The single final is insufficient, and the two-leg final doesn’t reward the higher-seeded team for their regular-season performance. So why not combine the two?
Selected MLS and men’s soccer pieces …
MLS and men’s soccer features (USA TODAY except as noted)
- March 20, 2015: Fuzzy memories of soccer’s good (ironically) old days (SportsMyriad)
- March 12, 2015: USA soccer culture is and is not what you want(SportsMyriad)
- Nov. 9, 2014: The twisty career of Landon Donovan (OZY)
- Jan. 27, 2011: For U.S. Soccer, it’s a matter of style (ESPN.com)
- Oct. 26, 2010: MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski defies the odds
- July 7, 2010: Tipping Point for U.S. Soccer Has Long Passed (Huffington Post)
- May 16, 2010: World Cup preview: Group A has hosts, two former champs
- March 24, 2010: MLS preview: Cup contenders model after champions past
- Nov. 22, 2009: ‘March to the Match:’ Sounders fans represent host city at Cup
- Nov. 18, 2009: MLS Cup preview / Title contender Real Salt Lake beat politics, finance: Put together a matchup graphic with feature preview
- Sept. 30, 2009: On the field, Landon Donovan is showing a lot of game (exclusive interview)
- Nov. 11, 2008: Crooning Crew fans band together in show of support
- Oct. 29, 2008: Striking career for Fire’s Brian McBride: Added photo gallery and research for a graphic
- July 22, 2008: In year 1, Beckham on target for MLS
- July 15, 2008: MLS player Hilgenbrinck has a new goal: priesthood
- May 7, 2008: Podcasts shed light on close calls; VW joins MLS
- March 25, 2008: South Americans give MLS a boost (2008 MLS preview)
- Oct. 27, 2007: Chivas USA’s Preki ‘scores’ quickly as MLS coach
- Aug. 29, 2007: Eddie Pope and Cobi Jones reflect before retirement
- Aug. 22, 2007: Maykel Galindo’s road from Cuba to Chivas USA
- May 25, 2006: MLS squeezed by World Cup player losses
- July 29, 2005: Goalkeeper Tim Howard expects much of himself with Man U, U.S. team
- June 8, 2005: Freddy Adu looking to impress at U-20 tournament
- March 24, 2004: Youth makes its mark in MLS
- Oct. 29, 2003: Carlos Bocanegra forgets football past, focuses on soccer future
Game stories and news (all USA TODAY)
- Nov. 21, 2010: Rapids take down FC Dallas in extra time to win first MLS Cup
- Nov. 3, 2010: Taylor Twellman retires two years after latest concussion
- Nov. 23, 2009: After overtime, penalty kicks, Real Salt Lake wins MLS Cup
- Oct. 14, 2009: USA scores late stoppage-time goal to tie Costa Rica 2-2
- Sept. 5, 2009: USA regroups to take down El Salvador 2-1 in WC qualifier
- Feb. 11, 2009: Bradley’s goals help USA blank Mexico in World Cup qualifier
- Aug. 13, 2008: Short-handed USA men KO’d from Olympic soccer tourney (Olympics)
- June 8, 2008: USA, Argentina tie in last warm-up before World Cup qualifying
- Nov. 18, 2007: Dynamo capture second consecutive MLS Cup
- Nov. 1, 2007: Fire shocks United again, advances to Eastern final
- Aug. 27, 2006: Donovan answers D.C. fans’ taunts in 5-2 Galaxy win
- Nov. 6, 2004: United boot New England from MLS playoffs(classic game)
Eric Wynalda was not the most controversial speaker I saw at the NSCAA Convention this week. That honor goes to AYSO’s Scott Snyder.
Snyder criticized the U.S. Soccer E and D license programs, saying they’re geared toward coaches on a professional track and don’t address the needs of parent coaches, who make up the majority of coaches that work with kids in their formative years under age 12. He pointed fingers at “superclubs” who have tryouts and cut 6-year-olds to fuel big business. He said the Philadelphia Union Academy has hula hoops and other gear to teach kids physical literacy — lessons they should have received around age 5-8 but didn’t because we were too busy coaching them win a bleeping U7 game.
The hammer, which would have echoed through Twitter if Snyder were a Hall of Fame player like Wynalda: Elite players will make it despite our involvement. In other words, players make players. Coaches don’t.
And while we’re trying to make prodigies out of our U7s, we’re driving a lot of them away from the game. Fewer players. And therefore, down the line, fewer elite players.
Add to that the elephant in the Baltimore Convention Center — the change to birth-year age groups. Communication on that topic has been abysmal. U.S. youth leaders simply don’t know what they’re allowed to do. Plenty of clubs’ coaches and technical directors think the change might make sense for the oldest and most competitive levels of youth soccer, but they don’t understand why they have to do it with their U-Littles. (They don’t, but the USSF simply hasn’t broadcast that fact.)
Bottom line: “Elite” coaches have declared war on recreational play. Both sides are guaranteed to lose.
But I covered some of these issues at SoccerWire and will add to that in the next week, and you all want to read more about Wynalda’s session. That’s fine. The point I wanted to make first was that the most pressing issues are not what Wynalda talked about. I’m making you eat your vegetables (youth issues) before getting your dessert (the Wynalda talk).
