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.

 

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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.

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.

Brazilian style (leagues) in the USA?

The United States is, in addition to all the things mentioned in my soccer culture post, a nation of tinkerers. We want to fix things or improve them.

That’s not to say Europe is bereft of innovation — they’ve certainly done a better job of, say, integrating alternative power sources.  But when it comes to sports, we’re far more likely to take things that already work and rethink them. The NFL changes rules more often than I shop for shoes. Wake up an NHL fan who was cryogenically frozen in 2002, and he or she might not make sense of the standings.

In soccer, we’ve often been a laboratory — sometimes with FIFA’s assistance or insistence, sometimes not. Shootouts. Bonus points. For old-time USL/USISL fans, the blue card.

These days, all our ideas veer toward the more traditional. Shootouts are gone. Overtime is gone. As much as I would love to see what League One America rules look like in action, it’s not going to happen. We debate single table and single entity, and we even the occasional promotion/relegation idea that’s nearly workable. (It just needs some way to even things out between clubs that made megamillion investments and those who would play their way in. I’m not a big fan of giant expansion fees, either, but you do have to consider that we’re trying to build the same infrastructure in 20 years that has been built in other countries — where soccer is the dominant sport — over a century or more.)

So here’s an idea borrowed from Brazil with a bit of a twist to solve a couple of uniquely North American problems …

Regional leagues running part of the year.

In Brazil, clubs play in state leagues for the first few months of the year before shifting to national competition. The state pyramids and the national pyramid are mostly separate — a team could theoretically be in the first division nationally and a lower division in its state league. (I can’t find a current example, though.)

The climate in the USA and Canada won’t let us play year-round as they do in Brazil. A regional league in the spring and national leagues (MLS, NASL, USL) in the summer and fall won’t leave enough time.

But we have an interesting window for regional leagues — the international break that we currently aren’t taking in MLS.

This year, CONCACAF’s Gold Cup runs through most of July. National teams will assemble a couple of weeks before that, so figure on about a five-week window. MLS will muddle through without its CONCACAF internationals. In other years, we have the World Cup or the upcoming pan-American Copa America. (Yes, I know the winter Qatar World Cup will mess everything up, but let’s ignore that for the moment.)

During that stretch, suppose we suspended the national leagues and played regional leagues?

And yes, I’m talking about leagues with promotion/relegation. Why not? These leagues wouldn’t affect the structure of MLS. A club with a 5,000-seat stadium that couldn’t play in MLS could still compete with MLS clubs in a short regional league system.

So we solve several problems:

1. MLS finally gets a full international break.

2. Players who aren’t on international duty get to keep playing.

3. Stadiums still get meaningful games, and not just the one-offs of the Open Cup. (Incidentally, this is the year an NASL club wins the Open Cup. MLS teams will be weakened for the fifth round and quarterfinals, and it’s clear the NASL really wants that trophy.)

4. Lower-division teams get to test themselves against the big pro clubs, albeit weakened versions of those clubs. They should be able to sell a few tickets for those games, too.

5. “Summer league” teams in the PDL and NPSL get more interesting competition.

6. Pro/rel fans get to see pro/rel leagues. Maybe it’ll open the door for national pro/rel down the road, maybe not.

Five weeks doesn’t give us a lot of time, so we’re probably talking about four teams playing a double round-robin or maybe seven teams playing a single round-robin.

A couple of sample leagues with the initial divisional setup (based mostly on last year’s standings, so I haven’t verified to see if all these clubs … you know … still exist):

TEXAS/OKLAHOMA LEAGUE

Division 1: Dallas (MLS), Houston (MLS), San Antonio (NASL), Oklahoma City (USL)

Division 2: Austin (PDL), Laredo (PDL), Tulsa (NPSL), Oklahoma City (NPSL)

Division 3: Corinthians San Antonio (NPSL), Dallas City (NPSL), Midland/Odessa (PDL), Houston Dutch Lions (PDL)

Division 4: NTX Rayados (USASA), Liverpool Warriors (NPSL), Fort Worth (NPSL), Houston Regals SCA (NPSL)

CASCADIA LEAGUE

Division 1: Portland (MLS), Seattle (MLS), Vancouver (MLS), Edmonton (NASL)

Division 2: Kitsap (PDL), Victoria (PDL), Washington (PDL), Tacoma (NPSL)

Division 3: North Sound (PDL), Spartans (NPSL), Khalsa (PCSL), USASA team

MID-ATLANTIC LEAGUE

Division 1: D.C. United (MLS), Philadelphia (MLS), Carolina (NASL), Richmond (USL)

Division 2: Harrisburg (USL), Baltimore (PDL), Reading (PDL), Carolina (PDL)

Division 3: King’s Warriors (PDL), Gate City (NPSL), Virginia Beach (NPSL), Maryland Bays (USASA)

I’m not sure about including reserve teams here, given the already-weakened senior squads. If they play, I’d limit them to Division 3 or lower.

