Fixing Lower League Soccer In America

The insane offseason enjoyed by the second level of American men’s soccer, with rival entities (the reborn North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer Leagues (USL)) fighting for official recognition as the Division Two league below MLS, seems so long ago already. The sport’s governing body US Soccer eventually waded in and deciding to run Division Two for one season featuring teams from both parties, and this brought the lower league scene under an unprecedented spotlight: one that has receded notably since.

Apart from the crisis in St Louis and problems in Baltimore, we haven’t heard too much about the state of the league and its future in recent months. Yet we are past the midpoint of US Soccer’s tenure of running the league already. The important point for the future of soccer in America in MLS is this: can this season become a turning point towards sustainability at that level, under the direction of US Soccer?

Because, if there’s one thing second division North American teams haven’t been in the past two decades, it’s viable as ongoing operations. Longevity is a luxury. This is, from all standpoints — whether as a fan, a sponsor, an investor, a player, a coach or a staffer — a serious problem. As Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer (IMS) points out, 52 different teams have come and gone from the Division Two level of American soccer since 1995; this, of course, is without promotion or relegation. It’s simply a 75% fail-rate as businesses.

That level of failure is never going to be the way to fashion anything out of that level of soccer, whether our focus is on youth development or growing fanbases. All it does is disrupt the lives of the many involved.

The question is whether US Soccer’s involvement can change that pattern. When Sunil Gulati, President of US Soccer, answered questions about the announcement that the governing body would be running the league for one season back in January, he also made it clear they saw this as a chance to implement a new set of requirements on financial sustainability at that level:

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.

Some criticised Gulati and US Soccer for not finding this focus on stability earlier; why had it taken the public embarrassment of two rival entities fighting over second division status for the governing body to realise that clubs needed enforced help on operating a business to avoid the failures that have historically bedeviled American soccer, aside from (just about) MLS?

At this point, though, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is if and how US Soccer is following through on implementing more stringent requirements on clubs to encourage stability at the second division level. And on this, Brian at IMS has an excellent series this week, Rethinking Division-2 Pro Soccer in North America, that’s well worth reading.

In it (with two of the four parts published so far), he argues for a better vetting process for clubs by the authorities, for running teams like viable small businesses (instead of gambling on future earning potential) and for reducing travel costs in this mammoth continent-sized market by regionalising the league.

On the first point, Brian talks to another Brian, Brian Remedi of US Soccer, who explains US Soccer has not been sitting on its hands since Gulati made his statement in January on the need for tighter regulation of clubs’ financial viability:

“We are doing something that the Federation has never done in great detail before,” said Remedi in a May interview with IMS when he met with the NSC  Stars, Minnesota’s new D2 team. “We are getting out and looking at the teams in Division 2. In years past we left it up to the league administrators to ensure their clubs were meeting minimum standards and that games were run appropriately. Because we are running the league now we want to get out and make the house calls.

“We are also looking under the hood from a marketing perspective, from a financial perspective, even from a ticketing perspective. Our goal is to ensure these teams are viable for the long term.

“It’s in our interest to make sure that there are division 2 markets that are going to be sustainable over the long haul. Not a short term 1-year or 2-year thing. We want these markets to be sustainable for long periods of time. So we are collecting information on the team and from the team and we will give some thought to that data and will be writing reports and giving it to our professional league task force who ultimately will make a recommendation to our board of directors. We assume that there will be at least one, two, possibly more entities applying for sanctioning for next year and we believe that the teams that will be part of that league will come out of the 12 teams that are in the USSF D-2 Pro League this year.”

The USSF has called a meeting for the second week in August and have invited all teams currently involved with the USSF D2 Pro League. At that time, US Soccer will release their new standards that all current or future D2 teams will have to comply with. Expect the federation to require the future sanctioning league to require a more costly bond for each and every team involved with the league. It’s also said that they will have higher standards for stadiums and a more stringent litmus test for teams that want to join the USSF second division of soccer.

There will be some concern that when crunch-time comes, US Soccer might be tempted to water down their requirements if they find few clubs are likely to actually meet them.  On the other hand, the fact that Gulati came out and made a pretty clear public statement about the need for tough and real requirements to be met, and the evidence that US Soccer is following up on this with the release of new standards next month, suggests this is something that the governing body is serious about for the long-term good of the sport. Let’s hope they follow through, and keep an eye on IMS for the rest of his excellent series.

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