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.)

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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.)

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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?

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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:

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

Youth soccer survey: Happy with your area’s leagues?

Parents, coaches, technical directors, administrators, whoever … please let me know what you think. I’ll likely do a story on the results.

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The real controversies of U.S. Soccer in 2016

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 …)

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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?

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?

 

Tripping back through soccer-chatting archives

Seems fitting that a new-ish soccer site would launch by paying tribute to the early days of online soccer-gabbing.

That’s exactly what Jason Davis, Trevor Hayward and a new site called Backheel did. And they were nice enough to include my thoughts, along with those of several others who were part of the wild roller-coaster of sharing soccer information and discussion on this newfangled thing called the Internet.

Bruce McGuire, the man behind the DuNord blog and its terrific daily news wrap, has long called soccer “the sport of the Internet.” And there’s no doubt the Internet gave soccer a huge boost. (I’ve covered two sports that thrived in new media — soccer and MMA. Coincidentally, Bruce is also a fan of both.)

The old North American Soccer mailing list was full of lively and occasionally pointed discussions. But it was also a clearinghouse for information you weren’t likely to get elsewhere. If you wanted a report on an A-League game, you weren’t likely to find one unless the local paper had (A) an interest in covering its local team and (B) a fully functional website. Thanks to NAS, you’d have one waiting in your inbox with a subject line like “NAS Carolina-Rochester (R) – another brawl breaks out.”

From there, people branched out. They formed independent news sites, trying to fill the void in coverage on events like the U.S. Open Cup. They flocked to BigSoccer, where a lot of us spent our Saturday mornings giving each other updates on European games with U.S. players. (Hey, Joe-Max is getting in the game for Everton!) Some of us working at smaller papers got jobs at bigger papers and started sneaking more and more soccer coverage onto the websites.

And this was itself a branch of rec.sport.soccer, which had compiled a simple and comprehensive archive of global results that’s still up on the web in its 1995-HTML glory.

We also had a wonderful sense of serendipity. Look at the topics covered on a typical day in 1995: A-League results and tables (including one in 3-1-0 format, which the league wasn’t using), analysis of the U.S. U-23 midfield, a rant on the USISL Boston Storm (with Preston Burpo!), a request to find a bar showing Copa America in Philly, Mexican coaching rumors, etc. Another day has discussion of the as-yet-unnamed New York/New Jersey and Washington MLS teams, the news that Preki had won the CISL’s MVP award, a look ahead to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, a CISL recap (Dallas Sidekicks drew a league-record 16,427 fans), and this age-old complaint: “If MLS thinks they can sell soccer on artificial turf they are dreaming in technicolor!”

I might be overromanticizing the sense of community we had in those days. We were surely a fractious bunch. We argued about the direction MLS would take and what would happen to the A-League and other then-USL divisions.  But there was a sense that we were all in this together and that a rising tide would lift all boats.

And what I’m not overromanticizing is what a lifeline this was. I could go to Soccernet, which was literally a father-and-son operation at the outset, and check the latest standings in Europe. That, plus the still-indispensable Soccer America, gave me some sense of the context for the broadcast I would hear when I aimed my shortwave radio’s antenna out the window to listen to the BBC.

It’s easy to take everything for granted now. We wake up on the weekends, flip on the TV and listen to Rebecca Lowe hosting NBC’s uber-professional coverage of the Premier League. We have our pick of sites for live scores and lineups. We can dissect games in real time on Twitter. Feedly can scour all of our favorite news sources for the latest stories.

So that community has fractured a bit. Now the East Coasters all hate the smug Cascadians who think they invented soccer supporter culture. MLS isn’t progressing quickly enough for some tastes, and the arguments lead to accusations of self-interest rarely seen this side of the Koch brothers. Everyone thinks he’s the only person in the world who pays attention to the Open Cup and everyone else is out to silence it.

Such things come with progress. And that’s good. MLS would look quite ridiculous playing by the same allocation rules it had in 1996, not to mention the shootout. Lower-division soccer collapsed but is finding its roots again. And the world’s best players are on U.S. TVs almost as often as Spongebob.

The past was fun. The present and future are even better.

The never-ending quest for youth soccer talent

Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel has a must-read piece for anyone interested in U.S. soccer development: Alianza soccer program exposes overlooked Latino youth to elite training opportunities.

The details are worth reading, but for purposes of continuing without plagiarism, here’s the gist of it: A program called Alianza de Futbol is finding young Hispanic players in the USA who may not have had an opportunity to play elite youth ball.

