The Angle

U.S. Soccer’s Pyramid Is Falling Apart

by on 11 September 2017

Last week, FiftyFive.One broke the news that the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) would not let NASL retain its division two status for 2018. It was just the latest in the lower division disasters in American soccer history. Wes Burdine argues that USSF has neglected its role by creating the illusion of a divisional pyramid and failing to proactively work for the future of soccer in this country.

The current organization of leagues by U.S. Soccer is in some ways meant to mimic the traditional league structures that include promotion and relegation. In theory, we have a pyramid: MLS on top, a very good professional league below, a professional league another step down (that is somehow not as good as the level above it), and then the Wild West of fourth division amateur leagues that are not technically part of the pyramid.

Looking for a pyramid in the U.S. resembles the process of learning constellations: the astronomer draws out the picture of a bear to illustrate Ursa Major and you dart your eyes back and forth. “That’s a ladle,” you say. U.S. Soccer made a ladle into a bear.

By this point, we all know how a normal league pyramid works, but the example many Americans know best is England’s system. Below the fourth division (League 2) the pyramid still contains “non-league” teams. Above that: League 2 feeds to League 1, then to the Championship, and finally sitting atop the pyramid is the English Premier League.

The pyramid created by USSF has no such clarity to its shape. Looking for a pyramid in the U.S. resembles the process of learning constellations: the astronomer draws out the picture of a bear to illustrate Ursa Major and you dart your eyes back and forth. “That’s a ladle,” you say. U.S. Soccer made a ladle into a bear.

Certainly, USSF could tear apart its existing pyramid and try to impose an English-styled system with promotion and relegation, but this is never going to happen. Moreover, we should ask ourselves whether this is even desirable or simply a desire for something more familiar. This article is not really intended to broach that level of discussion, but instead turns its eye toward the more specific and immediate question of just “What in the hell are we doing here?”

The backstory

A comprehensive “how did we get here?” would require a book to tell it, so instead let’s look back at the fight between USL and the break-away Team Owners Association (TOA). Brian Quarstad, who knows this subject better than anyone else, wrote a bit about the TOA break-away here, but has also kept his open with all the articles from the period.

In short, this period breaks down to this simple point: some club owners wanted to spend more and break the shackles of the stigma of “minor league” and others, who stayed with USL, were more content with their lots in life (I’m being very simplistic here). And so it is very important for us to remember the context that while the growth of soccer in the U.S. has been driven largely by MLS, the NASL played a significant role as well. Rather than the simple binary of glitzy major league and the very minor leagues of soccer, the NASL often paid its players comparatively well and provided some real quality soccer. It has created some fantastic success stories like Indy Eleven (as well as saved longtime clubs like the Minnesota Thunder, which became NSC Minnesota Stars).

In response to the turmoil of the lower divisions, USSF created new standards for how it designated its divisions (read the standards here). It established particular criteria for these leagues that would help ensure levels of professionalism: stadium size, ownership net worth, and city population size.

Some of these criteria were very effective in helping shore up the stability of the leagues. Before the new regulations in 2010, teams would come and go like mayflies. There is an actual page on Wikipedia for defunct soccer teams in the U.S. with 10 sub-pages. Since then, the number of clubs that have folded has dropped dramatically. Forcing leagues to accept teams only with very rich owners was unfortunately necessary — no one should own a soccer team in the U.S. if they aren’t ready to lose money regularly.

But it is hard to figure out the logic behind most of the standards, particularly when you apply them to a pyramid structure. One difference between division three and division two is that the third division teams must all play in stadia with minimum seating capacity of 1,000 and that minimum capacity in division two is 5,000.

We are playing a doomed game of Jenga.

More puzzling is the requirement for division two that 75 percent of the leagues teams be in metropolitan markets of at least 750,000. While the requirement that the second division have a significant national footprint (through locations in every time zone) may make a bit more sense, this population size requirement does not. What is the difference between Charleston, S.C. and let’s say Colorado Springs, Colo. or Madison, Wis.? How does that help delineate the level of play?

In almost every country, the level of division reflects the level of play: the best players and teams are on the top, and then quality more or less follows the drops between divisions. In the absence of promotion and relegation, we retain the trappings of quality but the division names bear no relationship to it. Was NASL better than USL when the latter was division three? The league structure provided no clue.

What the USSF seems to be doing is creating divisions according to commercial viability. A top league in the U.S. needs to be in major cities in proper soccer venues. And while this approach might make a lot of sense if you’re trying to create a sustainable vision for your top division, it makes absolutely no sense for designating divisions below it. Let me try to simply enumerate some of the problems this system creates.

