Is youth soccer doomed to suck?

Flying solo on Ranting Soccer Dad this week and wondering whether there’s any way youth soccer can be a positive experience. Making an inherently zero-sum game (winners and losers) a good experience is a challenge, and from what I’ve seen, U.S. Soccer and today’s youth coaches aren’t up to it.

Convince me otherwise.

To kneel or not to kneel (revised)

When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem last year and Megan Rapinoe followed suit, I was skeptical. In the circles in which I run, skepticism is a bad idea.

Outside the women’s soccer community, of course, opinion was more polarized. I was stunned to see people I’ve considered sympathetic to the Kaepernick/Rapinoe cause object to their protest, quite angrily. I even saw people profess to become greater Washington Spirit fans when Bill Lynch pulled the anthem switcheroo to keep Rapinoe from kneeling on the field at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

(One year later, I can’t recall seeing those people at any Spirit games, so perhaps I should ignore their input on the matter.)

I worried that the message wasn’t getting through. Maybe it’s because I gave too much voice to the counterdissent, or maybe it’s because I’m an aging, jaded journalist who knew how this would play out in the media. Or maybe I was looking at it with white, straight, male privilege. Or some combination of the three.

To this day, I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not simple.

The players who’ve really been at the forefront of spreading the message against racism — particularly the institutional racism that is far too forgiving of police who harass, shoot and kill black people — are in the WNBA, as this SB Nation roundup shows. I thought their mix of T-shirts and linked arms had the potential to get the point across. But just as many people outside the WoSo community are unaware of Rapinoe’s protest, a lot of people missed the WNBA players’ unified voices. (And they resumed their activism before Game 1 of the league finals today.)

Today, I have no reservations about the hundreds of NFL players taking some sort of action — kneeling, linking arms, staying in the locker room — during the anthem. And that, of course, brings out the haters again — people who are still so offended that anyone questioned the effectiveness of last year’s protests that nothing can appease them.

One such accusation: Oh, so you DIDN’T care when it was about black lives, but now you care because it’s free speech?

Wrong. I always cared about the underlying issue. Even some of the people who claimed to be bigger Spirit fans after the anthem incident care about the underlying issue. On Twitter and at this year’s annual general meeting, we’ve seen that plenty of people within the rank and file of U.S. Soccer weren’t at ease with the anthem protests, and they simply can’t all be bigots.

I disagree with them on the anthem protests. To be clear — I was never offended. I worried about the protests’ effectiveness, and I may have been wrong. I’ve been in a high school gym in Norfolk, Va., in which half the crowd sat and yelled at others to sit down during the national anthem because they felt the anthem celebrates slavery. If I’m not offended by that, I’m not going to freak out when Megan Rapinoe takes a knee.

What’s changed is this:

  • We have a new president who demonizes immigrants and cozies up to white supremacists. This is no longer an issue of local police. This is national. So protesting national symbols makes a lot of sense to me. (You can argue that the protests last year were aimed at racist attitudes that were so widespread that they effectively were national, and I respect that view. I would suggest, though, that what we see today is at another level — and it’s institutionalized.)
  • That president has challenged the rights of people to protest during the national anthem and remain employed. The only way to challenge that is to protest en masse during the anthem.

I can’t stress enough — if you think last year’s protests were effective or should’ve been more effective if not for the sensationalist, superficial media coverage, I respect that point of view. I still have some reservations about the protests’ effectiveness, but I recognize that, in the long run, the movement may be effective.

My views are certainly malleable, within reason. I’ve written before that I grew up not thinking about issues of sexuality and gender. I was raised in a medium-conservative Christian environment that had a few good life lessons and a few things that have required some deprogramming over the years.

What changed my mind? It wasn’t a bunch of people patting each other on the back for the cleverest insult behind my back (subtweeting, in the modern environment). For the most part, it was simply getting to know people who were different — gay, Muslim, Northeastern — and watching my stereotypes melt away. It was positive interaction.

