JOHANNESBURG -- The U.S., of course, gets set to kick off its World Cup campaign tonight against England in Rustenburg. But Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which runs American soccer, was already in town last week, promoting the U.S. bid to host the tournament in either 2018 or 2022. My friend Jonty Mark, a soccer reporter for The Star, a Johannesburg daily, interviewed Gulati, a Columbia University economics professor, in his well-appointed hotel suite, and let me tag along. We asked him about the bid, but also about how far he thinks U.S. soccer has come and how far it still has to go; about the knock that the country produces player who work well within a system but lack individual flair; and about coach Bob Bradley's future after the tournament. Here's some of what he said:
ON HOW THE U.S.'S DIVERSITY BOOSTS ITS BID: Every country in the world has a home in the US in terms of fan base. There is not a country in the world like that. It’s not only Mexico, not only Italy, we could play Trinidad and have thousands of fans.
ON HOW ARIZONA'S TOUGH NEW IMMIGRATION LAW COULD COMPLICATE THE BID, ESPECIALLY IF PHOENIX REMAINS IN CONTENTION AS A HOST CITY: They [Phoenix] were in the bid book and are in the bid book. The legislation doesn’t take effect until July, and is being challenged on several fronts. The tournament is 12 years await and we are hoping that … a balance is struck differently than the current legislation.
ON THE U.S.'S CHANCES: I don’t think if the US gets through the first round and beats an opponent in the last 16 anyone will be surprised. Spain lost only one game in the last four years and it happened to be here to the US.
ON THE CRITICISM THAT U.S. PLAYERS ARE WELL-COACHED AND PLAY WELL WITHIN A SYSTEM, BUT LACK INDIVIDUAL CREATIVITY: I am not sure I agree with the premise. If you watch [Clint] Dempsey against Juventus, or Jose Torres play, or Landon Donovan, to pick but three examples, they are all different, from different momentum points of the country. If you are talking about trying to compare anyone to individual creative ability of Argentinians or Brazilians, no one, measures up, not English, Germans, French or Italians and not even the Spanish in that way. There is only one Messi in terms of creativity. That criticism was maybe applicable 20 years ago, that our players were athletic, hard working and spirited -- though those are positive qualities -- but I think you have added to that increasing technical ability. And that is down to partly the league, partly players training at a younger age to develop their talents. I think it's an unfair criticism to say there is an A-Z training manual and that is the way players are trained ... It’s about putting players in the best possible environment. It doesn’t mean throw out a ball and come back in three years, and it also doesn’t mean A to B to C and then play the ball to D and that is how you learn. There is a lot of creativity in the US team, and Clint and Landon are good examples.
ON THE GROWING INTEREST IN SOCCER AMONG AMERICANS: It’s unquestionable that interest in the World Cup and the team is higher than ever, with the possible exception of when we hosted the World Cup. Water cooler talk in the US is far beyond anything I have ever seen ... I have no doubt the TV ratings will break records. The effort put in by Univision and ESPN is far beyond anything anyone has ever done for a sporting event. ESPN have 24 hours dedicated prior to the opening. That is unheard of, even with the Superbowl you are not going to see 24 hours. This is something new.
ON EFFORTS TO ATTRACT AFRICAN-AMERICANS TO THE GAME: Eight out of the 23 players in this team are African American -- that is far in excess of the population percentages for the African-American community. We understand that [there's more to be done] ... There is not a long tradition of the game in a way there might be for inner-city basketball. But it's changing. There are a number of inner-city programs ... In the US, as an elite player often as you move up the ranks, they say, "congratulations, you have just made XYZ that represents a particular state, you need now to pay $200 to meet expenses." We are working on that. An elite player in England makes the Man United under-16 team. With the presence of the MLS you are seeing some of that change. When you see 8 players in the squad, one of them has the potential to turn on another player watching, in the same way Michael Jordan turned on a generation of players.
ON COACH BOB BRADLEY'S STATUS: Most countries are looking at situations after World Cup. Bob has done an extraordinary job. He has a higher winning percentage than anyone. He had the success of the Confederations Cup -- that was terrific, we came top of the group in qualifying. When we have been able to give him his first team, he has done very well. I am pleased with him and proud of the record he had. Bob is a very smart guy and knows we have three games that matter, to him, to the players, to the country ... Then we will see what happens in the second round, sit down and talk about it. I am not willing or in a position to say what that is. Bob is an intelligent guy -- he knows a big part of success comes down to how we do.