HARRISON, N.J. - U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati met with a few reporters Saturday at Red Bull Arena after the men's national team wrapped up its public training session. Our conversation touched on a range of subjects, most notably how the program is preparing for potential security problems at next month's World Cup in Brazil, and the long-term status of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
What do you make so far of the security issues in Brazil, and of some stadium construction being behind schedule? Does it trouble you at all?
Every World Cup has issues right until the last minute. Brazil's got challenges, and I think they'll be met. They'll rely on the local and governmental authorities to make sure it is a safe World Cup. Some of the stadiums, obviously, have been behind, but we're certainly convinced they'll be ready to go when we get there and play games.
Will the national team have more security than it did at the last World Cup, four years ago in South Africa?
We don't talk about those sorts of issues. The primary source of security is the local government, and we talk with the U.S. State Department quite a bit. But we don't talk [publicly] about specifics.
Is there anything you can say about what the players have been told to expect, and what they've been told about how to conduct themselves while in Brazil?
The players have been there. I'm sure Jurgen and the staff have talked to them, but a number of the players went there in January with the team. Obviously, five have been in a previous World Cup, so I think a lot of the players know what to expect.
And those who have played in Europe or in the Champions League or in Mexico also understand that we face challenges when we are playing outside the country that are different from what we have in the U.S.
Some people are suggesting that because Jurgen got a contract extension through 2018, there's nothing he can do this summer that would prevent you from making a change if that's what you wanted to do.
Look, first of all, I don't think that any decisions Jurgen has made were because we did an extension before the World Cup. And contracts are contracts i people have long-term contracts, and those are what they are. So everyone is focused very much on getting through the first round, and we'll see what happens after that.
That cuts off a question of whether the extension made it easier for -
I think, as you admitted, I just cut it off. So I'm not sure if there's anything else to add to that.
When you signed Jurgen to the extension, though, you suggested that in a way, it was done to protect the Federation in the case that he's out of contract after the World Cup and you had done well, there would be other suitors for him.
There will always be. One of the reasons why you do extensions to contracts is to get stability. The employee - [Jurgen] in this case - would like stability for his future, and the Federation gets stability and certainty.
That's the reason you do a contract. Otherwise you have a series of one-day agreements with options for both sides on the next day. That obviously gives us some certainty and gives Jurgen some certainty.
[I should pause here to remind you that Gulati's day job is teaching economics at Columbia University. He is renowned for thinking and speaking as an economist as much as a soccer administrator.]
Is possible that because of his résumé, he might have some more appeal to others than his predecessors in the job? How much was that a factor?
Those are always things you take into account. Frankly, we probably have more options, given where the program is, than we did 14 or 16 or 20 years ago as well. So certainly, the other opportunities that are available to anyone - whether it's with a player or a team - are always part of the calculus.
How much did the impressive qualifying campaign last year play into the decision to offer the extension?
Clearly the success of the team and what else we have seen around the program are important parts of that decision.
Four years ago, the United States men's national team played Turkey in Philadelphia as its final game before leaving for South Africa. At that time, the question of how many fans of the visiting team would be at any national team game was often a big talking point.
Now it isn't anymore, as the team almost always plays in front of very pro-American crowds. It's expected to be that way here on Sunday too. How much does that change demonstrate the growth of American soccer over the years?
That may be the biggest change we've had over the last 25 years. I just sent out a note saying that we had 2,500-plus fans here today [for the open practice], and that's about the number we had at some World Cup qualifiers in the late 1980's. That's tremendous. It's a sea change. And tomorrow, I'm sure, will be very much a pro-U.S. crowd.
We've had that right through, as you mentioned, including against Mexico [in Columbus last year]. So that's a huge plus. If we were playing this game at a bigger stadium, maybe there would be more Turkish fans. But certainly, right now, it's going to be a very pro-U.S. crowd, which is a plus.
And whether it's fans coming to games, the number of fans going to games [abroad], the number of people watching the World Cup, or in Brazil, those are all very positive signs for the program, and for the sport.
What are your thoughts on Landon Donovan not being part of the World Cup team?
I think certain decisions have been made, and they were certainly difficult decisions, and we move on from there.
Some senior players have been quite open about being surprised by the decision. Were you surprised by the decision?
I'm not going to get into that. What else?
What are your views on CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb's term so far? It seems that he has made some moves to get the organization to be more transparent?
I think CONCACAF has come a long way, and Jeff has done a number of remarkable things, along with Enrique Sanz and the Executive. Those are all very, very positive things for the development of the sport in this region.
How close are we to having a decision on whether first-choice players will be available for the Copa América Centenario in 2016 that will be played in the United States?
When FIFA makes a decision as to whether it will be on the international calendar. That [decision] will be made in the fall.
Obviously, though, you're expecting it to happen? Otherwise you wouldn't have made the agreement, no?
We're certainly hopeful that it will happen, but until it's done and the calendar committee of FIFA confirms that, we're up in the air.
Is there a meeting on the schedule where there's a timeline for it to be decided on?
There's a calendar meeting in September.
A range of analysts have been judging the U.S.' chances of making it out of the group stage, and many consider you a long shot.
I'm not sure we're a long shot. The studies have us at 40 percent and Portugal at 54 percent. That's not a long shot. It's not 10-to-1 odds. Yeah, we understand why Portugal and Germany, ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the world, are favorites. We get that.
In your own mind, what do you consider to be the reasonable expectation?
It's not a question of expectation. Our goal, and our hope, and I guess our expectation, is to get through the first round. If we do that, it's wide open - it's a knock-out competition.
And by the way, that's not a defeatist attitude about how far we want to go in the tournament. Everyone's goal is to get through the first round and then see what happens. Maybe with the exception of Brazil, which automatically assumes they are playing in the final. But then they looked at the Round of 16 matchup and realized, "Oh, we might have Holland or Spain or Chile."
At a starting point, you get through and see what happens. Once you are in the knockout stages, everything is possible. But we've got to get there.
A lot has been made about the long travel distances and the weather in Brazil. Do you think that is something the U.S. is better equipped to deal with?
Maybe, because of the travel distances that players face in [Major League Soccer], and the temperatures in the summer months in the league schedule. But the Ghanaian players have played in some pretty interesting climates, as have the Portuguese players.
The travel part, yes. But those aren't things you can control. In South Africa, we had the best travel schedule of any team on the board of 32 [teams]. This time, we've got the most travel. But we're playing against somebody at each of the venues. Portugal has got to play in Manaus as well, with difficult climate conditions, and we'll make the most of it.
At Friday's media day, a lot of the players talked about how strong the the cohesion is within this group of 23 guys. That team spirit is something that has defined the U.S. national team through a lot of coaching staffs and players over the years. For you, having a view above all of it, is there something you see that has enabled the cohesion to exist across so many World Cup cycles?
I think it's a shared goal and a shared focus. Part of it is the underdog status that we find ourselves in. I think the players will come together. That's something the coaching staff works on, and the players work on. We're very much going to have to be one unit, and united behind a goal. If we do that, and we play in the way we can, then I think anything is possible.