Before Wynalda started, he and I talked a bit about getting older (we’re close to the same age) and how we care a lot less about what other people think. He also says he’s impatient. He wants to see the USA win a World Cup in his lifetime.
And yet, Wynalda seems more conciliatory and more generous than he came across in the past. He may throw a little bit of red meat to the MLS-bashing fringe on Twitter, but he doesn’t hate the league or those in it. He wants it to be better.
The issue isn’t talent or coaching, he insists. It’s whether players are challenged.
He tells a fun story from his Bundesliga days. After a loss, he made what seemed to be an innocuous joke about his sock. A teammate threw a shoe at him, opening a cut on his face that required stitches. The trainer suggested he go apologize for joking.
So how do we replicate that mentality in MLS? (We’ll assume for sake of argument that we want to — maybe we’d rather see swashbuckling teams that attack all the time and shrug off the occasional 4-3 loss as the season’s going OK.) He says promotion and relegation would help bring that about.
That said, he has a pragmatic streak. He’s not expecting pro/rel to happen tomorrow.
Still, I’d disagree with some of his depictions of pro finances and ambitions in this country. He harped on MLS’s alleged $100 million annual losses (not as frightening as it seems in a 19-team league, and also said in the context of a CBA negotiation, so take it with a grain of salt) and posited that they need to feed the beast with expansion fees. The counterargument: MLS isn’t “losing” money — it’s reinvesting. If they weren’t building facilities, expanding staffs and raising salaries, they’d surely be making money. But they’re doing all those things because they want to keep progressing.
Wynalda also said the lack of promotion crushed the dreams of hundreds of clubs across the country. But most lower-division clubs are there by choice. A couple of clubs have stars in their eyes about how their NPSL membership should grant them the chance to move up the pyramid strictly by merit, ignoring both the difficulties of establishing such a pyramid merely 20 years after top-level pro soccer was dead in this country and the fact that European teams don’t climb to the top without megarich owners in search of a new plaything. (I love the Bournemouth story, too, but does it happen without a Russian petrochemical bigwig? No.)
He has convinced me (and he got the room to applaud my conversion) that MLS should play a fall-to-spring schedule, with the caveat that it should take a long winter break. It could be awkward — the midseason break might end up longer than the break between seasons — but I now think the pros outweigh the cons. Play MLS Cup in June, away from football (which Wynalda, again showing his pragmatic streak, knows will be TV’s big dog for the foreseeable future). Align the transfer windows with Europe.
Now, to be honest, I haven’t really changed. I floated an Apertura/Clausura model with late-spring playoffs back in 2010.
So Wynalda’s session was full of fun discussion threads. I enjoyed it, and I enjoy my Twitter banter with him.
But these are, for the most part, idle discussions. Pro/rel isn’t happening soon.
I do wonder if we can change the culture in MLS to make it more challenging. I don’t think that change has to come from a systemic overhaul. My guess is German teams threw shoes in the locker room generations ago, before the big money rolled in.
And I’m not sure that’s an accurate depiction of MLS locker rooms these days, anyway. When I regularly went to MLS locker rooms in the mid- to late 00s, the losing team’s locker room usually had a dank pall seeping in. Taylor Twellman was not a pleasant person when the Revs lost.
Here’s a story to counter Wynalda’s story: Brian Straus and I were once part of a small group of journalists stuck in the RFK corridor while the Houston Dynamo broke league rules and kept the locker room door shut for about 30 minutes after the game. When we finally got in, Dom Kinnear was pleasantly professional. But a whiteboard behind him had a fresh fist-sized hole in it.
Change comes slowly in MLS, at least after Garber’s first couple of years, when he ditched the shootout, started SUM, etc. The single-entity structure has evolved, but it’s hard to see why it still necessary at all. The last CBA could’ve given players a bit more.
(Incidentally, if you think the NPSL is the answer to your anti-MLS dreams when it comes to league business practices, take a look at this sheet from the NPSL’s booth …)
So MLS needs watchdogs to prod it along. That’s good. But we have other needs that are more pressing.
Wynalda closed with a comment that drew a rousing ovation, though I’m sure some of the “Klinsmann good, MLS bad” folks on Twitter will be appalled. It’s horrible, he said, to deny kids the opportunity to play high school soccer.
That’s something we can change without asking people to risk even more money than they already have. Maybe we start there?
“Get rid of the away-goal tiebreaker!”
“Have a minigame after the second game!”
“I miss shootouts!”
Yes, it’s that time of year. Even the commissioner, Don Garber, has fretted about the away-goal tiebreaker.
So, once again, I’m going to say MLS should use a modified Page playoff system. But I’ll tweak it this year, going up to 10 teams.
In each conference:
#5 at #4
4-5 winner at #3
#2 at #1
3-4-5 winner at 1-2 loser
Semifinal winner at 1-2 winner
Yes, the 1-2 quarterfinal loser gets another chance. That’s a perk of finishing in the top two.
And that’s the beauty of this system. The higher the seed, the more of an advantage a team has.
No more griping about the top seed gaining little advantage in a two-leg series. No more coasting once a team has wrapped up a playoff berth.
The top seed gets home field and another chance with a loss. The second seed gets a second chance and will host its second game, either the semifinal or the final.
