Sunil Gulati decides not to run for re-election as U.S. Soccer president
Sunil Gulati, the longtime president of U.S. Soccer, will not seek another term as head of the federation, he told ESPN.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it with people in many different positions -- many of whom told me I should run," Gulati said on Monday. "But in the end, I think the best thing for me personally, and for the federation, is to see someone new in the job."
Gulati's decision to stand down will bring to an end a 12-year run as the leader of American soccer's governing body, and an association with the federation that stretches three decades and covers multiple positions.
Gulati oversaw incredible growth in the sport in the United States -- in revenues, registrations, opportunities for women, governance and international stature -- but also was the person in charge when the men's national team crashed out of qualifying for next summer's World Cup, missing out on the sport's showpiece for the first time since 1986.
That failure, ultimately, was impossible to move past. If the United States hadn't lost to Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualifying game in October, Gulati almost surely would have run again.
But after the shattering defeat, calls for Gualti to resign came from all sides -- journalists, fans and former players, among others -- and the public pressure ultimately made Gulati feel that seeking another term was untenable.
Gulati, born in India, was the subject of some racist commentary on social media but said that didn't play a significant role in his decision. He added, however, that it added a disturbing component to an already difficult and emotional process.
"Look, the general perception in the soccer community versus the people who vote in elections may be different right now," Gulati said, referring to the various state soccer associations and administrators who will vote in the presidential election.
"But the loss to Trinidad was painful, regrettable and led to a lot of strong emotions. And to be honest, I think at this point, that's overshadowed a lot of other things that are important. So fair or not, I accept that and think it's time for a new person."
At this point, Gulati is not supporting any other candidates, he said. Whoever does fill Gulati's position will almost surely have plenty of interaction with his or her predecessor, though: Gulati still has a seat on the powerful FIFA Council and is the chairman of the joint U.S./Canada/Mexico bid to host the 2026 World Cup.
Bringing the World Cup back to the United States for the first time since 1994 has long been a goal for Gulati -- the U.S. bid and lost in the controversial 2022 World Cup host vote -- and it is widely expected that FIFA will award the 2026 hosting rights to North America next summer.
"I'm going to spend a lot of time over the next six months trying to win an election, and that election is to bring the 2026 World Cup here," Gulati said of the June 13 vote by FIFA's Congress.
Yet even securing that bid will not entirely ease the sting of several difficult periods during Gulati's final year as president.
During that stretch, Gulati navigated a contentious dispute over a new collective bargaining agreement with the women's national team players; fired Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach of the men's national team in an effort to save the Americans' qualification hopes; and, ultimately, saw that plan fail when Klinsmann's replacement Bruce Arena could not get the job done and the United States was toppled.
"Are there things I would do differently? Of course," Gulati said, though he declined to give specifics. "Unless we've won the World Cup, there have to be things you would do differently. And we, obviously, didn't win the World Cup."
Arena stepped down almost immediately after the loss to Trinidad. Gulati, however, spent more than a month considering his situation while a bevy of candidates lined up against him: Steve Gans, a Boston attorney who has advised Premier League clubs on their business; Kyle Martino and Eric Wynalda, who played for the national team and now work as commentators; Paul Caligiuri, who played for the national team and now works as a coach; Mike Winograd, who played professionally in Israel; Paul Lapointe, a longtime soccer administrator; and Carlos Cordeiro, Gulati's vice president and confidante.
Cordeiro's entry was the most dramatic, given his relationship with Gulati -- and it was clear that Cordeiro's choice affected the relationship between the longtime friends.
"It was an interesting set of discussions with Carlos," Gulati said in a quiet tone. "That's all I'm prepared to say about that."
Gulati said none of the other candidates' decisions to run made a serious impact on his own choice -- those close to Gulati believe it is almost certain that if he'd run, he would have won -- and he was circumspect in discussing them
"I've met all seven who have declared their candidacies, and there are lots of different thoughts among them about what's important," Gulati said. "I think several of them would be in for a pretty big shock about what the job is -- it's not just about national teams. It's about 4 million registered players, referees, medical safety, grass-roots stuff. It feels like that stuff gets ignored sometimes."
Gulati's decision comes a day after Kathy Carter, the president of Soccer United Marketing, said she is considering a run as well. A source told ESPN FC on Sunday that she would run at the urging of Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber as their preferred choice.
But for the moment, Gulati declined to endorse Carter or any of the candidates. He has made his decision, he said, and is just starting to get used to the reality that his tenure is coming to an end.
"There are mixed emotions about it, to be sure," he said. "This was a very, very hard decision for me to make."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.