If you’re new to following soccer in the United States, you may not be aware of the mini soccer war waged in 2009 and 2010 between two camps of clubs from the United States Leagues. If you have been following minor league soccer in this country for a few years, you are probably all too familiar with this story. The institutional bickering between the new NASL and USL-Pro has also inspired widespread calls for a centrally led league structure (not just from naive kids like me).
Throughout the history of American soccer, there is a well documented pattern of failure of independently organized leagues. [If you fancy, you can read about the historical “Soccer War” from Slate.com by clicking this bad boy] In fact, the only relatively successful national league in American history is Major League Soccer, which is operated in close connection with the United States Soccer Federation and the United States National Team.
It may present as appalling to the American independent entrepreneurial spirit, or some other load of malarkey, but it is very much in the best interests of the soccer in America for one centralized body to operate what are now separate leagues throughout the country.
A Simple Anecdote for a Complex Situation
This past summer, my friends routinely asked me what league the Rochester Rhinos played in and what separated the Rhinos from MLS. When I spoke about USL-Pro and NASL they just didn’t get it. Without knowing any of the background information on the TOA owners’ split in 2009-2010, it was simple math for my friends. Take the 8 teams in NASL and add the 11 teams from USL-Pro and then an expansion team and there is a balanced 20 team league.
I explained the situation to them through the following cute little anecdote. Imagine the group of USL-1 clubs, which would come to form both of the two leagues, as a marriage. For a while the owners got along for the benefit of the children (the fans), but after a while the breakaway owners became fed up with the high demands of the USL. In order to have greater control over their own affairs, the want-away owners filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. During the custody proceedings, the court recommended marriage counseling for a year while trying to figure out who was going to get the kids. That counseling came in the form of the 2010 USSF-D2 Pro League.
For one season, the USSF operated second division soccer in this country and did so fairly well. Despite the relative success of the league and its innovation in scheduling and traveling, this combined effort was scrapped after 2010. In 2011 the custody of the kids was split as NASL was granted conditional sanctioning for division 2 and USL created their “Professional Division” as division 3 which incorporated the remainder of USL-1 clubs and those from USL-2.
2010’s USSF-D2 Pro League used geographic pods for the scheduling of league matches. The 12 teams were split into 2 mostly arbitrary conferences for standings but teams were separated into 3 “pods” based on geographic proximity. For instance, the first pod was the Western teams; Minnesota, Portland, St Louis and Vancouver. Pod 2 consisted of the Mid Atlantic and Northeast teams; Rochester, Montreal, Baltimore and Carolina. The third pod was the four Southern and Southeast clubs; Austin, Miami, Puerto Rico and Tampa Bay. Each team played the other teams in their pod four times, one other team outside their pod four times, and then all the other teams twice. This added up to 30 games in the season and cut down on potential travel by making teams travel to only one city outside of their pod more than one time.
Making Conclusions from the 2012 Season
It may be fun for fans of NASL to boast the success of their expansion team in San Antonio, both on and off the field. It may be a consolation for fans of USL-Pro to point out the comparative success of their teams in this year’s U.S. Open Cup. However, both leagues are currently looking for expansion opportunities in the same cities. For two years, both leagues were exploring the potential of a professional team in San Antonio. USL announced their intentions to field a team in Tampa, Florida, which happens to be the home of their national offices but also very close to the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL (which actually plays in St Petersburg). Last month the NASL listed a few cities on their shortlist including Phoenix, Arizona. Just a couple days later, USL-Pro announced that they had found an ownership group in Phoenix to field a team in their league in 2013.
As much as they may not want to admit it, the NASL and USL-Pro are still rival leagues. After Orlando City recently stormed to their second regular season USL-Pro title with three weeks left in the campaign, a lot of people have been talking about the team “self-promoting” to NASL. It is clear for all to see that Orlando City Soccer Club is far above their competition in USL-Pro, and NASL officials have consistently said they have two more expansion cities to announce before the end of the calendar year.
However, it is also clear that the ownership group and front office staff are close associates of the USL staff. Orlando City currently fields a team in all 5 age levels of the Super Y-league, a team in the Super-20 League, and a team in the Premier Development League. While the club will also participate in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League for the 2012-2013 season, they are still very much linked to the USL outside of their professional team.
Do you think they would still operate their extensive and recently acquired/developed youth systems under the USL umbrella if they played in the NASL? Wouldn’t it be just marvelous if Orlando City could play on a broader national stage against stronger opposition without having to forsake or shift their youth infrastructure?
If the United States Soccer Federation governed all the professional (or semi-professional) national leagues the previous scenario would never come into play. The NASL and USL-Pro could keep their respective commissioners. The functions that USL has pioneered over the last 10-15-20 years could be applied in other cities, while the new innovations developed by NASL (working streams, highlight videos, strong social media presence) could be utilized by USL clubs.
Benefits Going Forward:
The benefits of this institutional reorganization may not be immediately apparent but walk with me five years down the road. Continued NASL expansion is going to have a noticeable and negative impact on the development of USL-Pro clubs. A gulf in class and professionalism has already arisen between the two leagues and this will only get wider in the future. NASL teams will be able to offer a higher quality of play and probably higher wages. As more teams join NASL, there will be a smaller pool of quality players for USL teams to sign. This in turn will accelerate the decline of USL-Pro as a league because the level of play will decrease with less talented players on its teams. While a few established clubs in USL-Pro (like Orlando, Rochester, Richmond, Charleston or Wilmington) have the ability to jump into NASL and compete on and off the field, without significant expansion of its own USL-Pro could face dire consequences of NASL success.
Restructuring the leagues or gathering both leagues together under U.S.S.F.’s roof will provide national support for clubs in both USL and NASL. It would provide a measure of safety for teams, ensuring that a league will still exist year after year in which to compete. If any of the six or so successful USL-Pro clubs move to NASL or MLS, this proposed structure will allow the other teams a home to play. Likewise, if Traffic Sports and the NASL commissioner can not find successful independent investors for a number of NASL clubs, the solvent teams won’t be throw out on the street. The U.S.S.F. would make sure a league continued to operate for the remaining teams in either scenario.
Naive Pipedream or Realistic Optimism for the Future?
It is time to forgive old grudges and move on for the sake of American soccer. I know that this is not a new call for restructuring U.S. soccer leagues. But it is still important to voice concerns about the health of minor league soccer and my cautious optimism for the future.
In order to ensure the stability of soccer under MLS, U.S.S.F. instituted a set of guidelines for any league applying for division II sanctioning. These guidelines include control of home facilities, net worth of team owners, and the size of cities in the league. But for me stability isn’t enough. Sure, the federation could do the same exercise by imposing and enforcing a less stringent set of standards for division III, but what would that accomplish?
I want minor league soccer to strive, not merely survive. In the face of future MLS expansion, which will probably be existing teams in USL-Pro or NASL, the lower leagues need a structure that will allow soccer to flourish. A combination of best practices from the two current leagues provides the path to admit strong organizations in new cities while upholding the quality of current teams.