Predictably, Soccerocalypse has brought out the usual arguments from the promotion/relegation crowd:
Youth development will be so much better!
Players will be under constant pressure!
If anyone could turn their attention away from Twitter long enough to read something longer than 280 characters at a time, they would have seen this addressed in the pro/rel series — both pros (and alleged pros) and cons.
The short versions:
Youth development: European clubs that have good academies have them so they can sell players (and yes, solidarity payments/training compensation is a legitimate issue with legal potholes I can’t fully comprehend). Chelsea’s inability to develop a first-team player from within is legendary, just one example of a “broken” academy system in the birthplace of soccer.
MLS has actually made progress in youth development because its clubs know they can avoid the boom and bust of pro/rel. They feel confident spending millions to create what wasn’t there before. Then they have a pathway, via their oft-derided relationship with USL, to send promising 17-year-old players to the first team via the USL bridge.
And then MLS teams can play their youngsters because they know they’re not going to be relegated. That’s one reason why MLS has developed so many players who turn around and beat the USA in CONCACAF. (I have heard arguments that MLS needs to impose stricter limits on international players. Then I’ve heard arguments saying MLS needs to spend more on international players to raise the level so that any U.S. players who make that first team will be more appropriately challenged.)
Pressure: Yes, we know. Someone in a German locker room threw a shoe at Eric Wynalda.
First of all, the idea that you’re “playing for your job” at every training session in Europe but not in MLS is inflated. European clubs aren’t going to cut people mid-contract. You can lose a starting spot, sure, and then you can regain it the next week. That’s not unique. If you want to see job insecurity, watch the NFL, where a kicker can miss once or twice on Sunday and be unemployed on Monday.
Second: Bobby Warshaw tells a different story of playing for a relegation-threatened team. His teammates in Scandinavia all just wanted to wash their hands of it and be gone.
And it’s not as if pressure always makes diamonds. Sometimes, it makes dust. In this clip, Woody Harrelson is Trinidad and Tobago. Wesley Snipes is the USA.
The USA didn’t lose because the media and supporters are too nice to them. They played tense. Cautious. Trinidad and Tobago did not.
After Prince died, Saturday Night Live ran a tribute. Jimmy Fallon told a story of being at a party where he was on stage wondering if he could get Prince to come up and play. Then he saw the crowd parting and Prince basically floating to the stage. Prince came up to Fallon and gave him a look that said, “Yeah, I got this.”
That’s what the USA needed. Not overconfidence. But that sweet spot between confidence and complacency in which they say, “I got this.” Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the same CONCACAF wars (or relegation battles — see Altidore, Jozy) as his teammates, played with that attitude.
But let’s say there’s a benefit to playing in a league that’s more intense than MLS — though, if you were ever in a locker room with Taylor Twellman or Dom Kinnear after a game, you know things can get pretty intense. Why is Germany more intense than the USA? Why is Germany more intense than Scandinavia?
It’s because Germany has a deeper soccer culture.
Same reason Mexico and the big Euro leagues are more intense than MLS or Scandinavia. For all the progress made in the USA since Paul Caligiuri took a wild shot in Trinidad in 1989, this country is still a good bit behind everyone else. Youth soccer participation plateaued and then started dropping, and while a lot of those kids turn up wearing Messi or Rooney jerseys, a lot more never watch soccer on TV or in person.
So if you want to make a good argument for promotion/relegation, try this:
Pro/rel will help deepen the soccer culture in this country.
And I believe that. Most of what I’m saying here on pro/rel is the same stuff I’ve been saying for 15 years, no matter how much it’s been misrepresented by the PRZ on Twitter. But this is an argument that I can’t remember hearing before. Maybe some people made it, but it was drowned out in all the “PRO/REL WILL OBVIOUSLY MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER BUT MLS/SUM/USSF/STEVE BANNON ARE CONSPIRING TO KEEP THE NFL BIG” nonsense.
This is your argument. This is something you can present to people who have money on the table — not the Monopoly money Silva and company threw at MLS so they could create the narrative that MLS turned down a gazillion bucks to institute pro/rel now.
Is it enough? I don’t know. The other realities still exist. We have a Division I soccer league now where we didn’t in 1992, and it’s because people were enticed to invest in a scheme that reduced the risk from “might as well burn your money” to “there’s a small chance this might work.” If you’d told people in 1992 we’d have a soccer league that consistently drew 40,000 people in Atlanta and Seattle, people would’ve laughed at you. (Especially Atlanta. I grew up in Georgia, and I’m astounded.)
But if the pro/rel crowd is willing to drop the nonsense, along with the conspiracy talk and nonsensical legal actions, maybe there’s a chance to win the argument.
If I were elected USSF president (no, I’m not running — there’s a reason a lot of sane, qualified people from Peter Wilt to Julie Foudy aren’t interested), I’d do the following:
Divisions 2 and 3 go pro/rel next year. I’m torn on whether the USL brand name should stay. The NASL brand name should not. It has a history of incompetence, and even the glory days of the late 70s were built on non-traditional glitzy Americanized soccer. Besides, given the existence of Mexico, the “North American” part of the brand name never rang true. Keep the clubs — to start, put the clubs on the soundest financial foundation in D2 and the others in D3.
Division 4 becomes the top amateur division (semipro clubs are allowed to compete, but it’ll be mostly amateur, as these leagues are now) for the top tiers of the major amateur leagues — PDL, NPSL, UPSL, Cosmopolitan, GCPL, other USASA Elite Amateur Leagues. Clubs that finish in the top three of these leagues can apply for D3 status — for the foreseeable future, only a few clubs will do that. (At this point, I don’t think we can or should relegate clubs from pro D3 to amateur D4. If D3 gets too big, start a pro D4, more or less mimicking what England has recently done with its fifth tier.) Have a D4 national championship if it’s feasible, replacing some of the existing and sort of redundant national amateur cups.
Two reasons to this. First, it’ll make the lower divisions much more interesting.
And it just might demonstrate to the powers- and purseholders-that-be that there’s a benefit to expanding the pyramid and building a soccer culture.
Or, you know, just yell and scream and sue. That’s working so far, right? And competition between uncooperative leagues worked so well that we’re about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ASL, right?
“That’s right, folks! Step right up and get your miracle elixir! Cures everything from chronic flatulence to an inability to qualify for the World Cup or Olympics from CONCACAF!”
Doesn’t work that way. The problems have deeper roots. A dash of snake oil isn’t going to make the U.S. men’s team (or women’s, which has some similar issues and some very different) magically better.
