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.

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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?

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Podcast: Ep 5 — Promotion/relegation with Peter Wilt

For more than a decade, promotion/relegation talk has been the bane of the U.S. soccer community’s existence. It wasn’t going to happen any time soon, and some people reacted to that news by harassing and slandering the people who explained the reasons why.

But now? We have a former Chicago Fire president — Peter Wilt, who has plenty of experience in other soccer leagues and U.S. sports endeavors — writing a manifesto on how we can make it happen, and he’s starting a league with the goal of making it happen.

In other words, the grownups are talking about it now.

Also, I’m doing a survey of lower-division clubs, from Division 2 to Division Not, and I need more replies.

In this week’s podcast, Peter Wilt and I go through history and FIFA statutes (starting around the 5:30 mark), argue the merits of pro/rel (18:15) and talk about what’s changed to make it more likely (31:30).

Quick note: This was recorded before Miami FC and the Kingston Stockade appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to ramp up the pressure on U.S. Soccer to force pro/rel into being, an action I fear will be counterproductive. But perhaps we can talk about that on a future podcast.

Listen away …

How the USA can do promotion and relegation better than England

BEAU: Riccardo Silva offered MLS $4 billion for media rights if it would institute promotion/relegation? And people like Jeff Carlisle have already done the heavy lifting in reporting what did and didn’t happen? Great! Time to do a quick opinion piece.

BEAU’S CONSCIENCE: What are we, all clickbait now? You know that offer was just a PR stunt. MLS can’t negotiate its media rights for several years, by which both Silva’s team and David Beckham’s proposed team may literally be underwater thanks to climate change and everyone may be watching sports on AmazonTube. 

BEAU: Well aren’t WE Debbie Downer this morning! Come on — we’ve been saying for years that pro/rel talk is just an academic argument until people put their money where their mouths are. Now they are! It’s not just Silva — Peter Wilt is planning a Division 3 league that would evolve into the cornerstone of a pro/rel pyramid. The reasonable voices are winning.

BEAU’S CONSCIENCE: We’ve tried to be reasonable for years. We all know the drill: 

  1. Something “new” happens in the world of pro/rel.
  2. You write a blog post dissecting the nonsense arguments — MLS is conspiring to keep soccer smaller than the NFL, a lack of pro/rel is the only thing keeping the USA from dominating world soccer, etc. — and STILL suggest a way to ease into a pro/rel pyramid.
  3. No one pays attention except Twitter trolls whose lives are so pathetic that they try to goad you into pro/rel arguments months after the fact. And then newbies pop up lecturing you about “Economics 101,” as if you haven’t been following sports business since before these dudes were born.

You’re just trying to stir something up so people will notice your new podcast, you sellout. 

BEAU: You mean Ranting Soccer Dad? It just so happens we’ve booked a guest on promotion/relegation for Aug. 10. 

BEAU’S CONSCIENCE: Is it someone reasonable, at least?

BEAU: It’s a Twitter troll who keeps accusing me of being on the MLS payroll to keep down pro/rel even though it’s been about 15 years since I wrote the MLSNet fantasy column and I keep coming up with plans FOR pro/rel.

(silence)

BEAU: No, I’m kidding. Geez, lighten up! It’ll be a rare chance to have a *substantive discussion* with someone who is actually doing something to make pro/rel a reality.

BEAU’S CONSCIENCE: Fine. Whatever. And I suppose today you’re going to suggest a modification to your latest pro/rel plan that no one will discuss?

BEAU: Glad you asked! Here goes …

I still like my last plan, especially given the number of viable MLS expansion candidates at the moment. The executive summary:

  • Division 1: 16 teams, single table, no playoffs (see separate Cup competition), bottom three clubs relegated.
  • Division 2: Initially 14-16 teams in one table but eventually splitting into regions with minimal playoffs. Promotion to D1 but no forced relegation to D3, at least not based on a single season’s results. Clubs can always self-relegate if they can’t compete at D2 — this is an alternative to folding.
  • Division 3: The top tier of regional pyramids. D3 clubs must meet professional standards. D1/D2 reserve teams are eligible to play (as in Europe, you pseudo-purist know-nothings). No automatic promotion to D2, but clubs can apply to move up based on performance on and off the field.
  • Division 4: The highest a club can climb while still remaining amateur (which many clubs will opt to do). Some pro (or semi-pro) clubs as well.
  • Then each league can go lower as it sees fit, just as current amateur leagues have multiple tiers.

