Arena has been a central figure in American soccer for decades now. More than a figure -- a trailblazer. I’m thinking of his move from UVa to MLS -- from the amateurism of college soccer to the pro MLS. A daunting challenge that he quickly turned into a huge personal triumph. Those who doubted that he would succeed -- myself among them -- were put to flight.
Success has followed success -- with the national team, with the Galaxy ... until now. Called in to clear up the eccentric mess left by Jurgen Klinsmann, Arena looked to be on his way to success until the sudden, unthinkable, loss to Trinidad & Tobago.
After that game, Arena faced the press, talked straightforwardly as he always has, made no excuses and a little later did the honorable thing and resigned. I do not -- cannot -- believe that we have seen the last of Arena. Surely he will not go quietly into the good night, not Arena. American soccer needs him.
Anyway, he deserves better. What, exactly, was it that did him in, and that now casts a shadow over Gulati? All the evidence points in one direction -- a direction I hesitate to follow. Klinsmann was unable to produce a reliable men’s national team, or even one that looked good when it was winning. Arena, using many of the same players, seemed to be on his way when Honduras was comprehensively taken apart 6-0.
Then came Costa Rica to upset things -- not for the first time -- with a 2-0 win in New Jersey. The U.S. performance was bafflingly tame, with none of the fire and commitment that had sunk Honduras.
The tremendous dip in form was worrying. So we worried -- but not for long. Five months later came the crucial must-win game against Panama, and the USA looked better than it had looked for years in a thoroughly dominant 4-0 win, that erased all the doubts. The loss to Costa Rica had evidently been a momentary glitch. The USA was looking like Arena’s best teams have always looked -- playing with attacking skill, scoring goals, and exuding the easy confidence of people who enjoy what they are doing.
Next up Trinidad & Tobago, the worst team in the qualifying group. However much one laments the totally unexpected results of the other games in the group that night, results that ensured the USA’s doom (Honduras beating Mexico, Panama beating Costa Rica), the key truth is that the USA were just plain bad and must take the blame for their own destruction.
That earlier loss to Costa Rica had not been a one-off glitch. It had revealed a fault line in this team. One that Klinsmann never solved. He repeatedly blamed MLS for the problem, telling us the league was not strong enough to provide the challenge needed for international play. So he encouraged Americans to bypass the league and seek teams in Europe. And he brought in six German-Americans to make his point.
Klinsmann’s anti-MLS attitude was never convincing. Even so, Arena failed with many of the same players and suffered the same wild swings in form. Was it possible that Klinsmann was on to something?
Hardly. His theory is totally undermined by Costa Rica, the team that outplayed the USA twice. Costa Rica has been improving (its extraordinary showing in the 2014 World Cup attests to that), and perhaps the key element in that improvement has been an increase in the number of Costa Ricans playing in MLS. Approximately half the Costa Rican national team now consists of players with MLS clubs. Not just Costa Rica: During 2017, Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica and T&T called up a total of 31 players from MLS clubs.
All this points an accusing finger in the direction I hesitate to follow: toward the U.S. players. But whatever malaise may be periodically affecting the American players on the national team, either it isn’t bred in MLS, or Costa Ricans are mysteriously immune to it. In fact, seem to thrive on it.
It is perfectly logical for USSF President Sunil Gulati to find himself accused of responsibility for the calamity - if that is what it is -- of not qualifying for next year’s world cup. That, and the failure to qualify for the last year’s Olympics, both happened under Gulati’s reign, so the buck stops at his desk.
Full disclosure: I am a friend of Gulati’s, have been for some 40 years. I strongly supported him when he began his pursuit of the USSF Presidency. During his 12 years in that job, he has done a number of things that I have strongly, and publicly, disagreed with. To wit: his long delay in firing the manifestly inadequate Klinsmann; and his failure to reach out strongly to the Hispanic community. Those are, to me, two serious faults.
Serious yes, but when measured alongside the many positives that Gulati has brought they loom less large. I have known and observed and conversed with eight USSF Presidents. All of them, of course, unpaid amateurs -- including Gulati. Without a second’s hesitation I would name Gulati as the most satisfactory of the lot. By a wide margin.
The post has, of course, changed drastically over the past 50 years, enlarging itself as the sport has spread rapidly across the entire country. From being a decidedly part-time low-key job for an enthusiast it has become one of this country’s top sports administrative jobs. And it now involves considerable activity at the international level.
Of course the job should be full-time and salaried. That will come, but Gulati seems determined that it will have to wait until his span is over. In the meantime, Gulati somehow manages to devote the necessary hours to his soccer work, while holding a job as a senior lecturer in economics at New York’s Columbia University.
Quite an achievement. I have no doubt that what helps Gulati sustain the work rate is his full-blooded devotion to the sport. He has come up through the ranks of American soccer, from youth soccer, through college, to administrative positions in state and national bodies. Along the way he played a key role in bringing the 1994 World Cup to the USA, and then in its organization. And he has been a deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer.
Gulati’s experience in the game -- in the contemporary game -- is immense. He now presides over a USSF that is more financially secure than it has ever been. And, the USSF’s national team program is larger and more organized than it has ever been. Despite the recent setbacks, one of the more important achievements of his presidency has been to give the men’s senior team the international credibility that it previously lacked.
Women’s soccer, too, has a lot to thank Gulati for, as he has championed it and has used Federation money to subsidize the women’s pro league
Gulati himself can claim considerable credit for raising the international level of respect for the American game. He is recognized as a highly intelligent, soccer-savvy presence on FIFA’s Executive Committee. His reputation as a plain speaker and an honest man meant that he never became embroiled in the recent scandals that have beset FIFA.
His background in economics no doubt helps him to think clearly about the now massively important financial aspects of the sport, while his duties as a university lecturer have given him a confident and impressive manner when addressing meetings.
Most recently, it is at Gulati’s initiative that the three-country bid (USA, Mexico and Canada) has been made to stage the 2026 World Cup -- a bid that seems certain to succeed.
This is a hugely impressive catalogue of talents and accomplishments. Gulati’s judicious use of his talents -- the quiet diplomacy -- has been outstanding. Those who now call for him to step aside need to give some serious thought to just how expertly Gulati -- at the head of an essentially amateur organization -- has been able to professionalize its operations without trampling all over its amateur roots.
Where is there to be found a challenger for Gulati’s job who can lay claim to a fraction of the knowledge, experience, achievements -- and, yes, wisdom -- that Gulati brings to the job?
Put to that test, the already-announced opponents -- plus any that one can even think of -- are simply not equipped to take on the demands of this highly complex, high-pressure job.
Next year’s election is a vital one for American soccer. The necessary modernization and globalization of the USSF is by no means complete. Sunil Gulati must be given a final four years to fully develop what he has so ably started.
The loss to Trinidad and Tobago spelled, for the USA, the end of the World Cup. But not the end of the world. Changes will follow, as they should. But this is not the time to for the sport to shed Bruce Arena and Sunil Gulati, two of its most distinguished talents.