Sunil Gulati should step down as U.S. Soccer president after World Cup mess
The good news is that accountability for the disastrous World Cup qualifying effort by the U.S. men's national team was easier to find Friday. The bad news is that there wasn't enough of it.
As so often happens, it was the manager -- in this case Bruce Arena -- who bore the initial brunt. While it's true that he led the U.S. to its greatest World Cup heights in the modern era, he was also in charge for its greatest collapse and there is no escaping the pain and magnitude of the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. On Friday, Arena resigned.
"When I took the job last November, I knew there was a great challenge ahead, probably more than most people could appreciate," Arena said in a statement. "Everyone involved in the program gave everything they had for the last 11 months, and in the end we came up short. No excuses. We didn't get the job done, and I accept responsibility."
For Arena, this is the most painful exit imaginable. He's the first U.S. manager since Alkis Panagoulias in 1985 to oversee a failed qualification effort and, as a result, will never be looked at the same again.
His reputation before a second stint with the U.S. was near imperious. Sure, there was the disappointing World Cup group-stage exit in 2006, while his 2006-07 stint with the New York Red Bulls was far from impressive. But his five MLS Cup wins, as well as the U.S. team's run to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, dwarfed those missteps.
He was looked upon as someone who could do no wrong but, in less than a year, that aura has vanished like a puff of smoke in the wind. Now words that were once gospel will be looked at through a more skeptical lens.
With the benefit of hindsight, that was one underlying problem with bringing back Arena: His hiring was akin to something of a security blanket. That bred a certain complacency in terms of the qualification effort, especially when initial results, in particular the 6-0 thrashing of Honduras in March, seemed to validate his return.
But the vibe surrounding the entire campaign was one of: "We're going to qualify because we always do." That contentment should only have set in once the job was done, even though there were enough unimpressive results, including the 1-1 draw in Panama and losing 2-0 vs. Costa Rica at home, to trip some alarms. The players certainly bear some responsibility but, ultimately, much of it lies with Arena.
Will Arena, 66, work again? That is up to him, but there probably will be no shortage of offers from MLS sides in need of his abilities, especially in terms of constructing a roster. However, no matter what he might achieve in the future, there will be no washing away the stain of this debacle. But while Arena being ultimately held responsible was a necessary step, it can't be the only one.
The players will certainly have their reckoning, though in most cases it won't be so final or so public. Some long-serving veterans will no doubt mark the end of their international careers with public statements or, perhaps in the case of someone like Clint Dempsey, a farewell match. Others will simply stop being called in when a new manager moves on to younger players, as should be the case.
On the administration side, accountability is proving harder to find. United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati remains conspicuously in his position and his comments during a conference call with reporters Friday were littered with contradictions.
Gulati said he took "full responsibility" for the U.S. team's failure to qualify but then stated he wouldn't resign. He also said that he'll make his decision on whether to run for the USSF presidency again "in the coming weeks." But for someone who hasn't decided, he looks every bit like someone running for re-election in February's ballot and has even sounded out some voters about nominating him.
Clearly, it's time for someone else to run the federation. Gulati has a ton of experience but that won't necessarily be lost because he no longer has an office at Soccer House. He is still on the FIFA Council and still heads up the bid committee aiming to win hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup.
Therefore, his impact on the business side of the game will remain immense. But, in the administering of national team programs, questions remain and Gulati's résumé is not as glittering.
Without question, the process by which the coach is chosen needs to be revamped. Gulati said Friday that it would be a group effort but the final call lies with him. Yet three of the past four coaches -- on the men's and women's sides -- that Gulati has chosen have not lasted a full cycle.
This used to be a rarity and such instability can't be healthy for the respective programs. Something is wrong with the way coaches are hired and/or fired. At minimum, more people with a background in the playing side of the game need to be included.
Overall, Gulati sounded like a man trying to find a justification for his continued role at the USSF. He also sounded dreadfully out of touch at times, such as when he likened the pay-to-pay culture to "paying for a piano lesson."
He stressed that every area of the national team program will be examined and that outside expertise would be brought in to make sure that the inquest doesn't become "insular." But when pressed for further details, few if any were forthcoming.
Gulati said he should be re-elected because of "where the sport is now and the role I played in it and the role I think I can play going forward if I choose to run. Plus, we have the World Cup bid. The sport is in a very different place than it was 10 years or 30 years ago when I first got involved."
It's true that the game has certainly evolved. But for that to continue, the USSF leadership needs to evolve with it. And that can only happen with some new faces and more accountability.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.