Commentary

Sunil Gulati: 'We think the Olympics is important, full stop'

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

During a visit to San Francisco to attend U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Meeting during which former U.S. internationals Brian McBride and Kristine Lilly and former national team head coach Bob Bradley will be inducted into its Hall of Fame, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati took time to address a few issues.

(Gulati declined comment on the 2026 World Cup TV rights deal that was announced on Thursday and U.S. Soccer’s nomination of Prince Ali bin al-Hussein to run against FIFA president Sepp Blatter.)

SOCCER AMERICA: Is a greater emphasis on the Olympic team something you and Jurgen Klinsmann have been discussing for a while? Obviously, a failure to qualify for two of the last three Olympics is a message that something’s not working.

SUNIL GULATI: That’s not the pressure point. The pressure point is we think the Olympics is important, full stop.

SA: But haven’t you always felt that way?

SUNIL GULATI: Right. That’s exactly my point. Obviously there’s greater pressure if you didn’t qualify for the last one. I’m sure [U-20 head coach Tab Ramos] felt that when he first came in; we hadn’t qualified for the last one. I’m sure [under-17 coach Richie Williams] feels it now and [Olympic coach Andreas Herzog] does as well.

Of course, that’s the case, but when we’ve got age-group competitions -- France won the last one and they’re not in this one, Spain was second and they’re not playing in this one -- and this is an in-between group, it’s not a youth competition like the 17s or 20s – you get a lot of turnover. Less so in the under-23s than you do in the others.

So it’s important for a lot of reasons. One is because the Olympics matter in the United States in a way that’s different than in many countries. Two, it’s an important developmental vehicle: players getting to play on a big stage in Brazil as they’re progressing towards the national team. So it’s all of that.

We don’t get enough super-competitive games at that level. So a chance to play in the Olympics is important.

SA: Is it going to be more difficult if more guys go overseas, because the perception of the Olympics overseas is much different than it is here?

SUNIL GULATI: Why would you say it’s different?

SA: I don’t think clubs in Europe really care about the Olympics.

SUNIL GULATI: Yes, but they’re not releasing players based on whether they think the Olympics are important. They’re releasing player based on whether the player’s playing for them that particular week.

SA: Right, so there’s conflict there.

SUNIL GULATI: There’s not many.

SA: Well, not yet.

SUNIL GULATI: The Olympic qualifying is in six or seven months and the Olympics are during the summer.

SA: I’m not expecting DeAndre Yedlin to start for Spurs, no.

SUNIL GULATI: Right, so I don’t think there’s going to be many conflicts, and the second half of the tournament is over fixture dates. So there’s not going to be many issues and if there are we’ll deal with them. That’s not impacted by perception of the Olympics. That’s perception of teams in a promotion-relegation fight, or players playing, or I’ve got a right back who’s injured, or whatever else is in the interests of the teams themselves. Their first priority is their club, which we understand.

SA: You have to deal with that if you have a lot of guys playing in MLS.

SUNIL GULATI: It’s different. We get a lot more support and cooperation from MLS than we would from an international club, for sure. There’s no comparison there. We weren’t getting players released weeks early or for non-fixture dates or a whole bunch of other things that we get from MLS.

Emerson Hyndman’s a good example. He played some games, he’s not played some games for Fulham, and they let him go to play in the under-20 competition. If he’d been starting every game for Fulham and they were in a tough fight, they might have looked at it differently. But I think they viewed it as being good for him and good for the club if he’s playing on that stage. And they let him go. Unfortunately, he got injured in the last game.

Clearly, we have more flexibility when players are playing in the United States. That’s unquestionably the case.

SA: How would you assess the performance of the U-20s? They were in a tough spot, they had to win a bunch of games in a row, and they pulled it off.

SUNIL GULATI: You just described it. Tab made these comments in an interview with Soccer America: there’s no doubt some teams, around the world, the traditional powers, were saying, “Panama, we’re in their group.” Panama’s got a very, very good team, and he knew that before we played them.