Among the pet programs that won’t make the USA follow France’s path from qualifying failure to World Cup champion in four years:
Ramping up “pressure”: Consider how Trinidad and Tobago played in their cozy, bumpy stadium with the soothing hum of generators or pumps or whatever created what little “atmosphere” existed last night. They were loose. They were having fun. Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the battles of his teammates, played with any flair to match what the home side brought to the marshland of Ato Boldon Stadium.
If anything, the U.S. players seemed too tightly wound. Michael Bradley, the captain, was raised in a family that lives for competitive pressure. Jozy Altidore has dealt with the wrath of the global soccer media in the midst of a relegation fight, and yet he was probably a lot better before all that, back in the 2009 Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifying that year.
Which brings us to this …
Promotion/relegation: I dealt with this in the pro/rel series. Pro/rel doesn’t magically turn every club into Barcelona. It doesn’t make clubs run awesome academies — in fact, you might end up with some major gaps as major cities’ clubs lose Division 1 status and have to cut funding.
And can we cut the nonsense that players in MLS clubs aren’t playing for their jobs? North America is littered with MLS washouts. (Some of whom turn around and score against the USA in CONCACAF play.)
Dismantling MLS: The league needs improvement, sure. But it’s worth noting that the goals that eliminated the USA — from Panama and Honduras — came from guys with plenty of MLS experience.
Costa Rica is going back to the World Cup. MLS players scored 11 of their 14 goals in the Hexagonal.
And the oft-derided MLS-USL partnership has created an alternate pathway to the oft-derided college game. Go to an MLS academy. If you’re ready to go pro at age 17 or 18 but not quite ready for the first team, play for the reserves in USL. Then up to MLS.
Clubs have made these investments because they’re financially secure. They feel confident that they’ll be in the top division for the foreseeable future. Any change to that structure needs to be made very carefully.
Let’s put it this way: If you dismantle MLS, you’re also dismantling most of the free academies that exist in this country. How is that supposed to help?
Having the “passion” to hurl rotten fruit at players when they return: Sure, let’s make the notion of being a professional and international soccer player less attractive in a country that has a ton of sports options. That’ll work.
Along those lines …
Telling people how to live their lives: Remember when everyone was telling Landon Donovan to abandon his family and move to Europe for our own satisfaction?
Two issues with that:
That’s not going to inspire future athletes to devote themselves to soccer and international play.
Couldn’t the U.S. men have used a Landon Donovan last night, no matter how many years he spent in MLS instead of the Bundesliga?
Hiring a savior: One guy isn’t going to turn around the men’s national team, let alone change the entire culture in this country. Jurgen Klinsmann had no idea how to change youth soccer other than the vague imposition of things he knew as a child in Germany.
The people working to change the culture are working at the U.S. Soccer Foundation (different from the federation) and other organizations trying to make the sport more accessible.
Turning the sport into a job for which only the elites may apply: Eastern Europe in the Cold War had a bunch of sports machines that culled the top sports talent at an early age and herded them into camps. Brazil and other countries thrive on street soccer. Which group has had more success?
Reading too much into one World Cup, either 2002 or 2018: Was Bruce Arena a genius in 2002? Somewhat, but it helped that Portugal collapsed and the ref didn’t notice John O’Brien’s handball against Mexico. Was he suddenly an idiot in 2018? Somewhat, but it helped that Panama scored a phantom goal and Honduras (and T&T) got a couple of flukes.
Wins amplify good decisions. Losses amplify bad ones.
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Here’s what WILL help:
“Incremental changes at multiple levels”:
We all have our sacred cows that we believe is the solution. But, it’s not. It will take incremental changes at multiple levels. pic.twitter.com/gbGdv6ftKq
Reducing the “travel” in travel soccer: Even if you have tons of scholarship money, explain to me how a kid with two working parents who don’t control their own schedule are going to get that kid to every practice and game all over a five-state region?
Related to that …
Ending the turf wars: We have an arms race. Club A is in the Development Academy, so Club B has to be in the ECNL. Then Club C has to travel to multiple showcases everywhere from Disney World to that massive soccerplex in Indiana that’s hosting everything these days.
Remembering that we’re still competing for players and fans: Quit telling 9-year-olds that the stuff they’re doing now will pay off when they’re 16-year-old pros. Quit pretending we can drive people out of the sport as children and expect them to be paying customers when they grow up.
If soccer was so deeply ingrained in the USA that we would put up with all this, fine. The truth is that we’re still fighting attitudes like this:
Run around for 90 minutes. Flop when barely touched. Score 1 goal at most. Do I got it? 😉
And that is a Democratic Congressman. His voters surely include a lot of immigrants and a lot of soccer fans. And yet he feels secure in bashing soccer. In 2017.
Education: I’ve had the chance to see more than 100 paid coaches at the U9-U12 level. Maybe 20 of them are people I’d be happy to have coaching my kids. Another 20 or so seemed OK. The rest are screamers, joystick coaches and assorted cretins.
I’ve also worked with about 100 parent coaches. Some of them are trying to learn what they can and apply what they’ve learned. Some can’t be bothered to do the two-hour online F license.
Listen: Everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. Not just on Twitter. Also in Chicago, where the most basic questions about the Development Academy or anything else get brushed off and ridiculed.
The USA has a lot of smart people. Not just one, not just a small group. And as Steve Gans found on his “listening tour” before declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Soccer presidency, they’re not being heard.
Maybe we should all do a listening tour.
And then keep some perspective. No one died here. That’s happening in Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. We’re talking about a sport, one in which the better team doesn’t always win. The USA probably wasn’t one of the top eight teams in 2002, and they probably aren’t outside the top 32 right now.
Let’s not set up an East German-style sports machine. Let’s not take the fun out of this sport and assume good athletes are going to want to play anyway.
Embrace diversity — in all senses. Embrace accessibility. Calm down and think.
And then we can do the same thing next year when the women don’t qualify for France 2019.
Now it’s time to read about why promotion/relegation can be a bad idea.
Yes, promotion/relegation has pros and cons. That’s heresy in some quarters.
But what doesn’t have pros and cons? The U.S. sports system has pros and cons. Capitalism has pros and cons. Representative democracy has pros and cons. Going outside has pros and cons. We simply have to weigh them and decide what’s best.
Pretending that pro/rel makes everything better is simply dishonest. If you read all this and decide pro/rel is the best system in Europe (probable), the best system for U.S. amateur leagues (also probable), the best system for U.S. lower divisions (quite plausible) and the best system for the entire U.S. pyramid (more problematic, but not easily dismissed), that’s your prerogative.
So let’s take a look …
PRO/REL CONS: GLOBAL
Con #1: Can’t count on division status when planning long-term investment.
See Reading, which will expand … or not … well, maybe … if they can win their way into the Premier League.
