Well, it helped that in the first part, he talked about promotion/relegation, the concept that governs most soccer leagues (and other leagues) worldwide, including a lot of U.S. amateur leagues. (I still don’t know whether my indoor team was relegated last season.)
Dan Loney responded with the blog post “Not a Sane League.” That brought out the usual mix of people with an interest in promotion/relegation — some well-intended dreamers who are curious to see if it could work here, plus the people who think promotion/relegation has been kept down by an evil mix of MLS executives, journalists paid off with access or possibly money, and possibly the NSA. I don’t know — I’ve lost track.
That led to the epic Twitter match between Loney and the leader of the accusatory gang. It was mostly off-track, centering on the assertion that the U.S. soccer community has covered up a colorful history in which the old ASL was bigger than American football. Loney showed evidence to show otherwise and demanded that his combatant defend his point, which he completely failed to do.
All of this demonstrates two seemingly contradictory things:
1. There are a handful of somewhat reasonable and capitalized people who think promotion/relegation may be possible in our lifetimes.
2. The people who make the most noise about promotion/relegation online make it really difficult to have a reasonable discussion about it.
For those who are new to the discussion, welcome. Please allow me to bring you up to speed. Read this post for some prior talks, and then please consider the following:
1. Bids for Division I sanctioning were taken in 1993. I have done a fair amount of research on this period for my book and out of curiosity. I know of no effort to have promotion/relegation at that time.
I do, however, know of a bid that had multiple-point scoring like indoor soccer on steroids, and it would have limited players to specific zones and then shuffle them around between periods. This is where soccer stood in the USA in 1993.
2. MLS owners have sunk billions of dollars into this league as it stands now. Municipalities have helped MLS teams build stadiums. The team values and revenue projections that convinced them all to invest in this are predicated on the notion of being in the first division. Many of these investments have been made in the past 10 years — in 2002, the league was down to three owners and had few facilities. People tend to get angry, maybe even litigious, when you get them to pony up tons of capital and then change the rules.
So if you plan to take over USSF and force leagues to have promotion/relegation, bring the lawyers.
3. I have spoken with many team owners and officials in lower divisions. Many of them have relegated themselves. Many owners prefer to play in the fourth-tier PDL than the third-tier USL PRO or second-tier NASL. Why? It costs a whole lot less.
A couple of organizations — Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, perhaps Orlando down the road — have made the leap from lower divisions to MLS. They did so over the course of a few years. They brought in owners with deep pockets. They worked out stadium deals. They built up a front office staff. These are not things you do in three months.
4. Promotion/relegation developed in other countries when they had too many teams for one division. In England, the Football League went through its early years occasionally kicking out and adding a new team or two, but a second division wasn’t added until it merged with the Football Alliance. In England and many other countries, leagues developed after clubs had already built their names through Cup competitions.
5. Soccer history in this country has not been ignored as part of a conspiracy to … um … I don’t know exactly how this conspiracy is supposed to work. Seems to have something to do with trying to make people think nothing existed before MLS. Strange argument to make when a bunch of MLS teams are named after their NASL predecessors, or when U.S. Soccer is devoting a lot of resources toward celebrating its centennial this year. (Bill Clinton wrote the preface to the book, so if you like broadening your conspiracy theories, you can now include Whitewater.) Personally, the only reason I don’t often wear my Fall River Marksmen shirt (from Bumpy Pitch) more often is that I’m fat and I don’t fit into it that well.
Several people have made extraordinary efforts to keep U.S. soccer history alive through many dark decades. It’s not as if the NASL of the 70s paid tribute to the ASL of the 20s and 30s. We needed the efforts of Colin Jose, Roger Allaway, Sam Foulds, Jack Huckel, David Litterer and David Wangerin to bring it all to life, even as the National Soccer Hall of Fame ran out of money. (This was all summed up in a terrific story this week.)
The main lesson that can be drawn from those histories: Soccer has had a couple of opportunities to gain a firm foothold in the USA, and it fell apart through in-fighting over petty crap. Kind of like we could end up doing now if we try to upend 20 years of progress in pro soccer.
6. This might be the most important point: There is no evidence whatsoever that a lack of promotion/relegation is what’s holding back pro soccer in the United States.
The point gets muddied here because promotion/relegation is sometimes considered part of an “open system” in which clubs are free to spend what they want. That’s what we see in Europe, though “Financial Fair Play” rules may introduce some limits, and Germany’s Bundesliga is having tremendous success while refusing to break the bank.
But most soccer owners in the USA in recent years have set out to minimize risk. The NWSL, USL, NPSL, WPSL and APS are designed to keep costs down, and they’re not running the risk of losing revenue by being kicked down the pyramid against their will. That’s why MLS had such rigid cost-containment rules for its first decade and change. Only now, in the post-Beckham era, is that starting to change.
If you’re looking for the NASL to change all that, you may be disappointed. For all the bluster of the New York Cosmos and the lack of an official salary cap at the moment, they aren’t spending crazy money. I’ve been told by an insider (anonymous source alert, though maybe he’ll step forward) that the NASL is operating with “less risk, lower operating costs.”
Meanwhile, MLS is spending with confidence — on stadiums, on youth academies, on players like Clint Dempsey. And the league has managed to do so even as the explosion of cable and new media has made it possible for U.S. fans to see every English/Welsh Premier League game (I plan to make “Ew-pull” stick) and every trick Lionel Messi has at his feet.
Would an “open system” help U.S. (and Canadian) teams develop into superclubs that can hold their own with the Man Uniteds and the Barcelonas of the world? Maybe when MLS and NASL owners have seen enough returns on their investments that they’re willing to risk spending more and seeing their teams relegated. The best-case scenario for the NASL, which is probably not the most probable scenario, is that the league thrives to the point at which it, too, meets the criteria for a Division 1 league. And then — maybe — we could talk about merging MLS and the NASL as the Football League and Football Alliance did in England.
Is that likely? Probably not.
But it’s more likely than creating a thriving U.S. league system by taking over U.S. Soccer and starting an “open system” from scratch or trying to force existing leagues to abide by drastically different rules.
And by pointing this out, I’m part of the conspiracy. And I’ll surely attract obnoxious comments. I’d encourage people to ignore those comments and relish the fact that, this weekend, you can see European games on several networks and then check out your local MLS, NWSL, NASL or USL team. If you’re over age 25, you remember when soccer was something that barely existed above the college level, and you have to marvel at the progress.
Simply put: There’s never been a better time to be a soccer fan in North America. And it’s all been done without telling people who step up to risk their money that they need to take risks that are even less likely to pay off than the ones they’re already taking.