Commentary

American soccer's 'architect' Sunil Gulati started in the grassroots

"Sunil, I just wanted to personally thank you. We had an amazing partnership. I really felt that the way we were able to communicate with each other was in a way that our national team could truly grow. Of course, I speak not just for the women's side but for the entire program. You are an architect and you have shaped this game in our country and you have built the foundational bricks that are strong and sturdy so that it can last and grow."

-- Abby Wambach, in her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, to fellow Class of 2019 inductee Sunil Gulati.
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Sunil Gulati may be best known for serving as U.S. Soccer president from 2006 to 2018, spearheading the launch of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), serving as MLS Deputy Commissioner from 1995 to 1999, and helping bring men's and women's World Cups to the USA.

Not as well known is that Gulati was also a youth coach, referee, college player, state ODP administrator, college assistant coach, and soccer magazine editor.

Born in India, Gulati moved to the USA at age 5 in 1964 and began playing soccer at age 7 in Storrs, Connecticut. In his teens, he started refereeing and coaching rec soccer. He demonstrated administrative acumen early on.

"When I was about 16, a friend of mine, Nick Mongillo, and I wanted to play on a competitive team, a traveling team, and go to State Cup and all of that," Gulati said. "There was no way to do that unless we organized a team. So we did. That included everything from getting fields, administration and registration."

It also included painting numbers on T-shirts to turn them into soccer uniforms.

Gulati played college ball at Bucknell, where he later served as assistant coach. And became select team program administrator for Connecticut at age 21. He also took charge of the state's ODP program.


Sunil Gulati (back row, far right) with the Region 1 ODP team. Coach George Tarantini is in the back row, far left.

Gulati worked as administrative assistant at Kick Magazine for Paul Gardner, who introduced him to many of the nation's soccer leaders. At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Gulati worked as a statistician for NBC.

His work for U.S. Soccer, which until 1992 when he became the executive vice president of the 1994 World Cup organizing committee was as a volunteer, began when he organized a national team camp in 1985.

For that camp, he to had go to Kmart to buy soccer balls and when the players took the field, the sprinklers came on. Afterward, he told U.S. President Werner Fricker that his national team program was a mess. Fricker replied by telling Gulati to write a memo about it, “but not a 17-page memo.” Gulati, who was 25 years old at the time, recalled "I was kind of a wise ass in those days” -- and sent Fricker a 17-page memo detailing all issues, challenges and possible solutions. Fricker invited Gulati to do something about it, and that's when Gulati's long service to U.S. Soccer began.

Fricker appointed Gulati to the International Games Committee in 1986 while Gulati was still a graduate student at Columbia University.

"We didn't have any money," said Jan Osborne, the U.S. Soccer National Teams Administrator in the late 1980s. "He was a volunteer. He would start his day very early. Talking to France, or Italy, or whoever, in the wee hours of the morning before he'd go to his day job. What truly stood out was how hard he worked as a volunteer.

"He was my last phone call at night and he was my first phone call in morning. I was in Colorado Springs and he was in New York. He was trying to get games and work on the schedule for all the teams -- the men's national team, the 5-a-side, the U-20s, the U-17s, and the women's team."

It was during that period that the USA qualified for the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea and returned to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years when it reached Italia '90. Gulati was also part of the small staff that succeeded bringing the 1994 World Cup to the USA, despite its lack of a professional league.

Im 1992, Gulati took a leave of absence from his World Bank job to assist USSF president and World Cup organizing committee head Alan Rothenberg. Two years later, Gulati was charged with acquiring the players for the MLS's inaugural 1996 season. Armed with $15 million -- an amount that a major European club would spend on one star -- Gulati stocked the entire league, including marquee players Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos and Roberto Donadoni. He also negotiated the return of U.S. 1994 World Cup stars from abroad.


Alexi Lalas, Alan Rothenberg, Sunil Gulati and Marcelo Balboa.

A decade and a half later, after two previous women's pro leagues had failed in the USA, Gulati recruited investors to launch NWSL teams and ensured it as a stage for the world's top players by having U.S. Soccer manage the league and paying the salaries of U.S. women's national team players.

"Sunil Gulati has his fingerprints all over that world championship," Anson Dorrance said after the USA won the 2019 Women's World Cup, citing the importance of the NWSL. And it was Gulati who had hired two-time World Cup-winning coach Jill Ellis.

"Sunil Gulati is single most important person in the development of soccer in this country,” said Rothenberg upon Gulati's Hall of Fame induction.

A career in soccer sparked by the desire to play on a U-16 team.

PHOTO: Gulati and Wambach by Logan Buckley courtesy of U.S. Soccer

8 comments about "American soccer's 'architect' Sunil Gulati started in the grassroots".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 23, 2019 at 12:10 a.m.

    Refreshing to read such a positive article. He is a hard act to follow.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, September 23, 2019 at 9:48 a.m.

    Agree with you Bob. Much selflessness.

  3. Peter Bechtold replied, September 23, 2019 at 10:25 a.m.

    And I understand that his salary as President of USSF was $ 1.00 per year.

  4. Ben Myers, September 23, 2019 at 1:10 p.m.

    Gulati certainly has done a lot for soccer in this country, for which we are all thankful.  But somewhere along the way he lost touch with the grassroots, which are the first level of soccer talent that eventually leads to the USMNT and the USWNT.  The latter survives and thrives due to its use of a well-developed NCAA Division 1 minor league, the likes of which do not exist in other countries.  The USMNT continutes its struggles, most evident on Gulati's watch.  But he became so preoccupied with chasing the dollars for the USSF that he failed to take any sort of leadership position to bring the numerous factions of boys' and men's soccer together to do coherent development of player-candidates for the USMNT.  The consequence is that the best USMNT candidates matriculate in Europe, something that USMNT coach Berhalter does not yet seem to grasp.  USMNT struggles continue.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, September 23, 2019 at 5:49 p.m.

    Gulati was still very much in touch with grassroots, Ben. He was behind the Tom Byer pilot program aimed at deloping basis soccer skills in children from 2 to 6. When Gulati left, the program failed due to lack of support at USSF. 

    You cannot get more grassroots, more innovative, and more significant than that.

    If you want more information, google "tom byer pilot program". 

  6. Kent James, September 25, 2019 at 1:31 a.m.

    Gulati has has a pretty amazing run.  Someone in his position will always be subject to criticism, but he always struck me as one of the good guys.  And what he did with $15 million to get players to launch the MLS was impressive, and absolutely crucial to the league's survival.

  7. Jamie Nicewander, September 25, 2019 at 2:18 p.m.

    Sunil Gulati totally deserves this praise. He has worked tirelessly to create opportunities and organization where previoussly that had been very little. We need more individuals like him who selflessly create the same as we look to the future.

  8. Dick Burns, October 3, 2019 at 7:33 p.m.

    A quite guy who got things done.  Never heard him raise his voice at USSF AGM's back in the day when many issues turned to floor fights. (pre 2000)

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