Problem one: leagues in the same division

By creating descriptive divisions with criteria, you create the situation where you have multiple leagues on the same division. You could, presumably (and as NASL once hoped), have two top flight leagues. Currently, we have one top division, two second divisions, no third division, and I have lost count of the unofficial leagues in the apocryphal “fourth division.” In 2019, USSF could have one top division, one second division, and three third divisions.

We are playing a doomed game of Jenga.

More importantly, what does organizing these leagues in an ascending pyramid actually tell us? Nothing. What does division three mean if the New York Cosmos (and their highly professionalized front office and high wages) is in the same division as clubs with almost no full time staff?

Problem two: a reactionary attitude

U.S. Soccer has been reticent to impose an actual, clear structure to its leagues. The USSF saw problems occurring in the years leading up to 2010 and it created divisional standards in response. Last winter, during the previous round of lower division turmoil, it granted two of its leagues provisional second division status. That is, no league met division two status, but it granted waivers.

If U.S. Soccer is going to continually respond to the latest crisis, we will continue to put band-aids on gashes. There are some who naively believe that if only the NASL would just die off, a new era of Pax USSF will be ushered in. I’ve already written about this and it is naive, magical thinking. In short, there will always be teams in the lower divisions that will want more than to feel like they’re training players and teams for MLS.

Problem three: the Wild West

As long as USSF creates vaguely defined descriptive divisional standards, we will have people creating their own schemes. Peter Wilt’s ambitious plan for the new National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) is working toward eventually creating promotion and relegation within a subset of the USSF pyramid.

While Wilt’s plan is exciting for its ambition and creativity, the pyramid itself is looking more and more like a psychedelic Visio diagram. And the laissez faire attitude of the federation means that people will continue to come up with their own leagues and their own creative structures.

Problem four: enforcement is arbitrary and punitive

Perhaps the largest gripe from those involved with the NASL is that the revocation of its division two status feels arbitrary. The decision by the USSF likely comes from evaluating the league according to its own plan submitted at the beginning of 2017: is NASL making progress to coming into compliance? That is, are they on the right track to have enough teams for division two standards? They clearly aren’t and the NASL deserves significant scrutiny these days.

However, what does revoking the division two label accomplish? The NASL will only be plunged further into crisis and there is a significant chance that this decision will kill the league. Does the collapse of a league with some wonderful success stories in it help U.S. soccer?

The USSF’s opacity makes divining their reasoning impossible. But it is yet another example of the USSF reacting to the situation rather than trying to delineate a clear structure to U.S. soccer.

A proactive USSF

American soccer is in desperate need of a federation with vision. For too long it has relied upon the success of MLS to cover up the chaos below. This does not even mean an intensely rigorous, English-styled pyramid. Rather, it means looking beyond the most immediate chaos, planning, and then clearly articulating that plan to fans, owners, and players.

Let me float a few ideas here. One possibility is scrapping the pretense of a pyramid. Designate MLS the major league and then create one set of criteria for any league that wants to be designated a minor league. Those criteria would exist to ensure that a league must have a certain level of professionalism.

Another possibility is to take the onus of vetting club ownership out of leagues’ hands. Let the USSF start taking the process of vetting ownership groups into its own hands and ensuring that these clubs can live with losing millions of dollars for years. By holding the division two status over NASL’s head, the league was forced to make poor, short-sighted decisions like Rayo OKC.

Or, the USSF could start legitimately forcing leagues to cooperate and work together. This includes trying to funnel some of the money that’s being kept by MLS and SUM into lower divisions. It also means removing any incentives or possibilities for leagues to covet the leagues above them. If NASL couldn’t be division one, then it would have never entertained the possibility.

Whether these solutions are workable or not, American soccer needs structure, rules, and governance in ways it is not currently getting. Many of the NASL’s struggles can be defined as self-inflicted, but they are also the victim of the federation’s short-sightedness. Someone needs to look 10 and 20 years into the future and figure out what we want soccer in the U.S. to look like and how we can set down clear standards for achieving that goal. Until then, we are doomed to repeat the endless cycle of chaos in the lower divisions.

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  • Nipun Chopra

    Fantastic write-up, Wesley.

  • Wayne Colasinski

    Great, great, great article. If only the powers that be will read it. You covered a lot of the ideas that have been bouncing around in my brain for the 12 months. I believe US soccer has a lot of soul searching to do. I agree they carry the lion’s share of responsibility in this mess… and it is a mess.

  • Wayne Colasinski

    Wes, do you think that the single-entity business model shuts down any possibility of an open first division league? And in MLS, is single entity here to stay? I seem to think that this route was used to get the league up and running and to ensure, a certain level of stability, I thought I heard that it would only be a temporary measure and somewhere down the line, MLS clubs would become independent entities.