In reading it, I thought of two people who nearly fell through the cracks:

– Andy Najar. Coincidentally, Tenorio wrote about his high school team adjusting to losing him to D.C. United. After moving from Honduras to Alexandria, Va., he was “discovered” playing pickup soccer at school.

– Clint Dempsey. He played a lot of pickup soccer and only made it big in club soccer when his family started making the lengthy drives to get him to Dallas.

No, Dempsey isn’t Hispanic, as far as I know. So this isn’t simply a question of ethnicity.

And Dempsey’s story may be more emblematic of the basic problem with U.S. youth development: This is a really, really big country. You’re not likely to have elite clubs everywhere. The next great soccer player could be in North Dakota, his or her parents drawn northward by the energy boom. He or she could be busing tables in New Mexico. Or in the inner city, geographically close to large clubs but financially and socially miles away. They could even be in a comfortable suburb but unable to make the time commitment to a major travel club because both parents are working and can’t drive them all over creation to practice and play 3-5 days/nights a week.

It’s not as if U.S. Soccer isn’t making an effort to find them. From Tenorio’s story:

The Alianza showcases are similar to the larger scale efforts of U.S. soccer to reach some of the same communities. U.S. soccer stages several hundred free “training centers” per year in cities across the country to identify players outside of its academy structure.

That’s good. It’ll never be enough.

And that’s one reason why I think soccer people need to pay a bit more attention to high school soccer. Not everyone can make the time and money commitment to play club soccer. High school soccer just extends the time a student spends on school grounds, which is actually a good thing for parents who are often scrambling to get kids home in mid-afternoon.

Another factor in scouting youth: As much as we don’t like to admit it, good athletes can sometimes pick up soccer skills in a hurry. I see kids in my U11 rec league who are new to soccer but have quickly progressed past players who have been in “travel” since they were 9. Some of those kids will play travel; some won’t. But we may see them at tryouts for the high school team.

And you see it among older players. When I took my E license class, one of the other students was a young Hispanic guy who drew attention with a 40-yard blast off a crossbar and his ability to leap for a header and snap his body like a salmon twisting in midair. Did he play in college? Sort of. He played basketball.

Stereotyping, as a lot of well-intentioned but arrogant coaches and pundits so often do, doesn’t help the search for talent. (No, coach — your inner-city program, as nice as it may be, is not the sole force pushing a revolution in the U.S. talent pool.) The next great player could be kicking around on a dirt field in the exurbs. Or playing basketball. So the pool has to be vast, broad and diverse — and not just along ethnic lines.

Where does this leave the Development Academy, which comes off as a bureaucratic ogre in Tenorio’s piece on Alianza? As much as Jurgen Klinsmann and company may try, it will never, ever be the only path to elite soccer.

As long as we remember that, the Academy will be fine. Just remember to keep those players humble so they don’t freak out when some kid from the streets of Nacogdoches, Alexandria or Rogers (Arkansas, home of the player in Tenorio’s lead) turns out to be their equal in the talent pool.

Dispatches from the U.S. soccer culture wars

From Tarkus to Fury, the artistically inclined people among us have sketched out portraits of conflict that just keeps going and going, eventually devouring the war-weary veteran and the new enlistee alike.

(At least, I think that’s what Tarkus is about. I get lost somewhere in the middle of Keith Emerson’s fourth keyboard solo.)

And so it goes with what Charles Boehm has succinctly labeled the Soccer Culture War.

Some people are willing, even enthusiastic participants. Some aren’t, but they feel some twisted sense of duty.

Like a lot on conflicts, the root is more rhetorical than real. Deep down, most of the warriors all want the same thing — good soccer in the United States. But fragile identities and defensiveness make us easy to call out.

(Yes, The Simpsons riffed on that scene last season, one of the more esoteric pop-culture references in show history.)

Let’s look at the issues and the opinions:

Promotion/relegation is something U.S. professional soccer …

  1. … really needs to do as soon as possible, and we shouldn’t take MLS seriously in the meantime.
  2. … should work toward in 10 years or so, and it would make us all feel a lot better about MLS if we knew it was in the future.
  3. … may be in position to consider in 10 years or so, but it really doesn’t affect how we feel about MLS at the moment.
  4. … can never consider. Ever.

Most people fall in the “2” or “3” category. But I think most of the online battles take place between the “1” and “3” groups, with the occasional rant from a “4” and some interjections from the “2” group.