I believe I mentioned a Cup competition to replace MLS Cup. This will have 12 teams — eight from Division 1, three from Division 2, and the team from Division 3 that progressed the farthest in the Open Cup.

So why does the clickbait headline say we can do pro/rel better than England? Here’s why:

Until recently, England kept a strict barrier between “League” and “Non-League.” The Non-League clubs could apply to replace the last-place League club (92nd on the four-division English ladder), but they rarely were admitted. Now they’re a bit more fluid, with a fifth tier (formerly called the Conference, now called the National League just to confuse everyone) that’s professional-ish.

We can do it better by being more flexible in Division 3 (and to an extent in Division 2). As more clubs are able to move from amateur to professional, we can add more D3 regional leagues.

For decades, professional soccer in England was a zero-sum game. Add one club, and you had to subtract another.

Leaving Division 3 open-ended gives every club a chance to move into the professional ranks when they demonstrate that they’re ready to do so.

And THAT will help youth soccer, too. More professional clubs. More academies.

So we’ll talk about it in more detail on the Ranting Soccer Dad podcast, assuming my conscience doesn’t take revenge somehow for grabbing the third rail of U.S. soccer once again.

Also: I’m doing a survey. If you are a coach or general manager of a USL, NASL, NPSL, PDL, WPSL, UWS, UPSL or high-level USASA team and have not received a survey by the end of the day, please check with your communications manager (to whom I’m emailing the surveys). If that person didn’t receive one, let me know.

Division 2 soccer: Just get on with it!

Two months ago, would anyone have bet on the former Carolina Railhawks landing an NWSL team before the men’s team got out of divisional limbo?

The news that the Western New York Flash will be moving to the Triangle (reported overnight by FourFourTwo, with follow-ups from local soccer-media veterans in Rochester and the Triangle) has shocked the women’s soccer world. Many of us are struggling for coherent responses. The NWSL has been stable through four seasons, adding two teams and moving/losing none. Now the defending champions, a holdover from previous WoSo leagues, have skipped town.

But it also puts some focus on the current turmoil in the lower divisions of men’s professional soccer, which has dragged on and on and on …

In fact, both ends of the Flash-to-Carolina move are still awaiting news on divisional sanctioning. The USL, which includes the Rochester Rhinos, seemed all but set to move up to the second division while the NASL, which includes NCFC (for now — they’re bidding for MLS expansion), was all but dead.

Thanks to the indomitable Peter Wilt, the NASL may no longer be dead. It also may no longer be the NASL, but something with six or seven or 20 teams may continue to occupy the second tier of the U.S. soccer’s pyramid next year.

Now that it’s January, it’s pretty clear whatever happens with D2 and D3 men’s soccer next year will be a stopgap. NASL 3.1 will need to follow through on those expansion plans if it wants to keep fending off the USL for D2 status, and I’m under no illusions that the USA will suddenly go to pro/rel in lower divisions, as much as I think the plans are getting more and more realistic.

And there are some legitimate issues that confuse things here — business models, league ownership groups, etc.

But the longer the divisional-sanctioning and NASL-Walking Dead sagas drag out, the absurd it looks.

Attendance isn’t the only measure of a soccer club’s health, but when you look at Kenn Tomasch’s diligently gathered attendance tables, it’s easy to spot the clubs that really ought to be playing each other at the D2 level:

  • FC Cincinnati (USL)
  • Sacramento Republic (USL)
  • Indy Eleven (NASL)
  • Louisville City (USL)
  • San Antonio FC (USL)
  • Tampa Bay Rowdies (leaving NASL for USL)
  • Ottawa Fury FC (leaving NASL for USL)
  • Miami FC (NASL, though wild spending may be an issue)
  • North Carolina FC (NASL, formerly Carolina Railhawks)
  • Oklahoma City Energy FC (USL)
  • Saint Louis FC (USL)

Add the San Francisco Deltas, the NASL expansion team, and that’s 12. Then pick from a few more possibilities:

  • Richmond Kickers (USL, two decades and counting, just made a facility deal to make roots even stronger but has had pragmatic approach counter to, say, the New York Cosmos)
  • New York Cosmos (NASL, with an apparent white knight bidding to save the team and perhaps with it the entire league)
  • Rochester Rhinos (USL, which once averaged more than 10,000 fans and now has its name on the stadium it has been sharing with the Flash)
  • Charleston Battery (USL — like the Rhinos and Kickers, a staple of lower-division soccer with a good place to play)

That’s 12-16 teams. That’s a viable league out of the gate, and it should attract more teams.

