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The behind-the-scenes drama of the U.S. Soccer election

US Soccer
 By Noah Davis

Gulati absence means it doesn't matter who wins USSF presidential election

Former U.S. international Brian McBride reacts to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati's decision to not seek re-election in 2018.
Taylor Twellman says that watching the World Cup draw without USMNT involvement should be a wake-up call and motivation for U.S. Soccer.

On Tuesday, candidates hoping to win February's United States Soccer Federation presidential election will formally submit the paperwork announcing their intention to run.

At the time of writing, the list of people hoping to fill the position Sunil Gulati has held since 2006 is long and varied: former U.S. international Paul Caligiuri, current soccer executive Kathy Carter, current USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro, Boston-based attorney Steve Gans, Springfield, Massachusetts-based businessman and soccer entrepreneur Paul Lapointe, former U.S. international Hope Solo., former player and current broadcaster Kyle Martino, New York-based attorney Mike Winograd and former U.S. international and current broadcaster Eric Wynalda.

While there's no guarantee that all nine will secure the nominations needed to run, several certainly will, and the final list of candidates will include a range of voices and experiences, from international superstars to business executives.

But ultimately, it doesn't particularly matter who ends up replacing Gulati, because whoever does will have neither the influence possessed by the outgoing president nor the mandate and ability to effect change on a large scale.

The thing that people miss about Gulati is that his power did not come from his position as USSF president. Instead, the University of Columbia economics professor derived his ability to control the game in this country because he spent a lifetime moving up the ladder, developing relationships along the way. He understood the landscape better than anyone else.

Gulati knew everyone, and they knew him. He attended weddings of U.S. national teamers, helped former players find jobs, shook the proverbial hands and kissed the proverbial babies like any successful politician. His relentless and focused ambition to amass power -- and improve the American program in the best way he knew -- was his greatest strength.

None of the nine candidates to replace him will come close to being able to match those national and international connections, nor will they have similar breadth and depth of experience. Gulati was visibly and intentionally the voice in the room that carried the most weight. The next president won't have this luxury -- and nor should he or she.

Sunil Gulati
Sunil Gulati has been USSF president since 2006.

The power Gulati developed became his greatest liability. While others in the USSF structure, notably CEO Dan Flynn, had the president's ear and provided council, the decision-making always came down to the man in charge. Gulati, mostly for better but also for worse, directed the program in his image.

This led to many positive steps, including a structured and defined organization, an economically successful model and dramatic growth in what USSF controlled. But it also opened up avenues for failure, such as Gulati being the primary person to make coaching decisions and then stick with those appointed for too long.

His successor will enter a situation in which power is checked in a way it hasn't been in the past. This is good. The president of the USSF shouldn't be the person picking the coach of the men's and women's national teams. He or she shouldn't be doing all the things that Gulati tried to do.

During his tenure, the job grew from something that could rightly be considered part-time into a behemoth that required constant attention and care. This was by Gulati's design but also because there was no one else around to do it. He rose from Connecticut youth program coordinator to USSF president by taking on jobs no one else wanted. Eventually, though, there were too many responsibilities for one person to handle effectively.

As we head into 2018, the United States Soccer Federation isn't a scrappy startup that can pivot quickly. It's a massive $100 million-plus aircraft carrier that moves slowly and deliberately, and a radical change in direction simply isn't possible.

Talk is fine, but reality is another matter, and the reality is that U.S. Soccer can't alter its course quickly, if at all. Initiatives won't be easily altered, from revamping the Development Academy to eliminating pay-to-play to instituting a system of promotion and relegation, even if the new president wants to go all-in on one or more of them. There are too many stakeholders with too many entrenched opinions, concerns and financial incentives.

Although Gulati's tenure ended in failure -- a dramatic and emphatic one on the field in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, as the men's national team failed to qualify for the World Cup -- it wasn't a failure overall. Despite what social media histrionics would have you believe, the program is moving in the right direction. The system is stable. Not perfect, by any stretch, but functioning, producing talent and improving slowly. A revamp is the last thing any reasonable steward of the program should want.

Where the new president can make a difference is on the margins. He or she can tilt the ship half a degree over the course of a term or terms and can make smaller changes that, perhaps, make a larger difference down the road. He or she can facilitate discussion, encourage new ideas and thinking and open the forum. What he or she cannot do is turn the USSF into Germany, make MLS owners accept relegation or ensure national team success.

The question of who wins the February election is interesting to discuss and provides a distraction from the failure to qualify for the World Cup. Moreover, it's important to have conversations about the future of the sport, to think about and discuss where we've been, as well as where we're headed and how to get there.

But for all the aforementioned reasons, the identity of the next president doesn't really matter and, for the USSF and fans of soccer, that's a good thing. The most important thing about the upcoming election is that Gulati is not running. The rest is just details.

Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.


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