The Sweeper: A New Dawn for North American Lower League Soccer?

Sunil Gulati

Big Story
The resolution to the deadlock over second division plans for 2010 in North America is of course analysed all over the place: over 100 journalists and bloggers joined the US Soccer teleconference yesterday afternoon. You can read the full transcript from US Soccer here. Now the dust has settled, and the USL and the NASL have been forced into a compromise for 2010 by US Soccer, the key question is what this means for the long-term, something Gulati mentioned several times. As he said:

Our goal is to have a stable, professional soccer environment in the U.S. I think we’ve been able to accomplish that with MLS over the last 14 years, and with the exception of one year, there has been a steady growth of the teams in terms of interest. We want to make sure that we can accomplish that through all of our other professional leagues, which are different from youth soccer or amateur soccer. In the next few months we’ll be laying out some regulations, rules and standards. We’ll put a little more substance into it about what a second division should look like. Everyone has agreed that that’s important and we’ll be working on that. For us, the most important thing here is long-term stability. What we think we’ve achieved today is a short-term solution for the 2010 season, but we want to work with a number of people and all the teams to find a long-term solution so we don’t have teams changing back and forth between divisions. We’re extremely excited about this agreement and certainly about 2010 overall for the sport in the U.S.

And again, towards the end of the call, answering a question “On how the USSF will measure benchmarks to determine a team’s success or viability and whether there will be quantitative measurements teams will have to demonstrate to continue to participate”:

Yes, we’ve got some very specific targets in our regulations and we intend to put in more of those. Whether they apply to financial stability, what staffing levels look like, etc. To give you an example, our regulations have minimum standards on size of stadiums, a full-time operation for P.R. Director and CEO and so on and so forth. We think we need to put some more meat behind those in order to make sure that the teams that are part of a Division 2, or Division 1 for that matter, meet a certain standard and most importantly can meet that standard year in and year out and improve. We can’t have this constant issue that bedevils a number of sports, that the offseason is spent primarily to make sure that you can come back the following season. That you’re looking for expansion teams not because it makes long-term sense to build the game and the league, but because you need an expansion fee. We had that issue 25 years ago in our league, and we want to make sure that we’re able to avoid that so that expansion is done in a systematic way. U.S. Soccer is not going to be the one deciding that, but if people coming in the door want to be part of Division 2, they need to understand that this is a long-term play and that there are going to be some significant investments early on and aren’t counting on expansion proceeds in a year or two to reduce capital costs. The philosophy we’ve discussed with the leaders of these teams seems to be in line with that. People understand that for us the most important thing is stability, growth is right after that. But you can’t have growth without stability.”

Many, including Rochester beat reporter Jeff DiVeronica, are taking this as a elbow in the ribs to the operation of USL over the past decade or so, which has seen teams coming and going at a rather rapid pace:

To me, those were all shots at how the USL has done business. To a degree, I agree with him, but as this season unfolds I’m sure Gulati will find out how difficult it can be to run a minor-league soccer operation. For as long as I’ve covered the A-League/USL, which goes back to 1996, America’s second division was the red-headed stepchild. At best, it was an afterthought. The USSF concentrated on MLS and building up the U.S. national team programs. It needed to. Now, it sounds as if Gulati realizes some attention to the second division must be paid to help with player development.

So while most of the focus has been on the short-term solution for 2010, it seems as if US Soccer hopes to leverage this crisis (and the useful fact there is competing demand to operate a Division II league) into a broader plan to give lower division soccer purpose beyond an expanded footprint for the sport. Gulati, asked of the purpose of a Division 2 league in the U.S., finally concluded that “In the absence of a promotion and relegation system, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint an answer to that question.”  Gulati mentioned there had been discussions with MLS already on how the pyramid knits together, especially in terms of player development, and in the year ahead we should really expect to see US Soccer, MLS, the USL and NASL pinpoint answers to that question so we are not in the same mess going forward, and the purpose and structure of lower league soccer is clear enough to all.

Worldwide News

  • The credit crunch and tighter finances in Scotland are having one interesting effect: clubs are much less willing to go through the expensive business of hiring and firing managers willy-nilly, leading to much greater stability, according to Alex Smith, chairman of the Scottish League Managers’ Association: ‘”Stability has been forced on clubs. It hasn’t kept bad managers in jobs, but it has given good ones a bit of leeway – for example, younger guys who are trying to build something, maybe creating sensible youth structures and who shouldn’t lose their livelihood because the first team loses four or five games.”  Meanwhile, Away from the Numbers has an interesting update on the financial woes at East Fife.
  • Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis has said he does not expect a takeover bid from either Stan Kroenke or Alisher Usmanov to come anytime soon.
  • Minnesota’s new professional soccer team, to play in the USL conference of the new Division II league, is not formally connected to the now defunct Thunder, though clearly has some informal ties. Du nord has all the details in an excellent post.
  • A proposed U.S.-Mexico friendly has fallen through over a row about television rights.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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