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Dec 12, 2006

Gulati right not to rush the decision

Sunil Gulati's first big test, his premier in the punishing public spotlight, has come and gone. And in sporting terms, you'd have to call it a disappointing "draw at home" for U.S. Soccer's president.

In some ways, Gulati's five-month courtship of Juergen Klinsmann was a failure. Gulati has copped to the fact that Klinsmann was his first choice, which should surprise absolutely no one. If you could cobble together the perfect candidate using various pieces and parts, after all, the end result would look an awful lot like Juergen Klinsmann.

But no one should rush to vilify Gulati here. In some ways, his calm and measured reaction to Klinsmann's untimely withdrawal says more about Gulati than his choice to pursue the darling of Germany 2006 in the first place. Really now, making Klinsmann the object of his desire was a serious no-brainer.

But we do learn something about Gulati, a smart man with a dry sense of humor and a manageable ego, as he calmly emerges from the wreckage of a high-speed pursuit gone bad.

We learned a little about his candor, first of all, because he was willing to disclose that Klinsmann was indeed his top target. In almost every similar circumstance, an administrator will layer a room with doublespeak, smoke screens and denial. They simply don't want the public (or the next candidate) to know that they are already once-rejected.

And we learn a little about U.S. Soccer's top man for his refusal to assuage the public clamor for Klinsmann at all costs.

Yes, this whole Klinsmann affair devolved into a giant buzz kill for domestic soccer fans, who were enchanted with the possibility of landing a national team boss with such enormous global soccer cred. No other candidate can provide the flash and dash that Klinsmann's hiring would.

But there is only one way to make matters worse here: to hastily appoint a second choice. The object, after all, is to identify the right man, not just name somebody so we can all return to worrying about toxic spinach and such.

So "Klinsi" said "nein." We'll all live. The man now pulling the U.S. Soccer strings is spot-on right to take a deep breath, name a caretaker and recalibrate his broader strategy accordingly.

Put it another way: Everybody knows you're most vulnerable when you're on the rebound, right?

Gulati will come off as the heavy in most people's minds because, simply, everybody loves Klinsmann and nobody really knows this Gulati guy. He's been around U.S. Soccer in some capacity for more than 15 years, but rather anonymously so. Perhaps the Colombia University economics professor could have done more to woo Klinsmann.

Then again, at some point, any candidate must show that he really, truly wants the job and is willing to bend a bit to prove it. In absence of that, well, the pursuer must cut his losses and move on.

Which is exactly what Gulati did as he became increasingly pressed by a January training camp and match.

Gulati, speaking candidly on most points during Friday's hour-plus media teleconference, admitted that he stretched further in his chase for Klinsmann than he would have for most candidates.

"Some of my colleagues felt that we made an extra effort and should have stopped the process a little earlier," Gulati said. "But I felt I wanted to make the extra effort and go a little further.

"He and I [Klinsmann] agreed on just about everything. ... But in the end, you've got to agree on everything. That's the best way I can put it."

So what was the barrier? Gulati is respecting Klinsmann's wishes to keep it between them. So perhaps only two or three men will truly ever know. Gulati dismissed most of the wild speculation strewn across news accounts and message boards over the past two months.

Reports of Klinsmann's extravagant financial demands? Nonsense, Gulati said. Reports of division over control and authority? Silliness, Gulati claimed. He said only he, Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer secretary general Dan Flynn were privy to the real nitty-gritty.

"So, when I see quotes attributed to federation officials that it was about X, Y or Z, it's nonsense," Gulati said.

Perhaps it was length of contract. After all, it's one thing if you must eat a year or two of a contract such as Bruce Arena's, which was worth somewhere north of $600,000. But Klinsmann's asking price was probably closer to the reports of $2 million annually. Administrators everywhere are less likely to offer a bunch of years when the dollar value climbs disproportionately. It's a sliding scale that way.

Or, perhaps, Klinsmann simply requested too much in other areas, such as money for assistants. Or maybe there was an impasse on a starting date. Heck, maybe the whole Nike-adidas thing simply couldn't be overcome.

It really would be quite a hassle to swap out all those sweats and shoes.

The point is, maybe Klinsmann wasn't ever absolutely sure he wanted the position. It happens this way sometimes as administrators and coaching candidates flirt. Sometimes a fellow, waffling over the risk of a new position, will ask for the moon. In effect, he is saying: "If you want me that badly, I'll construct a set of parameters so heavily weighted in my favor that I'd be a fool not to take the job."

But that might not have been the best thing for U.S. Soccer, which is exactly what Gulati had to weigh in l'affaire Klinsmann -- whatever the barrier was.

Look at what happens when college administrators are spurned by their first choices on an important hire, which happens with some frequency. An athletic director, under colossal pressure from fans, big-money donors and media, often reacts like a smitten lover.

The panic sets in. Fearful of losing face, not to mention bargaining sway, they mend their bruised egos by hastily naming the next candidate in line. And they probably give away too much in their rush to call a press conference and get the darn thing over with.

Mistakes are borne of rash decisions.

Gulati needed to name a caretaker. Bob Bradley may or may not be the right guy for the position, but his new boss was absolutely right in calmly assigning a stopgap solution, permitting him some time to figure that out.

Yes, more time. And that's not as bad as it sounds. Gulati has already been publicly yellow-carded for "wasting time." Arena was pretty much done by the time he walked off the field in Nuremberg in June, following the disappointing World Cup result against Ghana. So, more than five months have passed, and we still don't know who will be steering the team through the unpredictable CONCACAF qualifying jungle.

But what was really lost in that time? U.S. Soccer typically arranges one friendly in the six months following a World Cup. That was the case in November 2002, when Sasha Victorine, Wade Barrett, Dan Califf and a cast of good MLS players (read: a very limited amount of marquee names) took a pointless victory over El Salvador while most of us yawned.

What, really, can a national team boss do in November 2006 that he can't do in November 2007?

Oh, it would be nice if the United States doesn't stink up the joint in the Gold Cup or Copa America this summer. But let's face it, only two things matter in this job: qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and advancing into the second round, at least.

Was it worth it to spend all those months waiting for Klinsmann to come around, even if ultimately unsuccessful?

Gulati: "In a word, yes."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.