Opinion: It is Time for Unity in US Soccer
By Scotty Smith
(Note: This article is about the men’s game in this country. The women apparently have it figured out, as evidenced by the fact that they are awesome.)
UNITED is a beautiful word.
In the sport of soccer, the word is associated with greatness. Manchester United has won 20 first division titles, 12 F.A. Cups, and 3 European championships. Newcastle United, West Ham United, and Leeds United have all experienced glory in years past. In our own country, D.C. United won three of the first four MLS Cups. Two MLS expansion teams used the name recently because it is marketable and sends a message of unity to potential supporters. Several teams in the lower divisions use the name, as well as countless youth clubs across the country. Our sport uses the word far more than any other sport.
Like you, I am hurt, shocked, saddened, angry, and confused by our failure to qualify for the World Cup. Like you, I have spent the last few days searching for answers. Every time I think about it, I keep coming back to the word. In these dark days of American soccer, it is time for us to be UNITED.
To our founding fathers, the word was more than just an adjective to describe the states of America. For them, the concept of unity was one of the core principles upon which the nation was founded. The idea was for a series of states to be joined together for one cause, one purpose, and one long-term vision.
When one googles “united definition,” this is the result: “joined together politically, for a common purpose, or by common feelings.” Sadly, the “United” portion of the name “United States of America” held true for less than one-hundred years before we were fighting amongst ourselves in a bloody and devastating civil war.
Even in the year 2017, one must only watch the news for ten minutes to see a divided country. Politics, race, gender, religion, values, and a host of other things divide us. It is difficult to see a path to resolution.
Our historical division has bled over into the soccer world as well. I have often thought about just how powerful we might be if the old ASL had not folded in 1933. The reason the old ASL folded was, of course, division. The owners could not agree with the governing body, and it all crashed and burned. Where would we be now if the league had continued? Division hampered the growth and popularity of the game in the US.
Soccer in the United States is still suffering from division. Ideology has become an obstacle. There is an “I know more than you know” attitude that surrounds the sport. Every guy thinks he knows more than the next guy does, and his system is the system that would solve US Soccer once and for all (I am no exception, and I have a blog; but I shall try to be mostly nice).
In this time of great division, the United States Soccer Federation allows anybody and everybody to do whatever they want to do without saying “this is how it’s going to be.” As a result, we are brimming with conflict. We currently have two active lawsuits in which people from one ideology are suing people from another ideology. In youth soccer, local clubs from the same area slander each other because they are all competing for the same kids. The fans are the worst—they spend hours lambasting each other on Twitter, calling names and saying hurtful things about those whose ideologies do not line up with their own.
It is the saddest state of affairs possible for a country that needs unity in order to achieve greatness. We are anything but united. We are divided, and our division is hurting US Soccer.
In this time of necessary change, we need a UNITED SYSTEM in American soccer, complete with a united pyramid, a united development model, and a united fan base.
- UNITED PYRAMID
First of all, there must be a UNITED PYRAMID in the United States of America*.
(Note*: Yes, I know that Canada will certainly have teams in that pyramid. They will also soon have the option of a first division league of their own if those teams chose to pursue that route.)
As it stands, club soccer in the US is run by warring businesses. I have looked, but I have not found another nation on Earth that can make that claim. Letting multiple businessmen just start leagues whenever they want is ludicrous. True, it speaks to our free market economy, but soccer should be seen as a sport, not an industry. That is why other countries, including the most successful ones, do not have a system that is run by warring businessmen. There seems to be a simple fix – do not let warring businessmen run club soccer.
Instead of tolerating warring businesses, the USSF should unite all leagues. That is easier said than done, but do not dismiss the point for that reason only. Before the USL/NASL split in 2010/11, we were somewhat on the path to a united pyramid. Alas, the USSF let the two warring factions become two separate businesses instead of two parts of the same whole. Their failure to referee that split in an adequate manner led to the messy #SoccerWarz that still plague the system. If the USSF had decided to grant sanctioning only if the leagues were called USL D2 and USL D3, we would not be in the mess we are in today.
Speaking of names, our league monikers most certainly need revision. They are associated with a broken system and the division that accompanies it. The name NASL should go away because of the negative connotations associated with that league. The name MLS should go away simply because it sucks. The name USL is perfect, and USSF should apply it to all divisions. United Soccer Leagues – that perfectly describes what we need in this country. There should also be a reserve league where 2/B teams of all pro teams can play other pro reserve teams in their geographic footprint. This would solve the problem of all the MLS2 teams that get on everybody’s nerves.
