It was announced this week, in the wake of the United States Men’s National Team failing to make the World Cup for the first time in a generation, that Sunil Gulati will not stand for reelection to the post of US Soccer Federation president, marking the end of Gulati’s 12 years in charge of the direction of American soccer.
While in the immediate sense, Gulati’s tenure is being judged for the men’s failure to qualify for Russia next summer, time will be kinder to his tenure. The men did qualify for all the previous World Cups during that time, as did the women, including winning the World Cup in Canada in 2015.
The domestic men’s league Major League Soccer is in a much stronger position where the touch-and-go nature of the very existence of the league seems well in the rearview, and, after some fits and starts, it appears the National Women’s Soccer League is finding its footing as well.
So the history books will inevitably be much nicer to Sunil Gulati than the instant reaction business is right now. All of which is rather strange considering we really were never supposed to think much about who the US Soccer president is. The idea of who signs the marketing deals and who gives the droll after-dinner speeches shouldn’t be – and historically hasn’t been – interesting to many. The only time it really comes up in world football is when a head needs to roll for failing to make the World Cup, or when a new head coach needs to be hired for a national team, and even then the press release starts out with “Country has announced that Name has been hired as the new manager” and it’s three or four paragraphs until you get a quote from a stuffed suit about what a great fit old So-and-so is for the future of the program.
For instance, do you know what a Mervyn Leggett is? How about a Rupinder Bains? Are those failed European sportscar models of the 1970’s? Are those properties for sale in foreign editions of Monopoly? Are those members of the England FA Board? Are those two collections of letters formed by dropping a halibut on a keyboard? You have no idea. No one does. That’s the point.
So why then did Sunil Gulati stand out from the nameless, faceless, smoky boardroom making unaccountable decisions and releasing boilerplate statements? Well, he’s young (only 59) and urbane and intelligent, a respected university professor in fact. But moreover we’ve seen the evolution of the presidency turn from something that only wonks and nerds would care about deeply to a spotlighted, paparazzied focus point. Media coverage, both traditional and social, has transformed the position into one of celebrity and importance like it has never been, and that has changed the way we think about the presidency and the person occupying that role. People are no longer happy simply to have a micro-manager perfectly suited to the nuance of the job; they demand someone to fulfill some grander role as a star, as a character.
Similarly, when Gulati abdicates the presidency in early 2018 (not to worry, he’ll still be around on a number of boards or advisory councils or non-voting positions), it may not be enough for the next nominal leader of American soccer to be the calm, cool, anonymous guiding hand for the sport in the States. Already, even before this week’s announcement that there would not be an incumbent running, the candidates have been loudly making themselves known.
The big two – that is to say, the two with the most built-in name recognition – are Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino. Martino is the American that NBC trots out during their EPL coverage so that it isn’t all British accents. Martino played in MLS for seven seasons, his television opinions aren’t blistering hot takes but are instead rooted in an understanding of the game, and he seems like a nice enough guy. Overall, a USSF led by Kyle Martino would be a welcome step back to bland stable leadership.
Eric Wynalda on the other hand. Ye gods. The thing Eric Wynalda is most famous for is that his wife maybe, possibly had an affair with then-USMNT captain John Harkes, which led to Harkes maybe, possibly being removed from the 1998 World Cup team and murdered any slim chance that team had. The thing Eric Wynalda is second-most famous for is managing a semi-pro team via telecommuting. Third-most? Shouting dumb opinions on Fox about heart and grit and determination. Also he may have played soccer a bit as well.
There are other candidates, qualified ones as well. Carlos Cordeiro is the reigning US Soccer treasurer and would be the most direct line of succession from Gulati if staying the course was something the voters wanted, which, let’s be honest, it is. You and I aren’t voting for this, the people in that smoky boardroom are, and even without knowing or caring exactly who they are, you can be pretty sure that the only thing they care about in this entire exchange of power is that the money keeps rolling in.
Kathy Carter, the only woman in the race presently, is currently the president of the American soccer marketing apparatus known as SUM, a name which causes American soccer nerds to spit on the ground every time it is mentioned, but is still a part of the financial pipeline. Paul Caligiuri scored the goal that got the US to the 1990 World Cup and therefore ensured the 1994 version would be played on American shores, which in turn gave birth to Major League Soccer, which makes him about as qualified as anyone else, regardless of what potentially disruptive ideas he actually has.
But let’s be honest here, it’s probably going to be Eric Wynalda. America should by all rights have as its president the guy with the questionable marital history and the questionable business history, as well as the history of tricking rubes into liking him by saying unpopular and flat-out wrong things and convincing people he’s ‘telling it like it is’. Is he the candidate America wants? Not if they were honest with themselves. Is he the candidate America deserves, a loud shouting maniac to show the world the face of the loud shouting country, when all we really need is the nameless, faceless caretaker to see things along? Oh, you know it.