Sunil Gulati’s Tragedy or Triumph?

If you’re a US soccer fan, I’m going to ask that you take yourself back to a dark time in our nation’s soccer history. Don’t worry, I feel your pain. On June 22nd, 2006, Ghana ended any US hope of advancing to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. While many US fans point to a dubious penalty called against Oguchi Onyewu, it should be noted that the US had only scored one goal before this game, and it was an own goal at that. So it’s not as if the US had torn it up and was just the victim of a bad call. We stunk, and we were deservedly going home.

Sunil Gulati was elected President of the USSF in March 2006, but his reach and commitment to the program spanned many years before this. But it has been his time as the leader of US soccer that has come under the most scrutiny and in turn, the most ridicule and applause.  There have been good moments (winning the Gold Cup in 2007 and getting into the Confederations Cup in 2009) and bad (the Copa America debacle). But there has been one moment, a defining moment in US soccer history perhaps, that may well decide whether Sunil Gulati’s time in charge of US soccer is indeed a tragedy or a triumph.

The failure to hire Jurgen Klinsmann as coach of the USMNT to me stinks as a decision made by someone who did not want to give up control of this growing empire in the United States. Let’s face it, 10-15 years from now, US soccer in the United States will be much bigger than it is now. It’s becoming more marketable, the team is getting better, and the brand is reaching out to more people.

That being said, the idea that Klinsmann wanted to change the culture of US soccer is both innovative and intelligent on his part. For too long, we were ready and willing to settle for secondary opponents, meaningless friendlies, and a complete lack of  motivation. How many times have you seen us beat up on El Salvador since you’ve begun following the USMNT? Probably more times than you’ve ever wanted to.

This all brings us to today. Bob Bradley, an American, is our coach. As we watch the world evolve with international coaches, US soccer took the safe approach with someone we knew and who knew us. Will this be Sunil Gulati’s tragedy or will it be his triumph?

The tragedy of the situation could be unfolding in front of our very eyes. Who here was happy with our performances against England and Spain? Bob Bradley took this team to Europe, armed it with players like Eddie Johnson, and then sent it into battle with the idea that we should respect and fear the teams in front us. Do you think Klinsmann would have had that attitude? No way. He would have sent the players into this game with a simple message: Go for it. Bradley will not crack the whip with these players. I would never question the motivation of players, but when Eddie Johnson misses clear sitters and then looks up and smiles like it’s okay, Bradley gives him another start. You don’t fix anything by rewarding failure. Klinsmann would have seen this and sat Johnson down for the rest of the game.

How will Gulati’s decision play out in the end? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is the moment that the United States Soccer Federation cannot pass up. Bob Bradley has shown that while he is a decent coach, he does not seem to motivate the players well, and he lacks the tactical nuance needed to overcome the deficiencies of this team. This is the most talent a United States squad (except perhaps 2002) has ever had. The opportunity to do something big for soccer is today, not 5 years from now. In the end, will US soccer be a victim of Gulati’s poor judgment? Or will his judgment be right, as Bob Bradley guides us to bigger things than this country has ever seen?

Personally, I think Gulati made a terrible mistake. It’s a mistake that he will realize in 2010, as the United States goes home after the group stages again. There’s more to this game than just talent. Our coaching staff is severely limited in this aspect, and I feel that just like Bruce Arena before him, Bob Bradley will be a victim of his own lack of coaching skills. Would Klinsmann have done any better? I like to think so. For those who hate Landon Donovan, imagine him under the wing of Klinsmann. I think Donovan is our best player now, imagine if he would have Klinsmann’s words in his head.

The thing that bothers me most about this situation is that Klinsmann wanted this job. If we’re honest with ourselves, nobody in Europe respects US soccer. The players might, but coaches and the media do not. If you lose to the US, you could lose your job! Against Spain, when it was nil nil at the half, the Spanish fans were actually booing their home team because they had not beaten us already. And what do we go out and do? Lay an egg in the second half and lose the game. And Klinsmann wanted to change that attitude. Bob Bradley represents that attitude. The attitude that “It’s OK, we’re just here to give you guys a run out. We’re not actually looking to win.” Its garbage and I’m sick of it.

Do you think Klinsmann would be keeping Freddy Adu on the bench? Or putting Eddie Johnson in the lineup when he clearly doesn’t deserve to be there? I doubt it. One can only dream of where Klinsmann would have taken this team. But dreams are just that. Just a part of the imagination. The reality is US soccer is in danger of being in the exact same place it was in 2006. And it will be all Sunil Gulati’s fault. Tragedy or triumph? We shall see.

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