“But smaller clubs will invest in their academies to produce players to compete,” we hear. Wrong. And if you’ve read Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, you know the federation had to force the 36 Bundesliga clubs (well, not all of them, but they felt compelled to impose the rule) to run academies. They weren’t all happy about it.
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Con #2: “Pure” pro/rel based on “sporting merit” usually takes a back seat to “other criteria,” anyway.
England is the birthplace of soccer and the birthplace of pro/rel. So take a look at what they’re doing with their women’s leagues: Top tier will go pro-only, second tier for semipros. And that’s perfectly legal under FIFA Statutes, Article 9, which a lot of PRZ (Pro/Rel Zealots) incorrectly cite as proof that the U.S. system violates FIFA’s holy word.
This isn’t something new. Consider how England did pro/rel between its amateur (“non-League”) and professional leagues for generations. The last-place team in the last League division stood for re-election against everyone who wanted in. Usually, that last-place team stayed in.
Then there’s the Netherlands. If someone can explain the contortions they’ve gone through in the last few years to try to institute pro/rel between the amateurs and pros better than Wikipedia has, please tell me.
And if you want to go back a ways, join Dan Loney for a deep dive into the erratic history of pro/rel in Brazil, which rather thoroughly refutes the Deloitte claim that no country with a “closed league” has won the World Cup. I’ll add one thing: Before you complain that Dan focused only on the state leagues, bear in mind that Brazil’s national league didn’t start until 1959.
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Con #3: People who have nothing to do with the soccer side of the business can lose their jobs.
Sometimes it’s years of mismanagement than lead to relegation. Sometimes it’s a couple of injuries and one bad bounce. The flip side of that wonderful moment when the ball fell to the foot of Carlisle United goalkeeper Jimmy Glass is that Scarborough went out of the League, which in those days was a horrifying drop.
“But that’s capitalism,” the PRZ have argued over the years. Sure. And it’s why capitalism is regulated and constantly reformed. Look, we all went through our libertarian phase in high school or college, but at some point, you have to grow up and realize we aren’t in ancient Rome giving thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs for our morbid entertainment.
Screw pro/rel, I want real punishment. I think teams that finish in the bottom three must submit players and staff to Hunger Games.
How do you make someone miss a shot in basketball? You ramp up the pressure. Even Woody Harrelson knows that …
What do you think of when you think of do-or-die situations in knockout tournaments and relegation battles? Beautiful plays? Or “grit”?
The latter. And yet the PRZ tell us over and over that the USA will suddenly learn how to play with skill and verve.
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Con #5: Clubs make “survival” their only goal.
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Con #6: Clubs in relegation danger have little incentive to give young players a chance.
Again, the PRZ insist that pro/rel is the key factor in player development. But in which country are you more likely to see young players thrown into the fray and given a chance? England, where clubs live in constant fear of relegation? Or in the USA, where clubs near the bottom of the table can start building for next year?
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PRO/REL CONS: SPECIFIC TO THE USA/CANADA
Con #1: Lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits!
You think MLS owners who’ve made nine-figure investments (add up expansion fees for newer owners, capital calls for older owners, stadiums, academies, etc.) are going to go quietly if they’re told their investments are going to be at risk of being devalued?
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Con #2: The PRZ have poisoned the well.
Take a look, if you happen to be unfamiliar with the last 15 years or so of public discourse on the topic.
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Con #3: The USA and Canada have unique challenges with soccer fans spread over a giant land mass.
I’ll wholeheartedly agree with one thing in the NASL lawsuit — the notion that a second division has to be in three time zones is ridiculous. (The way they’ve argued it is hilarious — gee, you mean England doesn’t require teams in three time zones? — but that’s another rant.)
In some ways, it might be easier to build up pro leagues if we built them around pockets of soccer fans — Cascadia, California, the mid-Atlantic, etc. But then those leagues would struggle to get TV deals, and we’d leave nothing for fans in the rest of the country. If Kansas City can fill its stadium for MLS games, then Kansas City should have a danged team.
Pro/rel would put us in danger of removing a major market from the top division — Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington, etc. That’s not the case in England, where it’s virtually impossible to be more than 150 miles from a Premier League club unless you’re in Cornwall or unless you’re at the very fringe of East Anglia during a down period for Norwich and Ipswich.
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So do the pros outweigh the cons?
I’m on record as saying yes, with a whole lot of asterisks. I’m disappointed when MLS commissioner Don Garber — who is surely speaking for a strong majority of MLS owners — brushes it aside.
But any good system is going to have to account for as many of these issues as possible. Figure out a way to mitigate the financial risks, not just for unsympathetic oligarchs (not all of whom are horrible people) but also for people who work in MLS club offices. Come up with a format that adds excitement without leaving us with a bunch of grim, grinding soccer games.
Piece of cake, right? Especially when we’re having such rational discussions about it.
In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, the Ranting Soccer Dad podcast opens with a few thoughts on why we shouldn’t give up on changing people and society as a whole, either on something relatively trivial like youth soccer or something horrifying like one man’s ability to assemble the weapons to wound 500 people. Maybe we need a little less competition and a little more cooperation to make the changes we need?
Also, a quick recap of the Washington Spirit’s season, in which the team fell from being 30 seconds away from a league championship to last place. Includes postgame comments from Spirit coach Jim Gabarra and the team’s star attacking player, Mallory Pugh.
(Apologies for the drop in volume during the Pugh interview. Also, if you can’t hear Gabarra’s last two words, they’re “No comment.”)
Neither the Washington Spirit nor the Boston Breakers tanked Saturday night’s game to get the No. 1 draft pick. For once, my prediction was right.
But it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t notice any Spirit Academy kids in the crowd, and that’s probably for the best. You don’t want them to learn anything from this. Two own goals by the same luckless player, former Breaker Kassey Kallman. No shots for the home team in the first half. Fouls that weren’t particularly malicious but just pointless. Passes that clattered into opponents.
The Breakers played hard, and aside from two maybe-overdue yellow cards, they played fairly. Own goals are often a mix of luck and getting the ball in good spots, and the Breakers got the ball in good spots many times in the first 10 minutes of the second half, turning a 0-0 snoozer into a 3-0 game with a bit of life.
And the Spirit didn’t pack it in. Two terrific strikes were called back due to close but probably correct offside calls. The silver lining (coincidentally, the Rilo Kiley song of the same name is now playing on my Spotify mix) for the Spirit: They put the ball in the net four times! Too bad two counted against them and the other two didn’t count at all.
Late in the game, those of us in the pressbox were wondering why Breakers coach Matt Beard was so animated, chastising his team and gesticulating wildly. After the game, the thoughtful and tactically shrewd coach explained that he was legitimately worried that the Spirit might come back, like Sky Blue has on more than one occasion this season. When you haven’t won a road game in a while, a little paranoia is understandable.
