How and how not to change the U.S. soccer landscape

(Yes, I’ll get to WPS, magicJack and even promotion/relegation in this post. But it needs some background.)

The United States has been a graveyard of soccer leagues. The reasons are many: The scattered population and ensuing high travel costs, the cultural antipathy toward a game that wasn’t invented here, and the dominance of the Big Three and a Half team sports.

Another reason is that it’s nearly impossible to get everyone on the same page. Plenty of people have their own ideas on how to run a soccer league, and inevitably, the leagues, teams, players and fans get caught in the crossfire of egos. Let’s spend wildly on players! Let’s go indoors! Let’s go indoors but change the scoring system! Let’s blast music during the game! Let’s confine players to a particular region of the field and give them ankle bracelets so they don’t veer outside that zone!

(If you don’t find my summary here or in Long-Range Goals sufficient to make this point, read David Wangerin’s Soccer in a Football World. And note that he has another book out on the USA’s missed opportunities.)

Though the state of U.S. soccer in 2011 is a bit better than it was in 1988 or 1960 — or just about any year you could find prior to World Cup 1994 — we still have plenty of people who are convinced they know better. “X, Y and Z failed,” the argument goes, “so I must know better.”

My philosophy professors will be disappointed to know I can’t put my finger on the exact fallacy at play here. It’s close to “post hoc, ergo procter hoc,” which basically assumes the cause of something failing.

In U.S. soccer, it’s also dangerous to say something failed because it’s no longer in business. Did the NASL fail? Yes, in the sense that it’s no longer in business, and the lessons of overspending are difficult to ignore. No, in the sense that it demonstrated and built upon the existence of soccer fan base in this country. Thousands of people went to games just to catch a curious glimpse of Pele or Beckenbauer. But thousands also developed an affinity for the sport.

When MLS came into being, it wanted nothing to do with the NASL with the curious exception of the tie-breaking shootout, which was quickly discarded. The single-entity structure and salary cap (“budget,” to give the preferred term) made MLS the anti-NASL.

Then a curious thing happened. MLS teams started to notice that fans had some ingrained loyalty to the old league. The San Jose Clash reclaimed the name Earthquakes. And when soccer-mad Seattle got a team and held a vote for the new name, fans insisted on writing in “Sounders” — the city’s team in the NASL and USL but not one of the options on the ballot.

MLS also was able to call upon the expertise of someone who had been there before — Lamar Hunt, a pioneering owner in several sports leagues, including the NASL. While MLS shunned many of the old ways, it didn’t turn a deaf ear to the input of those who had tried before.

Fast-forward to 2011.

Though MLS is thriving in Year 16, some people aren’t satisfied. We need to go to a promotion/relegation system immediately, we’re told. Again, all the old leagues have failed, and we’re just trying the same thing. (Never mind that the MLS league structure had NOT been tried before.) Post hoc, ergo procter hoc.

Some of the arguments are healthy. The league did well to ditch the shootout and other novelties of the early days. Questioning the need for a 10-team playoff in an already crowded calendar is legitimate. And some of us even get on Twitter and gripe about the quality of play.

But at least MLS faces no serious challenges to its authority. That’s not the case in WPS, whose bare-bones league office keeps imposing sanctions on magicJack owner Dan Borislow in an effort to get him to follow the most basic of league rules on sponsor signboards, video for other teams’ scouting benefit and so forth. The league has chosen not to get in a public back-and-forth argument about who’s telling the truth about what. Instead, WPS is speaking with sanctions.

MagicJack players have stood up for their owner, saying he’s bringing new ideas to the table and really cares about the game and its players. The question is whether the current path is the right way to go about it. Here’s how I put in the last SportsMyriad discussion on magicJack:

WPS was already a different model than we’ve seen in failed leagues of the past, and it evolved further with Antonucci’s departure and a bare-bones league office. (Really, the only way to scale back the league office any further is to merge the league into the USL or WPSL as a fully professional division within a league that already has an operations staff.) And I think WPS would be open to new ideas, certainly.

But do you effect that change by essentially charging the league office (run in a very real sense by fellow owners) with idiocy? In public?

