After a summer World Cup that saw the United States kick, claw, scratch, sidefoot and ultimately submit, focus for US Soccer migrated ever so briefly from it’s players to the front office so to speak.
With a new four-year preparatory cycle virtually beginning instantaneously, the denouement of an on-field campaign wrecked by Asamoah Gyan saw Sunil Gulati and US Soccer navigate, or meander if you prefer, through three events that didn’t necessarily have the desired outcomes: the rehiring, or hiring, of a men’s national team coach, drastic CONCACAF qualifying changes and a massive and aspirational attempt to bring the World Cup back to US soil.
No rest for the weary and a daunting task for the organization–on those last two–in a minefield named “FiFA” where randomness and favors appear to trump logic and merit at nearly every turn.
Fast forward to January 22nd, 2011 and US fans retroactively bore witness to the apparent sequel to Jurgen Klinsmann I, the US–outside of its control–coughing up it’s quadrennial trip to Azteca and Qatar, who sits three page turns in in the FiFA rankings, awarded the 2022 World Cup–the one that many in the English-speakering media thought was a few days in Zurich away from being earmarked for the States.
It’s a dizzying and frustrating sequence of events for US Soccer and the fed is getting back on message and looking to drive the sport forward–in the void of a World Cup bid win–by galvanizing both the casual and hardcore supporter.
The first step here in 2011 was the organziation of what is expected to be many intimate “Fan Forums” in and around US games.
The first forum occurred Saturday night at HDC prior to the Chile match and TSG was privledged enough to be the lone media scribe allowed to join up with a group of approximately 30 fans that would pepper USSF President Sunil Gulati with their questions and concerns.
Having arrived a full two hours before kick-off, the fan group was quickly led through the metal detectors and then escorted through the stadium guantlet to a downstairs media room.
There were a few refreshments lining the right wall, but no one bothered.
Gulati entered stage right, to hearty applause, after a short introduction by press officer Michael Kammarman and the session began.
What followed was a refreshingly candid Gulati–I believe I am qualified to make that statement because I interviewed him after the game and I certainly received more “media-tailored” responses to my queries–taking one fan question after the next and tackling them head on, engaging the inquirer often in his replies. Only one question was, sort of, ducked.
As an event, it was simple, but seemed to achieve its purpose as fans were either satisfied with Gulati’s response or posed follow-ups if they were still left wondering.
Having attended a few fan forums at various intersections of my life, I can easily say that the fans in attendance were also extremely well-prepared for the conversation.
Not only did their questions show the knowledge you would expect of a group that probably hits refresh on USSoccer.com, Twitter and BigSoccer.com all day long, but they were phrased in the right context to drive the answer they wanted. Aware of the stature of the speaker at the front, but more aware of their individual temporal importance to that speaker. Suddenly, I got a little self-conscious.
Gulati, for the most part, obliged.
With no ESPN ice cream mic crowding him and less dissemination of information expected post-event, less amplification allowed for less rhetoric and more direct responses.
Fans were welcome to share what they learned after the proceedings, but not during them.
The wide-ranging see-saw media session lasted about an hour with the USSF preside engaging the audience with a Socratic method of Q&A. I can only imagine that Gulati behaves similarly in his Columbia classroom.
Some tidbits of information that emerged from Gulati in no particular order. Since TSG participated as an observer in the forum, we did not ask questions.
• The US vs. Argentina friendly up in everyone’s favorite soccer hotbed, Seattle, was torpedoed because of “distance issues” as the lead factor.
It was implied, but not stated by Gulati that Argentina felt the Land of Pearl Jam and Sockeye salmon was just too far for its players to travel for the international friendly date.
Despite the Argentinian negotiations, U.S. Soccer still does consider Seattle and other West Coast locations as great venues for potential matches in the future. But it’s clear to this writer that there are trickier logistical challenges because of the volume of players in Europe across potential opponent nations.
• “We liked the old system. That wasn’t what was on offer.”
Gulati’s sentiments on the changes to CONCACAF qualifying that will likely ruin, if not at least adversely impact, the USA vs. Mexico rivalry. Gulati shared that influence in the decision making was not like the World Bank, where big powers rule, but more like the United Nations where ever voting nation no matter small counted equally.
• No US friendly will be played again “in the next year” on the West Coast and, in what was more of a tongue-in-cheek remark, Gulati kidded that the US will “never play a Latin American country in a qualifier [out west].”
• However, there is a chance of a US – Mexico friendly on the West Coast “sometime in the next year.” The US considered a home-and-away series with Mexico this year, but thought–with a possibly meeting in the Gold Cup–it would not be in the best interest of team development.
• Exposure-wise, the number one priority for USSF right now is “our relationship with our media partners.”
• On the World Cup bid process, Gulati [due to the World Cup bid process in 2010] “thinks you’ll see some changes” in the future selection process.
A questioner then suggested that the US boycott FiFA which earned a well-tailored response from the US Soccer spokesman:
“I saw in the ground rules today that you could ask any question, not that I have to answer it though. [laughs] It’s in our collective interest that I don’t answer that one.”
• In the single exchange the seemed to get Gulati’s blood percolating, a fan led with a somewhat rambling question about a foreign coach ever potentially being the US Men’s Team coach, suggesting someone like Jose Mourinho who would be “given control of everything?”
Gulati, shooting back: “What’s “everything.” I don’t know what “everything” means. I don’t understand.”
The questioner continued: “Like Mourinho has at Real Madrid or had at Chelsea.”
Gulati, “Is that what you think? There’s another guy there that writes the checks. Guaranteed he didn’t have full control at Inter. If you’re an owner, you have full control. Without getting into specifics, let’s see what full control means.”
“Want to decide on the full schedule? Sure, I’ll give you full control. Oh, but we have a contract that this many games for television and you have to play this many games in the United States.”
“Ok, full control. ‘This player is suspended.’ No, in the United States, there is a grievance procedure that we have to observe. And I can give you another hundred.”
“I’m not referring to any specifics. There is no full control. Not with the US, not at Real Madrid, not at Inter and certainly not at Chelsea. Chelsea has had six coaches in the past six years, right?”
“It’s never full control unless you’re the one writing the checks.”
“And I don’t own any teams. I don’t have anywhere near full control of my son’s under-13 team.”
“I refereed one game and I had one kid swearing at me the whole game. It was my kid.”
It was the one question that Gulati clearly bristled at (but recovered) and no doubt the press officers on hand will have a word with him on it. Following up on the exchange, Sunil Gulati, or Dan Flynn, for that matter have zero control in who Bob Bradley selects to bring into camp or other similar team moves.
That said–and without be an apologist–it was great to see Gulati, unencumbered by the press, get a little agitated, a little passionate.
• There will be a third kit for Gold Cup this summer as confirmed by Gulati hollering back to his marketing team in the back of the room for confirmation. It will be a red jersey.
All told, I thought the event was an excellent business move for USSF, seeking to engage–not placate–a sampling size of constituents so as to improve the message and direction going forward.
TSG was able to catch up for an exclusive interview with Gulati–one we had been seeking for some time–after the match that evening. You’ll see that on TSG sometime next week.