So yes, both teams were trying. It wasn’t just a couple of teams tanking to land Andi Sullivan in the 2018 draft. At this point, the Spirit seem destined to land their hometown hero. And tonight, they looked like they needed her. Some of the players on the field simply were not up to the task.
And it’s not as if the Spirit have many other options. They dressed 14 players for the game. (The Breakers, also limping toward the finish line of the season and missing game-changer Rose Lavelle, only dressed 15.)
Coach Jim Gabarra said quite candidly after the game that his team really didn’t have the training they needed to prepare. Too many games in a short time. Too many injuries.
“So you didn’t think it would be a good idea to run your players through a series of intense practice in 90-degree weather with only three available subs?” I asked (paraphrased).
“Probably not,” Gabarra said.
Spare a thought for Spirit fans who’ve attended most of the games this season. They’ve seen a lot of bad soccer, and it’s not all from the home team.
Maybe it’s a strange thing to say about a team in last place, but the Spirit overachieved in many ways this season. Stephanie Labbe and Estelle Johnson were having great seasons until they abruptly ended a couple of weeks ago. Arielle Ship was better than expected. Meggie Dougherty Howard was way better than expected — even people who wish the next hurricane would race up the Potomac and destroy the Maryland SoccerPlex because they so despise Spirit ownership have pegged the late third-round draft pick as a solid pick for Rookie of the Year.
But Spirit fans really haven’t been treated to a lot of quality from their visitors, either. Portland showed little in Mark Parsons’ return to the SoccerPlex. Orlando wasn’t quite the Morgan-and-Marta juggernaut they later became. The Chicago Red Stars looked like they were playing old-school roller derby. The best game of the season, oddly enough, may have been the previous Spirit-Breakers game, when Boston goalkeeper Abby Smith flat-out robbed the Spirit (legally) of a win.
Call it bad luck, compounded by some personnel moves that will leave some lasting bitterness. Frankly, the quality of play in the NWSL has been poor this season. If you want to blame anyone, blame the referees who’d rather carry on conversations with players like Allie Long and McCall Zerboni rather than give them cards for any of the 349 fouls they commit each game. That needs to change.
One thing that’s not going to change — the occasional late-season game between tired, ailing teams at the bottom of the table. And if this game proved one thing, it’s that the women’s game is not ready for promotion and relegation, no matter how many U.S. Soccer presidential candidates try to win points by promising it. These coaches can’t afford a training injury, and there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by tossing Rose Lavelle or Cheyna Williams out on the field at this point just so they can avoid swapping places with WPSL champion Fire And Ice SC. (Granted, if the problem with Lavelle is that she’s flying too much, may I suggest a bus with adequate sleeping space? And no, I have no idea what possessed anyone to name a team “Fire And Ice.” Does Shy Ronnie play for them?)
Even in a no-good, horrible, very bad game such as this, you’ll see moments of quality. Smith didn’t have to pull the mind-boggling saves she made last time to get the shutout this time, but she was terrific when she needed to be. Mallory Pugh adds life to any attack, whether it’s the U.S. national team in full flight or whichever players the Spirit can scrape together around her.
The Spirit will be better-prepared when Seattle visits for the season finale. I’m predicting a 6-5 game with 30 saves. We’re due.
Saturday night, the Washington Spirit will host the Boston Breakers. It should be a beautiful night at the Maryland SoccerPlex, and the team is celebrating a “Night of Kindness.”
Also, both teams will have incentive to lose.
Not that they’ll try to lose. Both teams are honorable. Both teams have a lot of injured starters and a lot of players hoping to make an impression and stick around next year. But at the club level, the incentive is there.
The Spirit is ninth place in the 10-team NWSL. The Breakers are 10th. If Boston wins, they’ll switch places in the standings with one game left.
The last-place team in the NWSL gets the top pick in the draft. That’s expected to be Andi Sullivan, a Northern Virginian who has played for the Spirit Reserves and its predecessor team, D.C. United Women. If the NWSL had a “homegrown” rule like MLS does, the Spirit would happily claim Sullivan no matter who finishes where in the draft order.
Frankly, the Spirit will probably move heaven and earth to get Sullivan home anyway. But if Boston has that top pick, they can extort a nice reward for finishing last.
You may object to this not-so-hypothetical scenario being listed as a “pro” of promotion and relegation. It’s really the draft system, which is becoming less and less relevant in MLS, and we will eventually talk about the “cons” of how pro/rel affects last-place teams in the next entry. But we’re going to use a generous definition here. If something is better with promotion/relegation, it’s a “pro.”
Pro #1: No tanking for draft picks.
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Pro #2: Folklore.
One of my favorite books is the Rough Guide to English Football. I have the 1999-2000 edition, so it’s hopelessly outdated by now. But I hang on to it because the club histories are so colorful. And every once in a while, I have to remind my self how Preki and Robert Warzycha fared at Everton.
The cover photo is of Carlisle goalkeeper Jimmy Glass, who had just scored a goal at the other end when he raced forward in desperation. Glass was on loan to the fourth-tier side from Swindon Town.
A few years later, Carlisle United did indeed drop out of the Football League. But by then, the fifth division had been shored up — a process that took decades. And they immediately went back into the League, where they’ve spent some time in the fourth tier and some in the third.
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Pro #3: The lower divisions become much more interesting.
The appeal of the NASL, USL and any other league right now is that it gives people a local team to follow. I enjoyed being an idiot supporter of the A-League’s Carolina Dynamo back in the day.
On a national level, despite the NASL’s delusions of grandeur, there’s no reason to follow the league. It’s like living in England and watching the Belgian league without any ties to Belgium.
Put an MLS berth on the line, and you suddenly have national interest.
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Pro #4: Parity.
This is why most amateur leagues that have more than 10 teams have multiple divisions. The really good teams loaded with former college players can all play each other. The teams scraping to grab a few officemates to fill out the roster on Sunday can play each other without getting crushed 15-0 by the really good teams.
In pro leagues, of course, this only works from the second division on down. Pro/rel isn’t going to make anyone competitive with Barcelona or Bayern Munich. That’s another issue. But the lower tiers should work as well as the amateur leagues.
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Questionable pro #1: Academy investment. A couple of EPL clubs have cut or are thinking about cutting their academies. German clubs are forced to have them by the federation, in the interest of developing German players. A lot of the top clubs in the world don’t turn out good youth prospects.
A lower-tier club may have a good academy for reasons other than pro/rel. Maybe a club in an isolated area wants to give its local players a shot at playing, and they sell their best prospects to other clubs for the money to keep the lights on and the grass mowed. As long as you have training compensation and solidarity payments (yes, that’s another rant in U.S. soccer), you can benefit.