The third seed gets to skip the play-in game and host a quarterfinal. The fourth seed gets to host the play-in game.
The fifth seed is a long shot.
Here’s how it would’ve worked this year:
#5 Los Angeles at #4 Seattle. This game was actually played, with Seattle winning 3-2.
Seattle at #3 Portland
#2 Vancouver at #1 Dallas
Seattle-Portland winner at Vancouver-Dallas loser
Semifinal winner at Vancouver-Dallas winner
#5 New England at #4 D.C. United. In the real world, D.C. won this game 2-1.
D.C. at #3 Montreal
#2 Columbus at #1 New York
D.C.-Montreal winner at Columbus-NY loser
Semifinal winner at Columbus-NY winner
The advantages of this system:
- Regular-season performance is rewarded.
- Fewer games than current system.
- No awkward two-leg series. Every game advances one team; most games eliminate one team.
So there you have it. Again.
Or, to rephrase, are they necessary?
Northern Pitch, an essential soccer blog you should all add to Feedly or Twitter notifications or whatever you use to keep track of things, has a good take on The Broken Logic of USSF’s League Rules. The Northern Pitch folks are in Minnesota with one foot in the NASL and one in MLS, so they have a good perspective on such things.
So, of course, I feel compelled to be nit-picky …
First, the history.
In 2009-2010, the USL–at that time the 2nd division–experienced a schism: owners who wanted to spend more and up the level of the league broke off and formed what would become the NASL. USSF tried to make the two leagues play nice for 2010, but that didn’t last long.
I’d argue that USSF wasn’t trying to make them “play nice” as much as they were “trying to keep these clubs in existence.” Neither the NASL group or the USL group had a critical mass that could sustain a league. USSF, in what you might call a rare bit of common-sense intervention, banded them together for a special edition, one-time only D2 league.
Again, that’s nit-picky and not even all that relevant. The more important part of the history: USSF then unleashed a comprehensive set of standards designed to keep the riff-raff out of pro soccer so we wouldn’t have a revolving door of uncapitalized clubs coming and folding. (If you’re of a certain ilk, you might find such standards an important part of this complete conspiracy theory against promotion and relegation, but in reality, these standards have stabilized things. So well, in fact, that now people really think we can have promotion and relegation sometime soon. See, Alanis? Irony is everywhere.)
But the USSF has decided to upgrade these standards. And they’re run into some pushback, both illegitimate and legitimate.
The NASL has pushed back by unleashing sports lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, last seen in soccer circles drawing the ire of the court by trying to muddy everyone’s understanding of the English league structure, to fire off a nasty note. That’s a bit like bringing in Miley Cyrus to lend credibility to your jazz/prog fusion band — it ain’t gonna work, and it’s surely costing a lot of money.
The Northern Pitch argument is much stronger. Raising the population threshold for 75% of your league to metropolitan areas of 2 million would make a soccer league think twice about going to Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City or other places that easily support major sports teams already. (Charlotte, though, is over 2 million, according to Census estimates.)
And that’s where the USSF looks like it’s just being officious.
It’s not that USSF should ignore population size in its criteria — as one astute commenter points out, market shares are important for TV, and TV may be just as important to long-term league survival as the deep pockets upon which these criteria insist.
But 2 million? Really?
Here’s another argument from former NASL PR man Kartik Krishnaiyer: He asks why we need such divisional designations at all.
And perhaps we don’t. The trick, though, is that we need to apply some sort of criteria, and it’s only sensible to apply different standards to an MLS club than to the Wilmington Hammerheads. (I always use them as an example because I’m still in wonder over the continued existence of professional soccer in the town where I spent my first three years out of college.)
I frankly don’t care what divisional designation the NASL has, and like another astute commenter at Northern Pitch (wow, these guys are lucky), I don’t think the NASL suddenly takes off if the USSF calls it D1. MLS has a pretty big head start.
And I hate to argue with Peter Wilt, who’s a big fan of the folklore of competing sports leagues in other U.S. sports, but I’m not sure I see the NASL being able to offer anything to distinguish itself from MLS. The ABA, AFL and so forth offered up different rules. Can’t do that in the NASL — not without alienating the “everything must be just like Europe!” fan base it apparently covets.
To me, the NASL’s best bet is either (A) start its own pro/rel pyramid and force the issue, as I’ve said a million times before, or (B) just focus on bringing quality soccer to markets MLS isn’t in. (Yes, I still miss my days as the one-man supporters section at Carolina Dynamo A-League games.)
Nor do I find it particularly unfair that the USSF is raising the standards. That’s because I simply don’t know of another federation that is under the obligation to smooth the path for a second D1 league. If I go to England and say I want to form another league system — and I’ll even open it to promotion/relegation through as many tiers as we can, based on how many clubs sign up with me — could I sue the FA if they put up any hurdles to me calling my leagues “Division 1, Division 2, Division 3”?
Now that would confuse the jury from the old MLS lawsuit, wouldn’t it?
The first time lawyer Jeffrey Kessler tangled with Major League Soccer in court, it didn’t go so well.