Within a couple of years, maybe we’d see some amateur teams establish themselves in D2. Maybe an MLS coach will be grousing about relegation to D2, and we’ll all yell at that guy to win a few games and get back up.

Maybe it’s a crazy idea. But if there’s a negative other than giving up a couple of MLS games when the teams are missing their internationals, I don’t see it.

U.S. Open Cup: Top 14 teams and upset history

Through May 23, 2014, lower-division teams have beaten MLS teams 66 times. (MLS teams have won 160.) And based on a whole lot of spreadsheets, we can declare one particular lower-division team the most accomplished team in the Open Cup.

The PDL is 38-87 against non-MLS pro leagues. But other amateur leagues are less successful against D2 and D3: 10-72.

For purposes of these upset lists, I haven’t separated D2 from D3. To my surprise, D2 (A-League/USL-1/USSF D-2/NASL) is 38-12 against D3 (D3 Pro/USL-2/USL Pro) since 1997. But the difference today is debatable. The Cup gives us scant evidence: Since 2010, when USSF D-2 split from the USL, D2 and D3 are 3-3 against each other. But against MLS teams, NASL teams (6-9, 40%) are more successful than USL Pro teams (9-21, 30%).

That’s assuming I didn’t miss anything in copying and pasting all the results from 1996 to 2014 from TheCup.us, cleaning up the data for easy sorting and searching, writing formulas to take each league name into account, etc.

Here is, to the best of my knowledge and spreadsheeting ability, a list of every U.S. Open Cup upset since MLS teams joined in 1996:

[gview file=”https://duresport.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/u-s-open-cup-history-formatted.pdf”%5D

As with the FA Cup, once a top-tier team gets to the later rounds, it gets a bit more serious about the competition. That shows when we look at the quarterfinalists and semifinalists:

[gview file=”https://duresport.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/u-s-open-cup-history-rounds.pdf”%5D

In typical soccer fashion, I’m going to take a whole bunch of data and then make a subjective judgment. I added up all the wins and all the runs, then ranked each team’s accomplishments based on how much they overachieved. In other words, a PDL team beating a couple of pro teams is roughly equivalent to an MLS team reaching the final.

Here goes, in reverse order:

14. Carolina RailHawks (USL-1/USSF D-2/NASL): 13 wins in seven years (through 2013). 1-time semifinalist. 4 wins over MLS teams.

  • 2007 (USL-1): Semifinalist. Beat Chicago Fire.
  • 2012 (NASL): Beat Los Angeles.
  • 2013 (NASL): Quarterfinalist. Beat Los Angeles and Chivas USA.

13. Columbus Crew (MLS): 19 wins, 1 Cup, 2-time runner-up, 1-time semifinalist.

  • 1998: Runner-up
  • 1999: Semifinalist
  • 2002: Champion
  • 2010: Runner-up

12. Kansas City Wizards / Sporting Kansas City (MLS): 18 wins, 2 Cups, 1-time semifinalist.

  • 2002: Semifinalist
  • 2004: Champion
  • 2012: Champion

11. Harrisburg City Islanders (USL-2/USL Pro): 15 wins, 5 over MLS teams.

  • 2007: Quarterfinalist. Beat D.C. United.
  • 2009: Quarterfinalist. Beat New England (away).
  • 2010: Quarterfinalist. Beat New York Red Bulls.
  • 2012: Quarterfinalist. Beat New England and New York Red Bulls.

10. Wilmington Hammerheads (PSL/USL-2/USL Pro): 15 wins, 2 over MLS teams.

  • 2003 (USL Pro): Quarterfinalist. Beat Atlanta Silverbacks  (A-League) 2-1, beat Dallas Burn (MLS) 4-1.
  • 2006: Round of 16, again beating Atlanta 2-1.
  • 2009 (USL-2): Quarterfinalist, beat Carolina RailHawks (USL-1) on PKs after 3-3 tie, beat Chicago Fire (MLS) 1-0

9. Mid-Michigan Bucks / Michigan Bucks (PDL): 12 wins. Two wins over MLS teams; total of nine wins over pro teams.

  • 1997: Beat Wilmington Hammerheads (D3 Pro) 3-2 away.
  • 1999: Beat Austin Lone Stars (D3 Pro) 3-2; beat Minnesota Thunder (A-League) 2-1 away.
  • 2000: Beat New England Revolution (MLS) 1-0 away. Lost to Miami Fusion (MLS) on PKs.
  • 2003: Beat Long Island Rough Riders (PSL) 2-1.
  • 2006: Beat Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL-2) 2-0; beat Cincinnati Kings (USL-2) 2-1.
  • 2012: Beat Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL Pro) 1-0 away; beat Chicago Fire (MLS) 3-2 after extra time.