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Questionable pro #2: Incentive for the players. We all know the story of Eric Wynalda having a shoe thrown at him for being insufficiently miserable in a German locker room. But now we also know the story of Bobby Warshaw seeing his relegation-threatened teammates in Scandinavia keeping an eye on the door and trying to get out without taking any of the blame. There’s a difference between those two experiences that pro/rel cannot explain.
And if you saw Aston Villa play last year, you know those players weren’t motivated.
That brings us back to the Spirit-Breakers game. These teams are reloading for next year. They’re evaluating players. Those players, like players at D.C. United, Colorado and any other lowly MLS club this year, are playing for future employment. That’s more motivation than anything else.
That said, it would be cool to be Jimmy Glass, wouldn’t it?
So the pros and cons aren’t so simple. In the next entry, we’ll look at the cons.
There’s no organization in the world quite like U.S. Soccer.
That’s not a compliment. That’s not an insult. It just … is.
U.S. Soccer is unique among major U.S. sports federations in that its mandate goes beyond organizing national teams and developmental programs. It’s responsible, by FIFA fiat, for regulating professional soccer competitions. (Or, in the case of the U.S. Open Cup, running those competitions outright.)
U.S. Soccer is unique among soccer federations in that the nation it serves is a massive economic power on a giant land mass in which soccer is not the most popular sport. The USA isn’t the only country that has its own indigenous offshoot of “football” that rivals or exceeds soccer in popularity — see Australia and, to a lesser extent, Ireland — but it’s the only one that has multiple team sports that garner more attention. As far as I know, it’s the only soccer federation in a country that has been openly hostile to the sport for generations.
And to my knowledge, it’s the only federation that was charged by FIFA with getting an honest-to-goodness professional league running in the 1990s. Every other major country already had one.
The most important election in U.S. Soccer to date was in the summer of 1990, when Alan Rothenberg unseated Werner Fricker. Rothenberg was under a bit of pressure to run. From 1994, here’s Steve Berkowitz, then of The Washington Postand later a demanding but fair editor who made some of my USA TODAY stories a lot better:
Rothenberg said FIFA officials, familiar with him because of his involvement with the 1984 Olympic soccer competition, initially contacted him about chairing the World Cup organizing committee. When he said he was interested in doing so, he was told that he also would have to become USSF president. He agreed, and lo and behold, Rothenberg unseated Fricker in August 1990.
And so Rothenberg went to work on getting FIFA’s cash cow, the World Cup, up to speed. He also had to fulfill U.S. Soccer’s other promise to FIFA, a pro soccer league. Rothenberg needed a plan, and so he went about hiring people — including economist Sunil Gulati and attorney Mark Abbott, on loan from Rothenberg’s law firm, Latham & Watkins.
Abbott sat with me for an interview when I was writing Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer (please note: I did not choose that subtitle). Here’s what he said about Rothenberg’s unusually sprawling role:
At that time, there were very stringent procedures that were put in place to ensure that although Alan was the head of the soccer federation and leading the effort to make a presentation with respect to the league, he had been recused from the decision-making system in U.S. Soccer. There was a big meeting in December 1993 where we made our presentations. Alan was not part of the Federation board in making that decision. Also, and I think this gets overlooked, FIFA in awarding the World Cup to the United States did so very expressly for the purpose of using it as a springboard for a professional league. That’s what he was supposed to be doing, using this event to help start the league.
Still, the federation’s board voted to decide which of three bids would be awarded Division I status. In addition to Rothenberg’s group, the existing Division II-ish APSL put in a bid, as did Jim Paglia on behalf of League One America, which would take the old NASL’s Americanization of soccer rules to new extremes. (Jim, I know you’re out there — if you still have the video of the test games, I’d love to see them.)
The vote wasn’t unanimous. The tally was 18 MLS, 5 APSL, 0 League One America.
More from my book (because I can’t find Hersh’s story online):
Veteran national-team defender and U.S. Soccer board member Desmond Armstrong, who cast a ballot for MLS in the Division I vote, said his decision was strictly on merit. “I don’t have any love lost for the federation,” Armstrong told the Chicago Tribune‘s Philip Hersh. … “It wasn’t a matter of playing favorites, but of getting the best proposal out there so we can have jobs. I voted for Alan’s plan because it had all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted.”
The APSL grumbled a bit and for a short time was a legitimate competitor to MLS, signing quite a few players who were clearly good enough for the top tier but balked at the salary structure.
The next year (1994), Rothenberg ran for re-election. It got ugly, but he won.
The election was close in 1998. “Dr. Bob” Contiguglia defeated Larry Monaco 57.6% to 42.4%. Even closer was the race for executive VP, in which John Motta defeated … Sunil Gulati, then serving as MLS deputy commissioner. That was 372 (50.8%) to 361.
Maybe that was a rebuke of MLS officials gaining too much power in U.S. Soccer (though, note, this was before MLS hired Don Garber and well before MLS formed Soccer United Marketing). But such sentiment didn’t last long. U.S. Soccer then started staggering the terms of its top board members, and Gulati came back two years later to win the seat from Motta. And Gulati was able to point out in Fraser v MLS testimony that U.S. Soccer didn’t just rubber-stamp whatever MLS wanted.
Then Gulati succeeded Dr. Bob as U.S. Soccer president, and elections have come and gone with little fanfare or fire since then. The 2016 vice-presidential election was contested in gentlemanly fashion, with longtime independent director (board member) Carlos Cordeiro ousting Mike Edwards. Gulati hasn’t been opposed.
(This is an image of a Google search. Don’t click.)
Wait, wait … you’re saying. What does this have to do with promotion and relegation?
Nothing. Because it wasn’t an issue.
We’re about the have the next biggest presidential election in USSF history. Is pro/rel an issue now? Or is it more about general arrogance and an unwillingness to push Major League Soccer to be more open, whether that means pro/rel or a looser salary cap? Or perhaps the historical view that the close ties between USSF, MLS and Soccer United Marketing that may have been necessary for survival in the mid-2000s are no longer necessary and perhaps harmful?
Gulati has often been painted as ruthless — player testimony in Fraser v MLS certainly made him look like a tough negotiator, to put it nicely. In my experience, he’s a pragmatic idealist. He has devoted thousands of volunteer hours to making the sport succeed, and he has laudable intent (and action) on trying to diversify the typically homogeneous Federation. Whether he has handled every situation in his long tenures in various roles is up to everyone to decide.
Gans is pragmatic as well. He announced his candidacy only after going on a “listening tour” of various constituencies, and he’s concerned about youth soccer dysfunction and the decision-making that led the Fed to renew Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract and then fire him. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, his take on pro/rel is cautious.