The single-entity structure in MLS …

  1. … is proof that this is just a bunch of NFL owners trying to squeeze money out of a sport they don’t care about it, and it inhibits clubs from competing about anything.
  2. … is something the league may have needed in the first decade or so but needs to hurry up and dismantle.
  3. … is something from which the league has gradually moved away and should continue to do so by eliminating its vestigial restrictions on player movement.
  4. … (OK, honestly, I have no idea what the “4” group would be here.)

Again, the loudest group is “1.” You can have productive discussions between “2” and “3.”

Soccer fans in this country are as likely or more likely to watch European or Mexican soccer than MLS because …

  1. … MLS has single-entity and no pro/rel, which obviously makes all its players stink like an overflowing hog waste lagoon.
  2. … MLS isn’t quite doing enough to improve the quality of play. It can’t catch the EPL in the foreseeable future, but it needs to make a few strides.
  3. … these overseas leagues have generations of history and giant fan bases that allow them to spend freely on players and/or bring them up through well-established academy programs, and soccer is better entrenched in those countries as the top sport by far. (Which is not the case in, say, India, China, Australia, etc.)
  4. … they’re snobs who feel the need to differentiate themselves to feel superior to others. They used to be able to do that by being soccer fans in a country of baseball and gridiron fans, but now that the soccer fan base has grown, they have to be part of a more elite subset.

Again, I’m probably a “3,” but I see the “4” group’s point. And “2.”

People who watch MLS …

  1. … are ignorant tools who are content with mediocrity and don’t want anything better.
  2. … support the domestic league despite its faults, and it’d be great if they could also demand more change.
  3. … feel that the only way the league will improve will be if it’s stable and bringing in more money to invest in players and academies.
  4. … are patriotic Americans.

See the pattern? The “2” and “3” groups differ only in the details.

The NASL …

  1. … is the home of true American soccer because the commissioner says he wouldn’t mind seeing pro/rel at some point, and it’s only a matter of time before they start outbidding MLS on players (even though no one has shown much interest in doing that beyond the occasional fringe player).
  2. … is an interesting league that may provide just a bit of competition to keep MLS on its toes.
  3. … is a second division, no different from the old A-League (which actually did experiment with pro/rel but didn’t get very far), that is valuable because it put professional soccer in more cities and allows some owners to test the waters before moving to MLS.
  4. … has delusional fans.

“4” is certainly an extreme generalization. “1” is pretty ridiculous and doesn’t mesh with the way NASL teams are actually acting.

The U.S. soccer media …

  1. … is totally in the pocket of MLS and the USSF. Or scared to lose their credentials. Or just idiots. Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.
  2. … needs to take a harder look at what’s holding back MLS and U.S. Soccer.
  3. … are diverse and rapidly growing, from independent bloggers to mainstream media reporters who now have soccer as their primary beat (or only beat) rather than a secondary or tertiary thing … or even something they used to hide from editors.
  4. … are just great.

I don’t think “4” actually exists. “2” has valid points. “3” is absolutely correct. Just consider Sports Illustrated — a few years ago, Grant Wahl covered soccer and college basketball. Now he’s one of a handful of soccer specialists.

And finally, the most recent flare-up …

Jurgen Klinsmann’s fretting over U.S. players returning to MLS …

  1. … is right on! Go, Jurgen! And how dare Don Garber oppress him by disagreeing!
  2. … is a legitimate concern, perhaps inelegantly expressed but still valid.
  3. … misses the mark because the players in question found better situations in MLS than they had in Europe, and players should always seek out the best situation rather than simply assuming the top European leagues are better.
  4. … proves that he’s clueless. Fire Klinsmann!

To sum up … if you find yourself most often associated with one of these groups, you are …

  1. … a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist who is probably on my “block” list on Twitter.
  2. … reasonable. Perhaps easily offended from the occasional interaction with a “4,” but you can be talked back into a productive discussion on the issues.
  3. … too reasonable. Get over yourself and argue with the rest of us.
  4. … too cynical, having been through too many of these arguments.

The people who’ve been around the longest tend to be “4.” We’ve discussed a lot of these issues since the old days of the North American Soccer mailing list and the launch of MLS. And the “1” list dominated conversation for too long.

I think the “2” group is growing. They skew younger, asking legitimate questions about why MLS and U.S. Soccer are the way they are. Show them the answers, and they’ll understand but continue to seek ways to push everything toward Eurotopia.

The “3” group needs a nap.

One day, we may have pro/rel in this country, and we may see little difference between the way MLS operates and the way the Bundesliga operates. (My guess is that the Bundesliga will lead the way in pushing “Financial Fair Play” so that its teams don’t explode in spectacular fashion.) But if that happens, it won’t be because of someone unreasonably screamed for it on Twitter.

