Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Fish Rots At The Head

photo by Doom64via PhotoRee

Regular readers of this site will recall a familiar theme around these parts, which -- at its essence -- goes something like this: Bob Must Go.  I write, of course, regarding Bob Bradley and his position as Head Coach of the US Men's National Team.  Bradley's recent travails have been well documented here and on many other sites, so there's no need to rehash the arguments in favor of removing the coach.

But today I go further: I'm no longer satisfied with calling for the head of the Head Coach of the US Soccer Team.  No, our national problems with the game the rest of the world calls football go well beyond Bradley and straight to the top of the US Soccer Federation (the "USSF"), all the way to the desk of Sunil Gulati.  Having run US Soccer since 2006, and serving as the Vice President of the USSF since 2001, Gulati is where the buck stops for football in this country.  And it's where the ultimate blame resides.

Blame, you ask?  What blame?  The US may not be a powerhouse in The Beautiful Game, but we're more than respectable.  The US currently sits 22nd in FIFA's world rankings, ahead of such football stalwarts as Mexico (28th), Denmark (27th), and the Czech Republic (32nd).  And in the last World Cup, the USMNT made it all the way to the knockout round, squeaking past England to win the group stage, before bowing out against a powerful Ghanaian side in the Round of 16.

But it's this kind of uninformed, smug satisfaction that has allowed Gulati to keep his job for so long.  Progress in football is not measured in FIFA rankings -- if so, Australia would be considered a powerhouse at number 20.  No, it's measured in success, which the US has had precious little of at the international level over the last 10 years.  In fact, one could easily argue that US soccer has retreated over the past decade, and that our best players in the current squad will be well past their prime at the next World Cup, with only a very few promising back ups on the horizon. (Quick quiz: name one.  Didn't think you could).

Let's start with the period right after Gulati came in -- a timeframe for which he can claim very little credit.  In 2002, the US overcame both long odds and low expectations in qualifying for the World Cup knockout round, having been placed in a extremely tough group with one of the host nations (South Korea) and two European nations (one of them an imposing Portugal side that featured Luis Figo).  The USMNT dispatched Mexico to advance to the quarterfinals (still the best performance by a US team in the World Cup) only to lose narrowly to a very strong German side that finished runner up to the eventual winner Brazil (and even that loss was not clear cut, as an obvious handball from Torsten Frings on the goal line denied the US an equalizer).

The future was bright at that point.  Things were on the up and up.  Surely, it was just a matter of time -- a generation of young children had been playing the game growing up, and as they matured certainly our prospects for further advancement in the world's game couldn't be better.  So what happened?

Nothing.  Our game has regressed.  Take away a shocking run to the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup (and don't forget the US was within a whisker of being knocked out of that tournament, and would never have faced Spain in the semi-final, if Egypt hadn't somehow managed to overcome Italy) and the most recent World Cup run to the the knockout round (in which we were behind seemingly every game, and lost to a team from Ghana we really should have beaten), and that's the highlight list.  It's not growing -- at best you could say it's stagnant.  But I'm of the firm opinion that we're losing ground to the rest of the world.

How and why do I come to this opinion?  You can say it's all about the athletes -- but did we as a nation stop playing ten years ago, or has our nation stopped producing players who are capable of being competitive at the international level?  I don't think so.  I think it's the system -- and the guy who heads it.

Gulati's the guy who knew we needed a change after the 2006 World Cup -- a disaster in which we finished at the bottom of our group, with an 0-1-2 record.  He flirted with Jurgen Klinsman -- but ultimately was unwilling to give up the kind of authority which Klinsman requested.  Gulati's the guy who waffled over Bob Bradley's future after the last World Cup -- and flirted with Klinsmann again -- before renewing the Coach's contract for another four years.  And so Gulati must bear the responsibility for the state in which the US now finds itself.

To see how dire the state of US Soccer has become, let's look at CONCACAF.  Before doing so, however, let me state unequivocally that our record in CONCACAF should not be an acceptable measuring stick for US Soccer.  Our goal should be to win the World Cup, not be the tallest midget in CONCACAF.  We should strive to play the strongest teams in the world, and use that as a measuring stick.  I don't expect us to beat Spain -- but on our home turf we shouldn't be embarassed by them, either.

But even in CONCACAF we are falling short.  If tournaments are the ultimate measuring stick, the US just got torched in the recent Gold Cup.  Struggling to beat Guadaloupe and losing to Panama is a farce.  Please don't hide behind the old maxims that these are "tough" teams, and that CONCACAF is a difficult confederation.  Guadaloupe has a population of about 400,000 in total.  And I don't care if all their children do is play football 8 days a week and 400 days a year -- there is no way they should be competitive with us.

But more importantly, let's take a more narrow look at CONCACAF and focus on Mexico.  We owned this team for the past 8 years, rarely losing to them on US soil, and defeating them 2-nil in the 2002 World Cup.  But the worm has turned now.  Dispatching the US after spotting us a two goal advantage is no mean feat -- but the Mexicans also looked like they could have scored 5 or even 6 goals on the night.  And the core of their team is young -- in their early 20s.  The US' competitive position vis-a-vis Mexico over the next five to ten years looks bleak -- our team is old and declining, theirs is young and improving.

But yet still there's only a relative few calls for Gulati's head -- even as his head coach becomes more and more controversial.  Why is this?  In any other country in the world, Gulati would be long gone, having presided over a period of relative and unacceptable decline versus the competition and measured against the overall goal: World Cup success.  But Gulati also has the unique position of presiding over a large and powerful country which has the lowest possible expectations for football -- expectations which Gulati has managed to meet.

So if we expect very little from our game, if we're satisfied telling ourselves that it's not an important game, that our best athletes play other sports, and that we have no history and shouldn't expect to be good, he's met expectations.   But I think we're better.  And were being held back.

In business, if your company has declined versus the competition, you replace the CEO.  And it's time for US fans to stop being so self satisfied with our position, and treat the international game more like a business.  It's time for us to take a page out of the competition's playbook.  It's time for us to get better. It's time for us to raise the bar.  It's time for us to replace Sunil Gulati.

This is farlieonfootie for July 2.


  1. Well-reasoned argument. I agree whole-heartedly with your main point - that it is time for expectations to be raised. BTW, I think new FIFA rankings just came out that have Mexico 9th. We were around 25 or so.

  2. To paraphrase a certain George W., US Soccer suffers from the "soft bigotry of low expectations."