Do U.S. Soccer’s divisional standards make any sense?

Or, to rephrase, are they necessary?

Northern Pitch, an essential soccer blog you should all add to Feedly or Twitter notifications or whatever you use to keep track of things, has a good take on The Broken Logic of USSF’s League RulesThe Northern Pitch folks are in Minnesota with one foot in the NASL and one in MLS, so they have a good perspective on such things.

So, of course, I feel compelled to be nit-picky …

First, the history.

In 2009-2010, the USL–at that time the 2nd division–experienced a schism: owners who wanted to spend more and up the level of the league broke off and formed what would become the NASL. USSF tried to make the two leagues play nice for 2010, but that didn’t last long.

I’d argue that USSF wasn’t trying to make them “play nice” as much as they were “trying to keep these clubs in existence.” Neither the NASL group or the USL group had a critical mass that could sustain a league. USSF, in what you might call a rare bit of common-sense intervention, banded them together for a special edition, one-time only D2 league.

Again, that’s nit-picky and not even all that relevant. The more important part of the history: USSF then unleashed a comprehensive set of standards designed to keep the riff-raff out of pro soccer so we wouldn’t have a revolving door of uncapitalized clubs coming and folding. (If you’re of a certain ilk, you might find such standards an important part of this complete conspiracy theory against promotion and relegation, but in reality, these standards have stabilized things. So well, in fact, that now people really think we can have promotion and relegation sometime soon. See, Alanis? Irony is everywhere.)

But the USSF has decided to upgrade these standards. And they’re run into some pushback, both illegitimate and legitimate.

The NASL has pushed back by unleashing sports lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, last seen in soccer circles drawing the ire of the court by trying to muddy everyone’s understanding of the English league structure, to fire off a nasty note. That’s a bit like bringing in Miley Cyrus to lend credibility to your jazz/prog fusion band — it ain’t gonna work, and it’s surely costing a lot of money.

The Northern Pitch argument is much stronger. Raising the population threshold for 75% of your league to metropolitan areas of 2 million would make a soccer league think twice about going to Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City or other places that easily support major sports teams already. (Charlotte, though, is over 2 million, according to Census estimates.)

And that’s where the USSF looks like it’s just being officious.

It’s not that USSF should ignore population size in its criteria — as one astute commenter points out, market shares are important for TV, and TV may be just as important to long-term league survival as the deep pockets upon which these criteria insist.

But 2 million? Really?

Here’s another argument from former NASL PR man Kartik Krishnaiyer: He asks why we need such divisional designations at all.

And perhaps we don’t. The trick, though, is that we need to apply some sort of criteria, and it’s only sensible to apply different standards to an MLS club than to the Wilmington Hammerheads. (I always use them as an example because I’m still in wonder over the continued existence of professional soccer in the town where I spent my first three years out of college.)

I frankly don’t care what divisional designation the NASL has, and like another astute commenter at Northern Pitch (wow, these guys are lucky), I don’t think the NASL suddenly takes off if the USSF calls it D1. MLS has a pretty big head start.

And I hate to argue with Peter Wilt, who’s a big fan of the folklore of competing sports leagues in other U.S. sports, but I’m not sure I see the NASL being able to offer anything to distinguish itself from MLS. The ABA, AFL and so forth offered up different rules. Can’t do that in the NASL — not without alienating the “everything must be just like Europe!” fan base it apparently covets.

To me, the NASL’s best bet is either (A) start its own pro/rel pyramid and force the issue, as I’ve said a million times before, or (B) just focus on bringing quality soccer to markets MLS isn’t in. (Yes, I still miss my days as the one-man supporters section at Carolina Dynamo A-League games.)

Nor do I find it particularly unfair that the USSF is raising the standards. That’s because I simply don’t know of another federation that is under the obligation to smooth the path for a second D1 league. If I go to England and say I want to form another league system — and I’ll even open it to promotion/relegation through as many tiers as we can, based on how many clubs sign up with me — could I sue the FA if they put up any hurdles to me calling my leagues “Division 1, Division 2, Division 3”?

Now that would confuse the jury from the old MLS lawsuit, wouldn’t it?


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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.

2 thoughts on “Do U.S. Soccer’s divisional standards make any sense?”

  1. This is great, Beau. I need to think about some of this more, but my first take is this:
    where I start from is cleaning the slate–what is USSF’s role? To grow the sport. It does that best by promoting stable, healthy, growing businesses: teams and leagues.
    You say that USSF’s role isn’t to smooth the path for another D1 league, but this is the opposite of that. This is making it more difficult to be D1 for NASL, which certainly should not be their goal.
    The fact is that the divisions are arbitrary. The goal should be that even in D3 we have top quality outfits, that even in Wilmington, NC we have a 10k+ person SSS. But these regulations make it doubly difficult on NASL. They force NASL to focus on bigger markets (somewhere home to an owner with $40M), but they put the minor league label on them, making it more difficult to sell sponsorships and get stadiums built.
    So separate this conversation from the NASL wants to be D1 conversation. The regulations as is are counter to the principle of growing soccer. Changing them even further increases the rock and the hard spot that NASL is in.
    I think that most people should just admit that their dislike of Bill Peterson and NASL is bigger than their desire for a healthy soccer landscape.

  2. But here’s a question, just to play devil’s advocate: How many leagues? Would we have more stable, healthy, growing businesses with multiple D1s or just one?

    I feel pretty strongly that if USSF had just decided back in 1993, “Yeah, this Rothenberg thing and the APSL are both OK. Go ahead and fight it out,” the odds are survival would have diminished greatly.

    If we had a second D1 league today, would that push MLS to improve or prevent it? Would new NASL investors come from MLS, leaving both leagues weaker than today’s MLS?

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