RECIFE, Brazil – Sunil Gulati is never one to be short on confidence. The U.S. Soccer president and FIFA executive committee member has been the face of American soccer leadership for more than two decades and what he sees right now is a boom time for the sport in the United States.
Speaking to media on Wednesday, the day before the U.S. faces Germany, Gulati was practically gushing at the current state of the U.S. team, which has enjoyed a strong showing at the World Cup through two matches.
“I think for the first time in our history, recent history, I’m not going to talk about 1950 or before, our players believe they are capable of beating anyone,” Gulati said. “That doesn’t mean we think we’re the favorites in any game, but we’re capable of beating anyone and our players, our coach, we all believe that. I think our players demonstrated that that’s the case.
“We played the fifth ranked team in the world at the World Cup with the best player in the world and outplayed them for a long stretch of the game,” Gulati said. “Until 15-28 seconds to go, we’re winning the game. That’s a pretty good start. We beat a pretty good Ghana team. Didn’t play as well maybe in that game.
“When we look and see what’s happened, not just with us, it’s mostly about us obviously, but when we analyze it, Costa Rica winning their group, Mexico with seven points. Those are teams that we’ve beaten, in the Costa Rica case, split with,” Gulati added. “We were the best team in CONCACAF. We won the Gold Cup and were top of the qualifying group. There’s two teams in CONCACAF that have advanced. Those are all pretty good signs.”
Gulati also pointed to the success being enjoyed by the sport back home in the U.S., where TV ratings records are being shattered on a daily basis.
“The ratings are fantastic,” Gulati said. “One of those few times, where predicted, saying that if the U.S. does well here we’re going to set ratings records and we have, and I think that will continue if we do well. Thursday will be a little trickier because it’s a day time game on a weekday, but what else is going on in the States in terms of the fan fests, in terms of stadiums that are opening up to put on screenings, in terms of water cooler talks, in terms of bars that aren’t traditionally showing soccer, where you used to have to pay the bartender to put soccer on.
“The people that are writing to us and sending pictures and the clips from the other day of the celebrations from the goal. It’s frankly everything that those of us that have been involved with the game for a long time, including all of you, would dream of. Hopefully, we can keep going. Keep that level of intensity where it is. That won’t continue after the World Cup. No one imagines that’s what it will be like the following week for a national team game, but my the way I always look at it is that we’re on a positive trend with this sport. I don’t think there’s any denying that. What this does is jumps us up to a much higher trend line that’s positive.”
With the Germany match looming, one of the leading topics heading into the match has been the presence of five German-American players on the U.S. roster. Gulati disputed any notion that their presence says something negative about player development in the United States, or about the national team itself.
“We take those players that are eligible to play for us and we can talk about those players that played in the last World Cup for Serbia, or in this World Cup for Mexico that were born and raised in the United States or missed out on the last two World Cups for Italy because of an injury,” Gulati said, referring to Neven Subotic and Giuseppe Rossi, who both passed on playing for the U.S. to play for other countries. “There’s all of those issues. It’s a globalized world. We haven’t done anything to expedite citizenship for any players or anything like that. Those guys are all Americans at birth. In a couple of cases, they obviously had to file a change of nationality switch under FIFA rules and they chose to do that.
“There’s still a lot of players on the field who came through the U.S. system and, as I mentioned, a few who came through part the U.S. system that are playing for other national teams, including some that play in MLS. That’s part of their development as well and they’re playing for Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, Giuseppe Rossi is obviously not here, but I don’t worry too much about what signals that sends on our development system.
“Compared to a few years ago, we’ve obviously got far more players who are playing in MLS currently and I don’t know what the number is total that have played in MLS or are currently in MLS. It’s obviously 10 plus Timmy Howard, Geoff Cameron and so on. We’re not satisfied with where we are in the development process, but we’re satisfied that we’re moving in the right direction.”