I was down there and talked to him before the Guatemala game. He said, ‘Panama’s good, and everybody knew it.’ And Panama could have easily won that tournament. They’re a very good team. So you have an extraordinary piece of skill with a little bit of luck at the 92nd-minute mark against Guatemala and now you’re up against it.

Then they shot off four straight opponents and that’s not easy to do no matter who you’re playing against. So they got the job done.

SA: You’ve been talking about elevating the women’s game, upgrading the programs, don’t want to fall behind. Is the loss to France an example of what teams are capable of nowadays and why the U.S. can’t afford to fall back?

SUNIL GULATI: Absolutely. That was a very good team we played. On that day they outplayed us. If we play France 10 times, we’re not going to beat them nine times and have a draw. They’re a good team and the same will be true against Brazil, or Japan, or Germany. Now, I don’t think they’re going to beat us nine times, either. But 20 years ago that would have been the case, or 15 years ago. Twenty years ago it might have been China that was a power.

There’s now five, six, seven, eight teams that are very good. They’ve invested resources, Brazil most recently with their residency program, and it had some drawbacks for us because about a half-dozen players were going to be playing in the league. The late notice come across very well.

This isn’t a case of panic because the team has lost a game or lost a few games or isn’t running away with games. There’s a lot of good teams in the world. The analogy I would use if we’re talking to those who follow the women’s game in the United States would certainly understand and appreciate is, UNC went a lot of years without losing very many games. There’s now 10 other teams who can go toe-to-toe.

Anson [Dorrance]’s program hasn’t deteriorated. The recruiting angle is different because he doesn’t get all the top players. That’s a big part of the story. There are some very good teams now. He’s smart enough to know he’s not going to win it every year.

So are we one of the favorites in Canada? Of course, yes. Are we the only favorite?  The answer’s no.

SA: France was very good in 2011 and 2012 and hasn’t tailed off.

SUNIL GULATI: We beat them in the World Cup and the Olympics.

SA: This France team looks like all the good players are better, and other players have come through.

SUNIL GULATI: Yeah. That was ‘a’ game, and we’ll see how additional games go, when there’s additional pressure of playing in a world championship. We played an away game without three starters, three important players. Those aren’t excuses, it’s just stating the facts. I don’t know if they were missing any players. And they outplayed us. They had the better of the game.

That happens. It happens to Germany, it happens to Brazil. It happened to Brazil against Germany, if I remember correctly. But we’re not going to dominate the best teams in the world

SA: So what do you emphasize now? Like Pia Sundhage wanted, do you want to improve the technical ability and keep all the other attributes?

SUNIL GULATI: Sure. We have to get better in areas we haven’t been as strong while keeping up all the positive traits that we have: American physicality and athleticism and the work effort, all of those things. And be better with the ball. France clearly on that day was better with the ball. It would be hard to argue that the Brazilians, when they’re playing very well – Marta, especially -- is quite proficient with the ball, and Japan, the same, technically very, very good.

Most people would say U.S., Brazil, Japan, Germany, France are all capable of winning the World Cup, and add to that Canada, because they’ve got a very good program, a very good team, and are playing at home, which is a big advantage.

SA: How do you see the present state and future of Concacaf?

SUNIL GULATI: There are a lot of positive things happening in Concacaf, highlighted in some ways by results in the last big tournaments, which were the Olympics and the World Cup, with three teams getting to the second round and Costa Rica in particular doing very, very well. In the Olympics the men’s and women’s gold medals belong to Concacaf.

[Concacaf president Jeffrey Webb] has instituted a lot of development programs that we don’t see here but they’re very important in the Caribbean and some parts of Central America. And obviously, with the next two big events being hosted here – the Gold Cup and then the Centenario – the confederation is looking ahead in a positive way.

SA: How long have you and the federation been on board regarding the Centenario?

SUNIL GULATI: It couldn’t have been here unless we were on board with it. We were very supportive of the competition being played in the United States. It’s not every four years and it’s a competition we’re in, so we think it’s absolutely positive to help promote the game and it will be a spectacular event.

