SA Q&A with Sunil Gulati: 'I'm not going to say we exceeded expectations'

Sunil Gulati is Director of Project 2010, U.S. Soccer's effort to improve player development, aiming to make the United States a contender for the 2010 World Cup. Gulati attended the U-17 World Cup in New Zealand, where the U.S. U-17s finished fourth. It was the best finish for a U.S. team in eight U-17 world championships. As part of Project 2010, the team was the first ever to prepare by living, attending high school and training together. The team was based in Bradenton, Fla., for 10 months.

SOCCER AMERICA: Was a successful U-17 performance in New Zealand important for the progress of Project 2010?

SUNIL GULATI: The answer is yes, because it's kind of a benchmark for a new program, namely the residency program. The results of the team are not the only tool we would use to evaluate the residency program or Project 2010. The fact that this team is the first that had a residency program and got farther than any other U-17 team is a plus. It will be one of the things we look at when we evaluate the residency program going forward.

SA: What did you think of the U-17s performance overall?

SG: I thought, in general, they played pretty well. ... The one thing I noticed, even from the better teams in the tournament, was that the swings in play at this age are pretty dramatic.

Expectations were high, so I'm not going to say we exceeded expectations, that it's absolutely terrific and nothing could be better. We expected and hoped this team would do very well and they did.

One thing that impressed me most is that the players were quite disappointed that they finished only fourth. That's a good sign that we have raised the bar and that the players have raised the bar for themselves. The players had a very professional attitude.

SA: What about the residency, what did you learn in terms of what worked and what didn't in Bradenton?

SG: A number of things that were start-up problems will get resolved very quickly for this next age group. We were in there for the first time setting up an educational program in a team environment, rather than with individual athletes, which is what the school there has dealt with primarily.

You had classes that were missing 18 students at a particular time, so that was a bit challenging. The fact that we were there as a group with our own staff is also unique to Bradenton, so that took some work. Those types of issues will be taken care of from the beginning this time.

We will have a full debriefing from the players and their families within the next few weeks and we will learn more then. I know several families wanted more visiting opportunities, which is probably appropriate.

New programs expected in 2000

SA: What about Project 2010 overall right now? What has been accomplished in 1999 and what are the plans for 2000?

SG: There are essentially three programs that have been rolled out in the last 24 months. One is Project-40, which existed in some form prior to Project 2010 being in the public eye but is clearly an important part of the program. The second is the residency program and the third is the scouting program. We've had kind of a pilot scouting program in Cal South, but we are introducing it throughout the country.

There are a number of other programs that have been outlined and we are still rehashing those things to make sure that we're not duplicating things that are already in place.

A central component of Project 2010 is that it be additive to what's already out there. That process is taking longer than those of us who aren't very patient would like, but we have some important meetings coming up in the next 45 days. We expect to introduce a number of new programs in 2000.

SA: Could you briefly explain the scouting program?

SG: The cornerstone of the scouting initiative is that we want to see players in their natural environment rather than in a tryout environment. It's the way players are selected everywhere around the world. In the long run, we want the ability to go see a player play for his club side over a period of time, rather than in a weekend tryout situation. Clearly at this stage, [scouting] will be used to supplement the Olympic Development Program.

SA: What is the plan for the next group of U-17s?

SG: What is essentially the U-16 team right now, but will be the next U-17 team, will start in Bradenton in January. Our thought there is that this team will be together a lot longer than the previous U-17 team and there are pros and cons to that.

One pro is that the more time [Coach] John Ellinger gets with the players, the better. A con is that these are young players and being away from home for that long may be tricky. Another is that at this age, the number of players that change - even from the start of qualifying to a world championship - has been very large in our experience. So we may end up training some players who do not play in the tournament, but maybe those players will come back to help us in another way down the road.

Committed to residency program

SA: Would plans for the next group have been different if these U-17s hadn't done as well?

SG: No, we were committed to the residency program prior to seeing these results. I don't think it would have been fair to evaluate the residency program based on solely the results of this team. A lot of people have tried residency with young players and we've done a lot of research on this. [A poor performance] would have given us a different set of data points to look at, but it would not have been the end of residency at this age level.

SA: What's the correlation between youth national team success and senior national team success?

SG: In general terms, Brazil is the only team around the world that seems to be strong in every area - youth teams, women's side, indoor, outdoor - in all of those areas, a top five contender in every age group. They are the only ones in that situation.

The number of players who go from U-17 national teams to senior national teams is pretty limited. FIFA tracks the players in every World Cup and what their experience is in previous FIFA youth tournaments. There are not a lot in both.

For example, if we take our U-16 team that played in China in the 1985 youth World Cup, there are only two players from that team who are still involved in first division professional soccer - Henry Gutierrez and Kris Kelderman.

SA: Are there any members of this U-17 team that will turn professional that were not planning to do so before the tournament?

SG: There may be, but I don't think you will see large numbers turning pro just based on the success of the team. I know there were not European scouts lined up with six-figure contracts waiting. I think you will see most of the members of this U-17 team follow the path they had chosen prior to the tournament.

by Soccer America associate editor Will Kuhns

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