It’s easy to say Gulati should go, but is it the right thing for American soccer?

As one of Sunil Gulati’s chief defenders over the years, I think I ought to come out of hiding to discuss the near-majority position of American soccer fans (at least those on Twitter and Bigsoccer), that US Soccer head Sunil Gulati must “go” for his role in the US 2022 World Cup bid failure.

Here’s what I think. The question of whether Gulati should go is almost irrelevant – Gulati recently won his second four-year term and will not face the voters until February 2014. What is relevant is the question of who would replace him. Supposing he did go, who would replace him? Merely saying “anybody” isn’t a real answer.

Here’s the other situation, until FIFA changes its bidding rules to allow the same confederation to host twice-in-a-row, the USA is now the enormous favorite to host the World Cup in 2026. Australia, China, and the whole of Europe (w/Russia hosting in 2022) are out, leaving the US the limited potentially opposition of South America (more to come on them), Africa, and erm, New Zealand.

Now, if you believe the rumors out of FIFA (and my good friend Jon Tannenwald did on Dan Levy’s podcast recently), FIFA wants the centennial World Cup of 2030 to go to Argentina and Uruguay, the two finalists of the first ever World Cup. That almost literally leaves Mexico, New Zealand, Egypt, and Morocco as opponents and that’s only if you accept that FIFA would go to a second Arabic-speaking country in three tournaments before returning the USA.

Here’s what all this means. How big of risk is it to chuck Gulati and his allies out of US Soccer when so many of them have the personal contacts, lessons learned and maybe even dirt on FIFA members that you’d want to win the World Cup in 2026? Is dumping Gulati before 2026 is selected not a case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” While canning Gulati would certainly feel good after the 2022 loss, it doesn’t change the fact that he and his staff’s experience in the process makes them more valuable if you’re going to try again in 2026. If you thought 2022 was a “slam dunk,” then 2026 is setting up as one of those Blake Griffin monstrosities.

[ame=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eRKXGiAAnw”%5DYouTube – Dunk of the Night (11/20/2010): Blake Griffin’s Monster Slam Dunk on Timofey Mozgov[/ame]

Yeah, like that.

By the way, if I have to name the biggest mistake by Gulati’s World Cup bid team it’d be this one. I think they got overexcited and started talking up the bid too early. Instead, they should’ve kept themselves and the rumor mill quiet and once they saw that Qatar and its billions were going after it, simply let Asia have 2022 and possibly even support Qatar in that effort. The problem is that once it became clear that US was bidding, they couldn’t be seen dropping out because of Qatar, it would’ve made US Soccer look bad and would’ve set off the collusion alarms even earlier than they ended up going off.

But getting back to my point, there’s no doubt that Gulati has been weakened politically by this loss. Even I, as a defender of his, will admit that. But behind him is a total void. Who do you want running US Soccer. (And just as importantly, who would want to?)

That’s my point.

Until there is a qualified, motivated figure standing “in opposition” to Gulati, all this talk of him resigning doesn’t matter one iota. Elections aren’t won by “Mr. Else, Anybody,” they’re won by people. And until that someone emerges publicly, all the anti-Gulati noise is just that – noise.

The $50M ChampionsWorld lawsuit against MLS and USSF allowed to proceed


Charlie Stillitano just won’t go away

Remember ChampionsWorld? It was an organization setup by disgraced former MetroStars executive Charlie Stillitano to promote and organize friendlies between European and South American teams. After three years of promoting these matches, it went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Since 2006, it has been engaged in a lawsuit against US Soccer and MLS claiming $50 million in damages and now, according to Sports Business Journal, an Illinois judge has allowed the suit to proceed into court with the case starting as early as Spring 2011.

According to the SBJ piece here are the basics:
Now, before I go on, allow me to add that I am not a lawyer, but it appears to me that the basic question is whether the Ted Stevens Olympic Sports Act allows for US Soccer to charge fees to promoters when the events don’t immediately relate to the “Olympics, Paralympics, and Pan-American Games.” Now, after reading the law (PDF) and specifically the part “Granting sanction for amateur athletic competitions,” it looks like US Soccer is granted the sole ability to sanction and charge fees for competitions held inside the US. But the law does say that the fee must be “reasonable and nondiscriminatory.”

