An Open Letter to St. Louis Soccer United

March 23, 2009
Jeff Cooper
Chairman, St. Louis Soccer United
707 Berkshire Blvd
East Alton, IL 62024

Dear Mr. Cooper,

St Louis Athletica

Saint Louis Athletica

By now, you’ve heard the news that Major League Soccer has awarded the cities of Vancouver and Portland expansion franchises for 2011 . While MLS commissioner Don Garber opened up the possibility of more franchises in 2012 — maybe — I suspect your initial reaction to this news will still be disappointment. After all, the city of St. Louis is considered by many to be the “Soccer Capital of America,” and over the years, its fans have come out in support of college teams, MISL teams and more. The Women’s Professional Soccer League saw fit to put a team in St. Louis for its inaugural season. Plus, St. Louis has arguably the best youth soccer system in the country. So why does Major League Soccer recognize the potential in this city and grant it a franchise?

I would propose to you that this is the wrong question. The correct question is, “Why do you wish to join a league that won’t put your city first?”

I would like to present an argument to you that the United Soccer Leagues First Division is a much better fit for the city of St. Louis than MLS. Yes, at first glance, the USL might seem like a fledgling league. It’s not the official top flight of American soccer, and not all of its clubs have survived over the years. However, as the Puerto Rico Islanders and Montreal Impact have proven recently, the USL is quite serious about competing with MLS on the pitch and in the marketplace. Here are several reasons why you should consider postponing your quest for an MLS franchise and joining USL now:

1.) $40 million goes much further in USL.

In these trying economic teams, MLS won’t budge from its expansion fee of $40 million. Keep in mind this is $40 million just to join the league. It doesn’t include stadium costs, marketing costs, player and employee salaries or other expenses.

Think for a moment about what you could do with $40 million in USL. You could build a stadium complex as grand as Montreal’s Saputo Stadium for about $14 million — and thanks to your recent acquisition of the Anheiser-Busch Center, you probably wouldn’t have to spend nearly that much. Even if you did, though, that would leave a whopping $26 million for start-up costs, marketing, a Premier Development League (PDL) side and, most importantly, player salaries. USL clubs have spent the last few years luring underpaid, underappreciated talent away from MLS. A soccer-crazed city like St. Louis would be an attractive landing spot for many of these players.

2.) USL clubs are just as competitive as MLS clubs on the pitch.

You might have noticed that two USL clubs made it to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, while only one out of four MLS clubs did the same, while two of the four MLS clubs in the competition couldn’t even get into the group stage. Admittedly, Puerto Rico and Montreal have a much easier time getting to the Champions League than the American USL clubs, who can only get in by winning the U.S. Open Cup. However, over the last two seasons, USL clubs have won 11 out of 23 Open Cup matches against MLS franchises. That includes three wins by USL Second Division clubs, including the Richmond Kickers’ infamous 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. The Charleston Battery beat two MLS clubs to reach the U.S. Open Cup Final last season, despite the fact that they only finished 6th in USL-1 and lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

It stands to reason that a well-funded, well-run USL club could easily build a side capable of winning the Open Cup and doing quite well in the CONCACAF Champions League — and not just in terms of success on the pitch. 55,571 people went to Olympic Stadium in Montreal for the first leg of the quarterfinals between the Impact and Santos Laguna. Imagine selling out the 66,965-seat Edward Jones Dome for a U.S. Open Cup Final or a Champions League quarterfinal. A USL club in St. Louis could pull that off.

3.) USL clubs have more freedom to develop players.

Because MLS operates as a single-entity system, its franchises don’t fully control player contracts. Plus, those franchises have to deal with all sorts of arcane rules and regulations — salary caps, allocation money, draft picks, discovery rights, etc. The league had to pull teeth to grant Brian McBride his wish to finish his career in Chicago.

USL, however, takes a much more grass-roots approach, allowing clubs much more freedom to sign players and develop talent within their own systems. That’s something that could be appreciated in St. Louis. Thanks to the city’s fantastic youth soccer system, the amount of talent that has come out of St. Louis in recent years has been quite impressive. A USL club would be far more able to tap those resources and help nurture that talent than any MLS club can do now. You could run a USL club more like a European or South American club. MLS will never let you do this.

4.) USL clubs will have much lower travel costs.

Yes, MLS is raiding two very successful USL markets by awarding franchises to Portland and Vancouver. For many USL clubs, however, this could be a blessing in disguise. Come 2011, USL clubs on the East Coast won’t have to travel any further west than Austin, Texas. That will help those clubs save money, which could, in turn, be used to offer more competitive salaries to better players.

5.) USL clubs are attracting international investment.

The Austin Aztex, who will begin play in USL-1, are partially owned by Premier League club Stoke City, while Coca-Cola Championship side Crystal Palace has a USL-2 club in Baltimore that’s looking to move up to USL-1 in the near future. Another Championship side, Burnley, recently partnered with Next Level Academy in Cary, NC, which runs a USL Premier Development League club now known as the Cary Clarets. Mexican clubs are looking to USL to develop a presence in American soccer as well. This is in part because USL has fewer restrictions on international players — and in part because these clubs are beginning to recognize USL’s potential for competing on the international stage, something that doesn’t seem to concern MLS all that much.

6.) MLS is tapping successful USL markets for expansion.

Buoyed by its recent successes in CONCACAF, USL has made some noise about competing at the same level as MLS. The Saputo family, which owns the Montreal Impact, managed to fill Olympic Stadium just months after MLS rejected Montreal’s expansion bid. Just a few weeks later, MLS tapped two prime USL markets for expansion. Buzz about an MLS franchise in Seattle also grew after more than 10,000 showed up at Qwest Field for a U.S. Open Cup semifinal against FC Dallas in 2007. By comparison, less than 10,000 showed up at RFK Stadium for D.C. United’s U.S. Open Cup final victory over Charleston last year.

Coincidences? Perhaps, but I have my doubts.

This move, however, has not stopped USL from continuing to add clubs in new cities. A USL-1 club in New York City will begin play in 2010. (And it’s entirely possible their proposed stadium in Queens will be completed before Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.) The reborn Tampa Bay Rowdies will also join USL-1 in 2010, and there’s talk of Pachuca building a club in Orlando as well. The Cleveland City Stars moved up from USL-2 to USL-1 this year, and USL-2 clubs in Baltimore and Pittsburgh could eventually do the same. These are not minor-league markets. A cynic would suggest that these are all test beds for future MLS franchises, but others would say that the USL is becoming the AFL to Major League Soccer’s NFL, and as soccer continues to grow in America, that’s not such a bad place to be.

There are many who would argue, of course, that joining USL means settling for something less than the best, because MLS is the recognized top flight in American soccer. I would counter that MLS is really the top flight in name only. It’s a closed, single-entity league that is more concerned with its marketing strategies than its actual level of play. USL, meanwhile, continues to grow into a respectable league with quality clubs who clearly care more about the product on the pitch, which is all that really matters in the long run.

USL and its member clubs would love to welcome a great soccer city like St. Louis into its fold. MLS, on the other hand, seems to be sending the message that it doesn’t need your city. Perhaps this is an opportunity for you and SLSU to let MLS know that right now, your city doesn’t need MLS, either.

David J. Warner
Durham, NC
Member, Triangle Soccer Fanatics

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