There are a couple of types of civil disobedience. One is a nonviolent sit-in (being a former resident of Greensboro, NC, I’m well aware of that one). Another is to decide you don’t like the 55-mph speed limit, so you’re just going to drive 90. Which is being practiced here?

I also see a couple of differences between the Borislow model of change and the MLS model:

1. MLS had most of its arguments in private. To this day, former commissioner Doug Logan and former deputy Sunil Gulati will not talk about the reasons Gulati lost his job in 1999. (Logan eventually lost his, too, and my book was able to get part of that story but surely not all of it.)

2. MLS didn’t ignore the counsel of all who’ve gone before. Lamar Hunt was a committed owner. When Don Garber took over as commissioner, he didn’t clean house. Borislow didn’t keep any of the Washington Freedom’s staff and therefore had no one with experience in a WPS office. Experienced staff could’ve helped with the website and so forth. WPS was brought into existence by the patient start-up guru Tonya Antonucci, with help from revered soccer brains such as Peter Wilt.

3. MLS is, for the most part, eager to work with the media. The distinguished but often curmudgeonly Paul Gardner is welcomed into conference calls. Players and coaches are generally easy to reach, with a few exceptions at Toronto FC. We’re now getting postgame comments from magicJack players, but FSC’s commentary team mentioned on the broadcast that it couldn’t get much information prior to the broadcast.

Helping the media — even a broadcast partner — might be optional. In a lot of cases, the media will persist and do what they can anyway. In some cases, they won’t.

But ultimately, if the Borislow vision is to succeed, he’ll have to sell it. Not just to players, and perhaps not to the media, but to fans, sponsors and potential owners — most of whom won’t be as willing as he is to lose a lot of money in Year 1 keeping players comfortable while selling just a handful of cheap tickets.

No one has to repeat the past — not MLS nor the USL, new NASL, NPSL, WPSL, PASL or WPS. And no one should worry too much about hurting the feelings of veterans of the sport, from league executives to the media, if a new idea proves better.

The caution to give is that the only modestly successful soccer entities in this country have had a lot of buy-in from people who are in a position to help. Lone wolves have not fared as well.


  1. The obsession some have with promotion/relegation in this country baffles me at times.

    Its a wonderful thing in European leagues…and you can not beat the excitment of what happened this Sunday in England’s Premier League…but thats because their leagues go back 100 years.

    If given the choice … in 2011…for England to have a 92 team professional league with promotion and relegation between the leagues, or create a professional league of about 20 teams like most US sports leagues that have a closed shop I don’t think there is any doubt what they’d do. Good bye promotion and relegation. I think we’d find that most European countries would have set themselves up to be like US. In fact one reason the European Champions League was expanded to take on so many “none championship” teams was the fear of the G-14 breaking off from domestic leagues to form a European football league of the continents biggest clubs where there would have been just that no P/R. They would have scooped up all the big TV monies all over the world leaving the rest of the domestic leagues like most of the Euroepan domestic leagues are now below the top tier.

    Our country is over 3 time zones…5 if you count in Hawaii. Our biggest sports….football, baseball, basketball and hockey, wouldn’t work with a P/R system…not even the NFL… Soccer with a P/R system showed not to work in the USL, with some of the better teams dropping out due to travel, let alone interest. Seattle as a MLS team draws 36,000 a game. The same organization in USL drew about 3,000 a game. There’s not addtional monies from TV for a parachute payment like in England and teams in MLS could never maintian their current salaies for players in a lower league Once you have a “major” league business in this country, it could not sustain itself if it dropped into a lower league.

    As done in Europe, its intriging. In the US it would be a disaster.

  2. Consider how pro/rel came to be. The Football League grew to more teams than could reasonably play in one division, so they added a new division. The only way MLS would be able to do pro/rel would be to first grow to a groaning size like 24 or more teams, then break teams up into an A and B league with pro/rel between them. Adding pro/rel to other existing lower level leagues would never work. But even the way I suggest, would bankrupt some teams unless the overall financial status of the league and teams were a lot closer to the NFL, MLB, NBA level.

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