If the intent of the lawsuit is to challenge the USSF’s exclusive ability to sanction soccer matches held within the United States, then I suspect it’s fairly doomed. That ability of US Soccer was one of the secondary elements settled when MLS players’ lawsuit failed a few years back.

Thus, that appears to leave open the question of whether the fees were “reasonable and nondiscriminatory.” I must admit, I have no idea what “reasonable” means in a legal context.

What do folks out there in comment-land think? If anyone out there is a lawyer, I’d be curious to see how you think this lines up.

UPDATE: Here is the ruling from the judge. This looks to me like ChampionsWorld is going after the sort of inherent anti-trust exemption given to national sports governing bodies by the Olympic Sports Act. I find it hard to see how the ruling in the MLS players lawsuit doesn’t stop this one cold, but I’d like to hear from those more adept in reading legal opinions than I am.

The new CONCACAF qualifying process is bad, but it’s not ALL bad… but it’s pretty bad

Ives Galarcep absolutely flips his shit over CONCACAF’s proposed changes to its World Cup qualifying process. I’m feeling lazy, so I’ll let Ives summarize.

Galarcep goes on to add that he thinks this will destroy the US rivalry with Mexico.

Allow me to posit this counter. Maybe it’s time for both the US and Mexico to treat this as a “trial separation” and an opportunity for both sides to find higher, more ambitious barometers of success than merely beating each other. I think both the USA and Mexico have sort of outgrown this rivalry (and probably outgrown CONCACAF but that’s a different column) and would benefit from an overall organizational focus away from each other and instead towards challenging the best of Europe and South America, precisely the kinds of teams neither team ever beats on the big stage.

As much fun as the USA-Mexico qualifiers are (and I’ve been to three of them, including one at Azteca), are they even really meaningful? The two teams always qualify and the games pretty much just exist to line the respective federations’ coffers while allowing both sides’ passionate fanbases to hurl invectives at each other. But in order for it really to be a rivalry don’t the matches have to mean something? And the reality, the Mexico-USA qualifiers don’t mean all that much competitively. It’s not hard for either the US or Mexico to get out of CONCACAF’s final round regardless of how the six points at stake between them are distributed.

Will qualifying be a little bit less fun if the USA doesn’t play Mexico? Of course, but the new system isn’t all bad. Here’s why.

1) Believe it or not, qualifying actually gets more difficult and thus will better prepare our players for the proper matches at the World Cup tournament itself. With only one team getting an automatic qualifying spot out of each proposed final round group, that makes each and every final round match really, really meaningful. Ives views that as a bad thing. I view it as a positive. More truly meaningful matches are a good thing, no matter what.

2) This system will help the US get the World Cup in 2022. I figure that this format change was what the smaller Caribbean countries asked for in return for Jack Warner and CONCACAF assuring the US its unanimous support behind the World Cup bid. No deal within FIFA or especially CONCACAF comes for free and this new format is the “fee” US Soccer was forced to pay in order to get CONCACAF to march as one. When the US does get the 2022 World Cup, this will be one of the reasons why.

3) If ESPN/Telemundo/Univision want to keep the USA-Mexico rivalry alive, then go out and find a business (or Carlos Slim) with big markets on both sides of the Rio Grande to sponsor a two match series of friendlies between the USA and Mexico. Call it the Wal-Mart Cup and, in order to ensure folks take this seriously, put up a big cash prize to the winners. Sure it’d be a purely made-for-TV spectacle, but what US-Mexico match isn’t?

4) With a weak first round-robin of matches under the new format, there are plenty of opportunities for the US to do some “evangelizing” in new/different venues. There are lots of great and increasingly even soccer-specific stadiums in markets that really might get excited for a US match coming to town, even if it’s against the British Virgin Islands. Don’t just stick these matches in existing hotbeds like New York, Philadelphia and LA, even though the stadium situations there are advantageous. Instead, US Soccer should go to non-MLS markets like Raleigh, Atlanta, Omaha, Albuquerque, Honolulu and other places that could provide the USA with a good home atmosphere.

