Checking in on the American Soccer League as the Fall 2016 Season Kicks Off

The American Soccer League claims to be the missing link for American soccer between high school or college and the professional ranks. The league, the brainchild of Matt Driver, also claims to offer professional contracts to players to play on professional teams despite being sanctioned through the United States Adult Soccer Association, which governs amateur soccer.

I have published serious doubts about the league for over two years, on this blog and in other places, and the league has done next to nothing to assuage those concerns. The league’s current campaign, the Fall 2016 season, began this past weekend but some news from the league’s schedule raises the same old questions.

The league started out with a handful of teams clustered in New Jersey and New England: Philadelphia Fury, A.C. Crusaders, EverGreen Diplomats, Ironbound Soul SC, Icon FC, Mass United FC, Rhode Island Oceaneers, and Western Mass Pro Soccer.

Of those 8 founding members of the league, only two still participate in the ASL. Those teams happen to be the personal projects of the two men behind the league: Matt Driver’s Philadelphia Fury and Jim Antonakas’s Mass United FC.

The league played a full season, split between the fall of and spring session, but ejected Ironbound Soul SC before campaign finished. In the league final, Western Mass fell to Icon FC; neither of those teams is still participating in the league.

A projected Fall 2015 season was cancelled but the league returned in the spring on this year with several additional teams to replace those who had left. Delaware Stars FC (original called Delaware Copperheads), Lancaster Lions, Long Island Express, IFK Maryland, Connecticut United FC, New Hampshire Bobcats, and New England FC joined the league to bolster its ranks to 10 teams.

Teams in New England quickly unraveled, though, and NEFC was forced to forfeit every match of the Spring Season. NEFC and New Hampshire Bobcats were also owned by Jim Antonakas, and the Bobcats also ran into some trouble.

Between NEFC and the Bobcats, the teams were only credited with a single win in the Spring Season, which was a forfeit in New Hampshire’s favor when the two teams were scheduled to play each other.

New England FC reportedly missed a league deadline to register players but the ASL still had the team travel to play matches that had already been forfeited. As you might imagine, NEFC players weren’t quite up for this experience and their performances were rather abject.

“A recent game involving New England FC raised eyebrows when the team lost on the road to Connecticut United FC by a shocking score of 14-0. The visitors only brought nine players to the match and were out-shot 50 to 3 (39-1 on frame), while Connecticut managed 274 more passes in the game.”

– ASL Stutters in Second Season

The Bobcats story is slightly different in that the team was credited with scoring goals in game that were not forfeits. On the league’s website (the maintenance of which is notoriously poor), the list of results for the Bobcats either shows a few coincidences or suggests that the team also forfeited matches.

The team lost 7 games by a 1-0 scoreline, was the beneficiary of NEFC’s earlier forfeiture, and then lost to Icon FC 2-1 and to IFK Maryland 3-1.

For some fairly obvious reasons, New England FC is no longer participating in the American Soccer League. In its place, however, the league has added Atlanta Futuro, a team in Georgia with ties to Jim Antonakas. The closest team to Atlanta, Georgia plays in Maryland.

A fairly successful team during the Spring 2016 campaign was Connecticut United FC. CT United was owned/controlled by Greg Bajek, who also owned Icon FC. Bajek, who showcased Connecticut United against a Polish professional side that recently earned promotion into the second division over the summer, is apparently focusing on the team in New Britain and Icon FC is no longer listed in the league’s schedules or standings.

Another team to drop out from the spring to the fall sessions in Delaware Stars FC. The ASL touted the involvement of former professional Jeremiah White but the team fell away, especially on social media. Delaware posted only once to Instagram on June 14, hasn’t tweeted since June 26, and has posted on Facebook just one time since June.

For those keeping track at home, there are now 8 former ASL teams and just 8 current ASL teams. Sadly this league has not learned any lessons since 2014 but hopefully aspiring soccer players will not have to be on the receiving end of 14-0 blowouts this season.