In any case — my opinions aren’t that important. I’ve rejected what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” the twisted view of objectivity that makes us journalists consider everyone’s point of view equally even if one side is clearly malicious or dishonest. But I still believe in putting facts first, and my goal is to make my observations accurate. I didn’t spend 90 minutes tearing apart Stefan Szymanski’s declaration on behalf of the NASL lawsuit because I hate the NASL or Szymanski or the Cosmos — indeed, I found a couple of his points had merit. I did it because a lot of that declaration set off the b.s. detector that makes somebody a journalist.

So if you want to retreat into the “woker than thou” women’s soccer echo chamber, knock yourself out. (Yes, there’s an echo chamber for everything. I did a story on the Flat Earth movement, which has a surprisingly savvy echo chamber. There’s probably an echo chamber in which everyone competes to be the most dogmatic believer in the notion that Donald Trump is from Mars.)

If you want to engage on what’s happened today, I’m all ears. I’ve written 1,000 words here (exactly!). Your turn. Be nice. But be candid.

And congratulations to those who’ve demonstrated today that a Twitter troll, no matter what office he holds, isn’t going to silence anyone.

No one injured in Spirit-Breakers game

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.

Spirit fans weren’t about to forget the birthday of their last remaining original player, Tori Huster.

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.

 

Promotion/relegation propaganda/reality, Part 4: Pros (positives)

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.

* * * *

glassPro #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.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

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.

 

 

 

NASL, U.S. Soccer cannot agree on court timeline

U.S. Soccer has responded to the NASL’s antitrust lawsuit — not a full-scale rebuttal of the charges, but a complaint about the NASL’s desire to get to court as quickly as possible.

The USSF response goes on to say:

  • USSF was served with the NASL complaint two days ago. (They underline it in the complaint.)
  • That complaint is really long — 71 pages, plus three declarations totaling 113 pages (Stefan Szymanski’s is 80)

NASL asked for this schedule, the USSF response says:

  • Oct. 4: USSF response to the suit
  • Oct. 11: NASL response to the response
  • Oct. 18: Hearing
  • Before all that: If USSF doesn’t agree to that schedule, then both parties should submit their proposed schedules by 10 a.m. Friday (Sept. 22, today). U.S. Soccer responded, “Dude, it’s Rosh Hashanah” (not in those specific words), and suggested Tuesday, Sept. 26.
  • And yet, USSF came up with a briefing schedule by Thursday night. NASL didn’t respond to USSF, says the response, instead sending a letter to the court.

Next up: USSF claims no decision is necessary by mid-October. Here’s another excerpt, with an amusing turn of phrase highlighted:

The next part: USSF points out that the sanctioning process usually doesn’t even begin until fall, with decisions in December. And this past year, Commisso bought the Cosmos from the scrap heap in January and managed to get the team on the field two months later.

(Yes, you could argue that such a timeline is less than ideal. Of course, USSF could also argue that they did the NASL a favor by saying “no” to Division II sanctioning in September rather than December.)

Next up: The “We can’t possibly do this in two weeks” argument.

Which leads to a paragraph that is incoherent and yet interesting.

Having played the “Hey, you guys used to be reasonable” card, USSF now plays the “If you wanted a speedy resolution, why’d you include 80 pages from Stefan Szymanski?” card:

I hope this case continues because I would really like to see declarations from the past and present members of these mysterious task forces. Many task forces and committees have reports in the Annual General Meeting report, in case you want to see what the Audit Committee or Open Cup Committee has been up to, but usually not the Professional League Task Force (which currently consists of U.S. Soccer staff, U.S. Soccer’s VP and a Paralympian from the Athletes Council) or the Professional League Standards Task Force (Lawyers R Us).

The proposed USSF timeline is basically an invitation for Jeffrey Kessler and company to skip Thanksgiving this year.

I’m no lawyer, but I think it’s safe to say the court isn’t going to buy a 13-day window there. My guess would be the USSF Opposition would be due before Nov. 17.

Exhibit A is Jeff Carlisle’s ESPN story about Commisso bringing the Cosmos back from the dead. Exhibit B is Brian Straus’ SI story on the same topic.

Promotion/relegation propaganda/reality, Part 3: U.S. Soccer

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.)

ussf-purpose

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 Post and 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.)

gulati-votes

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?

