Jurgen Klinsmann has been fired and the US Soccer federation – bless it – has decided everything old is new again and recalled Bruce Arena to take the national team reins for the 2016 World Cup campaign.
It’s almost as if “Soccer House” (yes, it’s called that) in Chicago hoisted a big white flag on its coaching strategy and decided it wanted to make American soccer great again the only way it knew how: Call Bruce.
The most surprising thing about the whole episode is that US Soccer didn’t suggest Arena pose for photos wearing his underpants on the outside as a way to paint the Los Angeles Galaxy coach as a kind of superhero Captain America who has come to save the national team.
The headline for my recent story in The Guardian was “From Top To Bottom, US Men’s Soccer is Dripping in Mediocrity”. The idea was that a culture is embedded in the sport where there are rewards for nothing and consequences for failure are rare.
It kicked an ants nest and kick-started a discussion where some readers claimed the questions posed needed to be asked and others were shocked – how dare you? – at the a connection between an under-8s girls’ team player wanting a trophy without playing a game and the failure of an elite national team:
It’s not all on Klinsmann, of course. There’s also the players. Remember them? When two of the supposed best – the team captain and star striker – quit Europe in their mid-20s to play Major League Soccer for big money contracts with Toronto FC, it doesn’t reflect upon the growth and strength of the domestic league.
It says more that Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, each aged 26 then, at what should have been the peak of their career, took a soft option. It’s excellent that Toronto FC has the resources to offer money in excess of what those players were earning in Europe. Lake Ontario is also beautiful in summer. But the stark reality is that America’s supposedly best homegrown talent thought Canada rather than Italy or England is where peak pro soccer is at.
The lack of consequence for failure extend way back to Soccer House, it’s administration, and Sunil Gulati, who stood by Klismann for so many years – and even extended his contract in 2013 without seeing results (Klinsmann, apparently, was also surprised to have that contract extended at that point in time).
The president. That would be Sunil Gulati, who after being nominated by MLS commissioner Don Garber, was elected unopposed as the boss of US Soccer in 2006. And reelected unopposed for a second term in 2010. And again in 2014. In 2018, when US Soccer holds its next election for its board of directors, Gulati will have been in the job for 12 years. His tenure has coincided with a period of phenomenal growth for the sport in this country and region but even Mike Bloomberg, mayor of a booming New York City for 12 years, had opponents during elections.
Gulati is also a vice-president of Concacaf, recovering financially and morally after an FBI probe found it rotten to its core. Gulati also sits on Fifa’s newly minted council but has not spoken in detail about the FBI investigation, the role of Americans and Concacaf on it, nor answered questions about related issues such as his relationship with disgraced American executive Chuck Blazer.
Corruption occurred on Gulati’s doorstep, and there have been opportunities to talk. In July, 2015, US Soccer representatives were called to appear before a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington DC. In light of the FBI investigation, the committee wanted to know what was going on with all this soccer business. Gulati, who should know all the answers, declined to attend. Instead, US Soccer chief executive Dan Flynn faced questions he said he had no clue about. There’s no suggestion Gulati is corrupt or involved in any wrongdoing. But if he decides to run again in 2018, he will likely be elected unopposed.
So, good luck to Bruce Arena. Although he probably won’t need it. After all, the US has to only finish in the top three of six in the CONCACAF play-off to make Russia. Hey, even fourth place will give it another shot at qualification – with a playoff against Asia’s fifth-placed team.
Even Klinsmann could have achieved that, right?