There would be a MASSIVE amateur division, comprised of what we now call PDL, UPSL, and NPSL. All of these leagues have the word “Premier” in the title. Calling a fourth division league “premier” is fundamentally untrue. The word makes no sense unless it is the first division. As a result, we must throw all of them out. The leagues should be USL1, USL2, USL3, USLR, and USLA. Everything else is just men’s league, and should be named accordingly.
So how would one sell this to Don Garber, Mark Abbott, and Robert Kraft?
Step one is picking the right leader. US Soccer needs a leader who tells MLS what the plan is, not the other way around. Our next president must have an “align or die” mentality. He also will have the arduous task of convincing powerful MLS owners that this is the best thing for US Soccer. They likely will not care. He will then have to convince powerful MLS owners that this is the best thing for THEM. That is going to take a great deal of strength (and creativity) on the part of the new leader.
There could be a diplomatic way to sell MLS on the plan. If Riccardo Silva is still willing to line up the type of investment he has proposed before, all the first division owners could essentially receive the amount of money they paid in to be a part of the first division in the first place. If that does not work, they may come to an agreement whereby all first division teams receive an equal and substantial amount.
Now, before you cry out about how unfair that is to the lower leagues, remember that MLS is comprised of money men, not soccer men. If they are ever going to play along, there had better be money in it—lots of money.
Some of that money could come in the form of benefits from the cooperate world. When a sales exec from the current MLS tries to sell advertising for 2018, the first question from the cooperation might be about the number of markets the advertising will reach. Right now, the answer is “twenty-one.” In a unified pyramid, the answer is “all of them.”
While we are on the topic of money, the new president of US Soccer needs to be something other than an economics professor. Economics professors have to spend time professing, so they are busy. They are also, by nature, concerned with money. An economics professor cannot help looking at things from an economic point-of-view instead of a competitive point-of-view. That is great for building a $100 million surplus, but it is not great for competition. I want to thank Professor Gulati for the surplus, but it is still time for a change. US Soccer needs a FULL-TIME, focused leader who is willing to stand up to the businessmen who run the sport in this country.
Here is the final point before I move on to youth development—Americans need access to more American soccer than can be watched in one lifetime. No country has as much TV as we do. American soccer should be everywhere. I watch more European games than I do MLS, in part because MLS games are on sporadically. There should be dedicated time slots for American club soccer matches so Americans can get in the habit of watching. ESPN, FOX, and Univision can still have exclusive rights to the best matches, but a dedicated live streaming channel for the unified pyramid would be perfect. Think about the Watch ESPN app or the NBC Sports app. Now imagine if it were all American soccer, all the time. We must generate interest and familiarity. In a united pyramid, clubs at all levels can stream games the way USL does on YouTube. Why are we giving YouTube our matches? We need a dedicated streaming channel dedicated exclusively to American soccer.
Americans also need access to live soccer in soccer stadiums (modular stadiums are my favorite, but whatever gets people to the game is good with me). Live soccer should be available within a reasonable driving distance. When it comes to professional soccer, we should have close to 100 independent professional clubs (96 is my perfect number). We should have 300 or more fourth division teams.
All of those clubs should be free—free to make their own choices; free to buy, sell, or loan their own players; free to develop local sponsorships and partnerships; and free to market in a way that makes the most sense in their area. However, they should also operate within one system, and that system must be unified.
The goals I have outlined in point one may seem unrealistic, especially to those who assume the USSF is completely unwilling to change. It will take time, and it will take money, but there are people in this country willing to make those two things line up accordingly. We need a unified pyramid, and, like most things that require unity, it will require sacrifice. The executives must stop being selfish and do what is best for soccer in the United States.
- UNITED DEVELOPMENT
Almost everyone in youth soccer thinks he knows the game better than the next guy in youth soccer does. The development system is full of coaches who are “not sold” on this or that. Since these know-it-alls are competing for the same kids, they are competing for the same money. Mom and Dad own checkbooks, and club coaches/coaching directors want Mom and Dad to keep writing checks. As long as the checks are coming in, development is secondary. The lack of unity is sickening. We need coaches who are willing to unify.
I recently heard about three clubs who created a combined U16 team so the best kids from each club could play together and face elite competition. We need more of that. Lay down the guns, man. We need to be united.
Clubs that do not have a professional team will continue to train kids to play college soccer, and that is fine. They are really in to money, so they can just keep doing their thing. There is no reason to upset the apple cart in this regard.
Mom and Dad, for their part, are more interested in Bobby getting a good education than Bobby skipping college for a non-guaranteed shot at going pro. Skill and speed will fade in time, but an accounting degree is forever. That is why they spend $60,000 over ten years so Bobby can earn (maybe) $20,000 worth of scholarship money. Let the upper-middles keep doing what they do. At this point, we are not losing our best athletes to college soccer.
