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It Seems To Me . . .

Contiguglia presided over U.S. Soccer period of progress.

By Robert Wagman

LAS VEGAS (Tuesday, March 14, 2006) -- Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia, "Dr. Bob" to one and all, has stepped down after eight years at the helm of the United States Soccer Federation. Just to be clear, I have long been a Dr. Bob fan. I think he has accomplished a huge amount during his years as president of the organization.

I think the whole so-called "U.S. Soccer Family," whether its fans, kids and amateurs playing in leagues big and small across the country, members and fans of American professional leagues, or elite players who have represented the U.S. at the international level, all owe him a round of thanks.

The Federation he is leaving is very different than the one he inherited eight years ago. On the field internationally, the U.S. was coming off the debacle that was the World Cup in France. The Federation itself was in a precarious financial state and internally was mired in strife as the youth and amateur divisions faced off against the professional division over what, for years, had been the deep philosophical split as to what the main thrust of the organization should be.

Contiguglia now leaves with the organization financially stable, with a surplus he says is some $45 million. It has succeeded on the field internationally with both the men's and women's teams. And, as shown at the annual meeting here, the organization seems at peace with itself internally as the various factions -- youth, amateur, professional -- were able to work together to accomplish a structural reorganization that eight years ago would have been all but unthinkable.

We have Dr. Bob to thank for the hiring of Bruce Arena as the men's team manager. After a last-place finish in France 1998, there was considerable sentiment within U.S. Soccer that what was needed was a big-name international coach. But Dr. Bob insisted what was needed was a coach who understood the American game, Major League Soccer and American players, and Arena was the only one who made any sense. Contiguglia stood firm and he has obviously been proven right.

He was instrumental in hiring Dan Flynn as secretary general, the organization's day-to-day administrative head. Flynn might not be well-known to the average fan, but he has professionalized the USSF from top to bottom. And it was Dr. Bob who delegated to him the authority to do so, and then got the board of directors to change the by-laws to make that shift in authority official and statutory.

After he had turned over the presidential reins to Sunil Gualti, I asked him to reflect back on the last eight years.

"I think I am proudest of the professionalization of the organization, the staff and establishing financial stability and credibility," Contiguglia said. "When we started, our finances were a bit tenuous. Now we have a $45-million surplus. The Home Depot Center and National Training Center (in Carson, Calif.) is a great accomplishment. It was just a handshake between Phil Anschutz and I, and then I had to convince our board to go $6 million in debt. But we got it done.

"It's our teams, that's the thing that makes us what we are and gives us the credibility we need as an organization. It's a lot to be proud of. I look at the game as not as fragile as it was in 1998, but bad things can still happen. But if we continue to do well, with both men and women on the international level, and if our professional league does well, we will continue to move forward.

"But perhaps the biggest thrill for me is in talking to non-soccer people, whether it's someone I meet on the street or one of my fellow doctors and they say, 'Gee your sport has come so far in the last 10 years,' and this is unsolicited from a non-soccer person. I think this shows were we are as a sport and where we are going."

Most of the attendees at this the past weekend's Annual General Meeting were from state and local soccer organizations from around the country. In talking with many, what was striking is the level of optimism almost all share towards the growth of the sport of soccer in this country and the direction the Federation is taking. Moreover, there now seems to be a stronger consensus as to the importance of the national-team program and of the professional leagues.

This is something that was utterly lacking in the past and something that can be traced to the work Dr. Bob has done over the past almost decade.

Is he now going to go riding off into the sunset? Not really. It's back to his patients in Denver. And he will still have a hand in soccer.

"I'll remain on the board of directors and on the boards of the (U.S. Soccer) Foundation and the (National Soccer) Hall of Fame. And I'll coach my seven-year-old grandson's team."

He can always call Arena if he needs some help.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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