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Jerry's World

What once were considered virtues led to Gulatiís MLS demise.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, February 23, 1999) -- Bruce Arena, while coaching D.C. United, once said he worried about what would happen if Sunil Gulati got hit by a car while crossing the street.

He was the man responsible for bringing in considerable talent in the 1996 startup of salary-cap-driven Major League Soccer -- including the acquisition, placement and signing of players. With his worldwide contacts, he was indispensable.

But the high-profile deputy commissioner occasionally ran afoul of front office hierarchy, culminating in a controversial decision involving the re-signing of veteran U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos -- and was relieved of his duties today by MLS commissioner Douglas G. Logan.

All responsibilities relating to player personnel were reassigned to Ivan Gazidis, executive vice president, player relations and operations. MLS released no other details, except to say that "discussions are taking place with respect to (Gulati's) continued relationship with Major League Soccer. These discussions are of a private nature."

Gulati, 39, who will remain as youth development Project 2010 managing director for the United States Soccer, Federation, declined comment.

The incident that brought about his dismissal involved him having Ramos, a New York/New Jersey MetroStars veteran, re-signed on his option year for the maximum $250,000 salary -- without the consent of the MetroStars management. Investor-operator Stuart Subotnick protested, which resulted in a Board of Directors meeting yesterday in Dallas, followed by a MLS press release this afternoon that alluded to "former deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati."

The MetroStars, under heavy pressure to be a major force in MLS after three disappointing seasons, have made several trades -- including goalkeeper Tony Meola, defenders Alexi Lalas and Diego Sonora, and forward Giovanni Savarese -- to get under the $1.7 million team salary limits.

Ramos, the first player signed by Gulati for MLS, has been slowed by injuries -- and has not been a dominant player even when healthy. Major League Soccer made a big splash about getting U.S. national team stars to join MLS, but now is confronted with the reality that the maximum salaries being paid some of them are coming against salary cap limits -- without the production to match. Furthermore, attendance did not drop when the national team was in France for the World Cup.

The decrease in attendance -- still a highly respectable 15,500 average for the three years -- has been with Hispanics. The reduction in international players from five to four and the tendency to look more toward Europe and the Caribbean may be a problem.

Gulati was absolutely essential in getting the league started, obtaining top-drawer talent -- especially the likes of Carlos Valderrama (Colombia), Marco Etcheverry (Bolivia), Jorge Campos (Mexico), Leonel Alvarez (Colombia), Mauricio Cienfuegos (El Salvador), Roberto Donadoni (Italy), and Raul Diaz Arce (El Salvador).

On a typical day he went from talking contract issues with players to player-acquisition issues with coaches to salary cap issues with general managers. Along the way, he made some enemies. There were teams that felt he didn't service them well. Ironically, some complained about favored treatment toward the MetroStars in 1996 and 1997. But that role has diminished some in the past year, with several MLS teams now going out on their own to search for talent -- though MLS still had to handle the signings.

Todd Durbin, vice president of player personnel, has been increasingly involved, along with Gazidis. Supporters are hoping Gulati remains in soccer, saying Project 2010 -- designed to make the United States a contender for the World Cup in 2010 through extensive identification and developing of youth talent -- is vital to the success of the sport. MLS also is regarded as key at some point, with formation of youth reserve teams.

Logan, the clear No. 1 in Major League Soccer after being viewed by some as co-No. 1 with Gulati, is pushing for closer MLS involvement with the USSF in making soccer in the United States competitive with the rest of the world.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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