Martin Tyler’s Take on Football in America …

… If you’ve enjoyed Martin Tyler’s PBP work during the 2010 FIFA World Cup for ESPN and ABC, then get used to it, because Soccernet reports Tyler will return in the same role for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

If you haven’t enjoyed Tyler, well, then … sorry for ruining your morning.

In the article, Tyler touched on how he saw his role as not being one to try and convert the non-believers. I agree with that approach. Tyler is best left to commentate on what he sees in front of him and other key events in the tournament, not preach about how other countries run their national team programs or how to grow the sport in the United States. I enjoy his work, I know some don’t. Your mileage may vary. That’s OK.

But he did say one particularly interesting thing that I wanted to call attention to, if only to gauge reader reaction:

I’m not here to fan the flames of the whole promotion/relegation argument. I think there are dynamics in place here that are so different than what we see in England and in other countries that such a system may never work right. But I’m not as down on the system in England as a whole as others are, and I don’t necessarily blame it for the financial troubles that several English clubs at different levels have gone through. Mismanagement is in the eye of the beholder.

But I do think Tyler makes an interesting point. Many have trumpeted how for Major League Soccer to be successful, “major” markets such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have to field strong sides and be influential. Yet, the league is now in its 15th season with a “New York” club that has basically only been good at bashing its head into a wall and failing catastrophically for most of its existence.

Tyler seems to suggest the opposite strategy to MLS – that a bottoms-up approach would be more effective. Would the dynamics of our geography, the nature of our sports fans, and the patterns with which sports fans spend their dollars support such an idea?

There has often been discussion about somehow working MLS and USL together to create a two-tiered association that would offer promotion/relegation between the two. What Tyler would seem to advocate is starting at the ground floor instead, perhaps with a number of regional leagues where teams are built in a community setting and over the course of many years, a pyramid is created to join MLS from the bottom, rather than reshaping MLS (and the USL) at or near the top.

I think the concept would be interesting in particular locales, but it wouldn’t have the same support all over the country. Funding would be a big question mark, and there’d have to be some level of cooperation from MLS with regard to funding and/or sponsorship so that it’s clear that while each regional league is somewhat independent, Big Brother is there to lend a hand and communities would know that it could be worth the effort over many years to step up to the big time. In some ways, though, it would be the ultimate in player development, as top-level clubs would have plenty of teams to scout, some in their own backyards.

In short, it’d be a 15- to 20-year effort. It’d probably take some soccer lover with deep, deep pockets, to manage the whole thing. It’s an intriguing idea.

But it’s more for discussion and for kicking around than anything else, because I can’t imagine it ever happening. It’s a nice idea on Tyler’s part, and maybe it ties into the whole pseudo-romanticism of the little club like an AFC Wimbledon trying to climb the ladder toward football immortality.

It might work in theory, but I’m just not sure that whole concept would ever take hold and be adequately supported here.

Your thoughts? If nothing else, it gives us something to talk about during this 2-day World Cup hiatus.

Impressed and surprised by US Soccer

I have to admit, I was absolutely positive US Soccer was going to go with its wallet and stick the US-El Salvador qualifier here in DC – home of America’s largest Salvadorean community. In DC, that match is an assured sellout and would’ve produced one of those electric half-and-half atmospheres that we saw in past qualifiers at RFK against Honduras and Guatemala.

According to Goff
, US Soccer is actually prioritizing the home atmosphere over a guaranteed big sellout. Does it mean that RFK could end up with another damp squib of a qualifier like Cuba? Sure, but in the end, it’s not about putting good matches close to me (or the rest of American soccer’s best fanbase). It’s about putting the team in the best position it can to win. And that’s what Sunil Gulati and US Soccer are doing, despite them probably leaving some gate-receipt cash on the table.

Well done to them for making the right call there.