So the message here should be clear:

Just get it done.

Whatever you have to do — give USL’s league owners a stake in D2 revenues, drop the twice-poisoned NASL name, keep the strangely alluring NASL name, pay lip service to promotion/relegation as the NASL has done for a few years … whatever.

Because if there’s one coherent lesson from U.S. soccer history, it’s this: Soccer Wars are not a good thing.

Someone needs to play peacemaker and dealmaker. The sooner, the better.

The 2017 pyramid plan (and pro/rel myths)

In many ways, 2016 was the year the promotion/relegation movement grew up. The shifting landscape, with MLS pushing its expansion plans and the lower divisions getting a makeover, could make such a system more feasible. And some rational folks made a serious effort to wrest control of the movement from the conspiracy theorists and random hate-mongers who have dominated the discussion for too long, like so:

https://twitter.com/DanLoney36/status/813771705801998340

(I’m less skeptical than Dan, having had some decent conversations with some people this year. And yes, a few random dudes who seem to be into soccer more for the feeling of geek superiority than any actual enjoyment of the sport.)

We even have people who have decided concrete steps toward a traditional pyramid might be something other than just yelling at people like me who are nowhere near the decision-makers. Check tech entrepreneur/NPSL team owner Dennis Crowley or the UPSL, which intends to take pro/rel beyond local amateur leagues to a regional semi-pro league. And you can find a few earnest attempts to suggest modified pro/rel, at least as a transition to a more traditional approach down the road.

Of course, that’s not enough for the most zealous pro/rel advocates — or “pro/relouts,” in Steve Holroyd’s terms.

But I’ll offer up a guide for newbies, explaining why those people deserve no attention, a little later in this post.

What I’ll offer up here is an idea for, say, 2020. It includes promotion/relegation at several levels, eventually leading to a pyramid that’s at least as “open” as the one in the Netherlands.

First, let’s define some goals: 

  1. Stability. We don’t want to lose more clubs. We want clubs to have the confidence to build new facilities and invest in youth academies. We want fans to be assured their local club will be there in some form.
  2. Good competition with meaningful games. Exciting and demanding. Those are sometimes mutually exclusive, as anyone who’s ever watched a dour late-season slugfest between two relegation-threatened bus-parkers can attest. (Or a very tentative Cup final, which isn’t just an MLS thing.) But the good usually outweighs the bad.
  3. Fans’ dreams. One of the allures of pro/rel is the notion that a smaller club may one day work its way up the pyramid. The drawback in a lot of leagues around the world is that only a couple of clubs have a reasonable shot at the championship. Ideally, we’d let fans dream about both. (Yes, I know — Leicester City. A classic case of the exception proving the rule.)
  4. Simplicity. My previous attempts at this have been too complicated.

Now here’s an unusual premise, at least in terms of U.S. soccer history:

  1. Distinct “league” and “Cup” events. This gives us a chance to do some intradivisional matches in Cup play, mitigating risk by making it more likely that a “D2” club’s fans will still get a chance to see Giovinco, Morris, etc., in meaningful games.

THE PLAN

League structure:

Division 1: 16 teams, single-table, double round-robin.  League champion crowned in late May/early June (depending on World Cup, Copa America or Gold Cup timing). No playoffs. Bottom three relegated to Division 2.

Division 2: Initially 14-16 teams, mimicking Division 1, but might expand and break into regions — perhaps a 20- or 22-team league in which teams play each team in their region twice and every other team once. Then minimal playoffs — maybe two regional champions play for league title while two regional runners-up play for promotion place.

Divisions 3, 4, maybe 5: Regional pyramids. D1/D2 reserve teams are eligible to play. Structure can vary by region depending on travel needs, climate and other logistics. (Just see how often England has reconfigured leagues at D6-D10 level, and in that case, we’re talking about “travel” that U.S. workers would consider “commutes.”) Promotion and relegation is common, but Division 3 clubs must meet professional standards. Clubs that wish to remain amateur can still go as high as Division 4.

U.S. Open Cup structure:

The biggest change would be condensing much of it to the summer. Early rounds would be played during whatever major international tournament is going on. Late rounds would be played before college season starts, giving PDL and NPSL teams a chance to make runs. Condensing it may also drive up interest — the current Cup suffers from its long dormant periods between rounds.

