MLS, the NASL, USL, Armageddon and fuzzy memories

My post today at SoccerWire asks a provocative question: Is North American pro soccer headed toward Armageddon?

“No, probably not” is a reasonable answer, but I humbly suggest the post is worth reading anyway. Pro soccer (and I’ll clarify: in this case, I’m just talking about men) has a lot of moving parts at the moment. The lower divisions are in their usual state of upheaval, this time with two entities going head-to-head with contrasting visions, and MLS is clinging to the remnants of its 1996 business model in a way that might leave it weaker. And I didn’t even mention indoor soccer, which has had some interesting characters this year, or the new iteration of the American Soccer League.

But all of these entities have been polite, more or less. This is not the open warfare of the “Soccer War” of the 1920s, where leagues and the federation were trying to bring each other to heel. Everyone says the U.S. soccer pie is big enough for everyone to share. And they might be right.

To show how these semi-competing entities could work, let’s rewind 15-20 years:

In the mid-90s, I was a Carolina Dynamo fan. My favorite player was Yari Allnutt, one of the few players you’ll ever see who can get away with a deft flick past his own ear at the top of the box and a mid-game mini-speech to the crowd to get them more involved. They also had a few bruisers, most notably Scott Schweitzer. He played alongside Tommy Tanner and Curt Johnson, still names to know in the pro soccer world, on an N.C. State team that would do all manner of evil off the ball. In a Dynamo game, Schweitzer once walked alongside an opponent leaving the scene of a nasty incident, then threw himself to the ground as if he had been punched in the face. Good times.

When the Dynamo dropped out of the second-division A-League, Allnutt and Schweitzer joined the Rochester Rhinos and started alongside Tanner on the underdog team that won the 1999 U.S. Open Cup — the last non-MLS side to do so.

A year later, the Rhinos were less fortunate in the Open Cup, losing early to D.C. United. I covered the game and went into the Rhinos locker room to chat with Allnutt and Schweitzer (neither of whom knew me, though I had introduced myself once to Allnutt). I asked Schweitzer why the talented, gritty players on the Rhinos weren’t playing in MLS.

He looked straight at me and wasted no time in answering: “Because MLS isn’t paying what we deserve.”

And MLS players had little leverage at that time. They couldn’t form a union while a suit filed by players in 1997 was slowly working its way through the courts.

So the second division at that time worked pretty well to keep MLS on its toes. They had backed away from the notion of A-League teams being MLS affiliates — Allnutt was called up to Kansas City in 1996 and scored one goal in 45 minutes of action. They were scoring a few wins over MLS clubs in the Open Cup, and Rochester was averaging more than 10,000 fans a game.

It didn’t last. From a height of 30 teams in the late 90s, the A-League dwindled to 16 teams in 2004. The league still had some talent — top players included former MLS All-Stars Alex Pineda Chacon and Dante Washington, along with a young forward named Alan Gordon. But a lot of teams either self-relegated or folded.

Renamed the USL First Division, the league started to get swamped by MLS expansion, which swallowed up Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal. By then, ambitions were all over the place, and a split was inevitable.

Out of all this was born the NASL.

And to some extent, the NASL is now doing what the old A-League did — keep MLS teams on their toes. They would dearly love to follow the Rhinos’ footsteps and take the Open Cup. And if MLS teams fail to find a place for someone like Miguel Ibarra, an NASL team will be happy to take him.

Meanwhile, the USL and MLS have done something clever, essentially merging what was left of the USL’s pro ranks and the MLS Reserve League. Makes sense, right? More teams, fewer travel costs, and it’s common in other countries around the world (except England).

So all is well, right? Well …

First off, there is a bit of muddying of the waters in progress, and I’m not sure that is a good thing. And while the NASL has, by all accounts, a fine relationship with MLS, it’s not just the fans who are pushing it not just as a second division nipping at MLS’s heels but a viable alternative.

I spoke with Kartik Krishnaiyer, who worked for the NASL for a couple of years. He saw a change in the league’s approach: “I think everything changed at NASL the day the Cosmos
joined. We went from being focused on stabilizing second division, something badly needed in the domestic game, to suddenly thinking we were in the same league as MLS. When Bill Peterson took over as Commissioner, the attitude became hardened about ‘the other guys’ and the hostility became more overt.”

And with USL’s latest rebranding, we may have national leagues competing head-to-head as “Division II” leagues. NASL and USL are already competing in several senses — this move would just formalize things.

It’s a little strange to see so much interest in divisional sanctions. Peterson says “divisions” don’t really make sense in a country without (UPDATE: corrected from “with”) promotion and relegation, and he has a point. That said, even a cursory glance at the rosters, facilities and attendance of the three USSF-sanctioned leagues would tell you which belongs to which divisions.

At least, it will, as long as MLS doesn’t get complacent. Which leads to this point …

Second, having a second division (or another league) keeping MLS on its toes only works if MLS reacts. But they’re digging in on free agency, saying clubs won’t bid against each other, even as the “haves and have nots” feud in public about Designated Player contracts.

Let’s be clear — NASL hard-cores are some of the most tedious people on social media. You say “business plan designed to bring stability to North American soccer at long last,” they say “conspiracy designed to make NFL owners even richer.” In the name of traditional soccer, they’ve hitched their wagon to a new-ish league that revived the brand of the least traditional soccer league that ever played (not counting any League One America exhibitions). The old NASL had shootouts, a bonus point for each of the first three goals a team scored, Bugs Bunny, and artificial turf that makes today’s FieldTurf look like Wembley Stadium after two weeks of ideal grass-prepping weather. But they at least say they’d like to start the discussion on promotion and relegation.

Notice that we don’t see a lot of concrete proposals on pro/rel. Certainly not while they’re pushing for stadiums to be built. Might not want to tell a stadium investor that the club might be in the third division, and not just because U.S. Soccer said so.

So to wrap up this ramble: The three-league system should work. The NASL can play the role the A-League used to play, picking off players that MLS clubs have undervalued and gunning for upsets in the Open Cup, all the while forcing MLS to make smart decisions and perhaps even spend a bit of money on players. The USL can expand pro soccer’s footprint and give fans in towns like Wilmington (my former home!) a few games against those hotshot reserves from MLS clubs.

But this triangle, like any love triangle in a soap opera, has the potential to get messy.

(And I’m going to have another proposal for revamping the whole system later in the week. I apparently enjoy spitting into the wind.)

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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