World Cup: USSF president Sunil Gulati talks Jurgen Klinsmann, perceptions of CONCACAF, USMNT

RECIFE, Brazil – US Soccer president Sunil Gulati sat down with a number of media members on Wednesday at the Arena Pernambuco, site of the US national team’s Group G finale against Germany (Thursday, noon ET/ESPN, match preview).

Below are selected excerpts of that interview. Gulati declined to comment on the controversy surrounding the Qatar World Cup in 2022 or his communication with Landon Donovan since he was cut from the US roster last month.

On the importance of the US-Germany game:

It’s a huge game. Obviously the emotions of three nights ago were up and down, and people said, "If you’d been offered four points a week earlier, you would have taken it." So that part is on schedule, right? We wanted to beat Ghana and get at least a point against Portugal. The way the game ended was disappointing, obviously, to all of us. But we go into the Germany game with it all in front of us, a chance to win the group, a chance to advance, and that’s exciting.

And it’s exciting not only for the team, but it’s exciting and important for everything that’s going on back home. To be able to keep that level of interest for another four, five, six and hopefully more days, would be great for the sport.

On defining the World Cup as a failure if the US don’t advance:

I’ll let you know tomorrow night. I’m only thinking about if we’re playing in Porto Alegre or Salvador.

On the need to advance to justify Jurgen Klinsmann’s long-term contract through 2018:

If we needed that, we would have made the contract conditional. That’s the reality of it. Clearly there’s a difference between going 0-3 and getting hammered in three games than going out in what most people recognize as one of the toughest groups and getting four points. There’s a difference. In both scenarios you don’t advance, that’s not good. The expectations of the oddsmakers may have been different, but the hopes and expectations that Jurgen had, that I had, that [US Soccer CEO and secretary general] Dan Flynn had were no different. We wanted to get out of this group.

Will there be less heat about that if we get four points and don’t advance? Of course. If we advance, then Dan is a genius.

On Klinsmann’s confidence:

One of the things that I often talk about when I talk or think about Jurgen is that he exudes confidence. The comments that he made about, "We can’t" -- that’s not what he believes. That’s not the sort of guy that he is. I walk into a room with Jurgen, and you come out of that room thinking we can win the World Cup. And he never says, "We’re going to win the World Cup." But he’s just so confident about it, and I think that’s extraordinary. And that fits perfectly with the American mentality, which is, "We can."

I fully appreciated the minute the draw ended and we got the tough group, when he said, "We’re gonna get through." He meant that and he believed it, and not just in the way that we all have to believe you’re gonna win something. And the experience: When you walk into a room and a guy has a World Cup medal around his neck, you have to at least listen to what he’s saying the first time.

On Klinsmann returning for a second World Cup in 2018:

What convinced us [about Klinsmann] is that it’s not just about a game or the result, or we wouldn’t have made the decision in December. It’s about everything we’re seeing, where the program is heading, the message that’s going out from top to bottom. It’s about player development, and you’ll see Jurgen more involved in those kinds of things in this next cycle. We’re pleased with how all of those things are going. We decided that even given the risks of three important games, we were prepared to make that commitment.

On the idea that the US team’s dual-nationals are less American than other players:

A little bit of it I understand, but I don’t agree with it. When it comes down to the notion that those players are any less American … we have five players who were born outside the United States because they had a serviceman father who was serving the country. It’d be pretty hard to convince me or anybody else that they’ve got less of a right to play for the United States than others. We take those players that are eligible to play for us, and we could talk about some of those players that have played in the last World Cup for Serbia [Neven Subotic] or in this World Cup for Mexico [Miguel Ponce] that were born and raised in the United States. Or missed out on the last two World Cups for Italy because of an injury [Italy’s Giuseppe Rossi].

It’s a globalized world. We haven’t done anything to expedite citizenship for any players or anything like that. These guys are all American at birth.

On the US being an underdog at the World Cup:

In terms of the underdog situation, the oddsmakers obviously have us as the underdogs, pretty clearly. They don’t have us as underdogs right now to get out of the group; those odds have changed given the results to date. I do think Jurgen’s right when he says we’re not underdogs in the sense that our players don’t think we’re underdogs. For the first time in our recent history, our players believe they’re capable of beating anyone. That doesn’t mean we think we’re the favorites in any game, but we’re capable of beating anyone. Our players, our coach, we all believe that. And our play has demonstrated 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 and until 15 or 28 seconds left to go, we were winning the game. That’s a pretty good start. We beat a pretty good Ghana team and maybe didn’t play our best game in that game. And the results over the past few years … We were the best team in CONCACAF. We won the Gold Cup. We were top of the qualifying group. And there are two teams in CONCACAF [Costa Rica and Mexico] that have advanced. Those are all pretty good signs.

On FIFA potentially allowing more CONCACAF teams into future World Cups:

So much of that ends up being a negotiation. It’s early to say [if FIFA will add more]. Those are tug of wars, and it’s not just based on one World Cup. Clearly the Asian teams have three out right now and two with a chance [Asia has four, all but South Korea are eliminated], and three African teams are out with two still with a chance [Update: Nigeria have qualified, Algeria and Ghana are still alive]. The rest is Europe and South America. That would certainly be a very positive sign, but it’s not just about advancing, it’s then what happens from there. But if you get a couple CONCACAF teams to the quarters, that would go a long way in setting a pretty strong message.

On CONCACAF’s success at the World Cup:

Obviously we love to see CONCACAF teams do well, so I’m glad Costa Rica did well and Mexico did well. And from a selfish perspective, the better CONCACAF teams do, the more likely we are to have a chance of convincing people that we should earn additional slots. All those people who said CONCACAF teams have an easy ride going in, maybe, maybe not. But they’ve proven they belong here.

On the controversial chant from Mexico’s fans at the World Cup:

It’s inappropriate. Highly inappropriate. FIFA has made a statement [on sanctioning the fans], so I don’t want to second-guess that, but I think it’s highly inappropriate. It’s offensive. And in the year 2014, it’s inappropriate. I find it offensive, given where we are in the world. It was always offensive and inappropriate, just now many more people believe that.

On the US television ratings for the World Cup:

The ratings are fantastic. And it’s one of those few times where they’ve been predicted. I said if the US does well here, we’re gonnna 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 daytime game on a weekday, but what else is going on in the States – the fan fests, the stadiums opening up for screenings, the water-cooler talk, the bars that aren’t traditionally showing soccer – it’s everything that those of us who have been involved in the game for a long time would dream of. Hopefully we can keep going to keep that level of intensity where it is.

That won’t continue after the World Cup, and no one imagines that’s what it’s going to be like the following week for a national-team game. But we’re on a positive trend line in this sport, there’s no denying that. What this does is jump us up to a much higher trend line, and that’s positive.

On how the US might be perceived if they don’t advance:

This is razor-thin stuff. We understand that. But the narrative that’s constant and consistent is that the sport is in a different place. What’s going on back home is completely different even than it was four years ago. It’s as if we’ve had 10 consecutive nights of Landon's goal [against Algeria in 2010]. And that means the sport is in a different place. Would that trend line be a little higher and a little steeper if we get through tomorrow? The answer is yes. And we’re confident that will happen.

On the reception of the US team by American fans:

It’s better than expected. It’s not better than what we dream about, but it’s better than expected. It’s pretty easy to get emotional about wanting to see this day happen, but it’s not the day. That day is still to come, and that day has a trophy involved and a lot of international visitors to the US. But this is pretty damn good.