MLS or U.S. Pro or Anschutz or Wilt or Garber … actually, let’s make it the Eddie Pope Cup:

First round overlaps with regular-season play in October/November. Two-leg aggregate until neutral-site warm-weather final on Dec. 24.

Twelve (12) qualifiers:

  • Top four teams from Division 1 get byes. (Side benefit: At least two of them will also be in CONCACAF play, so the byes will limit fixture congestion. A little.)
  • The next four teams from Division 1 qualify.
  • The top three teams from Division 2 (each of whom has also been promoted) also qualify.
  • The remaining spot goes to whichever professional team advanced the farthest in the Open Cup. (Clubs may opt to pass, in which case the spot goes to the next-best Open Cup team.)

The calendar

January: Winter break, secondary transfer window.

Early/mid-February: Friendlies in warm-weather venues.

March-May: D1 plays 15 league games. D2 roughly the same. D1/D2 champions crowned. Regional leagues play some league games and some Open Cup qualifying rounds.

June-July: International break and several Open Cup rounds. Also potential here for friendlies or mini-Cups within regions — maybe three D1/D2 clubs and the reigning champion of the nearest D3 region, for example.

July-August: Primary transfer window.

August: Open Cup final and start of D1/D2 league play.

August-November: D1 plays 15 league games along with any CONCACAF or early-round Pope Cup games.

December: Pope Cup semifinals and final.

The rules

Sounds almost like England, doesn’t it? The exceptions are that the League Cup analogue should draw a bit more attention, while the FA Cup analogue bows to the reality of amateur teams dependent on college players.

But we’re going to add a few policies that should ease the transition from the MLS single entity and mitigate risk.

  1. Salaries are limited by a “luxury tax” akin to baseball. This gives clubs the freedom to keep together a “superclub” but forces revenue-sharing so other clubs have a chance of keeping up.
  2. Division 1 and Division 2 clubs have shares in SUM.
  3. Clubs own their own trademarks. If a club is no longer capable of competing at the Division 2 level, it is permitted to self-relegate to Division 3.

So that’s the plan. Enjoy. Modify. Debate. It’s a trial balloon. And I plan to do some reporting in the next year to see how much of it is feasible.

THE REALITY CHECK

I like this plan. I really do.

But if it doesn’t come to pass, you know what I’m not going to do? I’m not going to accuse everyone who speaks up against it of being part of some shadowy conspiracy. I’m not going to hold my breath until my face turns blue or sneer at supporters of MLS clubs, Liga MX clubs or whomever.

Because I’m not one of the people — MLS club owners, sponsors, etc. — who has invested millions of dollars into the sport and is looking at the books while bearing responsibility not just for my own investment but for the livelihoods of employees and the credibility of the sport.

It’s really easy to spend other people’s money. It’s a little more difficult to risk your own. That’s why MLS is structured the way it is, and it’s why the NASL never got anywhere close to its goal of attracting so much investment that it would become a de facto top-flight league with so many clubs that it would simply have to do pro/rel.

The NASL had several years to build its sought-after fan base of U.S. soccer supporters hungry for an alternative to MLS. Those fans didn’t care that MLS had the “D1” tag and the NASL did not. And the NASL was free to find sponsors who believed in its model.

It failed.

A few clubs like Indy and Carolina (along with a handful of USL clubs) figured out how to fit their markets well, and one of my goals with the plan I’ve put forth is to give those clubs a clear path to follow Seattle, Portland, Montreal and other “promoted” clubs into Division 1 and all it entails.

Most people understand this reality. Some don’t — at least not yet. Some are beyond hope — they’re clinging to the age-old claim to hipster superiority for loving a sport that the people around them are too stupid to comprehend, like the tedious people we all knew in college who insisted R.E.M. recorded nothing worthwhile after Fables of the Reconstruction. (Coincidentally, Leaving New York just popped up on my Spotify shuffle. Beautiful song.)

But some people are well-intentioned. Some are newer to the conversation — younger, or perhaps new to the sport or to the USA.

And rather than repeat and rehash the myths that have long driven pro/rel talk in this country in 140-character bites on Twitter, I’m going to summarize them here. (Again.)

 

THE MYTHS

Lack of pro/rel is the only thing keeping us from overhauling England, Mexico, etc.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? And no one directly says it that way. It’s generally more like “Why do you think Manchester United is more popular than Columbus?”