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZKR67THaA0/?taken-by=prorelfc

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.

That’s not far from what Gulati said on pro/rel earlier this year:

“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:

He recently proposed promotion/relegation in women’s soccer and a U.S. Women’s Open Cup. The Twitter reaction was skeptical, to say the least:

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?

It’s complicated.

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.

ussf-autonomy

(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.
  • Board members.
  • Past presidents.
  • 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:

vote

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?

president

Overthrowing a dictator is a fairly simple process. Overhauling a democratic organization is much more difficult.

 

A complete fact/reality check of the NASL lawsuit (abridged)

Apologies to Reduced Shakespeare Company for the headline.

let-it-rot
“In the midst of all this public bickering, Let It Rot was released as a film, an album, and a lawsuit.”

I went line-by-line through the NASL lawsuit and was intending to come back to anything that has yet to be covered in the Pro League Standards (story with PDF / standards sans PDF). After 3,000 words, I realized I was repeating myself. Or nit-picking. (In paragraph 16, the suit refers to “USFF,” and I quipped that this had nothing to do with U.S. Futsal.)

Let’s just hit the generalities:

This is a direct challenge of U.S. Soccer’s power to regulate pro soccer.

Paragraph 4: “The USSF is a private organization and has no legal authority to confer immunity from competition to anyone.”

This is where we’ll find some of the interesting questions. Around the world, of course, the national federation governs the game in that nation, and that’s not disputed. You could argue that the FA has unfairly promoted the Premier League at the expense of other leagues, and I wonder if any lawyers in England have ever considered challenging the EPL’s money-making machine as a repression of “sporting merit.”

In the USA, the legal authority for U.S. Soccer comes from the Stevens Act, which poses some problems …

And, both implicitly and explicitly, the suit challenges FIFA.

Paragraph 57: “FIFA is a private international body that has assumed the role of organizing men’s and women’s soccer on a global basis. Its rules and regulations are privately derived and formulated, and do not have any governmental source of authority over professional soccer in the U.S.”

That’s a necessary challenge because FIFA expects the national federation to govern soccer in its country. In fact, it demanded that U.S. Soccer get moving on a Division I league as part of the deal to host World Cup 1994.

(In other words, if MLS didn’t exist, you might not have had a chance to see the World Cup, though I suppose only those of us over 30 — at least — actually had that chance. I wonder how this lawsuit will affect the next U.S. bid.)

I wonder if it’s theoretically impossible to meet Stevens Act and FIFA’s expectations at the same time.

lovejoy

Everything U.S. Soccer did to try to stabilize the lower divisions over the past 10 years is now being touted as “anticompetitive.”

d2Here’s one reading of the U.S. Soccer’s decision to step into the rift within the USL, then operating in Division II and Division III: The Federation wanted to buy time for the two factions — neither of which had attained critical mass — to either work things out or solidify their own interests. So it agreed to take over and run an ad hoc Division II league for one year, during which the teams that would become the NASL managed to get their ships in relative order. The Federation also wrote stringent Division II standards that the NASL teams — but not the USL teams — could meet, all in the interest of trying to make sure teams wouldn’t fold midseason any more. (Yes, I hear you, disgruntled St. Louis Athletica fans.)

(And let’s be clear: The USL isn’t blameless here. The USL’s centralized model is the stumbling block to any possible merger between it and the NASL, NISA, NPSL, etc., and that is looking more and more like a liability at this point.)

Here’s the NASL lawsuit’s reading, repeated several times in the suit: The league was all set to go Division II and then Division I, but U.S. Soccer was in the way.

And the process of granting waivers to the Standards is deemed suspicious, even though that kept the NASL going at Division II for a few years.

Everything is part of a conspiracy.

The word “conspiracy” appears 31 times in the document.

We’ve heard these arguments for years. MLS and the USSF want to monopolize soccer in the United States. I can’t imagine a country in which that’s not the case. Granted, you can get into the top tier through promotion/relegation in other countries, but the system is still set up so that you need vast amounts of capital to do so.