But what should be done with the best athletes in the area?
The professional teams should all have free academies that are training the best athletes in the area to play professional soccer. I am thrilled that a number of writers have already written about this, starting the moment the senior national team bowed out of World Cup qualifying. We need more attention to this nationally, because the pay-to-play system fails many of our most-gifted athletes. We also need coaches who are willing to say, “I’m going into the inner city, and I am going to develop players who can win the World Cup someday.” (Speaking of the inner city, I had some thoughts on futsal in the inner city.)
But it’s not just the inner city kids; small town kids need to have a path to a professional career as well. We need eyes on kids everywhere, which is a huge task for our scouting network. Hey, US Soccer—do you need a home for that $100 million surplus? Put it into youth development, including the scouting network. Send coaches to the new development center in Kansas City and train them to become certified scouts in their area. We must identify kids early, no matter where they grow up. We must also lock the best athletes into the game before they discover other sports. (Yeah, yeah…I know they should have a choice and all that, but we are dominant enough in other sports. It’s time to win the World Cup.)
- UNITED FAN BASE
This is the hardest part.
There is too much judgment in the fan base. There is too much anger. There is too much snobbery. I have no problem with the fan who says “game” instead of “match.” I have no problem with the fan who says “team” instead of “club” or “side.” I also have no problem with “cleats” instead of “boots” or “studs,” or “uniform” instead of “kit” or “strip.” That’s all semantics. I don’t even have a problem with using the word “fans” instead of “supporters.” Here in America, the supporters’ group usually describes less than 10% of the crowd.
As long the speaker gets his point across, I do not care what word is used. But there are many in this divided fan base who belittle those who do not use British vocabulary. This is a form of snobbery intended to prove “I know more than you know.” This is a stupid point-of-view, and we need to get over it. Embrace your fellow soccer fan, even if you trash his team the week of the match.
But vocabulary is certainly not our biggest problem. Let’s cut to the chase—the open-system people and the closed-system people do not get along. The “pro/rel crowd” is loud, belligerent, and basically unfriendly. This hurts their arguments because people do not want to talk to them or be around them. “MLS fanboys” are equally cranky in return, and nobody wins.
Alas, the pro/rel people do have a point: US Soccer would be better with pro/rel.
However, we cannot even talk about pro/rel without unity. Unity must come first. It is time for all American soccer fans to realize this. Once we are unified, pro/rel is possible. Garber himself has said that one reason we do not have pro/rel is the lack of a strong second division. Once we unify and align, pro/rel is possible within the system. But, even then, we may have to wait for The Don (and Mark Abbott) to retire, Gulati to lose, and Bob Kraft to die. Those things are going to take patience. Patience is difficult.
In the meantime, we would all do well to support what we have. The “I’m just going to watch Premier League or Bundesliga” Eurosnobs need to be less snobby in their approach. I watch European games all week long, but I still go out and support my local team every single time they play. Higher attendance leads to more revenue, more sponsorship opportunities, more investment in local youth, and more of a community experience.
I am well aware that Arsenal cannot hear me cheering (or complaining). My support of Arsenal does nothing for them in one way or another—I live too far away. That does not mean I will ever stop supporting them. I am 22 years in and much too invested, but I am smart enough to realize that I mean nothing to them.
I mean a great deal to Memphis City FC, though. The players hear our chants and tell us how much they mean when they are out there on the field. Our season tickets help the club. We matter at the local level, which, in turn, means we matter to American soccer.
American fans need to support local soccer, no matter what level that might be. It might be as a youth coach. It might be as a supporter. It might be as a season ticket holder who invites a friend every match in hopes of growing the fan base. Even those who want promotion and relegation should support local soccer with the dream of having pro/rel one day. That which seemingly helps a little could help a lot in the long run.
We may be heading toward a system of two separate pyramids, as was brilliantly outlined by Clement Williams. It may come to that, but it would be a sad day. It would be the culmination of a decades-long inability to get along. It would be the exact opposite of unity, and a bigger mess than we need. We are the United States of America, and it is high time we started acting like it.
Well, I have spent enough time on this lonely and incredibly naïve soapbox for one day. It is time to do other things, like find video of Weston McKennie at Schalke. After that, I must take some time to wonder if the next Weston McKennie lives in a poverty-stricken neighborhood near downtown Memphis. After that, I am going to eat supper.
Here’s to better days ahead, friends. In the meantime, let’s all do our part to be UNITED. It is, after all, a beautiful word.