From my book, Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer, and the account of the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the league:
The players left themselves open for withering cross-examination when making another point about Europe. Dodd was the first of several to claim that England’s Premier League and First Division were both Division I leagues. Anyone who follows soccer, much less a U.S. Soccer or MLS lawyer, can easily refute that argument by pointing out that teams are relegated from the Premier League to the lower division. … In cross-examination, Kessler grilled Gulati on England’s leagues to such an extent that MLS lawyers cried foul. “They questioned me very aggressively on what, as it turned out, was completely misinformation and ended up, in front of the jury, having to apologize to me for having no basis for what he was saying,” Gulati says. “That was pretty important.”
Don’t want to take my word for it? Read Paul Gardner’s withering take on the lawsuit and the absurdities its legal team tried to put forth. Check the transcripts to see the contortions goalkeeper Mark Dodd went through to avoid saying England only had had one Division I league. Then see what happened when Kessler had Sunil Gulati (there in his capacity as a former MLS executive) on the stand:
MR. KESSLER: Okay. 3 Q Mr. Gulati, you don't recall now -- because we're going 4 to get it up because we have it on Livenote, fortunately -- 5 you don't recall testifying with Mr. Cardozo that you 6 testified that the First Division changed its name to the 7 Premier League and that the Second Division changed its name 8 to Division I? 9 You don't recall that testimony maybe 25, 30 10 minutes ago? 11 A No. It's now different than what you just said 30 12 seconds ago. What I said was the First Division became the 13 Premier League, that most of those teams became part of the 14 Premier League. 15 Q Listen to my question, please, Mr. Gulati. 16 Do you recall testifying maybe 25 or 30 minutes 17 ago -- I think the jury recalls -- that the First Division 18 changed its name to the Premier League and the Second 19 Division changed its name to the First Division? 20 Do you recall saying that with Mr. Cardozo? 21 A I don't know if those are the exact words, but something 22 like that, yes. 23 Q Okay. 24 And now tell the jury, is it a lie or is it true 25 that they changed their names? 2198 - GULATI - 1 A They became -- they became -- they changed their name, 2 but they became the First Division. Most of the teams, as I 3 also said 25 minutes ago, became part of the First Division. 4 Q Okay. 5 Did they change their names? Just focus on that. 6 A I believe the answer is yes. 7 Q Okay. You think that's yes. Let's focus on what 8 happened. 9 Before there was a Premier League, there was 10 something called the First Division, right? 11 A That's correct. 12 Q Okay. 13 And then there were about 32 teams in the First 14 Division, right? 15 A I don't know the number that were there, but there 16 was -- there was a number of teams in the Premier League. 17 Q And at that moment, all of those teams you would 18 call First Division? 19 There was no Premier League, right? That was the 20 highest division? 21 A All of the teams that were in that division were part of 22 the First Division, yes. 23 Q And those teams were some of the best teams in the world 24 at that time, right, before the Premier League? 25 A Some of them, yes. 2199 - GULATI - 1 Q Okay. 2 And then what happened is some of those teams left 3 the First Division and formed a whole new organization 4 called the Premier League; isn't that correct? 5 A Some of those teams became part of the Premier League, 6 that's right. 7 Q And there was no changing of names. 8 Some of the teams left the First Division, and they 9 became a different league, about 16 of the 32, right? 10 A I don't remember if it was 16, but, yes. 11 Q Okay. 12 And the 16 teams who a moment before the Premier 13 League were First Division, they didn't change their name? 14 They stayed the First Division, right? 15 A They -- the bigger and better teams, in most cases, 16 became the Premier team. 17 Q Okay. 18 A Not a -- 19 Q You have to -- 20 MR. CARDOZO: Wait a minute. 21 MR. KESSLER: Objection. It's not responsive 22 your Honor. 23 THE COURT: Go ahead. 24 A Became the Premier Division. The other teams became 25 what continued or changed their name or however you want to 2200 - GULATI - 1 characterize it, part of First Division in this reformatted 2 league. 3 Q Okay. I'll try to ask the question very slowly. 4 The teams who stayed in the First Division, about 5 half that league, that league didn't change its name. 6 It stayed the First Division, right? 7 A I don't know if it was -- I mean, some of these teams 8 became part of the Premier League. Some of them were part 9 of the First Division. 10 Q The league never changed its name. No league ever 11 changed its name in England, right? 12 A We had a league that started that became the Premier 13 League. 14 Q Mr. Gulati, you believe that the First Division League 15 changed its name to the Premier League? 16 That's what you believe? 17 A No, that a lot of the teams, as I said earlier, became 18 part of the Premier League. 19 Q Okay. 20 And no league ever changed its name, correct? 21 A No, that's -- we've had a number of leagues in the 22 English league that have changed their league name by having 23 a sponsor affiliated with it and so on. 24 And this -- let me finish. 25 In this characterization, I'm not sure if they 2201 - GULATI - 1 changed when those 12 or 14 or 16 teams were left or not, in 2 that framework that you've just outlined the question. 3 Q Right. 4 And, in fact, the Second Division in England never 5 changed its name to the First Division, right? 6 The league? 7 A You characterize it that way, that's correct. 8 Q Thank you. 9 What happened was there was a First Division League 10 of 32 teams. Sixteen of them became a new league called the 11 Premier League, and the other 16 teams, which were 12 still first division, called themselves still the First 13 Division, right? 14 There's nothing complicated about that?