Milhouse: We gotta spread this stuff around. Let’s put it on the internet!

Bart: No! We have to reach people whose opinions actually matter!

That said, I think some good could come of talking through all these issues. MLS has a history of talking with and listening to its supporters. So if you’re for that, go ahead.

If you’re screaming at me, of all people, now four years removed from USA TODAY and with no major pro men’s soccer platform, I’m just going to block you. Life’s too short for all these wars.

MLS, USA and Canada 2022: One vision

One vision of how professional soccer could look in eight years:

The 2022 MLS season kicked off with all 24 teams for the third straight season. The teams are divided into two conferences. Each team plays its conference rivals twice and then each team from the other conference once, for a total of 34 games.

The league is also in its third year under a new collective bargaining agreement. The 2020 edition replaced the salary “budget” (which most people called a “cap”) with a “luxury tax,” akin to what has been seen in Major League Baseball for years and was adopted by Germany’s Bundesliga in 2016. “Designated Players” still exist and are partially exempt from the salary accounting. If the team’s adjusted salary expenditures exceed $10 million, they pay into a revenue-sharing pool.

With MLS already ditching limits on free agency in the 2015 CBA, the league now operates under the same rules as the Bundesliga and several other European leagues. Mexico’s league, conversely, fell on hard times in 2017 when the broadcasting consortium carrying 12 of the 18 teams’ games broke apart.

The newer teams include SCSC Wanderers, the Southern California team that replaced Chivas USA in 2016. The New York Cosmos joined in 2017, having returned to the team’s traditional home of New Jersey by purchasing the former Red Bull Arena, now called PeleArena.

Without a doubt, the league’s biggest turnaround story was in Miami. The stadium was built near sea level and was quickly and permanently flooded by the rising Atlantic Ocean. An infusion of cash led to a clever reclamation of the land, and a desalinization plant hums quietly next to the stadium. Fans access the stadium via a colorful pontoon bridge that revitalized the rundown oceanfront. Real Salt Lake fans still tease Miami fans about borrowing the tune of their traditional song, but they respect the perseverance of fans who march to games singing, “If you believe, then you walk across the bridge …”

Miami and the NWSL benefited from the same generous sponsor — a former Stanford women’s soccer player who developed a combination vaccine for Ebola and all strains of the flu. She has set up global health nonprofits with much of her money but also bought a 50% share of Miami Mariners FC and set up a unique sponsorship endowment for the NWSL, which has 16 teams and high-rated weekly games on ESPN2. Portland Timbers/Thorns owner Merritt Paulson was so moved by her generosity that he paid to have all NWSL stadiums’ turf replaced with grass.

Back to the competitive aspects of MLS — MLS Cup is now contested solely by the winners of the East and West conferences. The other rounds of the playoffs were eliminated in 2018 as other Cup competitions took pre-eminence.

The early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup are now contested largely in the six-week break of the MLS and NASL seasons for the World Cup, Copa America or Gold Cup. Amateur and low-level professional teams play knockout games for the first three weeks, with many games broadcast as shoulder programming for the major international competitions. The NASL teams join in Week 4, then MLS teams in Week 5.

The top eight amateur teams in the Open Cup play a one-week tournament in mid-August for the revamped U.S. Amateur Cup. This is the only national amateur competition, as the PDL and NPSL — before they merged with the USASA in 2019 — realized they were cheating a lot of players out of playing time by cutting short the regular season to have national playoffs. College players are able to stay with their teams longer because the revamped fall/spring NCAA schedule starts in early September rather than late August.

Elite year-round amateur teams have joined low-level professional teams in USL regional leagues with promotion and relegation. The amateur teams are still eligible for the Amateur Cup, while the pro teams have a late-October national championship — the Peter Wilt Cup, named after the new FIFA president.

Canada, which oversaw the formation of three successful regional pro/am leagues in the late 2010s, has a similar system. U.S. women’s amateur competition is also similar.

The other important U.S. cup competition is the Disney Cup in February, drawing together the MLS Cup champion, the MLS Cup runner-up, the next-best MLS team, the NASL Soccer Bowl champion, the Peter Wilt Cup winner and the Open Cup winner. They play in three-team round-robin groups, with the winners advancing to the final and runners-up advancing to a third-place game. The top team that isn’t already qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League earns a berth in that competition.