    • Wes

      I do. I wonder if MLS could be convinced to decentralize, but I think it was a necessary mechanism that is becoming a hindrance.

      • BJ

        With all the new ‘owners’ I wonder how long until they disband themselves, larger a group is the harder it is to have consensus. It could come apart by its own weight.

  • BJ

    TLDR version of below – license teams not leagues, screw leagues, support your local club.


    I like the idea of having the USSF certify TEAMS and not leagues. (I believe a few countries do this already, Japan did for sure a few years ago). IE a league would not need waivers if USSF certified the team.

    Also not having a division 4 is a big deal.

    Pro/Rel not withstanding. I think the USSF would serve everyone better if a team could ONLY get a D4 license to start, after running the team for 1 year they could apply for a D3 license. In the closed system we currently have that D4 has no where to go, but the chances that a crappy owner makes it to the next vetting process (ie doesn’t loss interest) is greatly reduced. So Once you have a D3 license you have have to wait another year to apply for a D2 license, after another year before you can apply for a D1 license.

    So let’s say Everyone’s Premier League Of America starts with 80 teams in D4. 1/2 of them fail the first year so 40 teams left, 20 can meet the higher D3 regulations so EPLA creates a division 3 league for them and 20 new teams join the D4 (so they have 40 at d4, and 20 at d3).

    Everyone plays 2nd year and out of the 20 in D3 3 fold (very sad), 8 apply and 6 get D2 license, not enough to create a D2 league so D3 sits with 17 teams, but D4 2 of the original 80 apply for D3 and 7 of the new 20 apply – all 9 get D3 license, they move up to the D3 create a 26 team league (20-3+9) (with 6 that hold a D2 license). Well D4 had 10 more fail, but 30 new teams (41 now at D4, 26 D3 – with 6 D3 league member holding a D2 license).

    Year 3 plays out. Great year no D3 teams fold. 6 more D3 apply for D2 license and 4 get it (total 10 D2 license holders in D3), USSF change the rules so it has to start with 12 teams so no D2 next year. Also 1 of the D2 holders applied and got D1 license. D4 had a bad year and 20 teams failed, out of the 21 left only 3 applied and got D3 license. But 30 news teams started in D4 so up to 51 teams in d4 (biggest year since year 1)! (51 now at D4, 29 D3 – with 9 D3 league member holding a D2 license, 1 D3 holding a D1 license).

    Year 4 plays out. 3 D3 teams fold. 4 more D3 teams apply and get D2 license. 8 D4 teams apply and get D3 license. 3 D4 teams fail. 20 new D4 teams join. Enough D2 licenses exist to start D2 in Year 5 has 14 D2, 28 D3, 60 D4 teams.

    Year 12….. second year of D1 league and it now has 20 teams, D2 has 40, D3 has 40, D4 has 80. Pro/Rel for everyone (but can only move up if you hold the next license).

  • DemosthenesVW

    “But it is hard to figure out the logic behind most of the standards…”

    Not really, though. I mean, you say it yourself shortly before and after:

    “Some of these criteria were very effective in helping shore up the stability of the leagues.”…”What the USSF seems to be doing is creating divisions according to commercial viability.”

    Because commercial viability is a major factor in the creation of stability. Why must Division III stadiums seat at least 1,000, and Division II stadiums seat at least 5,000, and Division I standiums seat at least 15,000? Because the higher the level, the more butts in seats you need to have in order to be profitable (or more realistically, have sustainable losses).

    Why must 75% of Division I teams be in markets of a million or more? Because USSF was trying to do something that has been done only once before, by the AFL — establish a successful top-level professional league that is nationwide from its inception. They didn’t have the time to establish the MLS regionally and then expand out, like every other current major league did, so they are trying to restrict growth to cities that have better odds of sustaining a team. The requirement that 75% of Division II teams be in markets of 750,000 or more is just an extension of the same principle.

    So clearly, you do understand the logic. You just prefer the tack taken by the rest of the world…that division is a function of the level of play, rather than a side effect of increasing the odds of sustainability. It’s fine that you prefer that. I’d prefer it myself. But may I remind you of something I know you already know — the system currently in place in countries like England developed over decades, from the bottom up. It’s built on a foundation consisting of the corpses of countless teams and leagues that died because they couldn’t handle the changing soccer landscape.

    Our current pyramid is very much a top-down creation, built on the corpses of tens and hundred of millions of dollar bills that were sacrificed in an effort to solidify the ground underneath. We may someday solidify that base to the point where we can start doing things the same way the rest of the world does them. But we’re not there yet.

