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It Seems To Me . . .

Gulati’s ouster signals change in MLS winds.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, February 23, 1999) -- Don’t look now, but the Major League Soccer owners are starting to act like, well . . . owners.

Without a doubt, the single most influential person in the first three seasons of MLS has been its deputy commissioner, Sunil Gulati. He has been the single person in charge of building the league’s player pool, he has been the face of the League in its dealings with FIFA, and with other leagues and clubs around the world. Now he has been sacked, and his ouster may end up being be the single most significant event in MLS’ history thus far.

In case you missed it, MLS Commissioner Doug Logan released the following statement about Gulati: "Discussions are taking place with respect to former Deputy Commissioner Sunil Gulati's continued relationship with Major League Soccer. These discussions are of a private nature. All responsibilities relating to player personnel have been reassigned by the Commissioner to Mr. Ivan Gazidis, Executive Vice President, Player Relations and Operations."

You should note the use of the phrase "former Deputy Commissioner." It is likely that Gulati will remain connected to MLS in some kind of a consulting capacity. But the bottom line is that the men who put millions of dollars into the League henceforth are not going to be simply referred to as "investors." They are the owners, and they are going to start acting like owners.

The tremendous irony in Sunil’s ouster is that the man who was widely disliked because he was the one charged with saying "no," got in trouble for saying yes. The issue that led to Gulati’s firing was the re-signing of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars’ midfielder Tab Ramos. Ramos was entering the option year of his four-year deal with MLS. He is being paid at, or near, the league maximum of $250,000.

Supposedly on his own initiative, Gulati exercised Ramos’ option, agreeing to continue to pay him the $250,000 for the 1999 season. When he was notified, MetroStars operating head Stuart Subotnick went ballistic. Subotnick, who is billionaire John Kluge’s number two and alter ego, is not only Kluge’s point man to MLS and the man who ultimately runs the MetroStars, he is also chairman of the League’s board of governors.

The MetroStars have had huge salary cap problems this off-season. They dumped Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas and Diego Sonora to get under the cap and to open roster spots for new coach Bora Milutinovic to bring in big names who would win games and fill the empty seats in the Meadowlands. Reportedly MetroStars general manager Charlie Stillitano and Subotnick did not want to resign Ramos, or at least not resign him under his present contract. They wanted to release him, for the League not to exercise the option year in the contract. Ramos would then have been free to play anywhere in the world. But realistically, given his injury history, when he found no takers for his skills, he would have been forced to sign a new contract for much less money.

There is a dispute in League circles as to whether Stillitano made the MetroStars position very clear to Gulati. There is also a dispute as to whether Gulati was advised by the league’s attorneys that given the anti-trust lawsuit the league is facing from the players it might be unwise to cut players free by not exercising option years and then re-signing them for much less money given the players’ lack of ability to bargain with MLS teams individually. Gulati went ahead and effectively spent Subotnick’s money (actually Kluge’s, but we won’t quibble) without permission.

It’s important to understand what’s going on here. At the bottom line this dispute was not about Tab Ramos. What this is about is the formerly passive MLS "owner-investors" becoming restless with being told how to spend their money by their employees. Stuart Subotnick does not see himself as a hands-off investor watching management run his enterprise. He sees himself as George Steinbrenner. Left to his own devices he would give Stillitano a suitcase (actually a large steamer trunk) full of Kluge’s money to take to Europe and buy a soccer team.

The Dallas meeting on Gulati’s fate was reportedly fascinating from several perspectives. The two owner-investors who have put the most into MLS, Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz, could have saved Gulati and reportedly they started out to do so. But in the end they apparently thought better of driving a wedge between the owners especially if this is going to be the year the anti-trust suit actually comes to trial.

It is not only Subotnick. Several other teams are demanding more flexibility in dealing with their own player personnel issues. They want to begin taking back some of the control they have ceded to the MLS front office.

Gulati did not help himself very much in all this. In MLS’ first three season, as the person almost solely in charge of personal issues, he has become something of a lightening rod of both fan and club’s discontent. If a team did not do well on the field, it was easy to blame Sunil. He was also disliked by players and agents who felt they were being underpaid. He developed a reputation, deserved or undeserved, for playing favorites.

In his defense, Gulati was basically doing what he was charged with doing - saving the owners and general managers from their own worst instincts. The League early on made a decision that it would not turn itself into the final resting place of big name stars from around the world who would wheeze up and down the field in the twilight of their careers for big dollars.

On occasion, and usually off-the-record, Gulati, would talk about how various coaches and general managers turned down players who he brought to them. One story he told was about a young Costa Rican who he saw at an early Latin American combine tryout session and who agreed to sign with MLS if the price was right. Gulati reportedly took the player to three of the League’s teams who have been among the worst on the field, and whose fans have been the most vocal in claiming the league has done their teams wrong in player allocations. All three turned the player down. D.C. United would have signed the player, but had already committed to Marco Etcheverry and Juan Berthy Suarez (who was later cut and replaced with Jaime Moreno). Finally one team said it would sign the player, but would only spend $100,000 less than the player’s agent was demanding. No deal.

The player was Paulo Wanchope, who has become a star at Derby County after going to the England’s Premier League for a $1.2 million transfer fee. What is it they say about leading a horse to water?

So you might say that Gulati was sacked for doing what he had been told to do by men who now no longer seem to want to do what they have been doing. That could signal a very fundamental change in MLS and that bears watching.

Robert Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.

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