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Gulati Discusses 2007 Copa America During Conference Call

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati
Opening comments:
“We have for several months been looking at the possibility of playing in Copa America, a process that started formally on July 8 when Dan Flynn and I met with the CONMEBOL President, General Secretary and the CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer in Berlin. We had a very positive meeting the day before the World Cup final and we basically laid out some prerequisites for us to be able to consider participating in the Copa America. The most important of those prerequisites was that the date on which the U.S. might potentially start would need to be later in the first round of Copa America because the Gold Cup ends on June 24 and Copa America starts on June 26. So physically, the thought of playing the final of Gold Cup, if the U.S. team were in it, and playing in the Copa America first game two days later was an impossibility. They thought they would be able to work with us on that. It took quite some time to get a confirmation of that in writing. I think they needed to go through their channels. We finally got that we would not start at the beginning of the competition, we’d start in the first round, but in the latter part of the first round, so let’s say the last day of group play. That was one issue. Second, and we took this on literally two hours after that meeting was a meeting that we had with Don Garber and Ivan Gazidis from Major League Soccer because, with the event falling right in the middle of the MLS season, as does the Gold Cup, we needed to have a preliminary conversation about how to accommodate those two events. The first meeting was informational. We spent a lot of time over the months talking about it and have gotten to a place where I think Don and I are comfortable. Don is actually here with me, or rather I’m here with him, we’re at MLS headquarters. He’s ready to address that later if we need to. We’re very thankful that MLS is going to be working with us so we can make sure that we’re going to have a good team go to both those events. I can’t tell you what all of that means in terms of exact details, but I think it’s safe to say that Don and the league understand how important the event would be for us as we’re preparing the team, and especially as we’re starting a new cycle, yet they are in the middle of a season.

“A third piece, which on July 8 we didn’t know, but obviously came into play after the fact was that we needed to make sure that whoever was the coach of the team was going to be comfortable with that. We did discuss it with Bruce (Arena) right after the World Cup, but obviously, with the change that happened there, we needed to make sure that whoever will be coaching the U.S. team come next summer, was comfortable with the possibility of playing in both competitions, of turning around very quickly without full knowledge of how we would be handling some of the European based players and a lot of uncertainties. What we’ve done to deal with that issue is ask the question of every one of the people that Dan Flynn and I have talked to. I guess only in the case of unanimity could we move forward, and that’s what we have is unanimity among all of the candidates that we’re still talking to. They all agree that we should play in the competition, that it’s a valuable competition and that the U.S. team should play and take advantage of the experience. What this means for future Copa Americas and the U.S. team, I’m not willing to say. This is a one-time specific situation. We’ll look at that in the future. In two years’ time, if we were invited again, who knows how we would respond. This year, in fact, ends the agreement between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF about the invitation as guest teams, so how that’s looked at in the future, I can’t say.”

On if the Federation is planning to send two different teams to the Gold Cup and Copa America:
“No. I don’t think that’s the case. We’ve talked to the different candidates we have on what they want to do. I don’t think it would be two different teams. We’ve entered both competitions hoping to be successful. Is it likely that there will be some different players? Yes, that is quite possible. But the notion is not to send two different teams, not when we’ve gotten CONMEBOL to accept that we wouldn’t start until four or five days after the Gold Cup final. There’s a number of issues that need to be worked out both domestically and with clubs abroad. Some of the coaches have their own ideas on what they would want to do. Bruce (Arena) in the Gold Cup had managed, and did it very well, different lineups in different games and part of the reason was to look at players and part of the reason was tournament format. I think you’ll see all of those, but that’s really going to be a question that gets answered when we have a new coach and sit down with the league and some of the foreign clubs that have U.S. players.”

On what changed to allow the U.S. to participate in Copa America:
“I think a couple of things changed. Clearly the results over the summer have not been a wake up call – I won’t say that - but emphasized that we need to get in some additional competition. I was involved with the decision making beyond 1995 – 97, 99 and 2001 – when we didn’t go, and there were some very good reasons for not going. It was a balance between the league and the players in Europe. It’s not only an MLS issue, it’s been the players in Europe who in some cases have a legal right to time off, and in other cases, a need for rest to play in both competitions. In summers where there has been a Confederations Cup you triple the problem. I think what we’ve looked at here is the balance needs to shift a little bit for this summer as we start a new cycle as we look at a whole new group of players – potentially – Don (Garber) has certainly understood that and supported that. None of this I have said all of a sudden became very important and therefore we should do this. That has always been the case, but maybe there is a slightly different balance for a short period during the summer and we’ll do a number of things that will allow us to alleviate some of the player pain of missing games.”