  • DemosthenesVW

    I also don’t understand why your problems are problems.

    Why is it a problem if there are multiple Division III leagues? We’re a huge country, far bigger than England. And even their leagues are regionalized starting at Level 6. Why can’t our Division III consist of eight to ten geographic leagues? For that matter, why not have two to four Division II leagues based on geography? USL is heading that way right now — not in official terms, of course (since everyone is under the same banner), but in practical ones.

    Why is a reactionary attitude necessarily bad? If the USSF hadn’t adopted it, NASL and USL would probably already have gone under. Certainly USL would not yet have been promoted. Would you rather have a pyramid with a DI league, no DII leagues, and a DIII league? Because that’s what we would have been headed for last year if you’d had your way — no NASL, a DIII USL, and a blank spot in the middle of the structure. How is that better?

    What’s wrong with a Wild West? We’re still in the process of building ourselves as a soccer nation. There has to be some room in there for innovation. (My argument for USL/against NASL is not that USL’s is the only model, or even the best model, but that it has a model that works — while NASL’s model has failed at this time, and the league should be allowed to die.) Let Peter Wilt create NISA, if he can. And if it blooms, fantastic! Whether it survives apart from USL D3, or whether one league absorbs the other, it gives both leagues a chance to try something new in a relatively low-risk environment, and learn from the other’s successes and failures.

    As for your enforcement argument, I don’t think it holds water. When, before now, has USSF ever really tried to enforce their requirements…and since the answer is obviously “never,” how can it be said enforcement was arbitrary?
    The most one can say is that USSF has been too permissive, always giving rewards but never bringing the hammer down for failing to meet standards. (I also think that’s what you’re driving at when you say “If U.S. Soccer is going to continually respond to the latest crisis, we will continue to put band-aids on gashes.” In which case, fair enough.)

    Hence the provisional sanctioning last year, complete with the road map for both leagues — USSF’s way of saying “If you want to keep this status, show us you’re making strides. We’re not just giving these tags out anymore.” NASL either didn’t believe them, or couldn’t make their end of the deal in time…which is why they got hammered. While USL is also not in compliance with DII standards, they have certainly managed to make themselves look like a far more credible DII league than NASL ever managed. And I’m pretty sure they’ll have met their targets by the time their application comes up for review. If they have, the “arbitrary” attack goes away. As for “punitive,” when one has had seven years to get one’s house in order, and failed, it leaves one with few grounds to complain about consequences.

    • Dave Benhart

      USL having both DII and DIII has already been done. That’s what formed the TOA/NASL. Because the USL, as a league, had some very unhappy owners with how the league was doing business. I don’t know how the USL business practices have changed, other than working with MLS much more than 7 years ago. I can’t say if they’re better or not. But having a single league own all of the lower division soccer market wasn’t good for soccer in this country a decade ago. I don’t know if even less competition now, because of the USL/MLS relationship that didn’t exist pre-ULSPRO and the absence of an independent NASL-type league , is a good thing.
      Really what a MLS D1, USL D2, USL D3 structure, with many D2 or D3 teams being MLS2, means less competition for pro soccer at the league level. It’s “do things like this if you want to play with us” or the teams don’t get to play in a meaningful way. Which means, at least in some markets, less pro soccer. NewCosmos and Indy Eleven are two teams that wouldn’t exist without NASL. Edmonton is another. Personally I want more soccer in the US & Canada, not less. More options for places to watch professional players. More chances to see the Next Big Name (maybe) as a teenager. More options. Even if I don’t take advantage of those options myself, I want them for people that do.

      • DemosthenesVW

        I don’t know details of business practices either, Dave. But I can see results. USL has rapidly expanded, and is expanding even more. NASL was on the verge of dying last year, and they’re on the verge of dying again this year. I don’t know about you, but I feel like that tells me something.

        “But having a single league own all of the lower division soccer market wasn’t good for soccer in this country a decade ago.”

        Well, what was happening with lower-division soccer in this country a decade ago wasn’t good, I give you that. The question is why it wasn’t good. You seem to think it had something to do with there being only one banner to rally around. And maybe that’s so, in the sense that there was only one way of doing things, and it was the wrong one. But looking at the trajectories of our two lower-divsion leagues over the last seven years, the USL has learned something from those years, haven’t they? I don’t see that NASL has — or if they have, they took the wrong lessons away.

        “Really what a MLS D1, USL D2, USL D3 structure, with many D2 or D3 teams being MLS2, means less competition for pro soccer at the league level…Which means, at least in some markets, less pro soccer.”