One has to wonder why 50% of all teams in the American Soccer League have failed or left the league. Is that uncertainty creating an environment for players to prosper in their development to a professional quality?

Luke Dempsey’s Club Soccer 101 is a Must-Have

In a sport that is wildly partisan and can be frustratingly dry, Luke Dempsey offers a glimpse into the world’s biggest soccer clubs with both respectful impartiality and a refreshing sense of humor in Club Soccer 101. Without boring his readers with mundane or overwhelming details, Dempsey provides useful information in an entertaining fashion. Every American soccer fan should consider Club Soccer 101 either as an introduction to the sport or as a quick read between European matches on the weekend.

The structure of the book, a vignette about each of 101 teams, allows readers to immerse themselves in the identity of a soccer club without getting bogged down by dates and figures. Club Soccer 101 is jam-packed with information but Dempsey does well to present it in an entertaining and digestible manner.

Of particular note for a large segment of American soccer fans (and which definitely piqued my interest in the book), Dempsey covers MLS teams and superclubs from Latin America with the same deference he gives the storied clubs from across Europe. Without missing a beat, Dempsey describes the masses of rave green fans in Seattle or the desperate die-hards in New Jersey who support the Red Bulls in the same tone with which he fills pages with the histories of FC Barcelona and Manchester United.

As a coffee-table atlas of sorts for soccer’s most interesting clubs or as a trove of clever quips to impress your friends while watching matches, Club Soccer 101 is a must have for any fan of the world’s game.

Surveying the Soccer Scene: The Role of the United States Adult Soccer Association

We all know about Major League Soccer (MLS), the North American Soccer League (NASL), and USL Professional Division (USL Pro). These leagues are sanctioned as professional circuits by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF, U.S. Soccer). But what about the murky depths below these professional leagues?

U.S. Soccer does not sanction amateur leagues directly; that responsibility falls to the United States Adult Soccer Association. The USASA governs amateur soccer through state level associations split into four geographical regions. A handful of large states are split into two bodies: California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

“The USL’s Premier Development League and the National Premier Soccer League are USASA-affiliated but are designed to promote a higher lever of competition than the state organizations.”

United Soccer Leagues is an important partner of the USASA. The Premier Development League, W-League, Super-20 League, and W-20 are all USL operated leagues that USASA administers. PDL runs a short season of 14 matches during the summer months to accommodate collegiate players, its main source of talent.

The National Premier Soccer League is another amateur men’s league that also runs a short season during the summer. NPSL is governed by its existing teams and, as such, expansion bids and other important matters are voted on by a committee of its member clubs. Its website, which is echoed on the USASA site, claims: “The NPSL is sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body of soccer in the United States.”

USASA also sanctions the Women’s Premier Soccer League, an independent national women’s league that contains clubs affiliated to MLS clubs, PDL clubs, and ECNL girls’ youth clubs.

USASA oversees 11 local/regional “Elite Amateur Leagues,” some of which boast clubs and competitions with impressive history.
Coast Soccer League” in Southern California
Cosmopolitan Soccer League” around New York City
Long Island Soccer Football League
Maryland Major Soccer League
Michigan Premier Soccer League
Rochester District Soccer League” in Western New York [that’s me!]
San Francisco Soccer Football League” in Northern California
United Soccer League of Pennsylvania
United Premier Soccer League” in Southern California
Washington Premier League” in the DMV (Metropolitan D.C., Maryland, Virginia area)
Evergreen Premier League” in Washington (which you should check out)

The odd names of “Soccer Football League” hearken back over a hundred years when these leagues were founded. You read that right, some of these leagues have been active for over a hundred years and were a staple of American soccer throughout the rise and fall of countless professional leagues.

These “elite” leagues hold a special designation among local or regional amateur leagues but are still often a lower quality of play than NPSL or PDL. That is not to say the players in these leagues are hacks; the simple difference is that USASA-sanctioned “premier” leagues PDL and NPSL are primarily devoted to developing college-aged players.