I can think of many reasons:

  1. History. The recovery from Munich.  Decades of brilliance under Busby and Ferguson.
  2. Three European championships.
  3. Twenty top-tier championships.
  4. Global brand-building. Their shirts are all over the world. They get money from that and from global television.
  5. Good players, many bought with the money they’ve accumulated from 1-4.
  6. The name “Nobby Stiles.”

It’s not because they were relegated in 1974.

But promotion and relegation make clubs better because they have to compete to avoid the drop!

It’s more incentive for the yo-yo clubs, sure. But even that has pros and cons. In MLS, a team playing out the string with no hope of making the playoffs (which rarely happens until the last month) can try out young players and give veterans one last shot to prove they should come back. In the EPL, you have Aston Villa last season and Swansea this year. Just wretched.

In any case, this assumption would be stronger if I saw the occasional Sunderland shirt. U.S. supporters love Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Celtic and other clubs that aren’t going to get relegated unless they financially implode (Rangers). Those clubs are historical powers that are difficult to dislodge because they have the confidence to spend freely, knowing they ain’t dropping from the money leagues. (Which is actually why you sometimes hear calls for a two-tier Premier League to spread the TV money a little more broadly.)

I do enjoy the Eric Wynalda story about an angry player throwing a boot in a German locker room. Then again, I’ve seen a whiteboard with a freshly punched hole in it in an MLS locker room after an early-season game.

MLS, SUM and U.S. Soccer are conspiring to keep down promotion and relegation!

MLS was founded because FIFA demanded a legitimate First Division league as a condition for hosting the World Cup. Hosting the World Cup is an odd thing to do for a country that doesn’t want anything to threaten the NFL.

If they thought pro/rel was the best business model moving forward, they’d do it. They’ve yet to be convinced, despite all those years of … people yelling at journalists on Twitter. Gee, I thought that would’ve worked.

But they’re all NFL owners

Only a few, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Seattle’s partnership with the Seahawks has been a worse deal than Chicago’s partnership with nobody. And a lot of these owners just love sports. Stan Kroenke has ownership interest in MLS, the NBA, the NHL, the NLL, the NFL … and Arsenal. Lamar Hunt is in three Halls of Fame — soccer, American football and tennis.

Soccer United Marketing is … evil

Hey, the U.S. women’s soccer team has some questions about SUM as well. It’s an easy target. Its books are private, and there’s little question that the goal is to get a piece of the action of any soccer in the USA, televised and/or at U.S. venues.

That said, MLS would have collapsed in 2002 without it, and it has helped lure tons of new investors. And if you think U.S. pro soccer would’ve somehow been better off if MLS had gone under in 2002, I don’t think you’ll find many people who know the facts and agree with you. Soccer was a risky investment in the USA for a long time. Still is, to some extent.

SUM, like MLS itself, was designed to mitigate risk. That’s because everything that had come before it had died before it even had enough clubs to think about pro/rel.

You’re just a paid MLS shill 

A sample:

https://twitter.com/againstMLS/status/815249625934417920

https://twitter.com/againstMLS/status/815241130203815937

https://twitter.com/stevesharptonfc/status/815373967997353985

(I didn’t know I was supposed to finish my D license and then coach a U10 travel team as a prerequisite to writing.)

I’m not sure what else I can do to prove otherwise. Maybe I should take pictures of all my mail every day to show that there’s no paycheck from MLS or SUM? Shall I release my bank records?

I hardly even write about MLS any more. Since I left USA TODAY (where I was already writing far more about UFC than MLS) in 2010, my freelance work has been much more in women’s soccer than men’s. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It’s just that if ESPN emails and asks if you want to go to Germany for the Women’s World Cup, you’re not likely to say, “But I’ll miss three D.C. United games.”

My Twitter feed is diverse. I do much more unpaid shilling for curling and biathlon than I do for MLS. I haven’t counted tweets, but I probably tweeted more in the past three years about Liverpool than I have about any MLS club.

I haven’t been in an MLS pressbox or interviewed an MLS player in a couple of years, so you can’t even raise the “access” argument.

As for others — even TV personalities who are paid to talk about MLS don’t shut down controversy. Alexi Lalas loves debate. Eric Wynalda pushes the fall/spring schedule every chance he gets. Taylor Twellman spends about half of each game broadcast griping about the refs.

