Gulati embraces 'superfan' tag

October 9, 2006
CanalesBy Andrea Canales
(Archive)

Sunil Gulati knows how to present to a room. Years of lecturing to the wandering attention spans of college students at Columbia University have honed his speaking techniques. His communication style is not fiery, but informatively entertaining. He sprinkles his speeches with a clever, yet deadpan touch that makes it clear he's sharp as a tack but aware that there's no point bludgeoning the audience with how smart he is. He's relaxed at the podium, almost casual -- as if there is nothing to prove.

Gulati
WireImage / Andy MeadSunil Gulati has narrowed the list of U.S. coaching candidates to five.

Except there is, and Gulati knows it. At the recent Honda Symposium on U.S. soccer, Gulati rose to deliver his speech, requested that the U.S. soccer highlights of the 2006 World Cup be cued up on video -- then delivered his punch line. "Oh, that's right! There weren't enough highlights."

As the newly elected president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the pressure is on Gulati to set up the plans to change that. What makes his tenure interesting from the start is that, for perhaps the first time in the history of soccer in the U.S., there are expectations.

Gulati pointed out that more Americans attended the recent World Cup in Germany in support of the U.S. team than all the other World Cups combined. He mentioned also that enterprising American soccer fans had hunted down his e-mail address via Columbia University. Gulati read past the occasional profanities to distill the heart of the missives -- fans now cared about the U.S. team.

As far as Gulati was concerned, those irate fans were in good company -- Gulati had long felt that way about U.S. soccer. In a country where little soccer fandom is exhibited, he had flown that banner for years, having been involved with the game in America since he started coaching at the precocious age of 12.

Gulati's dedication to and expectations for U.S. soccer led to the most difficult decision of his short tenure as USSF president. After the U.S. failed to win a single game at the World Cup in Germany, Gulati decided not to renew the contract of longtime men's coach Bruce Arena, a man he counted as a friend and fellow cohort in the U.S. soccer cause.

Predictably, Arena was displeased.

After his dismissal, in an interview with Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, Arena said of Gulati,

"I think he's a superfan who now is president. That's the way our organization is. That's unfortunate, and you add another micromanager to an organization that's already micromanaged. I don't think that's necessarily good. He's a guy who loves the game, who wants to be important and be around the world of bigwigs at FIFA."

Arena, now coach of the Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls, later apologized for his remarks. Questioned after his presentation at the symposium, Gulati, however, did not repudiate at least part of Arena's description.

"I clearly understand that Bruce was using it in a nonpositive way," Gulati said. "But God, I hope I don't meet anyone who runs a federation who is not a superfan. I see a lot of games. I watch and enjoy soccer. I think anybody involved should be [a superfan]."

He didn't speculate on the disparaging nature of the label.

"I'll let Bruce figure out the way he was using it," said Gulati. "Is David Stern [NBA commissioner] a super basketball fan? My guess is yes. Is Sepp Blatter [FIFA president] a big soccer fan? I would hope so. I think people involved in something like this -- [which is,] in the end, based on passion -- are passionate about it."

The greatest indictment of Arena's tenure might come from the man himself, as it has been made evident through his various statements that he does not believe the U.S. national team can replicate the success it achieved under him and will in fact regress. If true, that casts a dark pall over the legitimacy of the progress under Arena's many years at the helm. A successful program should have a true foundation that doesn't crumble under a change at the top.

The reserve with which Gulati spoke of Arena's future U.S. soccer involvement was telling.

"I'm sure Bruce will be an asset as coach of an important team in Major League Soccer and as an important contributor to various policy dialogues. I'm sure at the right time that he and I will talk about a less informal relationship, but it probably takes a little time."

Meanwhile, Gulati is moving on, sifting through potential replacements because the choice is mostly his to make.

"Formally, the president makes the decision," Gulati clarified. "There's a small caveat, the executive board has to enter into a contract. I can pick the coach, but I can't pay the coach. So unless he wants to volunteer, the pick will be a board agreement. At this point, the [interview] process has been limited to [USSF Secretary General] Dan Flynn and myself."