Got a headache yet? I’m not even sure what point Kessler is trying to make other than trying to play gotcha with Gulati over the existential question of whether the Premier League used to be the First Division and the First Division used to be the Second Division. Good thing this was done before we had the Premier League, the Championship and League One — which is the third division in England but the first division in France. I don’t know if Kessler was trying to baffle the jury into thinking England really had two equal “first divisions” or possibly laying the groundwork for the Chewbacca defense.
So the next morning, MLS’s legal team called Kessler to account for badgering Gulati over a point on which Gulati was clearly correct. That led to this amusing exchange.
16 Q Mr. Gulati, there was a point yesterday that we 17 discussed in your examination which I'd like to give you a 18 chance to clear up because I want to make sure that I didn't 19 say something that I misspoke about something, and that has 20 to do with the naming of the Premier League. 21 Is there something you learned about that that 22 you'd like to tell the jury or explain? 23 A I learned that what I had said to Mr. Cardozo yesterday 24 was correct, that virtually all of your comments about how 25 the Premier League was formed and the number of teams and page 2227 1 the renaming were all, in fact, absolutely incorrect. 2 Q Okay. 3 The Premier League did rechange its name? That's 4 what you learned? 5 A And that the first division had been previously the 6 second division and so on. 7 So everything I said to Mr. Cardozo was correct. 8 Q Okay? 9 A And all of the questions and issues that you raised at 10 the end of the day were, in fact, wrong. 11 Q Okay. Mr. Gulati if, that's true, I want to apologize 12 to you because we got a little sidetracked on the Premier 13 League and I want the jury to get every fact exactly 14 correct, okay?
So now Kessler is back, ready to argue the meaning of “first division” again, this time on behalf of the NASL, a league that has been making the argument that divisional status just doesn’t matter:
And he also sees space for multiple leagues: “I think there’s room for us to be successful and MLS to be successful and maybe others to be successful. Trying to copy from England or Europe is going to be a little short-sighted.”
Yet Peterson isn’t interested in hearing the MLS is “first division” and the NASL is “second division,” though that’s the official status U.S. Soccer has conferred upon them.
“There should be a system in this country where every community can put its team into the pyramid and one day be at the top of the pyramid,” Peterson said. “I’m not sure what divisional status means without promotion and relegation.”
I’m not either, and I’m not really sure why USSF is bothering to change the D1 criteria. Then again, I’ve never understood why the D2 criteria are so onerous, particularly in terms of having a single person with a whole lot of money running a club. I get that they’re trying to avoid having clubs go all Saint Louis Athletica on us. But beyond that, I’m not sure the rules have ever been explained. (Yes, I’m pursuing an explanation.)
I’m also not sure why the NASL is interested in fighting what’s sure to be a losing battle over an issue that they’ve already said isn’t important.
If the NASL puts forth a good product, that speaks for itself. And if they override their own current reluctance to set up a pro/rel pyramid with the NPSL, then maybe they can create an alternative that forces MLS to take notice.
Or we could just re-fight the Soccer Wars and let everything fall apart, right?
The NASL may have a legitimate grievance here and there. Perhaps the league does need more representation within USSF. But I don’t see why they’re dredging up the lawyer who tried and failed to muddy the waters on Division I in the past.
If you’re hoping to see the NASL rise up and succeed in a way that forces (or encourages) MLS to open up a bit more, you might be disappointed in this move. From here, it looks like a step backward, all the way to 2000, when the Rhinos just beat MLS on the field where it mattered.
If you read all my tweets and replies on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve eased up a bit on ignoring the crowd that pushes for promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer. It’s intentional. I think we’re starting to see some ideas that go beyond shouting anti-MLS slogans. And given the scarcity of MLS content I’m writing these days, it’s almost like tripping down Memory Lane, like going back to a high school reunion and chatting amiably with the guy who was a total jerk and bully the whole time.
Wait a minute. Scratch that. That guy still doesn’t get it. Hope he gags on the hors d’oeuvres.
And that’s kind of how it is in the pro/rel world. Today’s conversation was a perfect demonstration.
Start with this intriguing story:
So the NPSL, the mostly amateur league that shares unofficial fourth division status with the PDL and recently drew more than 18,000 fans for its final in Chattanooga, would work something out with the NASL, which has long (well, at least in Bill Peterson’s tenure) made noises about wanting promotion/relegation in U.S. soccer.
Easier said than done, of course. The NPSL uses mostly young amateur players, many of them in college. So most of their teams are bound by NCAA restrictions on how they can assemble their teams, maintaining amateur status, and wrapping up the season early so kids can dash back to their college teams for preseason. Then you add U.S. Soccer’s onerous second-division standards (one owner has to have $20 million, which has always struck me as absurd), and you can see a few hurdles.
But if you really want to see promotion/relegation make the transition from “hot-button Internet cult shoutfest issue” to “something that might actually happen,” you’d think this would be good news. And so, consistent with what I’ve said earlier about the best path to pro/rel being a strong NASL forcing a merger, I said the following:
I even went back and dug up my own pro/rel plan:
And so we all joined hands, sang a few songs of praise, and talked about the details of what a future U.S. pro landscape might look like.
Oh, wait. No, we didn’t.
One hint of the problem was a tweet that came in just as I was writing mine:
And indeed, the man who has devoted the last 6-8 years of his life tweeting about pro/rel fantasies was not happy with a proposal to actually talk about actually doing it.
