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Gulati: Ending pay-to-play, adopting promotion/relegation 'nonsensical'

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PHILADELPHIA -- Outgoing U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati described the ideas of some of the candidates hoping to succeed him as "nonsensical," though he admitted some other ideas could be implemented over time.

Speaking at a public forum at the United Soccer Coaches convention -- one hosted by Fox Soccer broadcaster Alexi Lalas -- Gulati also took aim at the assertion that the sport was broken, even in the wake of the failure by the U.S. men's team to qualify for the World Cup.

"I have found a lot of the discourse depressing and disgusting, frankly," Gulati said. "I've been to the last 34 U.S. Soccer AGMs and the last 30 out of 31 conventions. At all those AGMs the mood was really good -- the finances, teams, everything else across the board -- then it seems the world fell apart in the last 30 days.

"It's about everything. It's about transparency, it's about on-field performance, it's about decision-making, it's about the failure of everyone in the room. On top of that, because the sport is completely broken, and nothing good is going on? That's all nonsense."

Gulati admitted that improvements could be made in all of the areas that he mentioned, but when it came hot-button issues like pay-to-play in youth soccer, promotion/relegation, or changing the calendar to match that of Europe, there were no easy fixes.

United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati was part of the three-man team that assembled CONCACAF's reform framework.
Sunil Gulati held court at the United Soccer Coaches Convention on Thursday.

"We have $150 million in the bank. That's from 10-15 years of savings," said Gulati. "To end pay-to-play, to do a little back-of-the-envelope analysis, without knowing what every kid pays, would mean paying $150 million a month, every month to end it. There's nowhere in the world that has no pay-to-play. What you want to make sure of is that anybody can afford it. But you have millions of kids playing, and the thought that we're going to end play-to-play is nonsensical.

"That we're going to have promotion/relegation the day after tomorrow is nonsensical. The thought that we're going to change the calendar to a European season is nonsensical."

Gulati did believe that some of the ideas could happen over time, but remained adamant that it couldn't be forced upon MLS by the USSF.

"[In MLS], there's a whole bunch of people that came in under one set of rules, and some have paid $150 million and built a stadium for another $250 million under a certain set of rules," Gulati said. "If they sit down and start this other league and say, 'We want to do promotion/relegation,' for all the reasons that people think are positive, fantastic. We as a federation aren't going to legislate that. Anyone who thinks they can without everyone's agreement is going to end up with nine judges in Washington [the U.S. Supreme Court] for sure."

When asked if FIFA could force it, Gulati said: "Then they're going to end up with nine judges in Washington."

Gulati also hit back at the notion that a system of promotion/relegation is something that is required by FIFA. Article 9 of FIFA's Regulations for the Applications of Statutes reads: "A Club's entitlement to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. A Club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season."

But Gulati insists that FIFA didn't make the statute's implementation mandatory.

"There's a reason FIFA didn't make it mandatory when they passed the rule a decade ago. And by the way, it wasn't about the sporting merit. FIFA's rule came into play because what happened in Spain and some other places was the team that got relegated, the owner of that team quickly bought the team that went up, changed all the uniforms, changed all the players, and then went back to the first division. That isn't sporting merit."

Gulati also said the sports culture in the United States is different, and that given the task of starting a league from scratch -- something he took part in when MLS was started in 1996 -- it's not clear that a system of promotion/relegation would work best.

"Few leagues in the world that have split seasons, there's very few leagues in the world that have playoffs, there's very few leagues in the world that have a salary cap. There's very few leagues in the world that have drafts. Our professional sports work pretty well.

"Now, the other side of that is there's no sport other than soccer where we have the same level of competition as we do abroad so you need different things. That may be true. In general terms, whether it's as an economist or president of the federation, I'm agnostic on promotion/relegation.

"There are some pros, and there are some negatives. I've read and looked at and talked to people about all of those things. I've read about as much as there is on it. In a salary cap world, when you don't have 60 teams in three divisions and you're starting from scratch, should this be the way to go? There's no evidence of that."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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