“It’s not the rules of the game that people came in on,” Gulati said. “When you buy into a particular structure, that’s what you expect the rules to be. … But if the leagues or a league wants to engage, we’re happy to be support that.”
Lapointe is more prone to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. His approach to Twitter, to which he’s still relatively new, resembles another president in the United States:
Well your $450,000 behind schedule. And that is just one Employee.
NWSL supporters on a lively Facebook group said “let’s get the NWSL in order first” and “technically, we have national Cups for women, but no one enters.” The latter point was emphasized by none other than John Motta, the former USSF VP who is now president of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.
And Motta is himself considering a run. So is Jerome de Bontin, the former president of French club Monaco and general manager of the New York Red Bulls who is now the chairman of the sprawling Rush Soccer youth organization (sadly, not named after Geddy, Neil and Alex — or Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny, though like Rush Soccer, they hail from Colorado).
So will any of these presidential candidates bring forth promotion and relegation?
Like the United States themselves, U.S. Soccer is a representative democracy. Not a dictatorship. The president must contend with the rest of the board, the general membership and perhaps even the U.S. courts.
And even Lapointe sees a need to phase into promotion and relegation, not just throw open the whole pyramid at once. That might not reassure the PRZ (Pro/Rel Zealots), who insist any incremental step suggested by me or Peter Wilt is simply doing the bidding of Evil MLS.
In any case, pro/rel may be the least of the next U.S. Soccer president’s concern. As mentioned many times in the past week or so, the NASL lawsuit calls into question U.S. Soccer’s legal authority to regulate professional soccer, and it’s not the first. But the bylaws clearly state U.S. Soccer’s firm belief that it can’t simply let someone else take over any aspect of the game.
(Except, apparently, indoor soccer. The boarded version of the game is operating outside USSF right now. For a while, it was associated with an organization called the Federation Internacional de Futbol Rapido, whose acronym FIFRA was hilariously close to FIFA. And except, apparently, college and high school soccer, neither of which is governed by U.S. Soccer. But I digress …)
So the Federation, and its president, must walk some difficult political lines. Filip Bondy, a longtime soccer writer now contributing to Forbes, put it best when he described the presidency as “a job opening you might want to pass on.”
Summing up Bondy’s take — the president gets to:
Accept blame for national team downturns
Deal with men’s and women’s national team contract disputes and potential work stoppages
Deal with FIFA and other officials of potentially dubious credentials and ethics (to me, this might be the toughest — how long can you swim in the FIFA cesspool without starting to stink?)
Collect a salary of $0.
Oh, and you have to put up with the NASL and Stefan Szymanski. If you didn’t see my Twitter thread on Szymanski’s declaration in favor of the NASL tweaking U.S. Soccer, check it out. Allow some time.
And it’s not as if U.S. Soccer simply rubber-stamps everything the president wants. (Also in that link: Note that U.S. Soccer changed the way it runs election, asking candidates to declare in advance instead of just presenting themselves on the meeting floor, and it instituted term limits. If Gulati runs and wins re-election in 2018, he’s out in 2022.)
So who votes? Let’s see if we can sum up Bylaw 302:
State association reps, both youth and adult. Their votes are weighted by the number of people they represent. (In other words, New York East is going to have a more heavily weighted vote than Alaska.)
Athlete delegates. There’s usually only a few, but by U.S. law, their votes have to be weighted to count for 20 percent of the final tally.
Life members of U.S. Soccer (weighted so that they have no more than 12 total votes, which isn’t much)
Delegates from pro leagues, national associations, national affiliates, other affiliates, disabled service organizations, etc.
Adult Council and Youth Council administrative commissioners (I have no idea who this is)
Further weighting: The Youth, Adult and Professional Councils will all end up with equal votes.
Here’s how it broke down in 2015:
You know what I don’t see in the bylaws? Is the election “first past the post” (top vote-getter is president, even without a majority) or a runoff system (top two hold a runoff)? In elections for the “at large” representative on the board (which is rarely of interest), the bylaws specify a runoff. I haven’t seen anything about a presidential race with more than two candidates.
And as I’ve been writing this, Eric Wynalda has jumped into the race. Maybe. His platform seems to be simple: Sunil Out. Yet even he suggests promotion/relegation needs to start in the lower divisions before going up to Division I.
So will any of this bring about pro/rel? I don’t know. How’s Trump doing on draining the swamp? Or building the wall? Or ending Obamacare while making sure everyone has access to health insurance?
Overthrowing a dictator is a fairly simple process. Overhauling a democratic organization is much more difficult.
Alexi Lalas is a Soccer Hall of Famer. He’s also an entertainer, with interests in music as well as riling people up from a soccer broadcast studio. So when he rips the U.S. men’s national team as “soft, tattooed millionaires,” he’s drawing on both backgrounds.
In our conversation, Lalas explains that “tattooed millionaires” came from a solo release by Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson (no, not the “More Cowbell” guy on SNL), and then we talk about whether everything from the now-defunct Bradenton residency program to the Development Academy is giving us a generation of coddled, entitled men’s soccer players.
We also talk about specialization, playing in multiple soccer environments (i.e., not just in the Development Academy), high school/college soccer, the Apollo Theater, diversity of playing styles, Michael Bradley’s understanding of livestock, and Brad Friedel playing basketball.
Like the new production of The Tick, the pro/rel debate sometimes muddies the waters between the two “sides.” Is Overkill a trustworthy ally against The Terror? Are we supposed to root for Miss Lint to overthrow Ramses?
And like The Tick himself, a lot of people pop into this saga with no memory of what happened before.
(Look, Amazon Prime gives you more bang for the buck than HBO does, and I don’t think I’d have the stomach for Game of Thrones, anyway. So please pardon my taste in non-soccer entertainment.)
Where, for example, would you categorize Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer?
This Robert Palmer is either the savior of lower-division soccer or the guy who will crush everyone’s pro/rel dreams. He bought the NASL’s Jacksonville Armada and plans to buy several U.S. Adult Soccer clubs/teams (the exact term is a debate for another day). He’s sincere, charitable and creative. But whether he’s the guy to carry the banner for a U.S. soccer pyramid may depend on how you interpret his informative interview with Neil Morris on the Inverted Triangle podcast, in which Palmer described that “Division 4” investment as a minor-league structure to send players to the Armada. He also said fans generally don’t know what division they’re watching, a blow to those who insist only unsophisticated rubes would watch MLS when there’s a good European game on somewhere, and his soccer interest seems guided by the desire to have an RP Funding logo on screen for 90 minutes.