(That said, the NASL tossed cold water on this idea itself:)
But to be fair, he has long insisted that leagues shouldn’t go it alone, and that the federation should drive it. I don’t see why, personally, but he is indeed consistent.
And so is the vitriol I received from elsewhere:
When I have my midlife crisis and form a Husker Du cover band, I might call it “Antiquated Zealotry.”
(And yes, I made a typo. At this point, I was tweeting about as quickly as I could type. That’s not good.)
So he’s not reading what I’m tweeting, he surely didn’t notice that the last substantial piece I wrote about MLS was ripping the league for its stance in collective bargaining, and yet he feels he can sum up my opinions. OK.
Yeah, he clearly skipped my proposal on Brazilian-style state leagues. And my tweet on the NASL/NPSL thing.
I get all this flack from the pro/rel crowd for a few reasons. First, I’ve pointed out a few inconvenient truths on the matter:
1. Soccer was an ignored and often despised sport in this country through much of the 20th century, giving the rest of the world a bit of a head start. Read Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism or the definitive U.S. soccer history Soccer in a Football World for the full story.
2. The people willing to take the risk to do professional soccer at a strong but sustainable level had to appeal to investors by minimizing risk (I wrote a book that mentions all this, a bit), hence the “single entity” system and cost containment.
3. More investors have bought into MLS with the implicit understanding that they are buying into the USA’s first-division league.
4. Many investors have bought into lower-division leagues with the implicit understanding that they’re aren’t going to jump up to a Division I or Division II budget if they win too many games.
5. Promotion/relegation would be cool, but it’s not necessary. Barcelona isn’t Barcelona because they fear relegation. They fear losing the championship to Real Madrid. As they should. Real Madrid is the club of the old corrupt monarchy. But that’s another rant.
And so on — see all the previous posts.
Second, I have actually engaged with a lot of these people and continue to do so even as most journalists — you might say the saner, more intelligent journalists — have cut off contact.
(I once had someone tell me I should take it as a compliment that these folks go after me instead of Big Name Journalist X because they find me a lot smarter and better than Big Name Journalist X. I’m really not. I just have bad compulsive behavior, as illustrated here:)
But let’s get back to today’s conversation, summing up as follows:
Me: “Hey, neat promotion/relegation idea.”
Them: “Shut up, you MLSbot antiquated zealot turnip walnut.”
The underlying lesson from this conversation:
There is no pleasing the promotion/relegation zealots.
You might say it’s just me, and no matter how many schemes I put forward, no matter how many times I say I really could see the NASL building up with a pyramid that forces a merger with MLS down the road, they won’t listen.
But no. It’s not just me.
These are the people who have to be different. They have to feel superior. They’re the ones who saw R.E.M. have hit songs and make real videos and smirked, “They’ve sold out.” They’re the ones who only like the U.K. version of The Office — not that they’ve ever seen any of the U.S. episodes past Season 1.
Their greatest fear is that someone will do exactly what they want. Because then they’d have to find another cause.
Like Jason Street when he was paralyzed or Tim Riggins when he finished school, they would lose their identity.
And that identity is more important to them than the cause itself.
They know we aren’t likely to see MLS integrated into a promotion/relegation system for all the reason I’ve listed above and more. So they’re safe.
And that’s why, even as we see occasional glimmers of reason in the national pro/rel discussion, we’re a long, long way from any of this being taken seriously.
For all that people fret about the Premier League and Champions League (European edition) eating into Major League Soccer’s share of the TV market, that’s really a problem you can’t fix. You could turn MLS into a European-style league on the European calendar (minus Scandinavia) with European players tomorrow, and many people are still going to prioritize Manchester United-Arsenal over Chicago-Toronto. You could spend all of Phil Anschutz’s accumulated wealth on MLS salaries, and while you’d probably sell out most MLS venues and possibly double the ratings, any soccer fan who’s awake and not on a soccer field on a Saturday morning in March is going to flip on the TV and listen to Rebecca Lowe talk about today’s matchups.
A more reasonable goal is to make MLS the best league in CONCACAF. It won’t start a sea change in MLS media presence — MLS already draws decent numbers on Spanish-language TV — but it’ll help.
In the wake of Montreal’s strong but ultimately doomed challenge for the CONCACAF title, Taylor Twellman tossed out some charts:
In short: MLS is getting elite talent with the Designated Player rule. It’s the rest of the roster in which Liga MX outspends MLS.
To which Dan Loney replied with an old saying: “Doubling Kelly Gray’s salary would not have made Kelly Gray twice as good.”
Flip, perhaps — that’s Dan’s style. But because he’s writing a typically epic blog post and not a Tweet, he develops the point: “Look, here’s the current list of Yanks Abroad. The most significant names MLS is missing out on would require outbidding not just LigaMX, but in many cases teams in the Bundesliga and the Premiership. Frankly, there aren’t that many guys who would be worth getting into a bidding war over, and equally frankly, the more guys that play abroad, the more spots there will be for unproven, overlooked players in MLS. We’re better off with those guys staying abroad, and if the occasional ass-kicking at the hands of Club America is the price of a stronger national team pool, I for one am prepared to get over it.”
