It took a while, but Sunil Gulati finally arrived at the decision that many in the broader U.S. soccer community had hoped he would: He will not run for another term as U.S. Soccer Federation president.
Gulati made the announcement on Monday and it's the right move. Yes, he has overseen a period of unprecedented growth for the USSF in particular and the sport of soccer in general. He has also represented U.S. interests well in political circles due to his spot on the FIFA Council.
But the Columbia economics teacher has been in charge of the USSF for nearly 12 years. That is a long time for anyone to run a single organization and, following the failure of the U.S. men's national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the time has come for fresh ideas and a change in leadership.
Gulati's reasons for stepping aside and why it is a good idea aren't exactly the same thing. For months, he has been sounding out the USSF's voting membership to gauge his chances of winning re-election, while guarding his intentions.
At the mid-year meeting of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association in October, Gulati refused to participate in a presidential candidates' forum, opting instead to meet in small groups with various state associations. Some sources told ESPN FC that, if he declined to run, it was because he didn't have the votes. Others believe he would have won if he had stood.
Regardless, the reasons why Gulati is no longer the right man to lead the federation come down to several factors.
First, the challenges facing the USSF are different to when he took office in 2006. Back then, there was a need to increase the federation's financial clout in terms of sponsorships, ticket sales and overall media profile. Gulati has done that and then some, with various reports putting the USSF's financial surplus at around $130 million.
Now, with the pain of the World Cup qualifying debacle still fresh, the challenges are more specific to the sport itself; they include how to make the USSF's coaching classes more accessible and affordable, as well as solving some of the thornier player development issues. Such issues don't play to Gulati's strengths, especially given that candidates more grounded in the playing side of the game are lining up to challenge for the presidency.
There are also signs that Gulati's leadership style -- one in which many decisions were made by him with the Board of Directors acting as a rubber stamp -- had begun to grate on the sport's other stakeholders. Speaking to ESPN FC on condition of anonymity, one source connected to the USSF leadership structure bemoaned the fact that, in the case of national team coaching hires, Gulati would negotiate the deal himself and expect the board to go along with it.
That approach has led to some hiring decisions -- Jurgen Klinsmann on the men's side and Tom Sermanni on the women's -- which later backfired; the time has come to get more soccer-savvy people involved in processes such as choosing who will lead national teams at the senior level.
There have also been rumblings among rank and file members at the youth and adult soccer levels that the federation has forced issues down their throats, such as the implementation of the Development Academy. The question of what exactly the federation does for its members has become a talking point among various candidates, who would like to succeed Gulati.
A backlash to his leadership style appears to be coming to a head and sources have told ESPN FC that one of the agenda items for a Dec. 10 meeting of the USSF Board of Directors will involve reining in the power of the presidency. The position would be more of a collaborative, chairman-of-the-board role, instead of one all-powerful individual driving the decision-making process.
Above all else there is the issue of accountability. While it's true that Gulati didn't kick a ball during the disastrous qualifying effort for Russia 2018, his decisions in terms of coaching hires played a part in what happened and, as a result, made his position untenable.
Without question, Gulati possesses valuable institutional knowledge; he has served in various soccer administration capacities for over three decades and that know-how should not be cast aside. He is well positioned to remain an asset and is chairman of the United Bid Committee that, along with Mexico and Canada, is looking to bring the 2026 World Cup to North America. Further, his spot on the FIFA Council remains secure.
The issue of Gulati's ultimate legacy remains complicated. The aforementioned growth he oversaw can't be ignored. Neither can his close proximity to Chuck Blazer and the corruption that engulfed both CONCACAF and FIFA. And he will forever be associated with the recent World Cup qualifying failure. There is also the continuing lawsuit with the NASL and its uncertain future, and the ongoing tension with the women's national team.
Yet in terms of how Gulati will be remembered, there are additional chapters to be written. Losing out on hosting the 2022 World Cup to Qatar remains a significant blemish on his professional career and so the 2026 bid is an opportunity to ease the pain of past disappointment and once again help grow the sport in the United States.
But that's for the longer-term future. More immediately, the USSF has an opportunity to move forward and, come February, a new leader will be elected to oversee just that.