If you read all my tweets and replies on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve eased up a bit on ignoring the crowd that pushes for promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer. It’s intentional. I think we’re starting to see some ideas that go beyond shouting anti-MLS slogans. And given the scarcity of MLS content I’m writing these days, it’s almost like tripping down Memory Lane, like going back to a high school reunion and chatting amiably with the guy who was a total jerk and bully the whole time.
Wait a minute. Scratch that. That guy still doesn’t get it. Hope he gags on the hors d’oeuvres.
And that’s kind of how it is in the pro/rel world. Today’s conversation was a perfect demonstration.
Start with this intriguing story:
So the NPSL, the mostly amateur league that shares unofficial fourth division status with the PDL and recently drew more than 18,000 fans for its final in Chattanooga, would work something out with the NASL, which has long (well, at least in Bill Peterson’s tenure) made noises about wanting promotion/relegation in U.S. soccer.
Easier said than done, of course. The NPSL uses mostly young amateur players, many of them in college. So most of their teams are bound by NCAA restrictions on how they can assemble their teams, maintaining amateur status, and wrapping up the season early so kids can dash back to their college teams for preseason. Then you add U.S. Soccer’s onerous second-division standards (one owner has to have $20 million, which has always struck me as absurd), and you can see a few hurdles.
But if you really want to see promotion/relegation make the transition from “hot-button Internet cult shoutfest issue” to “something that might actually happen,” you’d think this would be good news. And so, consistent with what I’ve said earlier about the best path to pro/rel being a strong NASL forcing a merger, I said the following:
I even went back and dug up my own pro/rel plan:
And so we all joined hands, sang a few songs of praise, and talked about the details of what a future U.S. pro landscape might look like.
Oh, wait. No, we didn’t.
One hint of the problem was a tweet that came in just as I was writing mine:
And indeed, the man who has devoted the last 6-8 years of his life tweeting about pro/rel fantasies was not happy with a proposal to actually talk about actually doing it.
(That said, the NASL tossed cold water on this idea itself:)
But to be fair, he has long insisted that leagues shouldn’t go it alone, and that the federation should drive it. I don’t see why, personally, but he is indeed consistent.
And so is the vitriol I received from elsewhere:
When I have my midlife crisis and form a Husker Du cover band, I might call it “Antiquated Zealotry.”
(And yes, I made a typo. At this point, I was tweeting about as quickly as I could type. That’s not good.)
So he’s not reading what I’m tweeting, he surely didn’t notice that the last substantial piece I wrote about MLS was ripping the league for its stance in collective bargaining, and yet he feels he can sum up my opinions. OK.
Yeah, he clearly skipped my proposal on Brazilian-style state leagues. And my tweet on the NASL/NPSL thing.
I get all this flack from the pro/rel crowd for a few reasons. First, I’ve pointed out a few inconvenient truths on the matter:
1. Soccer was an ignored and often despised sport in this country through much of the 20th century, giving the rest of the world a bit of a head start. Read Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism or the definitive U.S. soccer history Soccer in a Football World for the full story.
2. The people willing to take the risk to do professional soccer at a strong but sustainable level had to appeal to investors by minimizing risk (I wrote a book that mentions all this, a bit), hence the “single entity” system and cost containment.
3. More investors have bought into MLS with the implicit understanding that they are buying into the USA’s first-division league.
4. Many investors have bought into lower-division leagues with the implicit understanding that they’re aren’t going to jump up to a Division I or Division II budget if they win too many games.
5. Promotion/relegation would be cool, but it’s not necessary. Barcelona isn’t Barcelona because they fear relegation. They fear losing the championship to Real Madrid. As they should. Real Madrid is the club of the old corrupt monarchy. But that’s another rant.
And so on — see all the previous posts.
Second, I have actually engaged with a lot of these people and continue to do so even as most journalists — you might say the saner, more intelligent journalists — have cut off contact.
(I once had someone tell me I should take it as a compliment that these folks go after me instead of Big Name Journalist X because they find me a lot smarter and better than Big Name Journalist X. I’m really not. I just have bad compulsive behavior, as illustrated here:)
But let’s get back to today’s conversation, summing up as follows:
Me: “Hey, neat promotion/relegation idea.”
Them: “Shut up, you MLSbot antiquated zealot turnip walnut.”
The underlying lesson from this conversation:
There is no pleasing the promotion/relegation zealots.
You might say it’s just me, and no matter how many schemes I put forward, no matter how many times I say I really could see the NASL building up with a pyramid that forces a merger with MLS down the road, they won’t listen.
But no. It’s not just me.
These are the people who have to be different. They have to feel superior. They’re the ones who saw R.E.M. have hit songs and make real videos and smirked, “They’ve sold out.” They’re the ones who only like the U.K. version of The Office — not that they’ve ever seen any of the U.S. episodes past Season 1.
Their greatest fear is that someone will do exactly what they want. Because then they’d have to find another cause.
Like Jason Street when he was paralyzed or Tim Riggins when he finished school, they would lose their identity.
And that identity is more important to them than the cause itself.
They know we aren’t likely to see MLS integrated into a promotion/relegation system for all the reason I’ve listed above and more. So they’re safe.
And that’s why, even as we see occasional glimmers of reason in the national pro/rel discussion, we’re a long, long way from any of this being taken seriously.