PRINCETON, N.J. — After spending Friday and Saturday in Chicago at the U.S. Soccer Federation’s last board meeting of the year, former USSF president Sunil Gulati spent Sunday at Princeton University as one of the keynote speakers at the inaugural Princeton Soccer Conference.
For nearly an hour, Gulati took questions from moderator Sebastian Alvarado of the Players’ Tribune, and an audience that included students, journalists and people of many stripes in the soccer world. Here are some highlights from Gulati’s remarks, edited for clarity.
His main takeaways from the U.S. Soccer board meeting:
Well, there were really two different parts of the meeting. One was the first day [Friday], with an open session. And all that’s been reported on.
The stuff on the second day [Saturday] hasn’t been reported on, because that was [a closed] executive session — much of it legal, finance, personnel-related. Those things we don’t talk about in the same way, and for fairly obvious reasons when we’ve got legal issues, litigation, personnel issues, a CEO search and some other decisions.
So that in many ways was the more interesting, more difficult [part], and that news will come out in a few days, some parts of that, as pieces fall into place.
(One of those pieces may be about negotiations over U.S. Soccer’s role in the National Women’s Soccer League, as Yahoo! Sports reported Monday morning.)
On what grade the Columbia University economics professor in him (that’s his day job) would give his work as U.S. Soccer president:
Is it pass-fail? [The audience laughed.] So, look, here’s part of the situation. I don’t view my involvement in soccer as the 12 years I was president. I view it really starting in the mid-'80s. So that’s a 30- or 35-year period.
My 12 years in the presidency doesn’t include us hosting the [men’s] World Cup, or us getting the World Cup in ’94. Well, I was one of 10 or 12 people that was part of that. My 12 years in the presidency doesn't include seven straight qualifications for the [men’s] World Cup. The first one [in 1989 for 1990] was one that I happened to be involved in. I said some years ago, look, at some point, we’re not going to qualify for the [men’s] World Cup. I just hope it’s not while I’m president. …
Am I satisfied if I look back to where we were in 1985 or ’86, to where we are today? Yeah, I’m pretty damn satisfied with that.
If I look at pro soccer, and I said this yesterday at our board meeting: if somebody had said to me 25 years ago that MLS would look like this, the USL would look like this, the NWSL would look like this — which means three pro leagues where none existed, one of which has now got teams that are being valued at $400 to $500 million in some cases; average attendance of 21 or 22,000; 30 teams; a USL that’s got 35 teams in multiple divisions; and a women’s league that has lasted seven years, longer than any previous league, and has an average attendance this year of 7,400*; I would take that in a heartbeat.
And we could go on. That’s just on the pro side. A [men’s] national team that has been in seven of the eight [last men’s World Cups]. A women’s team I don’t need to talk about. …
There’s a whole bunch of things I think we made great progress on. Plenty more that I wish we had made a lot more progress on, and hopefully we will.
* — 7,337, to be precise; a 21.8% increase over the previous record, set in 2018, of 6,024.
On the many complaints in the public about governance issues at U.S. Soccer, headlined by chief commercial Jay Berhalter — who has had one of the organization’s top jobs since before his brother Gregg was hired as the senior men’s national team coach — being a leading candidate to become the organization’s next CEO:
The nepotism one comes down to one situation over 50 years. We happen to have a situation right now where a senior official at U.S. Soccer is the brother of the [men’s] national team coach. We’ll see how long that continues, because U.S. Soccer is in a CEO search. Ideal? No.
Do I think that Gregg got the job because his brother works at U.S. Soccer? No. I think that’s frankly unfair to both of them. Ideal from a perception point of view? I get it.
It wasn’t ideal to have Bob Bradley and Michael Bradley, father and son, [the former] coaching the team [when Michael was playing]. So what should we have done in that case? Because Michael was on the edge of the team, had been in one or two games by the time we named Bob [head coach, in December 2006]. Should we have said to Bob, “You’ve got to resign,” or should we have said to Michael, 'You can’t play on the team?" It would have been nonsense, right? …
I think it’s really unfair to both Gregg and Jay, and to the organization. They’re both very talented, both great contributors to great U.S. Soccer and American soccer.
Of course it gets through. Come on. On the issue of equal pay and women's issues, of course that gets through. Everybody reads a newspaper every now and then, even if they don't read them a lot. Everybody watches the news. That was impossible to not get through. Everyone on the board understands that. Everyone in America understands the issues. That doesn't mean everyone agrees on the issues, or agrees with the sentiment. But not to get through?
Now, everyone may not understand the intricacies of the promotion and relegation CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] litigation, but on the women’s team, everyone gets it. And it’s a really, really, really hard issue. …
I ask my students this, and I ask a lot of people: Do you believe in equal pay? It is impossible, in my view, to answer that question with anything but “Of course I do” or “Yes,” if it’s only a one-word answer. But it can’t be a one-word answer. It’s impossible to make it only a one-word answer. …
Does revenue matter at all? Does the fact that it's a nonprofit organization matter? All those things mean it can't be answered in one word.
And then in this case, you have two very different sets of issues. One are the public relations issues, which you mentioned. Not everyone there has the same access to information. And maybe you’d say, “Well, they don’t need the information. All you’ve got to know is this.”
And then there is the issue of legalities — what do all of those say? Sometimes you can win legally and lose somewhere else. And then there’s the issue of economics. Those are three very separate issues, and it’s pretty hard to get all of those aligned perfectly in what is a very difficult situation.
But I can assure you everybody at U.S. Soccer understands that the public has got an interest in this. Because we understand that Congress has an interest in it, and that courts have an interest in it, and that the media has an interest in it. And FIFA understands that other people have an interest in it. You’d have to be completely oblivious to the outside world, and we try not to do that.