Youth development took a major leap forward in 2018, when U.S. Soccer president Robb Heineman successfully lobbied FIFA to clarify its rules on transfer payments so that any U.S. youth club is due a transfer fee for the signing of any player. Wilt’s leadership helped pave the way for that much-needed change along with the re-awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Australia.

The Development Academy now includes women’s competition, and World Club Champion Lyon made headlines early in 2022 by paying an international-record $7 million transfer fee for Sky Blue Academy prospect Rylie Rampone. That fee helped to stabilize the finances at partner club NYCFC, which had been reeling when Manchester City’s ownership pulled back after the world’s oil ran out in 2020.

Within MLS, there is some movement toward promotion/relegation, with the biggest stumbling block being adequate compensation for those who have paid either the initial start-up costs of the league or paid expansion fees. The league is talking with its broadcast partners to pay enough to make such a system feasible and broadcast some lower-division games. But pro/rel talk also has split the NASL, which had to institute a formal salary cap after a group of oil magnates started a team in St. Louis and immediately spent twice as much on players as the rest of the league combined. That team folded when … well, again, the world ran out of oil.

So that’s one vision of soccer in the USA and Canada in 2022. If you disagree with any part of it, of course, you’re a corrupt individual with no imagination. (Inside joke.)

In any case, the comments should be fun. Have at it.

American Outlaws and old-school U.S. soccer collegiality

The controversy about the American Outlaws and the upcoming USA-Mexico game in USA-Mexicoville (also known as Columbus) has gone through three stages:

1. Multiple reports said Outlaws from Seattle had basically taken over planning crowd activities for the USA-Mexico game. Columbus fans, who take special pride in their quadrennial duties of welcoming Mexico to a stadium with a history of inglorious moments for the visitors, were miffed. Many other U.S. fans were miffed on their behalf.

2. The Outlaws, backed by U.S. Soccer, said it was all much ado about nothing. All incorrect. Internet rumor and hearsay.

But before you could say “This reporter promises to be more trusting and less vigilant in the future” (Simpsons quote I swear I almost tweeted as soon as I saw the denials), people were calling b.s. That leads us to …

3. “Hey, if you’re going to deny something, you’d better be sure you took care of the witnesses.”

Dan Loney has summed up the situation quite well, and Bill Archer chimed in with some informative comments from his own digging around.

So as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a bit skeptical about the conclusion that this was all misinformation. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding, inasmuch as Columbus fans could reasonably be expected to interpret the conference call and other communications of the past month as anything other than, “Yeah, we’re going to tell you guys how to do things.”

And I’m with Dan in the sense that the whole notion of having “capos”  feels artificial to me. Maybe I was harsh when I suggested that it was one step away from having cheerleaders. Maybe I wasn’t.

I can draw one parallel to college basketball. The crowd at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium went significantly downhill when it started to rely on “cheer sheets.” Sure, a few things were pre-planned — the Twinkies tossed on the floor upon Dennis Scott’s introduction didn’t magically appear in the ancient arena. But the best cheers sprang organically from the crowd, and Duke fans of my (long-ago) era took pride in that. Funneling a crowd’s creative power through a handful of know-it-alls in the crowd just dulls the creativity.

But something else is getting lost — something more specific to soccer.

In the mid-90s, soccer fans in this country were all in the same boat. The sport was derided, and supposedly intelligent media folks would all tell you this country would never support legitimate pro soccer.

The Internet was helping fans come together. My first experience meeting serious soccer fans was on the North American Soccer mailing list, where people shared A-League and USISL match reports along with some debate over the issues of the day.

And yes, we had plenty of issues. U.S. leagues were experimenting with every manner of rule change under the sun. Teams that fouled too much in the USISL would concede an in-game shootout attempt. Kick-ins, bigger goals and incomprehensible bonus points in the standings were all on the table.

We also had a couple of agitators, most notably the guy who ran a site with the novel concept of rounding up satellite TV listings so people could actually find soccer games to watch — maybe an A-League game on a regional network or Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan on some obscure channel. Valuable public service, but it’s safe to say he made his share of enemies on the list.

The reason he stands out is that the rest of the conversation was collegial. People argued rule changes — and, yes, promotion/relegation came up. But we knew we were all trying to maintain a foothold for the sport in a hostile environment. That was a group effort. List members would argue for traditional European systems, then drive to an Atlanta Ruckus game.

Perhaps I’m overromanticizing, or perhaps I’m channeling Grumpy Old Man. But I think we’ve lost a bit of our belief in common goals. And our sense of history. Or perhaps our sense that supporter culture should debated and discussed among the grass roots, not enforced from the top down.