There was no more devoted servant to American soccer than Sunil Gulati. Whatever you may think about decisions he may or may not have made about head coaches on the two senior nationals teams in his care, the U.S. Soccer president will leave an enormous legacy when his 12-year-run comes to an end on Feb. 10.
On Monday, ESPN reported that Gulati will not seek a fourth term at the head of the national soccer federation. He will not compete with any of the seven declared candidates in the election — which would have been the first in which he’d faced an opponent — and will instead focus on heading up the joint bid for the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico and his position on the all-powerful FIFA Council.
Following the men’s national team’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in a disheveling loss in Trinidad and Tobago in October, Gulati had come under renewed and sustained pressure for his head coaching appointments, plus the late-in-coming firing of Jurgen Klinsmann. After the latest head coach, Bruce Arena, had resigned following the loss, the fan base demanded Gulati’s ouster as well.
“The loss to Trinidad was painful, regrettable and led to a lot of strong emotions,” Gulati said to ESPN. “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.”
Indeed, Gulati made some poor decisions when hiring head coaches.
On the women’s national team side, he mostly got it right with Pia Sundhage and Jill Ellis, although Tom Sermanni proved a clunker of an appointment.
But with the men, Gulati’s record is mixed. Bob Bradley performed admirably after Klinsmann turned the job down in 2006. When the president finally got his man in 2011, however, he entrusted him with too much power and gave him far too much time, letting the German build a rickety team that nearly came apart in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and collapsed on its way to the next edition. Arena was drafted in to fix things, and that was probably the right call, but it was too late. The U.S. left itself prone to a bad outcome and suffered several.
This is what ultimately cost him.
Yet it shouldn’t obscure everything else that he accomplished. Gulati has been involved with U.S. Soccer for more than three decades, after his family migrated from India when he was five and he became a soccer coach and administrator in Connecticut as a teenager. At the time, the governing body was so cash-strapped that it had to ask senior national team players to forego its $5 per-diems just to be able to extend a camp by a day. When the 27-year-old Gulati started volunteering for U.S. Soccer, his responsibilities ranged from laundry to tutoring youth teams missing too much school.
Slowly, Gulati rose the ranks. He helped put on the 1994 World Cup, worked as Major League Soccer’s first deputy commissioner, ran the New England Revolution after a failed bid for U.S. Soccer’s vice presidency and finally won the big job in 2006. In the meantime, he also climbed the ladder at CONCACAF and FIFA, carefully amassing untold power — and helping to swing the most recent presidential election to Gianni Infantino. Gulati once estimated that he flew 250,000 miles per year tending to his various soccer responsibilities. And most of them, including all of his U.S. Soccer work, were unpaid.
Under Gulati’s stewardship, American soccer thrived.
Today, the United States Soccer Federation reportedly has some $150 million in cash reserves. Both the men’s and women’s national teams have budgets for just about anything they want to do, while the infrastructure is vastly improved and players are paid well. The youth game continues to grow and improve, even if at the top end, the pipeline doesn’t yet reliably produce the talent needed to compete for a World Cup.
A cynic could say that the growth of soccer was organic and would have happened with Gulati or without him — that all he did was not screw it up. But that wouldn’t do justice to his careful planning and deft politicking. Gulati, who retains a day job as a economics lecturer at Columbia University, took extraordinary care to think through his decisions — sometimes to a fault.
In a tiny office at the university, crammed full of soccer mementos, he’d use every last minute not spent teaching or advising students planning games or bids or tournaments — or indeed grassroots or amateur efforts, since there’s far more to the job than the senior national teams. (I once spent a few days with him for a story and was astonished to see how much work he managed to cram into his waking hours.)
For decades, Gulati gave his life to soccer. He married his Mexican wife on a Friday so that all their friends could attend before the Mexican national team would play on a Sunday. Their honeymoon was brief because the U.S. had an upcoming qualifier. He wasn’t there for all their two children’s birthdays, because he was so often on the road for soccer.
“Vacations are the World Cup, and I take the family,” Gulati said in 2011.
This isn’t a plea to feel sorry for Gulati. His job with U.S. Soccer made him powerful. And, indirectly, it enriched him through the other jobs it gave him access to with CONCACAF and FIFA. Gulati sacrificed, but he was mostly privileged.
Yet none of that diminishes all that was accomplished during his run, and it was hardly a coincidence that it happened on his watch.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.