The USL, which got the same provisional Division II status as the NASL this year, is considered part of the conspiracy because it’s not interested in challenging MLS and cooperates with it, allowing MLS reserve teams to compete therein. But USL-MLS relations weren’t always so great, and the NASL was close to lining up the same partnership before abruptly backing away.

The NASL seems convinced MLS was terrified of it.

Paragraph 10: “Driven in part by “concern[s] that the new NASL … would import players from South America and in essence become the anti-M.L.S. by allowing teams to sign players without worrying about a salary cap or a single-entity setup,” (citing a 2010 Bleacher Report piece) and thereby create a more attractive product for fans, the USSF has conspired with MLS and other USSF members to block the NASL from effectively competing with MLS.

As with a lot of things in Jeffrey Kessler’s lawsuits against U.S. Soccer, such as the time his side tried to convince the court that the “Premier League” and “First Division” were both “Division I” leagues in England, this is a more persuasive argument if you assume no one with any soccer knowledge will enter the courtroom. USSF lawyers will undoubtedly respond that MLS has signed plenty of players from South America and loosened its salary cap so that teams like Toronto can spend like the Sept. 23 Doomsday prediction is accurate.

Twice, the suit touts the NASL’s Open Cup record vs. MLS teams. But it’s a bit selective, spanning only the years 2012-14. THAT is when the NASL had a 42 percent win record against MLS, as claimed in the suit. And it doesn’t mention that the NASL has not yet had a team make the semifinals, much less win it. Most of those wins were against MLS reserves in the early rounds.

Also difficult to explain away from an NASL perspective: The USL, playing at a lower division, didn’t seem to have any problem staying competitive with the higher-tier NASL. If the USL could be competitive as a third-division league, why is Division II status so important to the NASL?

The NASL believes the Professional League Standards are unfair.

I’ve questioned the divisional standards before. I don’t think a Division II league, for example, should be forced to operate in three time zones. Division I? Probably.

The suit adds a fun twist on the time-zone requirement, pointing out that top leagues in England, Germany, Spain, France and Italy have no such requirement. A look at a map should explain why.

Also, the suit complains that the USA’s standard of needing 15,000 seats in every Division I stadium would mean England’s Premier League is out of compliance. Bournemouth’s inability to renovate its stadium has far-reaching consequences, doesn’t it?

But it’s not as if the NASL is close to this requirement. Its median stadium capacity is 10,000.

Other countries have standards, too. In Germany, if you want to be in the top two tiers, you need a youth academy with a jacuzzi. To reach “Step 1” (the fifth division) in England, you have to be able to separate home and visiting fans in your ground.

Still, the suit raises a few legitimate objections. Why are Division I clubs required to have a “principal owner” with an Individual Net Worth of at least $40 million, when there’s a separate requirement for an ownership group to have a combined net worth of $70 million (to which the NASL apparently does not object) and a $1 million performance bond each season? Why did a 2015 proposal to raise the standards further — itself an ill-timed idea — propose that a Division I league must have 75% of its teams in metro areas of more than 2 million people, of which there are barely 30 in the USA?

Who made the Professional League Standards so stringent in the first place?

Hat tip to BigSoccer’s Knave, who pointed out that some of the owners who split from the USL to form the NASL in the first place were pushing for tougher standards in 2010. Are any of those owners still involved?

On Jason Davis’ SiriusXM show today, Steven Bank noted that some “anticompetitive” standards may actually be procompetitive because they help clubs stay in business, which would be a change from lower divisions of the past.

But this is a recurring argument in the suit. There’s no other reason for the standards to be the way they are except to keep the NASL down. I’m not sure history backs up that claim.

Hey, what about promotion/relegation?

Paragraph 11: U.S. Soccer doesn’t do pro/rel, so there.

Paragraph 12: NASL seeks to strike down all rules on divisions.

It’s a mixed message.

Paragraph 69 repeats the dubious claim that the FIFA statutes require divisional assignment primarily on sporting merit. We’ve covered this.

Antitrust depends on defining a market that is being claimed as exclusive territory by the defendant. What’s the market here?

Steven Bank addressed this issue this afternoon on Jason Davis’ SiriusXM show:

Steve Holroyd’s response:

Why do I know so many legal people?