8. Richmond Kickers (USL top leagues/USL-2/USL Pro): 22 wins. Champions in 1995, the first year of the pro era and the year before MLS launched. 1-time semifinalist.

  • 2000 (A-League): Beat Colorado Rapids.
  • 2001 (A-League): Quarterfinalist
  • 2004 (A-League): Quarterfinalist. Beat D.C. United.
  • 2007 (USL-2): Quarterfinalist. Beat Los Angeles.
  • 2011 (USL-2): Semifinalist. Beat Columbus and Sporting Kansas City.

7. Dallas Burn / FC Dallas (MLS): 27 wins, 1 Cup, 2-time runner-up, 4-time semifinalist.

  • 1996: Semifinalist
  • 1997: Champion
  • 1998: Semifinalist
  • 2002: Semifinalist
  • 2005: Runner-up
  • 2007: Runner-up
  • 2011: Semifinalist

6. Los Angeles Galaxy (MLS): 23 wins, 2 Cups, 2-time runner-up, 2-time semifinalist.

  • 2000: Semifinalist
  • 2001: Champion
  • 2002: Runner-up. Also won MLS Cup.
  • 2003: Semifinalist
  • 2005: Champion. Also won MLS Cup.
  • 2006: Runner-up

5. Charleston Battery (USL top leagues/USL-2/USL Pro): 29 wins, 1-time runner-up, 2-time semifinalist.

  • 1999 (A-League): Semifinalist.
  • 2004 (A-League): Semifinalist. Upset MetroStars (MLS) in round of 16, beat Rochester (A-League) in quarterfinals. Fell to Chicago (MLS) in extra time, just missing the final.
  • 2007 (USL-1): Quarterfinalist.
  • 2008 (USL-1): Finalist.
  • 2009 (USL-1): Quarterfinalist.
  • 2010 (USL-2): Quarterfinalist.

4. D.C. United (MLS): 32 wins, 3 Cups, 2-time runner-up, 4-time semifinalist.

  • 1996: Champion. Also won MLS Cup.
  • 1997: Runner-up. Also won MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield.
  • 2001: Semifinalist
  • 2003: Semifinalist
  • 2006: Semifinalist. Also won Supporters’ Shield.
  • 2008: Champion
  • 2009: Runner-up
  • 2010: Semifinalist
  • 2013: Champion. Had worst record in MLS.

3. Seattle Sounders (A-League/USL-1/MLS): 30 wins, 3 straight Cups, 1-time runner-up, 2-time semifinalist.

We’ll treat the A-League/USL Sounders and the MLS Sounders as one entity here, mostly because the club’s commitment to the Open Cup never wavered.

  • 1996 (A-League): Quarterfinalist
  • 2003 (A-League): Quarterfinalist
  • 2007 (USL-1): Semifinalist
  • 2008 (USL-1): Semifinalist
  • 2009 (MLS): Champion
  • 2010 (MLS): Champion
  • 2011 (MLS): Champion
  • 2012 (MLS): Runner-up

2. Chicago Fire (MLS): 34 wins, 4 Cups, 2-time runner-up, 3-time semifinalist.

  • 1998: Champion. Also won MLS Cup. Club’s first season.
  • 2000: Champion. Also lost MLS Cup final.
  • 2001: Semifinalist
  • 2003: Champion. Also won Supporters’ Shield, lost MLS Cup final.
  • 2004: Runner-up
  • 2005: Semifinalist
  • 2006: Champion
  • 2011: Runner-up

1. Rochester Rhinos (A-League/USL-1/USL Pro): 33 wins, 1 Cup, 1-time runner-up, 1-time semifinalist.

  • 1996 (A-League): Runner-up. Upset Tampa Bay Mutiny in extra time (quarterfinals), upset Colorado Rapids 3-0, lost final to D.C. United.
  • 1999 (A-League): Champion. Four straight wins over MLS teams. 1-0 over Chicago Fire, 2-1 (ET) over Dallas Burn, 3-2 over Columbus Crew and 2-0 over Colorado Rapids.
  • 2004 (A-League): Quarterfinalist
  • 2005 (A-League): Quarterfinalist
  • 2009 (USL-1): Semifinalist

NOTEWORTHY RUNS/HONORABLE MENTION

1997: San Francisco Bay Seals (D3) beat two MLS teams (Kansas City Wizards, San Jose Clash) to reach semifinals.

