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.


13 thoughts on “Fixing Lower League Soccer In America

  1. KT

    “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.”

    Raises hand.

  2. Tom Dunmore Post author

    You would, KT! But yeah, it is a concern, and it’s not just because it’s US Soccer. In Ireland, tougher financial requirements put into place a couple of years ago were essentially abandoned by the governing body when it became obvious numerous clubs either weren’t meeting the requirements or were fudging the books to do so. It was hard to see how the league could continue if they actually enforced them. Which, of course, infuriated the few clubs that did work hard to meet the requirements in the first place. US Soccer have be firm from day one with this and I do wonder a bit when we consider how few clubs are at present meeting any kind of standards. And US Soccer is already stretched thinner than usual just running the league.

    And frankly, there may be a couple of MLS teams pretty damn nervous about this whole idea….it has to be applied at that level, too, if it’s to be applied to D-II (as Gulati says above).

  3. ursus arctos

    Good grief. When I saw the headline I thought this was going to be another corruption piece.

  4. Tom Dunmore Post author

    ursus — you’re now the second person to say that to me, even though that possible meaning hadn’t occurred to me at all until raised….I suppose I should watch the traffic to this piece for any “unusual patterns” and report them to US Soccer.

  5. bullsear

    ditto on the corruption piece. IMS is great, and this is just one more example of why. Thanks for posting this on pitchinvasion. Next to no one is covering the second division.

  6. mintox

    As an outsider reading about the sport in the US, I find it hard to understand why the governing body isn’t or hasn’t been in charge of a second division before this point?

    In other countries any national competition would fall under the guise of the governing body and they would make sure that they directed it in the right direction.

    I was stunned while reading last year that there were two leagues vying for division 2 status, surely an official MLS division 2 is something that should be run and controlled by US Soccer?

    Maybe someone can fill me in on why they haven’t before?

  7. Chris

    I agree fully that how D2 is run is important, and not just because I’m an Aztex fan in Austin. I have been reading Brian’s fine series already, and I hope lots of others, especially the powers that be, are reading it, too.

    But I have to take issue with one statement you made here, Tom. You said, “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.”

    I see what you mean, and no one would argue that a 75% failure rate isn’t ridiculous, or that there isn’t massive room for improvement.

    However, I don’t think it’s fair to treat D2′s history as if it had done nothing but disrupt people’s lives. That is, the 25% that didn’t fail served a crucial role in keeping pro soccer alive in the U.S. Remember, that 25% includes Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal. Surely the viability of those cities’ present & future MLS teams has benefitted from those teams’ long existence as division-2 franchises.

    That’s not to mention the player development they’ve provided. See this (old) list for a few examples, and note how many of those teams are in that 75% of failures: http://www.thebesteleven.com/2008/04/former-usl-players-now-in-mls.html

    I may be reading too much into your statement, but let’s give these lower level clubs, even with all the instability, some credit.

  8. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Chris, I agree, my intention wasn’t to say that the entire history of D2 soccer had been nothing but a failure, which is why I tried to qualify it by saying “that level of failure” is the problem. Sorry if that wasn’t clear enough. Interesting link, thanks for that, and you’re certainly right many of those failed clubs produced a lot. The point is, though, that level could (and still can, of course) produce so much more if better run — but you obviously get that!

  9. Sgc

    Yeah, it’s awful hard to evolve in a positive direction if 75% of the clubs are failing in a 15-year timespan. The mentality that’s created is that all lower division clubs are doomed to fail sooner or later, which has created something of a vicious cycle of rent-seeking behavior.

    (For the definition of rent-seeking behavior, go here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_seeking)

    As to why US Soccer didn’t act sooner, one thing to mention is that the USL more or less pre-dates US Soccer as you know it now (ie, as a professionalized organization capable of regulating the pro game). USL’s roots go back to the mid-80s, while US Soccer pretty much didn’t have a dime to its name until after WC94.

    A second reason is that, while the USL’s rent-seeking business model isn’t good for the growth of the game, it seemed to be working better than anything else ever had, in the sense that the league itself didn’t go under, as all its competitors did.

    In sum, how do you go in as a Fed and micro-manage a league’s business practices, when there’s no valid competition on the horizon, and when they have more professionals than you do?

    That’s why this NASL/USL fight might ultimately be good for the league, if its outcome is eventually to promote a second division where the clubs have a real stake in growing the league.

  10. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Sgc — thank you, that’s a tremendous analysis of the situation. I’d particularly agree that though the NASL challenge makes it seem less so now, USL was very well entrenched in the system with control of a good part of the sport below MLS, and was one of the rare profit-making entities in American soccer (even if their D2 wasn’t). Not easy for US Soccer to suddenly start making demands on, and for very good reason, working with MLS and the national teams had been their focus since the ’94 World Cup in any case. US Soccer isn’t doing badly financially now, but resources were stretched pretty thin for a while. Even running the D2 has surely been a strain this year.

    And I’d particularly agree with your conclusion, that we need “a second division where the clubs have a real stake in growing the league.”

  11. Bobby

    I live in the southeast, in Charlotte to be exact. I’ve always wanted to see a ‘southern’ league as oppose to an attempted national league at the lower level, the travel costs are simply too much for the teams at this level. We have several teams here — Charlotte, Richmond, Greensboro, and Charleston — that have been around since the early 90′s, that’s a long time by US soccer standards. Those teams don’t have the funds to travel all around the country, but in a league based in the south they could have good rivalries and travel by bus — Richmond actually owns a team bus — and save a ton of money. Most of them have soccer stadiums — Charlotte is getting one in Matthews as we speak — and decent support, but I can’t help but feel the reckless ambition by the people in charge of the leagues is going to put them in danger.

    The same can be said for other regions, I’m sure towns like Providence would be much more willing to enter into a northeast league than a national one.

    Sorry if I screwed up some caps, I murdered my left shift key yesterday.

  12. ursus arctos

    On the USSF, it’s also worth noting that all of the North American professional leagues have developed apart from (and in some cases in stark opposition to) their respective sport federations. The roots of that situation are very deep and go back to atttitudes about amateurism, race and ethnic origin, class, “free enterprise” and American (and Canadian) “exceptionalism”, but they form an essential part of the context in which the USSF is operating.

    I’ve also be known to advocate the regional idea. It’s worked virtually everywhere else (even in minor league baseball, for instance) and is particulary easy to implement in a non-promotion and relegation set up.