        Less competition between leagues in a setup like that, sure. But more stability. I know people who read my comments are getting sick of that word, but I’m gonna keep saying it.

        But does it mean less soccer? We have more pro teams than we’ve ever had. We had 33 pro teams nationwide in 2005. In 2011, the first year of the modern NASL, we had 38. Last year we had 61, and this year we have 60. Next year, that number goes up more. And who knows how much it goes up in 2019 when USL D3 kicks in?

        And I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that proves your point. But the NASL isn’t driving this growth. MLS is. USL is. NASL has waxed and waned between eight and twelve teams for its entire existence. It has lost or folded as many teams as it has added. How is that league helping grow pro soccer? If they go, many of their teams will stay, and the ones that won’t will be replaced in a few years — maybe even in the same markets.

        “NewCosmos and Indy Eleven are two teams that wouldn’t exist without NASL. Edmonton is another.”

        Maybe so. Does that mean they go when NASL goes? Because they don’t have to be in NASL to exist. Edmonton is about to prove that when it goes to the Canadian Premier — you think they’ll be loyal? Because I don’t. Indy can find a home in USL, and maybe one day in MLS.

        As for the Cosmos, I think you have things backward these days. NASL wouldn’t exist without them. They spent themselves into unsustainable debt, were on the brink of folding late last year, and nearly took the league with them before Rocco stepped in to save the day. If that’s an NASL success story, I think we can do better…

  • Caxamarca

    The conclusion is based on the outcome one wants. If one wants pro/rel it looks wrong in its present form, or more precisely if one wants a system like in England. If one wants a system that mirrors the other American leagues it is actually settling just as gridiron did at the top and closer to baseball and hockey at the lower levels. The truth is soccer is getting more stable even through the chaos, much as the gridiron game did when baseball took interest in its multiple regional leagues and then it matured into bigger national leagues that took aim at each other to the point where we are now with the NFL. The presence and now success of MLS has stabilized soccer in the US, USL is now doing the same in partnership with MLS at the lower level. It remains to be seen how USL D3 and NISA will fit in but they are strong indicators of the interest and vitality of soccer overall. This is not an argument for or against a system as much as it is as an observation of the state of the game. The NASL has been a mess its entire existence, most of the problems were inherent in retrospect. The loss of NASL will not hurt the upward trajectory of soccer in this country, it is just another fit amongst the starts.

  • MmattN

    It would be interesting to hear one of Sunil’s lectures on sports and economics and just how much of a hand off approach he believes a Sport should thrive or die based on the whims of the market. We shouldn’t forget that USSF actually showing an organized interest in their Cup tourney (US Open Cup) is really just a recent decision.

    • MmattN

      Really though it’s a bit short sighted to think the USSF’s struggles are all tied to Sunil’s economic philosophy. Honestly we could say what we are witnessing is USSF’s struggle to come to terms and understanding of what its purpose is. Before the 94 World Cup, MLS, and the explosive popular growth of the sport, USSF oversaw a sport that was dominated by the interests of the amateur side of the sport.

      • BJ

        >dominated by the interests of the amateur side of the sport.

        And still is. Pay to play makes a lot of people a lot of money.

        • MmattN

          The interest of youth clubs will always have a place at the table but this is probably the first time since the 30s that the USSF has had to seriously consider their place in the game pertaining to that of the pro/commercial aspect of the game.

  • Scotty Smith

    Great job, sir. I only have one tiny question about the following sentence:

    “Certainly, USSF could tear apart its existing pyramid and try to impose
    an English-styled system with promotion and relegation, but this is
    never going to happen.”

    This makes me sad, especially since I know it could be true. But is it possible we could change this line of thinking and use rhetoric that reflects hope? (After all, the only thing left in Pandora’s box is often the only thing we have in American soccer.) Perhaps we could start using this type of sentence:

    “Certainly, USSF could tear apart its existing pyramid and try to impose
    an English-styled system with promotion and relegation, but this is
    not going to happen until Garber, Abbott, and Gulati all retire, and Bob Kraft goes onward to that skybox in the great beyond.”

  • Jesse Hemingway

    there are too many markets and too many supporters and fans of the game for one closed-entity league to fully represent the game at a top-flight level in the US/Canada. the expansion fee competition model has a very hard and very near ceiling…you just can’t have a 40, let alone 50-60 team MLS.

    pro/rel is the only path to truly expanding the footprint of us club soccer on a global level, but as things stand there is no motivation whatsoever for MLS ownership to favor that move…in large apart because they never bought the game itself, but rather paid handsomely to invest in the culture and prestige of top-flight soccer.

    the only hope for pro/rel, and thus open competition and ambitious growth would be the growth of ostensibly two separate pyramids…an MLS-USL-PDL model and a NASL-NISA-NPSL model. the prior continuing it’s path of safe and sustainable, if capped, growth…the latter, with far more pragmatism than in the past 5 years, creating a more open, european model of growth and improvement centered around ambition and investment. with patience and prudence, one could easily see in the next decade a successful 30-team MLS and a successful 20 team NASL, from which, hopefully, would be borne a legitimate conversation about investment principles and open the likelihood of a merger into a single, structured pyramid.