I’ll add another wrinkle: Some youth coaches are going to push their most heralded prospects overseas so they can be stuck in limbo because MLS clubs are a bunch of poopy pants, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. (Not saying the “nyahs” apply specifically to anyone who coached Ben Lederman. Just saying some coaches really have it in for MLS, and I don’t think they’ll be persuaded by a change in the salary rules.)
Let’s leave that aside for now and just consider the proposition Twellman’s making here. Let’s say MLS clubs could match the best of Liga MX by bringing up those rank-and-file salaries.
In a Liga MX team with a $6.5 million salary budget, everyone in the starting lineup makes at least $215,000. The bench players (who made the 18 for a given day) make $155-$215K. Three more players (Nos. 18-21 on the roster) make $100K, three more make scraps.
Now take the MLS salary data — unfortunately, due to the last-minute CBA scrambling, the latest data we have is from September, but that’ll do.
Now let’s take FC Dallas as a random example:
You could also take a bigger spender like Los Angeles and try to compare it to the biggest-spending Liga MX club in Twellman’s charts.
So, bloggers, here’s your assignment. Find all the players who would fit these spots. You can use the Yanks Abroad list above, or you can shop globally.
Which leads to another question: Do you ditch or raise international player limits? And how does that affect MLS as a place to develop U.S. talent?
I’m not buying the “Oh, more good athletes will pursue soccer with better salaries, so we’d have Chad Johnson playing center back for $515,000” argument. That’s not reality.
Within the parameters of the real world, can we make MLS teams CONCACAF winners here?
The United States is, in addition to all the things mentioned in my soccer culture post, a nation of tinkerers. We want to fix things or improve them.
That’s not to say Europe is bereft of innovation — they’ve certainly done a better job of, say, integrating alternative power sources. But when it comes to sports, we’re far more likely to take things that already work and rethink them. The NFL changes rules more often than I shop for shoes. Wake up an NHL fan who was cryogenically frozen in 2002, and he or she might not make sense of the standings.
In soccer, we’ve often been a laboratory — sometimes with FIFA’s assistance or insistence, sometimes not. Shootouts. Bonus points. For old-time USL/USISL fans, the blue card.
These days, all our ideas veer toward the more traditional. Shootouts are gone. Overtime is gone. As much as I would love to see what League One America rules look like in action, it’s not going to happen. We debate single table and single entity, and we even the occasional promotion/relegation idea that’s nearly workable. (It just needs some way to even things out between clubs that made megamillion investments and those who would play their way in. I’m not a big fan of giant expansion fees, either, but you do have to consider that we’re trying to build the same infrastructure in 20 years that has been built in other countries — where soccer is the dominant sport — over a century or more.)
So here’s an idea borrowed from Brazil with a bit of a twist to solve a couple of uniquely North American problems …
Regional leagues running part of the year.
In Brazil, clubs play in state leagues for the first few months of the year before shifting to national competition. The state pyramids and the national pyramid are mostly separate — a team could theoretically be in the first division nationally and a lower division in its state league. (I can’t find a current example, though.)
The climate in the USA and Canada won’t let us play year-round as they do in Brazil. A regional league in the spring and national leagues (MLS, NASL, USL) in the summer and fall won’t leave enough time.
But we have an interesting window for regional leagues — the international break that we currently aren’t taking in MLS.
This year, CONCACAF’s Gold Cup runs through most of July. National teams will assemble a couple of weeks before that, so figure on about a five-week window. MLS will muddle through without its CONCACAF internationals. In other years, we have the World Cup or the upcoming pan-American Copa America. (Yes, I know the winter Qatar World Cup will mess everything up, but let’s ignore that for the moment.)
During that stretch, suppose we suspended the national leagues and played regional leagues?
And yes, I’m talking about leagues with promotion/relegation. Why not? These leagues wouldn’t affect the structure of MLS. A club with a 5,000-seat stadium that couldn’t play in MLS could still compete with MLS clubs in a short regional league system.
So we solve several problems:
1. MLS finally gets a full international break.
2. Players who aren’t on international duty get to keep playing.
3. Stadiums still get meaningful games, and not just the one-offs of the Open Cup. (Incidentally, this is the year an NASL club wins the Open Cup. MLS teams will be weakened for the fifth round and quarterfinals, and it’s clear the NASL really wants that trophy.)
4. Lower-division teams get to test themselves against the big pro clubs, albeit weakened versions of those clubs. They should be able to sell a few tickets for those games, too.
5. “Summer league” teams in the PDL and NPSL get more interesting competition.
6. Pro/rel fans get to see pro/rel leagues. Maybe it’ll open the door for national pro/rel down the road, maybe not.
Five weeks doesn’t give us a lot of time, so we’re probably talking about four teams playing a double round-robin or maybe seven teams playing a single round-robin.