The suit (Paragraph 35) actually says U.S. Soccer is restraining competition in the USA AND Canada, which may come as a surprise to the people launching a new league in Canada.

Is U.S. Soccer’s structure inherently flawed?

MLS has 57.1% of the votes on the Pro Council, which means it can pretty much select the two representatives to the U.S. Soccer Board. (Though one of them now is actually Steve Malik of North Carolina FC, which is in the NASL (and NWSL) but perhaps not totally down with what’s happened this week, reports Neil Morris.)

Is that just the natural order of things, though? How many federations have multiple organizations like this? Even in U.S. Soccer, the Adult Council has one organization — the USASA, whose president, John Motta, will announce within 30 days whether he’s running for the U.S. Soccer presidency. (Breaking news, I suppose, but it’s been discussed on Twitter.)

Is U.S. Soccer obligated to have more than one Division I soccer league?

No one else does, unless you count the oddball Indian Super League, which is a weird cross between a league and a tournament.

If so, is U.S. Soccer obligated to make that second league the NASL?

In Paragraph 198, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati is quoted as saying in 2007 that he figured we would have two Division I leagues in a few years.

Let’s assume for sake of argument this isn’t ripped out of context (I haven’t had a chance to check). That would mean Gulati — and apparently U.S. Soccer, since the suit alleges he and his conspirators have near-omnipotent power over it — have no objection to having a second D1 league.

So why the objection to the NASL?

Is it because the league muddled through under the guidance of since-disgraced Traffic Sports, among other troubles pointed out in an excellent overview by Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy?

Is it because the NASL brand name harkens back to the days of a popular but ill-managed league that broke every rule it could find?

Is it because the league is down to eight existing teams, some of which have their eye on the door?

Is it because, as Kartik Krishnaiyer points out in a piece that doesn’t spare the Federation, the NASL “dug its own grave“?

Or is it because U.S. Soccer has come to realize a second Division I league would muddy the waters, poison relationships with sponsors and broadcasters and result in a replay of the “Soccer Wars” that killed the American Soccer League after its 1920s heyday?

 

 

 

How do we raise soft, tattooed millionaires? Alexi Lalas on RSD

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.

An analysis of the ramifications of the NASL’s antitrust suit

You know that scene in Airplane that’s always cut from the TV broadcast? When Ted Striker says something’s going to hit the fan, the camera cuts to the airport office, and said something does indeed hit the fan?

Yeah. That’s my analysis of the ramifications of the NASL’s antitrust suit. But, because this is how we roll, we’re going to dig deeper.

The lawsuit might not be a bad thing. From the youth soccer mandates to the national team ticket prices, the U.S. soccer (lowercase) community has one major complaint against U.S. Soccer (uppercase):

The Federation has become unspeakably arrogant. 

So this is a shot across the bow of U.S. Soccer, and perhaps it’s well-deserved. Maybe this will force the Federation to take a good hard look at the state of the lower divisions, listen to the people involved and take more of an enlightened leadership role. It’s certainly an ominous sign that at least three of the four current members (and the two USSF staff liaisons) of the Professional League Standards Task Force are lawyers — one of them an attorney for the Federation from 2001 to 2009.

That said … are the people filing this suit really the people who should be leading the revolution?

The NASL (see Part 2 of my pro/rel series, which will resume this week) has always been an oddball. It revived the brand name of a dead league that still holds unofficial world records for rule changes and Bugs Bunny appearances, then posited itself as the paragon of traditional soccer. Among the many ironies at play here — the old NASL never bothered with the U.S. Open Cup, which the current NASL touts as proof of its competitiveness:

I’d like to see a breakdown of that 42%. In any case, the Open Cup semifinals (for that matter, most of the quarterfinals) tend to proceed without NASL involvement.

The last two sentences here are classic Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer who has been wildly successful in every manner of sports litigation except soccer. (See my entry from when the NASL first floated the antitrust warning two years ago.) They may seem convincing to people who don’t know the U.S. soccer landscape. They’re easily refuted by those who do.