The hunt has been extensive, but not vast. Some were merely blips on the radar.

"Certain people we've talked to and had a phone call with," Gulati said. "We called, or the agents called and we called back."

There were various solid prospects. "[The ones interviewed] Seriously? It's been about a dozen," Gulati admitted.

The U.S. federation has funds in reserve for the right candidate.

"There's a set budget because we've already done next year's budget, but that can be changed," Gulati said. "We've got the resources to change it if we need to."

The final choice for the national team post, Gulati said, will be named within the next 30 to 60 days. The time line and the style of his wording point to an MLS connection, so many expect the coach to be named at one of the events surrounding the upcoming MLS championship. It would be a neat bit of publicity symbiosis from the man who once served as the league's deputy commissioner.

To meet Gulati's deadline, the list of contenders has narrowed significantly. Gulati stated that it's now about five, including possibilities both foreign and domestic.

A quick assessment of hints dropped by Gulati point to the following as potential picks.

Juergen Klinsmann -- Considered the front-runner by many and glowingly spoken of by Gulati. However, Klinsmann might need more of a break to recover from the stress of his Germany coaching tenure, and Gulati has no interest in a delayed start or a "caretaker coach" for his pick.

"No," Gulati saud. "I don't think we're that sort of country. I would say that even if we had a handshake with coach X who was committed hypothetically through the European championship. Some of our qualifying is before that. If we do this right, we will name a coach and that will be our coach to the World Cup and who knows beyond that."

Jose Pekerman -- Although Gulati would not confirm contact, another comment pointed to the former Argentine coach. When discussing his interview process, Gulati mentioned, "I can ask a foreign-based coach, 'What would you do differently if you had to coach in the World Cup again, as you just did this past summer?'" Pekerman and Klinsmann are the main candidates who could be asked that question.

Also, Gulati mentioned that he would expect the new national team coach to speak Spanish or learn it. Pekerman obviously qualifies there. Perhaps the biggest hint was when Gulati was asked whether all the potential candidates currently speak fluent English.

"Next question," a grinning Gulati said, adding, "If I guarantee that on the first day, he may or may not speak Spanish, but by the end he will, I can guarantee that on the first day he may or may not speak English, but by the end he will."

Peter Nowak -- Gulati referred to the domestic-based possibilities in the plural, indicating more than one. It stands to reason that would include the coach of the top team in MLS, D.C. United, especially as Nowak has a championship title in his short tenure. Also, while Gulati referenced possibilities as "domestic," he did not specify them as American. Nowak is Polish but has spent the latter part of his playing career and his entire coaching career in the U.S.

Bob Bradley -- Perhaps no one besides Arena has a more extensive understanding and knowledge of the U.S. game at every level than Bradley, which Gulati mentioned is a big factor in his decision, although not the deal-breaker. Plus, unlike Arena, Bradley has made considerable effort to improve his language skills and now, as coach of Chivas USA, speaks passable Spanish.

"Knowledge of the American [soccer] scene is an important one," Gulati said. "If they don't [have it], then somebody next sitting next to them is going to have to."

Carlos Queiroz -- This is the person who put together a plan -- Project 2010, a blueprint for the U.S. to compete for the World Cup title -- that Gulati still believes in, despite the mocking the idea often received.

"It's a dream," Gulati said. "Why not dream big?"

Probably no superfan could do otherwise.

Besides the coach decision, Gulati is moving forward on several fronts to advance U.S. soccer and improve the results for teams. Increased competition, such as Copa America (likely), even Copa Libertadores for MLS teams (perhaps two years away) and hosting of Olympic qualifying (again, likely) are other issues on Gulati's plate.

"I live it, breathe it every day," Gulati said of U.S. soccer. "When I wake up, when I go to bed. My guess is, that in other cases, with someone who is more dispassionate, that may not be the case. Why be a regular old -- what's the opposite of superfan? Regular fan? Apathetic fan? No, that's contradictory."

He pondered.

"Casual fan?" someone suggested.

"Casual fan," Gulati agreed. "There you go."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.