2003: Fresno Fuego (PDL) beat Utah Blitzz (PSL) and El Paso Patriots (A-League) to reach  round of 16, losing to LA Galaxy in quarterfinals. Came back in 2014 with win over Orange County Blues (USL Pro).

2005: Minnesota Thunder (A-League) beat PDL’s Chicago Fire Premier, won a wild 6-4 game in extra time over Real Salt Lake, then beat the Colorado Rapids and Kansas City Wizards (away) to reach semifinals. The year before, the Thunder beat the Los Angeles Galaxy. That’s four wins over MLS teams.

2006: Dallas Roma FC (USASA) beat PDL’s Laredo Heat on PKs, then USL-1’s Miami FC 1-0, then Chivas USA on PKs, falling in fourth round.

2006: Carolina Dynamo (PDL) beat two pro teams: Richmond Kickers (USL-2) in second round, Seattle Sounders (USL-1) in third, setting up Dynamo-Dynamo matchup vs. Houston. As a pro team, reached quarterfinals in 1996.

2007: New England Revolution (MLS) made a rare run in the Cup and won it all. Next best runs: final in 2001, semifinal in 2008.

2012: Cal FC (USASA) beat Wilmington Hammerheads (USL Pro) 4-0 away and Portland Timbers (MLS) 1-0 away.

TEAMS WITH 10 OR MORE WINS

34 Chicago Fire (2nd in the ranking above)
33 Rochester Rhinos (1st)
32 DC United (4th)
30 Seattle Sounders (3rd)
29 Charleston Battery (5th)
27 Dallas Burn / FC Dallas (7th)
23 Los Angeles Galaxy (6th)
22 Richmond Kickers (8th)
19 Columbus Crew (13th)
18 Kansas City Wizards / Sporting KC (12th)
16 MetroStars / New York Red Bulls
15 Harrisburg City Islanders (11th)
15 Wilmington Hammerheads (10th)
14 New England Revolution
13 Carolina RailHawks (14th)
12 Mid-Michigan Bucks / Michigan Bucks (9th)
12 Minnesota Thunder
12 San Jose Clash / Earthquakes
11 Carolina Dynamo
11 Des Moines Menace
10 Charlotte Eagles
10 Portland Timbers

Corrections? Comments? Commiseration for staring at spreadsheets for so long? Share below.

Major League Soccer’s minor-league tinkering

The rumblings are growing that MLS reserves and USL pros may soon share a league.

NASN’s Jason Davis says it looks like we’ll see some this year (2013 — I’m changing the calendar now) and more in 2014, with some MLS reserve teams going into the USL’s pro league and other MLS teams working out affiliations.

At the Sporting News, Brian Straus goes into the background of the problem — players who come out of college (or skip it) and find few chances to play.

The old-timers among us had to laugh a bit at the idea of affiliates — not because it’s a bad idea, but because we’ve seen it done before. MLS teams started with affiliates in what was then called the A-League. Yari Allnutt of my hometown Carolina Dynamo had a 1996 stat line of 1 goal in 45 minutes for Kansas City, surely close to a record for goals per minute, at least until Allnutt got a full-time MLS gig years later.)

But it wasn’t always a happy situation. A-League clubs could sometimes lose players at inopportune times. Over the years, the relationship soured.

For a couple of years, MLS operated a “Project-40” team in the A-League, immortalized in virtual print by future Real Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerwey in a pair of columns of SI.com. The idea of that team was to take all the young players (today called “Generation adidas”) who weren’t getting playing time with their MLS teams and toss them together to face the A-League pros.

So I checked in with Garth, who said this:

P-40 trips made me the man I am today, but certainly glad the league has grown since then.  If there is some pairing between MLS and one minor league or all minor leagues I would say that is good for soccer and player development.  We need a step in between Academies and MLS first teams and we need to have a viable second division with all the best non-MLS players for the highest possible level of competition to develop players.

Perhaps Project-40 and affiliations were ahead of their time. Ten years ago, MLS rosters were much smaller. The “affiliations” were less about getting playing time for reserves and more about dragging players up from the A-League on an emergency basis when injuries reduced an MLS team to 13 players or so.

Ideally, MLS clubs would all have enough players for a full reserve team. Also ideally, the USL and NASL would set aside their differences, and we’d have a sprawling second division that could be mostly regional. Also also ideally, college soccer would be a complement rather than a supposed detriment — perhaps by letting college players go on loan wherever they want in the summer instead of just to PDL or other amateur teams.