That’s different than a tournament we’re not involved in and are watching and don’t have any control over when and where and how and who and what. This is a tournament that’s good for our team, it’s good for the marketplace in terms of showing people a very high level of soccer. It will be the biggest tournament in United States since, depending on how you look at it, 1994 or 1999. I think it’ll be a huge hit.

Is this part of a push to inject more of a South American influence into the marketplace?

SUNIL GULATI: That wasn’t the impetus for it. In the origins of MLS there was much more of a Latin influence than there was European, and that was not unintentional. That was very much intentional. The impetus for this was an Americas tournament and it so happens that in a lot of American cities we’ve still got some very fervent fans from Latin countries, including Mexico obviously. With the teams that are playing and the players they are bringing, it will be spectacular.

SA: Some fans and journalists believe MLS teams should compete in the South American club tournament, the Libertadores Cup.

SUNIL GULATI: There’s a few differences. It’s an annual competition, not every 100 years, like the Centenario. Secondly, there’s a competition that Concacaf has, which is an important competition, the Champions League, which is also an annual competition. So it doesn’t fit.

7 comments about "Sunil Gulati: 'We think the Olympics is important, full stop'".
  1. Rick Estupinan, February 13, 2015 at 5:11 p.m.

    JK is such an idiot,Tim Ream should have been a regular in the US National team for the past four yrs,at least, and should have been in Brazil for the World Cup.He is as American as apple pie,loves the game and is a very hard worker.I remember him when he was playing for the New York Red Bulls.An excellent young player,excelling in every game.Why was he let go or transfer to another team,I don't know.But that's the way it is in this league with coaches who can not recognize some times hidden talent in very young players.But this man JK should know better,and treat Tim with more respect.I really appreciate TR as a good player than JK who Iam now convince ,is not a good coach

  2. Thomas Brannan, February 13, 2015 at 7:37 p.m.

    SUNIL GULATI: So it’s important for a lot of reasons. One is because the Olympics matter in the United States in a way that’s different than in many countries. (I guess I didn't get the point or I missed something. Can someone help me on this.)

  3. Andrew Kear, February 13, 2015 at 9:22 p.m.

    Gulati must be taken to task for hiring Klinesman. Didn't he do research on why Klinesman was fired from his last coaching job. There were many red flags that should have been addressed before hiring Klinesman.
    IT has gotten to the point that I no longer believe the U.S. can win the Gold Cup. The U.S. team is playing so badly that I think it is more than just a temporary problem. This is now chronic problem due to lack of team tactics. We all saw evidence of these even before the World Cup. Like all chronic conditions it only gets worse with time.

  4. Gus Keri, February 13, 2015 at 10:06 p.m.

    Thomas, I think he meant that the Olympics is one of the most watched sports events by the American audience. Its popularity rivals the top traditional American sports and it's good for soccer to have such exposure.

  5. James Madison, February 14, 2015 at 10:20 p.m.

    JK and US participation in international soccer needs to synch with MLS. Batt Besler was quoted in recent SA post that his professional playing season with KC extends from March to December (assuming KC makes the MLS Cup. It could end earlier). He and other MLS players need a month off at a minimum. Therefore, MLS players should not be called into the USMNT until February. By like token, except for WCup qualifying and final tournament foreign based players should not be called in during the month following the end of their seasons.

  6. Adrian Garza, February 18, 2015 at 11:41 a.m.

    Ream was not playing well for a good 2 years before he started to finally get minutes with Fulham. Not sure how he "should" have been on USMNT when he was not getting regular minutes until 2013 for Fulham. I do think he should have gotten more of a look but by that time it seemed Jurgen had his core players in Besler, Brooks, Beasley on the left side of defense. Not saying Ream was not good enough just saying timing was the issue in my opinion.

  7. Rick Estupinan, April 6, 2015 at 6:39 p.m.

    Nobody is going to tell me that any of the present defenders in the US National Team is better than Tim Ream,he is a much better player than JCameron,any time!

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