Ask someone to identify a key figure in the growth of American soccer and they might be tempted to name Landon Donovan, or another iconic player that has enhanced the global reputation of the American national soccer team. Ask members of the US Soccer Federation, however, and the answer would be quite different. Across the board, those familiar with the inner workings of the USSF would all emphatically agree on one name: Sunil Gulati.
Born in Allahabad, India in 1959, Sunil Gulati is perhaps the single most important figure in the development of American soccer. Having been involved in the game for over 30 years, Gulati has served as the president of the United States Soccer Federation for 11 years, and is widely recognized as a key driver in the growth of soccer in America.
Although Gulati grew up playing soccer in Connecticut, a career in the game was not to be and he instead pursued an undergraduate double major in Economics and Political Science at Bucknell University. His time at Bucknell was followed by Master’s degrees from Columbia University, an early sign of Gulati’s ambition and potential. This trajectory continued as Gulati joined the World Bank through its Young Professionals Program, serving at the country economist for Moldova.
Clearly destined and determined to leave his mark, Gulati managed to fuse his passion for soccer with his strong economic grounding. However, despite being recognized as Bob Gansler’s, the man who coached the US national soccer team to their first World Cup in 40 years, “prodigal son”, Gulati did not see himself as above anyone in the USSF. Having joined the organization in the early-1990s, when “the federation possessed a mere fraction of its current wealth, size and power”, Gulati did anything necessary to help it run smoothly, even if the tasks were outside his assigned duties. This humility and willingness would serve him well and fuel his ascension to the most powerful position in American soccer.
This rise started with the 1994 World Cup. While at Columbia, Gulati met the president of the US Soccer Federation at the time, Werner Fricker, and claimed that the national soccer team was plagued with issues. Fricker merely asked for Gulati to send him a note. Instead, Gulati authored an extensive 17-page memo that landed him a seat on America’s 1994 World Cup bid campaign.
The campaign was successful and the 1994 World Cup was a massive success. Not only were record ticket sales recorded, but soccer was brought into the public eye, something that was capitalized upon by the establishment of the country’s professional men’s league, Major League Soccer (MLS), for whom Gulati served as the Deputy Commissioner upon its inception in 1996.
A decade on from when Gulati was beginning to gain more visibility, he reached his summit. In 2006, he was elected as the president of the United States Soccer Federation. As president, he has overseen the sport’s incredible growth in this country, and has been labeled as “the single most important person in the development of soccer in this country” by Alan Rothenberg, the founder of Major League Soccer and former USSF president. As president, Gulati has grown the federation’s budget to $50 million, allowing the organization to invest in the “U.S. Soccer Development Academy, [and] bolster the women’s game with the founding and underwriting of a new professional competition, the National Women’s Soccer League”. Gulati has also sat on directorial boards for both US-hosted Women’s World Cups, served as Chairman of the Organizing Committee for the 2017 U-17 World Cup to be hosted in India, and spearheaded the American bid to bring the men’s World Cup back to the US in 2022.
Although the United States was unsuccessful in its 2022 World Cup bid, Gulati can take extreme pride in being the chief organizer of the U-17 World Cup that will take place in India during this coming October. As someone whose identity sits at the intersection of American and Indian cultures, Gulati remarked, “the fact that USA are drawn into the same group as India is especially meaningful for me”. Perhaps, Gulati also sees a little bit of the US in India as the country is looking to make similar strides to those that the US made almost 25 years earlier. India faces similar challenges to the US in developing the population’s interest in the sport across diverse demographics, but Gulati remains excited, emphasizing that “The U-17 World Cup is an important event, because it’s a showcase event. You’ve got so many young players that become stars from this tournament and I think there will be fond memories for those players and the people watching them.”
Though Gulati is looking forward to seeing emerging young stars play at the upcoming World Cup, he can rest assured knowing that his legacy is secured. A career spanning 3 decades and innumerable successes in developing soccer from the grassroots to professional level firmly places Sunil Gulati as one of the most important figures in American soccer history. His career is a testament to the fact that unbridled passion can enable great success and is an example for all.
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