The Armada business model will be an interesting test case for years to come. But after a decade or so of chastising MLS for bundling its broadcast rights with other soccer properties, how will pro/rel folks react to someone who’s bundling a local club’s broadcasts with his aggressive ad campaigns for his mortgage business?
So it’s not always easy to separate the good guys from the bad guys, no matter how opinionated you are.
And for folks just joining this discussion or those who have misconceptions, which would be all of you, here’s a guide to the parties involved:
Major League Soccer (MLS): An evil entity created by the NFL, which is so afraid that soccer will dominate the U.S. sports landscape that it formed a closed league (no promotion/relegation) with a single-entity structure (it’s complicated) that intentionally plays bad soccer so people will watch gridiron football instead.
Well, that’s the conspiracy theory. Like most conspiracy theories, it falls apart under any sort of examination:
Why would MLS invest in youth academies, stadiums and other facilities if the goal was merely to demonstrate how bad soccer can be?
Why did the NFL owners (Lamar Hunt, Robert Kraft) and the commissioner they recruited from the NFL (Don Garber) go to such great lengths to keep the league from collapsing when the economy crashed after 9/11? (Phil Anschutz was the only other remaining original owner. The originals included investment groups in Los Angeles, New Jersey and Washington, the last of which included popular conspiracy-theory target George Soros.)
In the current MLS boardroom, non-NFL owners could easily outvote the NFL crew.
MLS staved off extinction by creating a new company, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which has marketing rights for MLS, U.S. Soccer and the Mexican national team. This was either:
A brilliant move to avoid a lot of the in-fighting that has plagued U.S. soccer over the decades.
All part of the NFL conspiracy to limit soccer’s growth.
Mostly the first part but perhaps a little difficult to untangle when some of the same people are involved in varying capacities within MLS, U.S. Soccer and SUM.
MLS does not have promotion and relegation. It is expanding. The next wave of owners to join in will have to pay roughly $150 million each. That’s either:
A Ponzi scheme (a poorly researched Deadspin piece made that accusation, but they’re not the only ones to make such a comment).
Justified compensation for the original capital expenses the previous owners have made to get this thing going.
Or something in between. I’m as surprised as anyone else that someone would pay $150 million to join a soccer league that will always struggle to match the Big Three and a Half sports in the U.S. marketplace and hold its own in the U.S. soccer marketplace against better-established leagues in Europe and elsewhere.
(And before you take this as conclusive proof that pro/rel and traditional soccer structures are the only thing holding back the USA from building England on our green and pleasant lands, consider that the most-watched league in the USA is actually the Mexican league, which has bastardized pro/rel and a convoluted playoff system. Many factors go into soccer supporters’ choices — the German Bundesliga probably offers better soccer than England’s Premier League or Mexico’s Liga MX, but the USA has more expats from England and Mexico than it does from Germany. But that’s another part of the series.)
My publisher would probably want me to tell you that I wrote a book about the history of MLS called Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer. Honestly, I wasn’t wild about the subtitle, but I made peace with it because, when the book was published in 2010, the fact that MLS had remained in business at all was reasonably considered an achievement given the deep-seeded cultural antipathy toward the sport in this country and the collapse of all previous leagues, including the …
North American Soccer League (NASL): In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the USA had a glitzy soccer league that thrived on legitimate (if aging) global superstars and Americanizations like the “shootout” and a points system that required advanced math to calculate where you really stood in the table. Attendance was all over the place. In 1978, the star-studded Cosmos averaged nearly 48,000 fans, but half the league averaged less than 10,000. The league played a lot of games on old-school AstroTurf and some on baseball fields with the infield dirt simply part of the playing surface.
That league died in 1984, leaving a first-division void that went unfilled until U.S. Soccer, with considerable prodding from FIFA, held a bidding process for a new league in which MLS defeated the existing but somewhat minor APSL and a proposal called League One America, which would have drastically altered soccer’s rules.
Then the NASL was reborn and recast as the anti-MLS. Yes, the league that bent every rule of traditional soccer became the league of choice for traditionalists who disliked the MLS single-entity, non-pro/rel, salary-capped, playoff-having structure.
A lot happened along the way. The league nearly agreed to a partnership with MLS. It was propped up for a while by Traffic Sports, which was ensnared in the CONCACAF scandal. It made a lot of noise about whether divisional status meant anything without promotion/relegation, enticed fans with visions of going pro/rel at some point, and ran screaming when the NPSL (we’ll get to them) suggested they actually set it up.
(It’s been suggested that U.S. Soccer, not the leagues, is responsible for setting up a promotion/relegation system. I’ve asked for precedent along those lines, and I’ve never seen it. As far as I can tell, most sports leagues around the world set their own pro/rel agreements, though it’s not really possible to prove the federation has no input.)
Today, the NASL is fuming because it’s losing Division 2 status. Once upon a time, that wasn’t considered meaningful. The NASL posited itself as a legitimate challenger to MLS, though it never really demonstrated itself superior to the Division 3 USL. (We’ll get to them. Briefly.)
NASL clubs are considering options. Maybe USL. Or maybe …
National Independent Soccer Association (NISA): At last. A professional league with a concrete plan to go pro/rel. And it’s backed by Peter Wilt, a well-respected sports executive with experience in MLS and the NASL, along with women’s and indoor leagues. He talked about his plans on the Ranting Soccer Dad podcast.
The plan is to start out at Division 3. Ideally, a Division 4 will materialize (for now, it’s an unofficial term for elite amateur competitions), and they can start promoting teams to a D3 NISA. And NISA will happily promote its teams to D2. Then when all these divisions have a critical mass of clubs that meet the various divisional standards (more on that later), they’ll start going up and down.
To some of us, this makes sense. Demonstrate to U.S. owners that pro/rel can rev up interest in U.S. soccer. Put clubs on a solid foundation before moving up to the big leagues. Maybe they’ll convince MLS to join the fun.
To the zealots (we’re getting to them, too), this plan seems to be part of the Grand MLS/USSF/SUM/NFL conspiracy because it doesn’t explicitly state an intention to fold the top division into the mix.
Meanwhile, clubs have other options:
USL: Oh boy. The history of this league would go on for quite a while. In short: It once had three divisions (two pro, one amateur) and even a little bit of attempted pro/rel. But a lot of clubs chose to drop to the amateur ranks, now called the PDL, and the pro ranks were a little thin. Then the clubs that eventually formed the reborn NASL splintered away, in part because of disagreements over the USL’s centralized ownership (still an obstacle when it comes to making a complete pyramid).
The USL accepted Division 3 status for a while, though it was competitive with the NASL on and off the field. Now they’re Division 2 — and they’re starting a Division 3 league as well.