    I think the USSF’s ruling on NASL sets back the process of the growth of the game considerably…and that MLS had a hand in the decision. MLS desperately wants Beckham’s Miami club to succeed…Miami FC’s vocal and legal opposition to the closed system, plus to a lesser extent, Miami United’s announced intention of joining NISA, likely motivated the decision.

    it’s also especially punitive to NASL in that it came prior to MLS’s announcement of clubs 25 and 26. as soon as Sacramento and Nashville are announced, NASL (as a DII league) should’ve been on the phone to ownership groups in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Charlotte, San Antonio, Phoenix, Detroit…to lobby hard that that the continuation of the current model would mean a cap on the ambition of 75% of the MLS expansion bidders, not to mention other cities like OKC and Baltimore and Oakland that may want in on the second round of MLS bids.

    • DemosthenesVW

      “as things stand there is no motivation whatsoever for MLS ownership to favor [pro/rel]…in large apart because they never bought the game itself, but rather paid handsomely to invest in the culture and prestige of top-flight soccer.”

      If by this you mean that there is no motivation for MLS owners to risk being relegated and losing their massive investments now that the league has stabilized and is making a profit, then yes, you are right. Still, I am unaware of any business enterprise that is willing to voluntarily chance losing most of its net worth for the gain of others.

      “the only hope for pro/rel, and thus open competition and ambitious growth would be the growth of ostensibly two separate pyramids…an MLS-USL-PDL model and a NASL-NISA-NPSL model.”

      If that’s true, then pro/rel is probably dead. You can’t have an NASL-as-top-league model without the NASL.

      “I think the USSF’s ruling on NASL sets back the process of the growth of the game considerably…”

      I have yet to see a defense of this idea that takes into account the rapid expansion of the professional soccer market in the United States. In 2011, MLS had 18 teams — now 22, and another joining next year. In 2011, ULS had 12 teams — now 30, and three more joining next year. In 2011, NASL had eight teams — now eight (still). Even with two more joining next year, that’s not much.

      So tell me, how does the USSF ruling set back the growth of the game? We have more professional teams now than we ever have, and NASL has not been a net contributor to that growth in the slightest degree. The game is growing just fine. What you mean is that the USSF ruling damages the chances of pro/rel.

      And you base that idea on a fantasy pyramid consisting of a top league on life support, a middle league that doesn’t even exist yet, and a bottom league that is strictly amateur. How do you relegate pro teams to, or promote pro teams from, a vacuum? How do you relegate teams that pay players to a league where players don’t get paid? How do you promote amateur teams that are probably losing money to a level where they’ll lose a lot more?

      This is Underpants Gnomes logic if ever I heard it. Wait, I get it now, it’s all so simple. Step One: build a perfect linked league pyramid in the fantasy world of an online comment section. Step Two: [pause] Step Three: pro/rel!

      “it’s also especially punitive to NASL”–

      Nope, stopping you there. Nothing is “especially punitive” to NASL. Nothing is “especially punitive” to a league that has had seven years to collect its crap, and has spent much of that time alternately trying to position themselves as an alternate first-division league (hint: try actually meeting standards for DII before you try for promotion to DI) and whining about how they can’t just win their way into MLS and bypass that whole massive investment thing (to wit: “Just because the people who are in the club now each paid to build it, how come we have to pay to get in?!”)

      • Jesse Hemingway

        first of all…none of my ideas are things that I think ought be implemented and in place next year…or two years…I’m looking at things in 10, 15, 20 year arc.

        I agree with you…MLS has grown considerably and has been largely benefited by a being closed league with a complex collective system. I love MLS and how much it’s improvement has helped the popularity of the game in the states.

        but the truth is it has growth limitations. when MLS names Sacramento and Nashville bids 25 and 26…and then Detroit and Phoenix as bids 27 and 28…where does that leave FC Cincinnati ownership and supporters? what do ambitious owners like Bill Edwards and Steve Malik do with the clubs they’ve grown and invested in…wholly settle for their permanent place in the second tier? and what of the success and popularity in small markets like Chattanooga, Grand Rapids, New Haven…markets that would never be considered for a MLS bid?

        at some point there is going to need to be a path to top-flight that rewards ambition and investment and isn’t completely and simply (and arguably arbitrarily) determined by Don Garber.