A couple of sample leagues with the initial divisional setup (based mostly on last year’s standings, so I haven’t verified to see if all these clubs … you know … still exist):
Division 1: Dallas (MLS), Houston (MLS), San Antonio (NASL), Oklahoma City (USL)
Division 2: Austin (PDL), Laredo (PDL), Tulsa (NPSL), Oklahoma City (NPSL)
Division 3: Corinthians San Antonio (NPSL), Dallas City (NPSL), Midland/Odessa (PDL), Houston Dutch Lions (PDL)
Division 4: NTX Rayados (USASA), Liverpool Warriors (NPSL), Fort Worth (NPSL), Houston Regals SCA (NPSL)
Division 1: Portland (MLS), Seattle (MLS), Vancouver (MLS), Edmonton (NASL)
Division 2: Kitsap (PDL), Victoria (PDL), Washington (PDL), Tacoma (NPSL)
Division 3: North Sound (PDL), Spartans (NPSL), Khalsa (PCSL), USASA team
Division 1: D.C. United (MLS), Philadelphia (MLS), Carolina (NASL), Richmond (USL)
Division 2: Harrisburg (USL), Baltimore (PDL), Reading (PDL), Carolina (PDL)
Division 3: King’s Warriors (PDL), Gate City (NPSL), Virginia Beach (NPSL), Maryland Bays (USASA)
I’m not sure about including reserve teams here, given the already-weakened senior squads. If they play, I’d limit them to Division 3 or lower.
Within a couple of years, maybe we’d see some amateur teams establish themselves in D2. Maybe an MLS coach will be grousing about relegation to D2, and we’ll all yell at that guy to win a few games and get back up.
Maybe it’s a crazy idea. But if there’s a negative other than giving up a couple of MLS games when the teams are missing their internationals, I don’t see it.
Deal or no deal? At this point, it hardly matters. A players strike, which would surely be brief given the limited resources the union can bring to bear, will harm Major League Soccer less in the long term than the league’s failure to seize the moment.
MLS has been at the crossroads before, and the league has usually gone the right away. From near-death in 2001, the league rebuilt itself with surprising speed and strength. This country is never going to be easy for a soccer league — it competes domestically with four better-established team sports, and it competes globally with much better-established soccer leagues — but MLS has carved out a nice sturdy niche.
And even as the soccer-hating dinosaurs slowly die off, some people in this country will always be unreachable. Some fans will always be Eurosnobs, much in the same way that some people refuse to watch Saturday Night Live or The Simpsons because their cynicism won’t allow them to believe it could ever be as good as the old days. Some coaches will always insist MLS academies don’t mimic Germany’s or England’s or Bolivia’s to their satisfaction, and they’ll try to steer players away. Some people won’t be happy until the USA has a promotion/relegation pyramid like the one that took England 100 years to establish. You can’t please everyone, and trying to win over the crankiest people on Twitter is a fool’s errand.
Nor would a simple raise in salaries make MLS clubs the equal of Everton, let alone Manchester United. MLS could quintuple its salaries, and couch potatoes choosing between La Liga and MLS on TV may still opt for the former more often than not. There is no amount of reasonable spending that will build Barcelona in New England’s green and pleasant land.
But the league’s goal of being a “league of choice” for players and fans is still reasonable. MLS doesn’t have to be No. 1 — it just has to be worth seeing. Yet through its stubbornness in collective bargaining, the league is undermining its “league of choice” goals.
As former MLS player Bobby Warshaw put it: “The players will point out that there’s a strange contradiction here. The league talks about being a ‘destination league,’ both for players and for fans, yet they do nothing to make the league attractive for players, which would, ultimately, make it more attractive to fans.”
A league with no free agency and with bureaucratic restrictions on player rights will not be a “league of choice” for young players, many of whom are opting to go to Mexico, let alone Europe. It will not bring Herculez Gomez home from Mexico. It will not attract international players who are choosing between MLS and the Netherlands.
And the eagerness to play hardball with players sends a poor message to fans. How are fans supposed to believe the league is on the rise when it’s claiming poverty and insisting that the whole structure falls apart if an eight-year veteran is allowed to negotiate a pay raise or move to a city closer to his wife’s family?
The league’s stance is simply tone-deaf. No one believes that MLS will go broke if two teams bid up a veteran’s player to $200K when, thanks to the salary cap, that money simply comes from another player’s potential pay. No one understands why it’s OK to compete in every other sense — for Designated Players, in building youth academies, in worldwide scouting — but it’s not OK for teams to compete for a non-DP’s signature. The fan base is too sophisticated, and it no longer sees the need for MLS to take baby steps on player movement while it’s making bold investments in academies, stadiums and Steven Gerrard. And MLS has simply not made a plausible case for maintaining its grip on intraleague movement.
If MLS folded tomorrow, it would still deserve a ton of credit for building the game in the USA, just as we credit the decidedly non-traditional NASL of the 70s and 80s for stirring up some interest in the soccer-unfriendly country. What’s been done over the last two decades is remarkable. But that doesn’t mean the league can afford to stagnate. Over the years, it has evolved — allocations aren’t driven from the league office any more, clubs have more control, and the salary budget bends to include Designated Players. That evolution needs to keep going, and what the players are asking is far cheaper than the other investments the league is making.
I’m sometimes asked to write a sequel to Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer. At this point, that book would be Short-Term Thinking: How MLS Threw It All Away.
This offseason was the perfect time to demonstrate that MLS was stepping confidently into the modern soccer world, ready to compete for players and fans. That step forward would’ve required significant time to figure out how to move into free agency and perhaps toss out the vestiges of the league’s “allocation” system. They’ve run out of time to do it. MLS may eventually force its players back onto the field, but the league and its players will be poorer in the long run.