The USL also has a lot of MLS reserve sides, which is somewhat controversial even though it’s common practice in many nation’s soccer pyramids. It does render the atmosphere a bit uneven — a couple of clubs average five-figure attendance, a couple of MLS reserves average three figures. (See Kenn.com.)
National Premier Soccer League (NPSL): Like the PDL, the NPSL offers summer-league play for college players to get a few competitive games before returning to campus, and a few other amateurs join in. Both leagues also can accommodate semi-pro teams.
Unlike the PDL, the NPSL has some clubs that make a lot of noise about being a bit more than a summer-league amateur activity. And some of these clubs (Detroit City FC, Chattanooga FC) really are building something interesting, testing the waters for a possible move up the ladder. (Which, in our current system, is simply a question of being ready to meet the standards.) But as a whole, we’re talking about a league that generally doesn’t even hand over attendance figures, for all of Kenn’s asking.
I’ve heard the argument that we have to call a lot of NPSL clubs “semipro” instead of amateur because they have professional staff. By that definition, I played “semipro” because the Fairfax Sportsplex pays people to make the schedules, hire the refs and serve the beer.
There’s nothing wrong with what the NPSL does. Not at all. We’re talking about a lot of clubs playing for a lot of different reasons — in many cases, just giving local kids who’ve gone off to college a place to play in the summer. If some clubs are building up toward going pro, great.
It’s more or less the same business model as the PDL, which has a couple of clubs (Des Moines in particular) that could consider going pro and a couple more (Carolina, Long Island) that have been there in the past.
If you’re really looking for semipro ball, consider the New York futsal leagues in which U.S. women’s player Allie Long picks up a few extra bucks. From Gwendolyn Oxenham’s book Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer (see our podcast interview): “In the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), for the six-month season, the starting salary was $6,842. An NYC men’s league ringer can make more than that in two weeks.”
Your town might have a league like that. Someone should really do a story or a book on it.
U.S. Adult Soccer Association (USASA): The umbrella for nearly every other soccer competition in the United States, including a handful of leagues now designated as “Elite leagues” that send forth the bulk of our annual U.S. Open Cup surprise teams. The American Pyramid Blog is compiling standings for many of these leagues.
Pro/rel zealots (PRZ): Steve Holroyd, I believe, deserves credit for the term “pro-relots.” I like that, but I’m going with PRZ for the remainder of this series.
These people are to legitimate pro/rel discussions what the antifa are to legitimate pro/rel discussions. At some point, you wonder if they care about the underlying cause at all or if they just want to cause as much damage as possible.
I’ve documented these guys a few times. They’re the ones who, when faced with any sort of reality check on their “full, open pyramid” dreams, respond with personal attacks and conspiracy theories such as the MLS stuff above. (I also have a lot of documentation in the NASL/NPSL piece mentioned above, where I note with some sadness that I made a Husker Du reference. Sadness because I learned today that Grant Hart has passed away.)
MLS “shills” like me: I once had a Twitter conversation with someone who claimed not to realize that some journalists who don’t work for the official MLS site actually cover MLS.
“Where are the articles?” he asked. Well … ESPN, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, etc., etc. Somehow, it didn’t sink in.
I tried to look up the specific tweets, and my computer crashed. I’m taking that as a sign.
So I’m going to repeat something about myself for the record:
I wrote a few fantasy columns for previous MLSNet management more than 10 years ago, and my book was written with MLS’s cooperation but no backing from the league. (I didn’t even let a guy pay for my lunch.) Currently, I have no season credential to cover MLS, and I haven’t been paid to write about the league for years.
Frankly, I’d probably benefit financially if MLS suddenly joined a pro/rel pyramid. The freelance market is dead right now, thanks in large part to the “pivot to video” movement that has seen Fox and Vice lay off writers. Someone would probably take a story pitch if MLS changed course all of a sudden.
I’ve actually come up with a lot of suggestions for getting the pro/rel movement going in this country, mostly because I’m an inveterate tinkerer. Ask me sometime how I’d make the Europa League more interesting.
And I’m not alone in this. The people who get the most vitriol are the people who engage, not those who ignore the topic completely. We’re the ones who see a potential for pro/rel despite all the madmen who’ve pushed the topic for years.
The good news? We’re starting to have other people to talk to. That’s why I’m doing this series.
For nearly 25 years, promotion/relegation has been a blood-soaked battleground in U.S. soccer.
The worst place to be is in the middle of that battleground. Those of us who engaged in pro/rel chat — see Jason Davis, now a host on SiriusXM FC who devotes a considerable amount of air time to pro/rel and lower-division soccer in general — get more flak than people who choose not to engage.
And that’s a pity, especially because we may be gaining some actual traction on pro/rel at this point, but it’s going to take a lot of time to get the people who’ve chosen to keep their heads out of the muck to turn around and take this issue as something other than the ranting of a few Twitter trolls.
Those who are asked about it directly in the political realm give political answers. Here’s U.S. Soccer presidential candidate Steve Gans on the topic:
Certainly there’s a passionate fan base for promotion and relegation out there. It’s a great thing in principle — it’s how the sport works all over the world. It’s dramatic and exciting; we all watch the last week of the Premier League. But you can’t divorce yourself from the fact that the way sports are set up in this country are different. It’s a very complex issue. The passion for it makes sense, but the devil is in the details. You look at over 100 years of tribal loyalty to clubs in these other countries, and it’s just a different sort of structure, history and lineage than how sports work here.
Quite rational, and perhaps it will suffice for the people who actually do constructive work in soccer and will vote on the presidency. For the Twitterati, well …
In the early years, it wasn’t so bad, thanks in part to both the medium and the message. We were all talking on the North American Soccer mailing list, then BigSoccer, where moderators and the community at large would simply remove people who ran out of facts and embarked on a slander campaign. (Hey, it works in modern politics, right?) And with Major League Soccer launching into a massive void with a handful of investors lured by a business model that minimized risk, pro/rel wasn’t Topic A in the 1990s.
And still, we had an early effort at getting things going in the USISL, as Kenn Tomasch describes. But the reality is that more clubs were choosing their own destinies. Some moved up, all the way to MLS. Many others chose to move down. Funny little incentive there — if you don’t pay players, it’s a little easier to break even in soccer.
So has something changed?
I think so. We have several people interested in prodding pro/rel along. Some are new to soccer, like innovative Kingston Stockade owner Dennis Crowley. Some have decades of soccer experience (even in MLS), like NISA founder Peter Wilt, who was kind enough to chat on my podcast about it:
Do we have a critical mass to make this happen? Will it work? Is it even a good idea?
Yeah, this should be a fun series. Stay tuned.
(And no, I’m not talking about this on Twitter. Tired of doing this in 140 characters.)