        NASL is absolutely flawed and has lacked leadership and direction and most importantly, pragmatism. I don’t care if the tip of that pyramid is “NASL”…it’s just the set of initials of record right now…but once MLS reaches critical mass there will need to be, and I think there will be, an alternative structure that develops for the clubs and owners left behind. a NASL-NISA-NPSL model is the first I’ve seen that makes some semblance sense as a potential open league model and I am/was(?) very interested to see how it starts in practice to answer some of your questions of how it will work.

        there are simply too many markets in this country for the top tier league to continue as a closed entity in perpetuity. and pro/rel is far from a death knell. it offers a great chance for many clubs to restructure, reorganize and sell-off disappointing players…add to that some kind of parachute payment and even some more complex mls-style mechanisms to deal with player movement.

        • DemosthenesVW

          First off, I notice you’re not disagreeing with anything I said re: MLS’s lack of motivation to consider pro/rel, the infeasibility of the proposed alternate pyramid, the growth of the game in recent years being largely due to the MSL/USL alliance model, and the fact that NASL has had this coming for some time. I’m going to take it as read, therefore, that we agree on those points, which were all I was trying to say.

          Now, let me respond to what you actually said. I don’t dispute that MLS’s current model has growth limitations. It’s obvious. Realistically, a top-flight league in a country this size cannot have less than 28 teams to ensure a nationwide competition…but logistically, they also can’t have many more.

          I would guess that MLS’s current growth model can cap out at 36 teams maximum, which (assuming they stay at 34 games) would ensure two closed-conference home-and-away round-robin schedules — everybody in the East plays everyone else in the East home and away, and the same for the West. I doubt they’ll expand that far, though. They might stop at 28, or they might keep going to 30 or 32. But realistically, 28-32 teams is the most I would think they’d want to sustain. And then what, as you said?

          I see two “realistic” paths to pro/rel in this country. The first is that MLS decides to institute it within their own league, by expanding to forty teams or beyond. This would involve splitting into upper and lower divisions (which is a scalable model; that is, you could add a third division, and even a fourth). New franchises could buy in at the lower level, possibly with a reduced buy-in fee, and then win their way up. The catch would be that to be admitted to MLS2, they would have to meet all the requirements for MLS1, so that there would be no need to secure waivers for them in case of promotion. (Alternatively, USL could institute pro/rel across the second and third divisions, though I don’t think that will happen without at least implicit MLS approval.)

          The second path is that pro/rel arises from a split in the pyramid due to exactly the natural forces you are describing. Once MLS has closed its ranks, what is left for ambitious and capable second-division teams to do except stagnate? For that matter, USL can’t just keep expanding forever…what would happen to an ambitious and capable USL D3 team if they couldn’t either buy a seat at USL’s table or win their way into the league? Once you build a critical mass of those teams, you have the makings of a second league structure…or at least of a movement that might be able to force USSF’s hand.

          But neither of these paths is ready for us to walk down right now. We need time to build and solidify the infrastructure. Soccer didn’t happen here like it did in England, from the bottom up — where every town had their team, and they played the other towns around them, and then the ones that began consistently winning decided to form local leagues, and then those leagues linked up, and so on. We’re a top-down country. We began with a top-flight, and we’re just now starting to fill in the levels below to the point of viability.

          For pro/rel to happen in this country, here’s what I think we need: a minimum of 80-100 professional teams across all leagues — not including II teams; most of whom could fill a larger stadium than the one they play in; all of whom have been around for long enough that their fanbase would not desert them if they hypothetically dropped a level of competition; and a large American TV audience that watches soccer in the same way they currently watch college football (that is, “Okay, so this is the noon game I want to watch, and this is the 3:30 game…and I know which West Coast game I wanna watch late…and I guess I’ll have to channel-surf between these two games at 7”). If we have those things, no closed-league MLS structure can resist pro/rel. Without even one of them, though, I can’t see a realistic way for pro/rel to work here.

          • Jesse Hemingway

            I agree with most of this…again, I do think it’s a long-term process and I think Silva’s media offer and subsequent lawsuit are little more than sabre-rattling…at least I hope so, because no, we’re absolutely not ready for pro/rel on a large scale and especially involving MLS.

