Thursday, March 31, 2011

The American Soccer Pyramid

With the dramatic debut this week of shiny new logos for both the new NASL and also the reborn Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and the recent re-structuring of the 1st and 2d divisions of the USL into the new 'USL PRO' division, a distinctly new picture of professional soccer in the United States is emerging for the 2011 season.  Lets take a look at it.

Eastern Conference / 9 Teams
Western Conference / 9 Teams
At the top is, of course, the MLS, which remains the premier league of professional soccer in the United States.  The LA Galaxy are arguably the closest thing to a US-based 'superclub' anywhere in North America at this time, based on their chunky revenue, two championships, and both David Beckham and Landon Donavon; but of course DC United remains the most decorated club in MLS history, second only to the old New York Cosmos who had five championships to DC United's four.  (And looking to the future-- G. Peppe Pinton's sale of the Cosmos franchise rights to the Pele consortium in 2009, has cleared the way for the rebirth of the Cosmos as an MLS side within the next few years).  Speaking of start-ups, the MLS also sports a number of remarkably successful start-up clubs such as the Houston Dynamo and Toronto FC, as well as a growing number of sides which sport old NASL club names, especially in the Western Conference such as the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, and Vancouver Whitecaps.  The presence of Chivas USA in the league purposefully brings Mexican fans to US soccer, and inter-league connections to CD Guadalajara and Mexican soccer as well.  The league appears to be in relatively good financial health.  At 18 years of age, the MLS has now been successfully operating two years longer than the old North American Soccer League, which had consumed itself into bankruptcy after a sixteen year glut of superstar signings and financial excess.
The rebirth of the NASL began with the 2009 sale of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) to NuRock Soccer Holdings LLC, a business transaction which precipitated an open breach between the leagues officers on one side, and several of the team owners on the other.  When Miami FC subsequently acquired the legal rights to the old NASL, a rival 2d Division league was hastily organized by the team owners, leading to the intervention of the USSF in the squabble, and the strange one season joint NASL - USL 2d Division championships last year.  With that behind them and another offseason to gear up, the reborn NASL is showing credible Division 2 talent on the pitch, and generous sports marketing potential off the pitch, based on the latent nostalgia for the old NASL that still exists in the US.  With the USSF now designating the NASL as the second tier of professional soccer in the United States, the upstart owners league has formally supplanted the USL, and even extended its reach into the Carribean with the inclusion of the Puerto Rico Islanders.

National Division: 5 teams
American Division: 5 teams
International Division: 5 teams
The secession of so many leading teams was surely an existential wake-up call for the USL, more so now that it is clear that the USL will occupy the bottom tier of professional American soccer.  The league has responded by merging its 1st and 2d divisions into the new USL-PRO league, the top flight of soccer in the USL bottom-up hierarchy of youth, womens, and mens amateur leagues, and its Premier Development League (PDL) of semi-professional teams.  Despite the NASL defections, a number of decent professional teams remain in the USL, notably the Charleston Battery and the Rochester Rhinos, whose hot-and-cold courtship of the NASL almost put them in the new league.  The Charleston Battery is clearly one of the most successful 2d Division professional teams in North America, with apparent financial stability and even their own facilities, the privately-financed, 5,400 seat Blackbaud Stadium.  Add to this the inclusion of no less than three Puerto Rican sides and a team from Antigua in the International Division, and the USL-PRO league will have a distinctly Caribbean vibe.  All things considered, this new structure seems like a good response to the USL's organizational crisis.  The USL is not dead yet, and may well transcend the losses of the moment if this new professional league prospers.

And there you have it:  three leagues, three levels of professionalism.  I personally delight in the prospects of the NASL, not because I don't like the USL--they have done so much good work with amateur soccer in the US-- but simply because none of the USL professional sides captured my imagination.  Even Miami FC-- my hometown-- didn't really fire me up.  Why pull for the minor league side, when the Big League team is nearby?  It's the curse of the minor leagues.

But put that same Miami FC in a league called the NASL, and re-badge the club as the 'Ft. Lauderdale Strikers,' and NOW I'm interested.  As will be many other people.  As far as I am concerend, the rebirth of the NASL was exactly what 2d Division soccer in the US needed-- a shot in the arm.  Let's hope they can make it work.  I'll do what I can by writing about it.

Which brings us to the final 'distinctive' aspect of American professional soccer-- the absence of any promotion-and-relegation system.  Now that we have a comprehensible tiered system of professional soccer leagues, it would be great if we could implement a way for clubs to move up or down, like every other soccer nation in the world.  The objection (to date) has to do with league ownership of the teams--since the American clubs are owned by the leagues, promotion or relegation would involve the loss of a league's financial asset, so no joy.  My response to this, is simply to propose the negotiation on the loan of tangible assets to the other leagues.  Team 'X' gets promoted to League 'Y' but remains the property of League 'Z.'  A loan of assets, in effect.  Teams loan players to other teams all the time, so why not?  The lawyers could work out the profits and cash flow, which is what it will come down to.  Over time (and with any luck), the assets of the three leagues would become intertwined, leading to another round of happy lawyers doing their thing, and a future Euro-style American Super League.  Now we're talking.

If we could promote the league champions of the NASL and USL, and relegate the two bottom teams of the MLS and NASL respectively-- moving just four teams every year, up or down-- every professional team in America would have a path to the top.  The Dayton Dutch Lions would have a long climb to the top from the USL PRO league, but theoretically it could happen.  This would also make the MLS Cup even more prestigious, as a true North American soccer championship. 

For this to come to pass, the USSF will have to get involved and force the three leagues to play nicely with each other.  That's not happening soon, because there are still probably too many hard feelings.  But time and profits heal all business wounds; so perhaps one day.  Meanwhile... soon we will see how this new American Soccer Pyramid plays out on the pitch.  I for one am excited at the prospects.