The country’s 55 member associations are divided into four regions; Northeast/Mid-Atlantic, Mid-West, South, and West Coast. In case you were wondering, the 50 states plus an extra in each of CA, NY, OH, PA, and TX add to up the 55 total. Each association governs amateur leagues within its territory. For example, New York West oversees men’s leagues in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and the Southern Tier.

The four regions hold qualifying tournaments for clubs that are interested in potentially participating in the U.S. Open Cup. Because of the expanded field in the cup, USASA teams had 10 berths in the tournament in 2014. Each of the four regions had two entrants and two additional clubs qualified as USASA wildcards: NY Greek-Americans, Icon FC, Des Moines Menace (the PDL powerhouse qualified through an amateur “reserve” side), Schwaben AC, Red Force, NTX Rayados, Cal FC, PSA Elite, Mass Premier Soccer, RWB Adria.

USASA is a mainstay of American soccer and provides a valuable place in the organization of the sport. Amateur soccer at the highest level, whether developmental or recreational, runs through the United States Adult Soccer Association.

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.

Is the American Soccer League for real?

The inaugural season of the American Soccer League kicks off next weekend with three matches slated for Saturday, August 23.

In those matches AC Crusaders hosts Philadelphia Fury, Icon travels to Mass United, and Newark hosts the Evergreen Diplomats. Western Mass Pioneers and Rhode Island Reds have a bye the first week of the season.

Oh wait, you haven’t heard of these teams before? That’s because none of them plays in an existing professional league. Only 2 of the founding 8 clubs recently participated in a league higher than a local or state amateur circuit. Those two are Rhode Island from the NPSL and Western Mass Pioneers from the USL PDL.

Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with these teams. The league refers to some of its own clubs by multiple names, so it seems even they aren’t too familiar.

On the league’s schedule page the teams are listed as: AC Crusaders, Evergreen Diplomats, Icon, Mass United, Newark, Philadelphia Fury, Rhode Island, Western Mass Pioneers

On the league’s “Teams” page, the teams are listed as:
AC Crusaders, Evergreen Diplomats, Icon, Mass United, Ironbound Soul, Philadelphia Fury, Rhode Island Oceaneers, Lusitanos Pro Soccer

The league’s “About Us” page on its website uses three quotes from Sepp Blatter without context to provide the philosophical basis for the league and attempts to justify the money clubs will waste in this venture. Sepp Blatter is widely corrupt, openly sexist, and generally an awful administrator of the game we all love; he’s really the inspiration for your league?

The league kicks off in 8 days and its website is woefully incomplete. Only 2 of the clubs have even partial profiles on the league’s website. It shouldn’t be any surprise that those 2 clubs have the same owner, which brings us to Matt Driver.

Driver is the owner of Atlantic Soccer Factory, a “soccer education” company from southern New Jersey. ASF evokes divided opinion among parents who have coughed up thousands of dollars in fees for Driver’s programs throughout the years.

Driver is the godfather of the American Soccer League but maintains ownership of ASF, which operates the AC Crusaders team. In addition Driver is the owner and head coach of the Philadelphia Fury team. How professional is this league when one man is a head coach, owner of two teams, league president, and league CEO?

The ASL, through Driver, attempted a hype train earlier in the year about challenging USL Pro as the country’s division three league. That will never happen.

The ASL cannot meet USSF’s guidelines to receive sanctioning as a professional league. As such the league should not refer to itself as a professional league. For the coming season, the ASL is sanctioned as a high-level amateur league.

The ASL is an amateur league with apparently professional teams, but even that designation may be in name only. Teams in the ASL will pay players and will operate during the school year so as to prevent collegiate athletes from participating but are hiring inexperienced office staff to run their operations.

Driver is quoted in a news story on the league’s site as saying, “We’re looking for players who are graduating from college, or maybe will come into this league as an alternative to college.” MLS clubs are finding it difficult to convince potential HG players from forgoing college for a soccer career but this shoddy upstart league can. Makes sense.