            I think the only thing I really disagree with is that NASL has “had this coming.” you said NASL has had 7 years to get it’s shit together…let’s look at MLS in year 7 in 2003…10 clubs with two having just folded a year prior…and we’re still a few years shy of San Jose moving to Houston and the brilliant Chivas USA experiment. I’d say somewhere between ’07 with TFC and ’09 with the Sunders is about where MLS figured it out…11-13 years into existence.

            sure…NASL is coming into a more pro-soccer environment, but it’s also doing so with/against a league that only views it through the lens of competition rather than what’s good for the game as a whole domestically. MLS is a business, though, so it can and maybe should. USSF isn’t, though.

            I do still believe USSF’s ruling on NASL was arbitrary and punitive…probably in large part due to Silva’s antics. USL doesn’t meet USSF’s own standard for DII status either…yes it’s grown and increased it’s footprint substantially, but it needed a waiver last year as well and if it’s going to receive another one for 2018 (based likely on it’s announcement of USL D3 for 2019…all small venue clubs go to D3) then NASL with it’s announced ambition in Chicago and/or likely relationship with NOLA Jesters as central time-zone clubs for 2019 should be granted the same consideration.

            I agree with your two visions of potential pro/rel. I don’t love the first one…A. it just feels too contrive to me (but admittedly that’s just opinion) but B. simply expanding the closed-system does little to actually reward ambition and I’d assume the markets would still be at least somewhat tightly controlled by gatekeeper Garber.

            for me, obviously, the second model is preferred…but in order for it to happen with “NASL” (again, doesn’t have to be them) as an eventual (10-20 years) alternative top-tier league offering a different approach to ownership/management the foundation should be laid now…a DII league (NASL) starting to establish those actually direct-line connections with a DIII (NISA) and below (NPSL/UPSL).

            the other thing I forgot to mention is that I think very soon you’re going to start to see certain MLS ownership groups (I’m thinking of Atlanta, Orlando, LAFC) who want to spend and invest more and participate/compete in the European player markets get frustrated with the New Englands and Colorados of the league who have invested little in players/academies/infrastructure but benefit from the collective. IF “NASL” could grow to a viable alternative, I think some of the ambitious ownership groups would eye that structure. hell…even if it can’t, if these groups feel too limited by MLS’s structure I think you may see an internal tide-swing toward pro/rel

      • BJ

        >So tell me, how does the USSF ruling set back the growth of the game? We have more professional teams now than we ever have, and NASL has not been a net contributor to that growth in the slightest degree.

        10% of the current USL team either played in NASL or in a stadium an NASL team built. So part of the ‘growth’ net was NASL dirven.

        • DemosthenesVW

          “Net” (n): “free from all charges or deductions: such as. a :remaining after the deduction of all charges, outlay, or loss.”

          Such as losing teams to a rival league, perhaps?

          Teams (NASL) in 2017: 8
          Teams (NASL) in 2011: 8


          I’ll stick with my phrasing, thanks…

          • BJ

            Net contributor to professional soccer in the slightest, and not including the starting home or the infrastructure created by the space the league allowed is a mathematics slight of hand, at least.

          • DemosthenesVW

            Okay, then. The meaning of my initial phrasing was pretty clear. But you seem interested in having your own discussion, wherein NASL gets full credit for two teams and a *stadium.* Never mind, I guess, that both the teams paid good amounts of money to leave NASL, and that one of them may end up playing in another country’s top division anyway. Or that you have to reach to a *stadium* for a lasting contribution.

            In any case, none of it matters. NASL has filed suit against USSF today…a suit that I seriously doubt they will win. The writing is on the wall here.

  • Rich Schreiner

    Why isn’t it realistic to have Pro/Reg for all leagues up to, but excluding MLS? It looks like there are roughly 40 teams in DII(USL+NASL), including 23 MLS2 teams. DII could have East and West Conferences, save money on travel, maybe an 8 team playoff at the end of the season. BUT… let DIII teams earn promotion. 4 DIII regions with 1.5 promotions. 3 relegations from each DII conference. It seems like 3 DII teams are folding/self relegating each year anyway. Let the best lower level teams rise up to DII. Let’s face it, the MLS owners have no reason to embrace pro/reg. But for a 5-10 million investment (as opposed to 200million) in DII, the overall growth and stability of the league might be worth the risk.

    Here’s one possible long term outcome… the MLS continues to hand pick the best DII teams until, maybe 10-20 years down the road it gets to 40 teams. By then, there would be a sustainable pro/reg system in place underneath the MLS. AND THE MAGIC POSSIBILITY.. With 40 teams, MLS splits into MLS1 and MLS 2 and maybe, just maybe, joins the pro/reg pyramid. Probably still impossible, but much more possible with a financially stable system underneath it, than today. Now, I’m not an expert in this area and I’m assuming there a many reasons this would never happen… just wishful thinking.