On if not participating in past tournaments has stunted the U.S. team’s development:
“We got to the quarters without playing in it for the first few years (of MLS), so I don’t think there is a direct correlation. Clearly it’s a good competition and clearly we think entering it will be a benefit to the national team and the development of the game. But rather than stunting our growth, I think that not playing in it in ’97, ’99, ’01 and ’03 was because we were also trying to developing a league here. Trying to take our top players, as well as our European players who were trying to get a foothold in European teams in every one of these years, it was an impossible situation, frankly. We are doing it now hand-in-hand with MLS, and we started talking to the clubs of some of some of our international players, which is a little bit awkward because Dan Flynn and I are the ones engaged in those conversations but neither one of us is going to pick the team. It’s a tricky situation. We are playing in it because we think it will help, but has it stunted our growth? Would anyone have asked that question in September 2002? I don’t think so.”

On whether Copa America will have the same importance as the Gold Cup:
“The Gold Cup is our confederation’s championship. It leads to playing in the Confederations Cup, so that’s very important. We’re going to put as strong a team as we can on the field for both events. I can’t sit here and tell you how much of the team will be the same. A coach has to do that by the very nature of the response. I think we will be able to put out, let’s call it our best team, the coach is going to decide that. If he wants to rest players or if the players have just come out of Europe and so on, so it’s impossible for me to say that specifically. But I’d emphasize, the Gold Cup is on home turf, it leads to the Confederations Cup and it’s our confederation championship.”

On whether it is time to think of getting rid of CONCACAF and having CONMEBOL be one confederation for the Americas:
“Let me make very clear that we’re not going to be an advocate of getting rid of CONCACAF. We’re playing in the competition because it gives us top level opponents. It’s good for the program and we’ve been able to work through some balance issues. We’ve also understood that we need to play against top European teams, where the other concern was that we’ve played a lot in this hemisphere. We played against Germany, we played against Poland last spring. Obviously the games right at the end prior to the World Cup, for a number of reasons, weren’t what we or Bruce might have hoped for, so who knows what may happen in the future, but for right now, we are playing in Copa America as a guest team, which is exactly what Mexico is doing. Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru have all played as guest teams in the Gold Cup in the past, along with South Africa, South Korea and others. We’re playing as a guest team, full stop.”

On who will make the decision of which players will be named to each roster:
“The coach is going to have to pick his team, and like any coach does anywhere in the world we are going to have to work through specific issues. Some of the people we have talked to like the idea of taking virtually two separate squads. At least one or two of the others think that would be the wrong way to go and they would want to take the same squad. Another has said it would really depend on how the first tournament goes. If we happen to not be as successful as we hoped to be then that might change their mind because there could be a 10-12 day window. At this point we haven’t had a discussion with MLS coaches; I don’t think that is appropriate for us to do directly. The discussions that Dan Flynn and I have had have been with MLS leadership, with Don (Garber) and Ivan (Gazidis), to talk about it at that level and at a policy level and without getting into specifics about this player and that player. The same is true with the European players. Beyond telling you that we have different views among the coaches we are talking to and that we’ve got an agreement that we want to make this work with (the federation and the league), that’s about as far as we can go until we name a coach. The MLS coaches and general managers, in general, have been extremely supportive well beyond the call up rules of FIFA, well beyond what the mandatory call up windows are whether it was for the World Cup, friendly games or so on. On the other side, I think the Federation has been respectful, for example by not playing games this October, when fixture dates would have allowed us to do it, but it didn’t make sense to do it while MLS was getting close to their playoff start date and while our European based players were starting to establish themselves on teams. I don’t think there are two many federations and leagues around the world that have the same working relationship that we do, and that’s a plus.”

On if the U.S. would send its Under-23 team to Copa America the year before the Olympics:
“I’m not prepared to say that. That’s a question for the Under-23 coach. I don’t think it’s fair to say that most of the teams have handled it that way, I think it might be fair to say that a couple of the superpowers in South America have chosen to handle it that way. That Argentina and Brazil are comfortable enough to send their Under-23 team to play, doesn’t mean we would. If the coach wanted to do that it’s something we would support. That’s not anything that any of us that don’t get to coach the team get to decide.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber
On the U.S. participating in this event:
“Everybody on the call knows that the Federation and the league have had a strong strategic relationship for many years. We’re both organizations that are tying to do whatever we can to grow the sport overall in this country and I think this is another step in that direction together. Unquestionably, this is going to be a challenge from a schedule point of view, and we and the Federation are going to work together to make sure it makes sense for both the league and the federation. This is a strong statement that we, the league, are committed to do, in partnership with U.S. Soccer, to move this sport forward.”