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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