The United States is, in addition to all the things mentioned in my soccer culture post, a nation of tinkerers. We want to fix things or improve them.
That’s not to say Europe is bereft of innovation — they’ve certainly done a better job of, say, integrating alternative power sources. But when it comes to sports, we’re far more likely to take things that already work and rethink them. The NFL changes rules more often than I shop for shoes. Wake up an NHL fan who was cryogenically frozen in 2002, and he or she might not make sense of the standings.
In soccer, we’ve often been a laboratory — sometimes with FIFA’s assistance or insistence, sometimes not. Shootouts. Bonus points. For old-time USL/USISL fans, the blue card.
These days, all our ideas veer toward the more traditional. Shootouts are gone. Overtime is gone. As much as I would love to see what League One America rules look like in action, it’s not going to happen. We debate single table and single entity, and we even the occasional promotion/relegation idea that’s nearly workable. (It just needs some way to even things out between clubs that made megamillion investments and those who would play their way in. I’m not a big fan of giant expansion fees, either, but you do have to consider that we’re trying to build the same infrastructure in 20 years that has been built in other countries — where soccer is the dominant sport — over a century or more.)
So here’s an idea borrowed from Brazil with a bit of a twist to solve a couple of uniquely North American problems …
Regional leagues running part of the year.
In Brazil, clubs play in state leagues for the first few months of the year before shifting to national competition. The state pyramids and the national pyramid are mostly separate — a team could theoretically be in the first division nationally and a lower division in its state league. (I can’t find a current example, though.)
The climate in the USA and Canada won’t let us play year-round as they do in Brazil. A regional league in the spring and national leagues (MLS, NASL, USL) in the summer and fall won’t leave enough time.
But we have an interesting window for regional leagues — the international break that we currently aren’t taking in MLS.
This year, CONCACAF’s Gold Cup runs through most of July. National teams will assemble a couple of weeks before that, so figure on about a five-week window. MLS will muddle through without its CONCACAF internationals. In other years, we have the World Cup or the upcoming pan-American Copa America. (Yes, I know the winter Qatar World Cup will mess everything up, but let’s ignore that for the moment.)
During that stretch, suppose we suspended the national leagues and played regional leagues?
And yes, I’m talking about leagues with promotion/relegation. Why not? These leagues wouldn’t affect the structure of MLS. A club with a 5,000-seat stadium that couldn’t play in MLS could still compete with MLS clubs in a short regional league system.
So we solve several problems:
1. MLS finally gets a full international break.
2. Players who aren’t on international duty get to keep playing.
3. Stadiums still get meaningful games, and not just the one-offs of the Open Cup. (Incidentally, this is the year an NASL club wins the Open Cup. MLS teams will be weakened for the fifth round and quarterfinals, and it’s clear the NASL really wants that trophy.)
4. Lower-division teams get to test themselves against the big pro clubs, albeit weakened versions of those clubs. They should be able to sell a few tickets for those games, too.
5. “Summer league” teams in the PDL and NPSL get more interesting competition.
6. Pro/rel fans get to see pro/rel leagues. Maybe it’ll open the door for national pro/rel down the road, maybe not.
Five weeks doesn’t give us a lot of time, so we’re probably talking about four teams playing a double round-robin or maybe seven teams playing a single round-robin.
A couple of sample leagues with the initial divisional setup (based mostly on last year’s standings, so I haven’t verified to see if all these clubs … you know … still exist):
Division 1: Dallas (MLS), Houston (MLS), San Antonio (NASL), Oklahoma City (USL)
Division 2: Austin (PDL), Laredo (PDL), Tulsa (NPSL), Oklahoma City (NPSL)
Division 3: Corinthians San Antonio (NPSL), Dallas City (NPSL), Midland/Odessa (PDL), Houston Dutch Lions (PDL)
Division 4: NTX Rayados (USASA), Liverpool Warriors (NPSL), Fort Worth (NPSL), Houston Regals SCA (NPSL)
Division 1: Portland (MLS), Seattle (MLS), Vancouver (MLS), Edmonton (NASL)
Division 2: Kitsap (PDL), Victoria (PDL), Washington (PDL), Tacoma (NPSL)
Division 3: North Sound (PDL), Spartans (NPSL), Khalsa (PCSL), USASA team
Division 1: D.C. United (MLS), Philadelphia (MLS), Carolina (NASL), Richmond (USL)
Division 2: Harrisburg (USL), Baltimore (PDL), Reading (PDL), Carolina (PDL)
Division 3: King’s Warriors (PDL), Gate City (NPSL), Virginia Beach (NPSL), Maryland Bays (USASA)
I’m not sure about including reserve teams here, given the already-weakened senior squads. If they play, I’d limit them to Division 3 or lower.
Within a couple of years, maybe we’d see some amateur teams establish themselves in D2. Maybe an MLS coach will be grousing about relegation to D2, and we’ll all yell at that guy to win a few games and get back up.
Maybe it’s a crazy idea. But if there’s a negative other than giving up a couple of MLS games when the teams are missing their internationals, I don’t see it.