I don’t want this to be an indictment against the show as a whole, which you may or may not enjoy. However, a host can still be respectful while asking insightful and probing questions that make the guest think. This doesn’t happen during the course of the interview below.
Tim Holt, the President of the United Soccer Leagues since 2009, was a guest on Soccer is a Kick in the Grass last week for about 11 minutes. I took the liberty to cut that section out for y’all to listen to.
Tim Holt is generally good at what he does, I have no reason to dislike the guy. He’s a former soccer player and has been involved with the organization since 1999. Holt offers a different demeanor and public face for the league than did his predecessor. However, he would be serving his organization better to provide a realistic assessment of the league’s position in American soccer rather than living in a parallel universe in which USL-Pro has been wildly successful over the last two years.
Soccer is a Kick in the Grass’s host stressed the performance of three USL-Pro clubs in the 2012 U.S. Open Cup, singling out the Charlotte Eagles defeating NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions. Somehow the host made the claim that USL-Pro “came out on top” against their rival league. One game against an expansion team playing in the competition for the first time is tantamount to a smothering by USL-Pro.
The Phoenix expansion plans are not a horrible idea at face value, but officials need to take many steps very quickly to get a stadium, some players and a marketing campaign underway for the 2013 season. Head coach David Robertson did well to sign fellow Scotsman Darren Mackie on September 27, though. Phoenix FC plans to announce their home venue for 2013 in October with a number of signed players on hand.
On things looking up and improving over the past:
Tim Holt said during the interview that “[we] feel like everything is heading in the right direction.” 2012 in the USL-Pro can be aptly summed up with the phrase ‘righting the ship’. 2011 saw three teams exit the league mid-season and another team call it quits in the off-season. This year, however, no USL-Pro teams folded! On top of that achievement, the six biggest USL clubs all increased their attendances over 2011.
Surely the 2012 season has to be seen as an improvement over 2011 from the league’s standpoint. In the 2011 USL-Pro season three teams dropped out due to financial and scheduling difficulties; the kind of things the league office should pick up on before the competition gets underway. The failure of Puerto Rico United, River Plate Puerto Rico, and Sevilla FC Puerto Rico (who were also fielding teams in the Puerto Rico Super League) forced the league to reshuffle the fixture list for the remaining teams. Another team, FC New York, didn’t survive in USL-Pro to see 2012 and has since been removed from the National Premier Soccer League (fourth division amateur league). Not a single USL-Pro team collapsed in any embarrassing mid-season dramatics in 2012. Kudos to them for that.
Holt went on to say that there are “a lot of success stories” in American soccer and that, “we’re happy where we are.” USL’s president then stressed the importance of the umbrella nature of the USL with regard to youth systems, the Premier Development League, and the Professional division.
“At this point we don’t have any expectations that there will be any subtractions from the teams in the USL-Pro division. We’re excited about a year where we continue to add teams and strengthen the one that we have in terms of performance off the field, the bottom line performance as well as their relevance in the community.”
The co-host’s question was in reference to internet rumblings that either the Los Angeles Blues or Antigua Barracuda FC (or both) could quit the league due to poor fan turnout, poor performances, high travel costs, and scheduling nightmares.
“I just really like where the USL-Pro is heading and the interest in the league continues to grow and grow since we did the restructuring two years ago.”
Holt’s use of “restructuring” to describe combining USL-1 and USL-2 after the creation of the NASL is telling. He makes it through the entire interview without mentioning the NASL by name once. USL still sees the division II league as a primary rival and not an opportunity. The Atlanta Silverbacks of NASL have a reserve squad playing in the National Premier Soccer League that could be a strong presence in USL’s PDL and other NASL clubs could form official partnerships with PDL teams as the Tampa Bay Rowdies did with Portland Phoenix in 2011.
On cooperation with other leagues:
“The sport in this country at the professional level needs more collaboration between the leagues… I think it’s a pretty obvious statement. Everybody is sort of just doing their own thing. So anything that happens in which different levels of soccer in this country, professional and non-professional, all the way down to the youth, are collaborating together is good for the game.”
Planting a footprint in Phoenix is probably a good idea. It gives a Western companion to the L.A. Blues for as long as that franchise survives. And, at least in theory, the Phoenix team gives USL a leg up on NASL in the Southwest.
Apparently USL is still planning on starting up a Tampa-based franchise for some ungodly reason. The idea of putting a team in Tampa, Florida, is still just stupid and horrible. NASL operates a successful club in St Petersburg, Florida, called the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The area may have a pool of untapped soccer fans, but creating a situation of rival teams in the same metropolitan area could really hurt USL. Assuming that the Rowdies don’t implode in the coming months, there is little I can see USL doing to crack into largely the same market. From my perspective, this is just a waste of resources being poured into a pet project. USL’s national headquarters are located in Tampa but starting a team in the city makes no sense for USL or for the exalted cliched good of the game.
Tim Holt said that the professional leagues in this country need to cooperate more and that any such collaboration is “good for the game”. Rival teams in the same market is not exactly the definition of collaboration.
On live streaming games:
“Rochester was sort of the standard bearer in the league in terms of putting together a professional coverage for our online games and made an investment in that and they were committed to making sure it was quality with good footage. And really, it’s not good enough for us to just have some of the games on and not other game. So it will be across the board that all teams produce their home games next year for live streaming via USL-Nation. I think the enhancements to USL-Nation from previous years were good. We’re don’t guarantee that it’s going to be the same type of coverage you’re going to see on the NBC Sports Network or ESPN but i think it’s important that all of our fans have access to our games both on a live and archived basis through the league’s branded portal. So yes, that will be compulsory for all teams to produce those games and those games, barring any technological difficulties on a given day, will be available to all fans.”
The USL-Nation feeds were horrible. There is no way around it. Even when teams had tremendous production capabilities like the Orlando City Lions (check out their YouTube channel), the online feeds were glitchy and often didn’t work at all. I understand the argument that U-Nation was offering USL-Pro fans video streaming services for free and that therefore beggars can’t be choosers. However, I’ve also tuned into a handful of NASL action and was able to watch pre-game, half-time, post-game and the full 90 minutes of a match the last weekend of the regular season without any hiccups from the UStream feed. Also the Archive Feature on USL-Nation hasn’t worked all season.
In the narrative of the rivalry between NASL and USL-Pro, USL hasn’t lost yet. However, if they continue trying to compete directly with NASL for markets they will. Attempting to beat out NASL for markets like they did in San Antonio and will do with the hair-brained plan in Tampa is going to hurt USL. A division II market is different than a division III market. One league is looking to make a statement nationwide while the other is just trying to survive.
USL can still provide a viable piece to the professional soccer puzzle. But that role is as a division III league. USL needs to admit that they are losing to NASL and that the odds are not on their side. The umbrella operations of USL league structures have done, are doing, and will do a great many things for the advancement of soccer in the United States. But if USL-Pro league officials don’t rub the sand from their eyes and wake up to the realities of the day, there could be another dramatic shake-up in minor league soccer sooner rather than later. For the sake of USL fans and the investments of team owners, USL needs to reappraise and redevelop their strategy for the coming years.