Surveying the Soccer Scene: The Role of U.S. Club Soccer

U.S. Club Soccer is an independent soccer governing body that works alongside the existing frameworks already in place (MLS, USSDA, USASA, NASL, USL Pro, NPSL, USL PDL, ASL, PCSL, EPLWA, USMPSUNSAMSL…all right, I made up that last one up). While following the same four regional divisions in its Board of Directors that U.S. Adult Soccer Association utilizes (North Atlantic, Midwest, Southeast, and West), USCS has a strong principled philosophy that separates it from the rest of the pack.

U.S. Club Soccer believes in the power of its member clubs. USCS’s philosophy is summed up in the following bullet points published on its website.

  • Soccer clubs are the primary vehicle through which players are developed.
  • Too much time has been spent governing competitive soccer rather than encouraging its growth.
  • The business of the day-to-day development of top youth players rests with the club.
  • A business-friendly environment must be created
    • to develop programs and services which assist the club and player,
    • to provide a minimum of rules and regulations to assure basic fairness,
    • and to allow clubs the flexibility to build programs that meet their needs.
  • Clubs must work together to grow the club system.
    • This includes speaking with a collective voice on important issues affecting them; assisting clubs organizationally and technically through our technical committee, staff, and club services programs; and coordinating player development with national teams and professional clubs.

If I may paraphrase: Clubs are the true source of innovation to develop best practices. Clubs themselves know what path is best for their organization and the players therein. The governing body should be supportive but not overbearing or micromanagerial, as the clubs with ambition will succeed given the proper baseline and development assistance.

This is a fairly laissez-faire attitude [one to which I may not always ascribe in national politics] but one which is apt in this instance.

The clubs that participate in U.S. Club Soccer leagues are not exclusive. That is to say, clubs often field teams in USCS youth leagues while at the same time operating teams in the US Development Academy, USL’s Super Y-League, Women’s Premier Soccer League, or any other combination of letters in American soccer’s alphabet soup whether listed above or not, whether real or imagined.

In that regard, it does not serve USCS’s interests to demand things from its member clubs. If the restrictions are too arduous or annual dues too high, clubs would simply choose to participate in a different league. U.S. Club Soccer operates best when clubs (those that meet certain logical and logistical minimum guidelines) choose to participate, instead of ending up there as the last resort or seeking the least worst option.

USCS has programs designed not only to help identify young talent for the u-14 national team (the id2 program), but also has initiatives that promote ambitious and well-organized clubs to the opportunities for better competition in order to develop their players. The National Premier Leagues program is the perfect example of the realization of the USCS philosophy; the Pre-Academy Leagues are the particular pinnacle of that system.

Because strong youth clubs wanted a better platform for their younger players, U.S. Club Soccer designed new regional leagues. Most of the clubs that joined these leagues also participated in the USSDA at higher age divisions. This initiative was successful and U.S. Soccer was able to easily transition into a national u-13/14 age bracket for the Development Academy structure in large part due to the existing infrastructure from USCS’s Pre-Academy Leagues. [You can read my previous posts about the importance of the Pre-Academy Leagues here and here.]

The entry cost to participate in a USCS league is not prohibitive, meaning that clubs can decide their participation based on geographical and competitive considerations. This low cost also means that clubs don’t have to worry about sunk cost when considering pulling teams out of USCS leagues.

This is an American soccer landscape that has recently seen the NASL prop up 4 of its clubs when Traffic Sports USA had at least a majority stake in Carolina RailHawks, Atlanta Silverbacks, Minnesota United FC, and Fort Lauderdale Strikers and has seen MLS buy out the Chivas USA franchise from Jorge Vergara. In this context, the independent nature of U.S. Club Soccer is refreshing.

USCS does not rely on the patronage of a handful of clubs and therefore would have few qualms about dismissing clubs that don’t meet its basic standards. Perhaps this freedom is only possible within a system of amateur and youth development leagues, but a similar approach might also be successful at a semiprofessional level.

By standing firm to its simple obligations and not trying to expand beyond what makes sense for existing member clubs, U.S. Club Soccer-organized leagues can focus on benefiting those clubs instead of exacting memberships dues. Instead of a carousel of new clubs replacing failed enterprises, USCS leagues are mostly stable from year-to-year. This type of continuity stands in stark contrast to the collapse of USL Pro’s Antigua Barracuda FC, VSI Tampa Bay FC Flames, and Phoenix FC just last year (not to mention the failures of FC New York and the three Puerto Rican clubs in 2011).

Rather than assuming the role of snake-oil salesmen, claiming the impossible and promising the moon, USCS leagues can be honest with their member clubs and those clubs are honest brokers in return. At the very least this straightforwardness could be applied to ameliorate some of the negative aspects of the professional American soccer minor leagues.

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