Some of those things may be beyond the scope of MLS and USL for now. But we can dream, right?

 

 

Women’s soccer, the new league and Hope Solo: Can’t we all just get along?

We got two fillings for THIS?

There’s three sides to every story — yours and mine and the cold, hard truth Don Henley

There’s blood in my mouth ’cause I’ve been biting my tongue all week Rilo Kiley

Jules: Yolanda, I thought you said you were gonna be cool. Now when you yell at me, it makes me nervous. And when I get nervous, I get scared. And when (bleepers) get scared, that’s when (bleepers) accidentally get shot.
Yolanda: You just know, you touch him, you die.
Jules: Well, that seems to be the situation. But I don’t want that. And you don’t want that. And Ringo here *definitely* doesn’t want that.Pulp Fiction

Maybe I’m reaching with the last one. Perhaps I should’ve skipped to the part where Jules says the Ezekiel verse one last time and says he’s trying real hard to be the shepherd. The U.S. women’s soccer community could use a shepherd.

As you know if you follow me on Twitter, I bought Hope Solo’s memoir, skimmed the personal parts and read the soccer parts. No offense intended to her personal story — I was just in a hurry to learn what she had said.

I mentioned a couple of things that surprised me. One was a quote that I thought could be taken the wrong way. Another was that she reiterated her racism accusations against Boston Breakers fans, accusations that most of us thought had been put to rest.

People were angry with me. A couple of them were people I respect and like, and we talked it out. A couple were people I don’t know as well who slung a few drive-by insults at me and declined to elaborate on what exactly I’d said.

The latter isn’t a surprise. Solo has a legion of fans who will mobilize against any alleged “hater,” even if she doesn’t ask them to do so. Just check out the reviews at Amazon, where the one person to say anything negative is marked with the dreaded “1 in 24 people found the following review helpful.” (To be sure, the review doesn’t say much. But some of the other reviews marked as “helpful” are simply insane.)

If anyone’s reading here wondering if I’m going to be a “hater,” you might be disappointed. I didn’t hate this book. Her story is well-written — co-writer Ann Killion is never one to mince words (ask Don Garber), and the book moves briskly. And though some people come across better than others, this book wasn’t written to settle grudges. It’s her story. She spends much more time talking about the truly important people in her life — family and a few supportive coaches — than she does about her conflicts. Plenty of people will find this book inspiring.

If you read the book, just remember the Don Henley quote here. There are multiple sides to every story.

Continue reading Women’s soccer, the new league and Hope Solo: Can’t we all just get along?

You want U.S. Soccer involvement in elite women’s game? Here you go …

I don’t see the press release at USSoccer.com yet, but there was a second announcement today in addition to Pia Sundhage’s roster for the Olympics. Here’s the key excerpt:

Following the FIFA Women’s World Cups for the Under-17 and Under-20 age levels this coming fall, the head coaching positions for those teams will become full-time for the first time. In addition, U.S. Soccer will hire another full-time coach whose main focus will be on enhancing the player development environment for young players from coast to coast.

So before today’s game against China, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati held a press conference with women’s technical director April Heinrichs and women’s development director Jill Ellis.

Does this sound boring so far? In some respects, it’s not a huge announcement. But these little announcements — like the hiring of Heinrichs and Ellis a while ago — are adding up to something, and the press conference led to a wide-ranging talk on women’s soccer.

So in the 20 minutes before this game starts, I’ll try to sum up:

– Heinrichs and Ellis say they’re trying to shift the focus of U.S. development from physical and psychological to tactical and technical.

– Will we see the women duplicate the U.S. U17 men’s Bradenton residency? Heinrichs and Ellis weren’t enthusiastic about that. Heinrichs says it’s a good way to win a U17 World Cup, but she and Ellis want to cast a wider net for players at that age for future national team development.

– Heinrichs says an 18-year-old American recently had to choose between college and a lucrative deal with Lyon in France.

– Might we see a national B team to keep more players in active international play? Gulati thinks it’s possible and said Heinrichs once drew up some similar plans.

– The big news you’ve already seen us tweet: In 30-45 days, U.S. Soccer will convene a meeting of various stakeholders in the women’s game: USL, former WPS teams … and yes, MLS, either teams or league staff or both. (I forgot to ask if Dan Borislow was invited.)

– An interesting WPS post-mortem piece: Gulati says U.S. Soccer offered 12 months ago to help WPS with league administration. They were turned down.

I’m thinking regular readers here might have some thoughts. Have at it.