Volume 19 • Issue 20 | Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2006

Filling in as referee, Sunil Gulati kept an eye on the action as the Downtown United Soccer Club team on which his son plays competed against the Brooklyn Patriots.

Soccer prez says overcoaching youth misses the goal

By Judith Stiles

When Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, showed up in Brooklyn to watch his young son play soccer for the Downtown United Soccer Club Dynamos on an ordinary Saturday afternoon, it was lucky for him he wore his running shoes, because he was suddenly handed a whistle and asked to referee the game, after the regular referee failed to make an appearance. Gulati, 47, had planned to quietly observe the games as he usually does, blending in with the other parents, and camouflaging the fact that he is really the man in charge of the entire universe of soccer in the United States. Few at the game recognized him as the “single most important person in the development of soccer in this country,” as he has been described by Alan Rothenberg, former U.S.S.F. president and Major League Soccer founder.

Without missing a beat, Gulati became an instant referee who actually ran up and down the field the entire game, unlike your typical amateur ref who stands there like a tree, squinting at the action. And if how Gulati refereed his son’s game is any indication of how he will perform as the newly appointed president of the soccer federation, the development and growth of soccer in America is in good hands. First, Gulati was completely fair and did not show any signs of favoritism in his calls. Second, he was so engaged in the action of the game that he ran the pitch as fast as the players and was attentive to every detail, without missing a call. Even the picky parents were satisfied. His whistle and signals were crisp and commanding, and after the game the unwitting Brooklyn Patriots wanted to know why this man wasn’t a regular referee, with one parent lamenting that Gulati should have been hired for the 2006 World Cup.

Little did the Patriots parents know that Gulati had snagged plum seats at the recent World Cup games in Germany, where he bumped into another soccer dad whose kids coincidently played soccer at Chelsea Piers, a guy named Spike Lee. Together the dads enjoyed the games as they also puzzled over why so many talented young American athletes gravitate toward playing basketball, football and professional baseball, rather than soccer. Look no further than the almighty dollar that is a deterrent at both the entry level of U.S. youth soccer and at the professional level, where if a player makes it to the M.L.S., the salary caps do not have any allure compared to the bucks to be made in baseball, football and basketball.

Gulati is well aware that when young players start focusing on a single sport such as soccer, the cost of being noticed in tournaments and showcases can be prohibitive. For example, in just a few short years his son Emilio will turn 13. Assuming his team has a successful run and wins the State Cup, the Regional Championship, perhaps the National Cup in the Super Y League or gets accepted to the prestigious Dallas Cup, each player is looking at an additional annual expense of $4,000 to $6,000 a year. This can easily rise to $10,000 per year by the time they are full-blown teenagers, when they would hope to be scouted at national showcases for colleges or pro soccer. What family is willing to cough up this kind of money — which is not considered by many as a cost-effective investment — if the player stands to make so much more money in other pro sports? Is this partly why Derek Jeter, Jose Reyes and Kobe Bryant — the latter known to juggle soccer balls in Nike commercials — did not choose soccer way back when?

Gulati, who was born in Allahabad, India, and moved to Connecticut at age five, sees leveling the playing field in youth sports as a priority in his work at the U.S.S.F., making the opportunity to play serious soccer more available to economically disadvantaged kids.

“One of the challenges is to get more players from minority communities into good soccer programs,” he emphasized. “Kids from middle-class families find their way through the maze more easily and that gives them an advantage,” says Gulati, sitting behind his desk at Columbia University, where he is a wildly popular economics professor. He also lives on the Upper West Side. Looking into his crystal ball of expertise in economics, he bluntly admits that soccer in the United States is not attracting talented European players in their prime, and we have become a mere springboard for Latin American players to hop overseas to play where the money, the fan base and the glory lies. However, he still believes that exciting teams can be developed in the U.S. with its population of 300 million, where an estimated 12 million youngsters are involved in soccer.

You can bet Gulati is a great poker player, because when prodded about who might be the next head coach for the U.S. National Team, Gulati is holding his cards close to his vest and not giving away any hints. According to his wife, Marcela, however, who was watching on the sidelines, there are, in fact, eight candidates in the running who are being carefully considered.

As for the game between the DUSC Dynamos and the Patriots, the Greenwich Village side won handily, 5-1, with Gulati’s son scoring a deft one-touch goal on a cross. Always the referee, Gulati refrained from jumping up and down, though, keeping on his poker face after his son scored.

In spite of his pleasant reticence, Gulati willingly shares that on the youth level he prefers coaches who have an expertise in soccer, who are able to impart that knowledge and, most of all, who believe the central element of the game should be enjoyment.

“Kids in the U.S.A. tend to have too much coaching, too much instruction and too much emphasis on tactics,” said Gulati surrounded by shelves of analytical books in his office.

During Ref Gulati’s game, Peter Eaves, a British fellow, ran up and down the sidelines as well, only he was chasing an energetic toddler, while his daughter Victoria played in the game.

In between sprints, a winded Eaves astutely observed that the federation might make the daring decision of picking a head coach for the Men’s National Team who would decide to develop a young team of fresh players, with an eye toward winning the World Cup in 2014, instead of 2010. This might be a wise soccer decision; but Gulati and the federation are on the hot seat, with impatient fans demanding they produce a winning team A.S.A.P., especially after the skittish and embarrassing performance of our National Team at this year’s World Cup.

All eyes are on Gulati and the federation to see if they can put together a program that creates a world-class winning team. Eaves is confident that his fellow soccer dad has the expertise to lead the way. If money makes the world go round, then a professor of economics is likely to unravel the mystery of whether or not ending salary caps in the pros, and eliminating high fees in youth soccer are panaceas for U.S. soccer. Perhaps he is looking for the answers as he watches — and runs, and refs in — the little petri dish of Emilio’s games on the local soccer pitch.


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