And those who do tend to point out inconvenient facts like this:

And here’s a final concern: Court cases have generally been very, very bad for soccer. The MLS players lawsuit (again, Kessler involved) drained a lot of resources from a developing league that could’ve been used to put the league on firmer ground, and it was hardly the first time …

Steve also made the point that league-vs.-league competition has been good in many U.S. sports. But it hasn’t been so good in U.S. soccer. Indoor soccer never recovered from the alphabet soup of the 1990s — though it’s still hanging in there (and might take off if someone added an ambitious team like, say, the Cosmos?). The “Soccer Wars” of the late 1920s threw a wrench into the progress of the American Soccer League.

All that said, U.S. Soccer surely could’ve stopped all this. Look back on the Professional League Standards helpfully published by Neil Morris, whose digging on lower-division soccer is invaluable. (Try PDF from Neil’s old site or non-PDF from Kenn Tomasch.) They’re a little overboard. It’s one thing to make sure teams don’t pop up and blow away like dandelion seeds. It’s another to say you can have multiple Division 2 leagues and then make it nearly impossible for two leagues to meet the standards.

To remain in Division 2, the NASL is supposed to have 12 teams. (Someone, probably Neil, pointed out that a Division 1 women’s league has to have at least 10 teams by year four, which means the NWSL currently has no margin for error.) They’re all supposed to have an owner (at least 35% of the club) with an individual net worth of at least $20 million. They have to be in the Eastern, Central and Pacific time zones.

Why? What’s the harm in having a second division that’s 10 teams in the East and Central? Or eight teams in the Pacific? Why one principal owner with at least $20 million to throw around?

Yes, you can get waivers. Expect Kessler to paint those waivers as purely arbitrary. And he may have a point.

In short: This whole mess really could’ve been avoided. Maybe it’s unrealistic to relaunch the NASL and the Cosmos with pretenses of glory. Maybe it’s unrealistic for the Federation to try to solve the problem with implausible standards.

Maybe everyone involved deserves to be involved.

 

 

Attendance check: Club over country?

Attendance at last five Atlanta United home games:

July 4: 44,974
July 29: 45,006
Sept. 10: 45,314 (first game in new stadium)
Sept. 13: 42,511
Sept. 16: 70,425

Attendance at last five Seattle Sounders home games:

July 23: 43,528
Aug. 12: 43,350
Aug. 20: 40,312
Aug. 27: 51,796
Sept. 10: 44,697

Attendance at last five U.S. men’s national team home games:

July 15: 27,934 (Gold Cup; Cleveland)
July 19: 31,615 (Gold Cup quarterfinal; Philadelphia)
July 22: 45,516 (Gold Cup semifinal; Arlington, Texas)
July 26: 63,032 (Gold Cup final; Santa Clara, Calif.)
Sept. 1: 26,500 (World Cup qualifier; Harrison, N.J. — sellout and a loss)

Attendance at last five U.S. men’s national team home friendlies:

Oct. 11: 9,012 (Washington)
Jan. 29: 20,079 (San Diego)
Feb. 3: 17,903 (Chattanooga, Tenn.)
June 3: 17,315 (Sandy, Utah)
July 1: 28,754 (Hartford, Ct.)

Attendance at last five FC Cincinnati (USL) home games:

July 29: 23,548
Aug. 5: 25,308
Aug. 23: 20,058
Sept. 2: 22,643
Sept. 16: 30,417

Attendance at last five U.S. women’s national team home games:

April 9: 11,347 (friendly; Houston)
July 27: 15,748 (Tournament of Nations; Seattle)
July 30: 21,096 (Tournament of Nations; San Diego)
Aug. 3: 23,161 (Tournament of Nations; Carson, Calif.)
Sept. 15: 17,301 (friendly; Commerce City, Colo.)

Attendance at last five Portland Thorns home games:

June 28: 16,199
July 15: 16,804
July 22: 18,478
Aug. 5: 18,243
Aug. 19: 19,672

What’s going on here? Do we officially care more about club soccer than international games? How can the Thorns outdraw the women’s national team? How can Atlanta, Seattle and Cincinnati outdraw men’s friendlies?