The fully professional and storied soccer club Rochester Rhinos offers general admission tickets for games against other fully professional clubs in the USL Pro hosted at Sahlen’s Stadium, a soccer-specific stadium, for $10.

First year “professional” team Philadelphia Fury offers general admission tickets for games against other “professional” teams in a makeshift league hosted at a local high school for $9.

Does that math make sense to you? I think there’s more than one dollar difference in the value offered by the Rochester Rhinos and the Philadelphia Fury.

Is the ASL for real?
Unfortunately I think it is and that will be bad news for most of these teams. I don’t expect the league to survive into its second year next fall if it actually manages to play out its full first season.

I am encouraged by soccer clubs that want to turn professional and are looking for a cheaper alternative to what if currently available through NPSL and PDL. When a league is scrounging for member teams, it is incentivized to mislead prospective team owners. Allowing inexperienced amateurs to operate professional soccer club offices is irresponsible and when these clubs fail it will poison the well for future attempts to grow soccer in the United States.

Youth Player Development in Lower Division Clubs

In an earlier post I highlighted the introduction of an academy roster program for USL-Pro clubs as a major step in USL’s player development model. The academy roster rule was introduced in February and designed to promote opportunities for young players from associated or regional academies to train and play with the senior team.

Despite seemingly different public positions on the importance of “development,” both professional leagues under MLS have begun signing local teenagers.

North American Soccer League Commissioner Bill Peterson has said, “We have no desire to be anyone’s minor league. We definitely have no interest in developing players for other leagues.” This could mean that NASL executives want players to stay the course in their league, but that seems highly unlikely in a world with NCAA and MLS drafts.

The United Soccer Leagues, on the other hand, regularly flaunts its developmental credentials. Every January after the MLS SuperDraft and during MLS pre-season, USL issues press releases refering to draft picks and recently signed MLS rookies as “former [insert PDL team] player.”

I find it interesting that regardless of the media directives passed down from respective league offices, teams from both leagues have set about to promote players from youth squads to train and play with the professional senior team.

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Richmond Kickers and Pittsburgh Riverhounds both took advantage of the academy roster designation by signing local talent to special contracts. The two USL-Pro clubs used an academy contract to each bring a player into selection for the senior team and a different training-only deal for other promising players. These young local players were Evan Fowler, Vaughn Fowler, and Christian Alcorn (Richmond), and Steven Munn and Tyler McCarthy (Pittsburgh).

NASL club Carolina RailHawks seems to be developing a similar path for players independent of a league directive. On October 31, the RailHawks announced that they had signed U-17/18 national team player Conor Donovan. The press release said that the team added the 17 year old defender to the team’s roster for the regular season finale. Continue reading

Tottenham Hotspur and US U17 Team Highlight 2013 IMG Invitational Tournament

I try to keep abreast of important international club tournament and this week a somewhat minor competition caught my eye.

I was alerted to the IMG Invitational Tournament by a press release from Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, which was a welcome distraction from the 5-0 drubbing at home from Liverpool. One point in particular stuck out to me; the Tottenham Hotspur academy team will face off against the U.S. U17 National Team!

The 2013 IMG Invitational Tournament features handfuls of teams (mostly from the U.S. but two from the Bahamas, one from Puerto Rico, one from Canada, one from Bermuda, and one from Russia) playing in the U14, U15, U16, U17, and U19 age levels, but the event’s Super Group is what I really care about.

The Super Group has 8 teams competing against each other with a few piquing my interest. Hosting the tournament is the IMG Academy U18, joined by American clubs Baltimore Celtic (Maryland) and Alliance Academy (Michigan). Fresh from impressive wins in the Nike International Friendlies tournament last week, the U.S. U17 National Team will also compete as well as four international club teams. Brazil’s Cruzeiro and Mexico’s Querétaro sent their U18 squads, as did lower division English club Stevenage FC and my beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC.

The competition kicks off tomorrow morning and carries on through Sunday. Continue reading