You may find a lot of people in journalism or just randomly on Twitter who happen to think soccer in the USA is better with MLS than it would be without it. It’s fair to say MLS isn’t paying all of them.

For the record — I wrote a few fantasy soccer columns for MLSNet (the forerunner of MLSSoccer.com) about 15 years ago. I believe they were run by MLB Advanced Media at the time, and that hasn’t stopped me from saying mean things about baseball. I also wrote a book on MLS history that probably would’ve sold a lot more if it had been more controversial. Maybe we’ll get pro/rel in my lifetime and I can write a sequel.

Or maybe the whole pro/rel controversy is good for my sales? So says a fellow soccer historian who has worked for the Cosmos:

(I love this tweet, David.) 

And here’s the funny thing: I’ve written many posts suggesting ways for pro/rel advocates to move forward and others suggesting actual transition plans (and so on).

U.S. journalists know nothing about the global game

Sports Illustrated and ESPN have gone global in a big way. Fox’s main analysts — Lalas, Wynalda, Brad Friedel — all played in major European leagues, so they just might know a little more than your typical pedantic youth soccer coach on Twitter.

Personally, I grew up with Soccer Made In Germany on PBS. Then I listened to shortwave radio and fussed with my antenna to see if Coventry City had managed to escape again — or I browsed the league tables in Soccer America.

These days, we can just wake up and flip on the TV to watch the Premier League or the Bundesliga. If we have the right cable package, we can watch any live game from the Premier League or the Champions League. (Which is not as easy to do in a lot of other countries.)

We get the concept of promotion/relegation. We just have access to a lot of other facts that point out why it hasn’t happened … yet. (Well, it did a little in the late 90s with the USISL, and it’s part of many amateur leagues.)

There’s no reason the USA should be different from the rest of the world

But it is. Read whatever history book you like — Soccer in a Football World by the late, great Dave Wangerin is the gold standard, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism is also insightful, and a few other books have noted the cultural forces that held back soccer for generations.

The short version: The USA has always been a little insecure about a national identity. We still see it today in our fights over immigration, and those have deep roots. As Dave Chappelle once said (yes, I know I’ve cited this before): “I saw two Irish guys beating an Italian guy — these people are specific.”

So we invent new sports like basketball. Or we invent creation myths like Abner Doubleday’s “invention” of baseball. Anything to avoid doing things associated with the old country.

As someone who worked in journalism in the 1990s and had to fight for every bit of soccer coverage, I can tell you how ingrained that cultural antipathy really is.

It’s changing, yes. Millennials, generally (but not always) more enlightened about race and ethnicity, have embraced soccer. Kids at my sons’ schools wear plenty of Messi and EPL shirts.

But it has taken a long time. And when you’re evaluating decisions made in 1993 or 2002, you have to bear that in mind.

If we had pro/rel, tons of people would invest in small clubs

This happens on occasion overseas. A tycoon buys a favorite club (say, Hoffenheim) and climbs the ladder. Or a club like AFC Wimbledon replaces a club that moved elsewhere. But it’s not frequent (in part because sagas like Wimbledon-to-Milton Keynes are infrequent, at least outside of Mexico).

Besides, England barely had any clubs move from the fifth tier to the fourth for generations. The Netherlands has barely eased into pro/rel between the two pro divisions and the amateur ranks in the past decade.

Actually, if you want someone to take over your local club and move it up, the current U.S. system works pretty well for that. A lot of current MLS success stories were in lower divisions over the years. But at the same time, a lot of clubs have dropped from the professional ranks to go amateur. It’s cheaper. It’s less risk. They’re not interested in being “promoted” to a professional league in which their teams would be overmatched and they would play a longer schedule in which they couldn’t use college players.

If we can get new leadership at U.S. Soccer, we can make it happen

I’m looking into this. I’ve pored over thousands of pages of U.S. Soccer governance documents. I found nothing about pro/rel discussions and a whole lot about mundane issues like referee certifications.

Whatever you do, though, you can’t simply impose a system that immediately devalues investments that have been built up over the last 20 years. You have to come up with something that works for everyone, which is what I’ve tried to do above. Otherwise, you’re going to be in court for a very long time, and U.S. soccer history shows such battles don’t result in something better.

You also can’t sanction a league that has never been proposed. U.S. Soccer can’t make the NASL and USL play nicely together as is. They’re not in a position to make one relegate to the other. But perhaps, given the current turmoil in lower divisions, there’s an opportunity for the federation to take a leadership role and encourage clubs to come together and try something different.

