepped off the stage and balked at a recorded interview. He did finally chat with the reporter, but he wouldn’t be recorded unless he had questions in advance. Compare that with Gulati, who knows facing the firing line is part of the job.

So does it matter to this election that Gulati knows his stuff and is a strong voice with more openness to change than one might think?

No. It doesn’t. No matter who wins, Gulati will be on the Board as a non-voting immediate past president. No one wants to dump him off the World Cup bid committee. Even supposed nemesis Eric Wynalda led a round of applause for the good he has done, and Wynalda knows the next president will need to work with Gulati in many capacities.

But they can all do it. Gulati can work with his supposed enemies. So he doesn’t need Kathy Carter to take his place. Nor will it matter if Cordeiro is elected, no matter the state of their relationship.

So the takeaway here is that the next president, no matter how ideologically or personally tied to Gulati, has a steep learning curve.

Now that might be a good thing. For 12 years, Gulati has run U.S. Soccer with little opposition — none in the elections, perhaps not enough on the Board or within the membership. The next president, who probably won’t have a majority on the first ballot, will be forced to build bridges that Gulati had no incentive to maintain.

And that’s a good thing. So is the fact that Gulati isn’t completely going away. Maybe we’ll get that one-vs.-eight debate one of these days.

 

2 thoughts on “The big winner in Philly’s U.S. Soccer presidential conversation is guaranteed to lose

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