THE GOOD NEWS

I think pro/rel is much closer to reality than it was 10 years ago. The soccer audience in this country has grown exponentially. MLS may soon have nearly 30 clubs with the infrastructure to play Division 1 soccer, and a handful of lower-division clubs may also be ready to make the leap. And the notion of having national “lower divisions” is proving less and less feasible — better to have regional pyramids.

So my plan is designed to get us partway there. If you think it’s too incremental, may I once again point you to the Netherlands and other countries that have only recently opened the pyramid in full (and even now have some limits and modifications)?

If I had all-encompassing power over soccer in the USA, I’d make my plan happen and then see how it goes. Maybe in a few years, we’d partially open the gate between Division 2 and Division 3, as they did in the Netherlands in the late 2000s. Maybe a few years after that, we could have the system England fully implemented in the last couple of decades.

But it doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen without a lot of capital that has to be raised with sound business plans. And it doesn’t happen by being obnoxious on social media. If it did, we’d surely have a nine-tier pyramid by now with hundreds of fully professional club, and the last I checked, we didn’t.

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

Or, to rephrase, are they necessary?

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

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

First, the history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But 2 million? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yet another promotion/relegation idea you’ll all ignore

Imagine there’s no NASL. Imagine there’s no USL. The brand names and any baggage associated with them are gone.

Instead, you have the U.S. Pro League. (OK, I’m not good at coming up with names, but I think it should be something generic, and “the Football League” is taken. Maybe just get the sponsor’s name: “The Bud League” or something like that.)

This would be the league that fills the USA’s D2 and D3 designations.

And yes, it would have promotion/relegation.

With caveats. The MLS reserve teams would stay in D3, which would be largely regional. But the top D3 teams could move up to D2, and the bottom D2 teams would drop.

Here’s what we accomplish with this system:

  1. We have a clearly defined top level of play below MLS for clubs that aren’t quite ready for MLS but maybe a little too big to consider “LA Galaxy II” a rival.
  2. That top level of play is defined by how well a club is doing at that period in time. The 1999 Rochester Rhinos would clearly be in that top level. The 2015 Rochester Rhinos might not. (Or maybe they would — they’re leading their USL division at the moment.) If my beloved Wilmington Hammerheads put together a good run, they get to run with the relatively big dogs.
  3. We get a chance to experiment with pro/rel at the highest level possible before we consider doing with MLS, which has, it bears repeating, invested hundreds of billions of dollars to jump-start professional soccer in this country. (I took out the “hundreds of.” Not sure it would add up to that much. But I think 10 figures is safe. MLS had lost $250 million at one point — lost, not just spent — and it’s still investing at a loss today.)

After a couple of years of this system, perhaps we ease into some pro/rel with MLS. I’d suggest doing it the same way England did for years — not with full-fledged pro/rel but with elections.

A few things I’d suggest:

  1. U.S. Pro League clubs have the option of declaring themselves promotion candidates. That would mean, over a two- or three-year period, they have to meet certain criteria for Division 1.
  2. MLS can put certain underperforming clubs (“underperforming” in many senses — financial, lack of academy development, etc.) on notice that they risk being voted out.
  3. When you have a year in which a promotion candidate is in the top three of USPL and an underperforming club is in the bottom three of MLS, you have an election. Could have multiple clubs involved in a given year.

So this way, you’re not simply tossing down a club that’s having a bad year and decided to experiment with young players and new tactics in its last few games. A relegated club will be one that clearly deserves it. A promoted club, conversely, will be up to MLS standards.

Eventually, perhaps, you move into simpler pro/rel — three up, three down. But then you’d do what I think the Premier League desperately needs to do, forming a second tier of the top league so that the drop is not so perilous.

That said, maybe we make the drop “not so perilous” in the first place by offering up a good revenue stream — shares in Soccer United Marketing. An MLS promotion candidate would be expected to buy a share in SUM, which would entitle it to the revenue it produces whether the club is promoted on not.

This isn’t the first pro/rel idea I’ve suggested, and no, I’m not really sure why I do it. We’ve established there’s no pleasing the contingent within the pro/rel advocacy subset that defines itself has smarter or hipper than thou. If we suddenly re-created the German league structure in the USA, they’d probably become rugby fans.

But it’s fun to kick around ideas every once in a while. Have fun with this one.