Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Examining the USSF pyramid: The Fifth Tier

USASA, or, "The Leviathan" in English
Today begins an odyssey I've cooked up that closely examines each of the five tiers of the USSF. It is an operatic piece in five parts that will endeavor to come up with solutions where they are there to be had, questions that are begging to be asked and hopefully will serve as a prompt for discussion on how to make this thing better and more streamlined. I've done my best to make this as comprehensive as possible, but I will allow that there may have been some shadowy corners of this enormous web that my probing searchlight did not find. I've done my best to stamp those out wherever possible and spent hours scouring a lot of defunct and lesser-trafficked websites. Especially in the case of the lower tiers, deep wells of information are not always readily available.

My hope is that this stirs discussion. I don't claim to have the answers, but I would like to provide some perspective on why things are the way they are and perhaps open up the beginnings of some avenues forward. This is a massive beast, the USSF, and it is a nebulous thing. Bear with me as we head through this oftentimes confusing and dark corridor. Things move here with the regularity and strength of a massive tectonic plate shift. My first two entries (this one and the next one to come) comprise the four main amateur (and in the case of the PDL, semi-pro) leagues recognized by the USSF, and things are murky down here. Keep that in mind. The plan is to post up a new installment every two days in the interest of spacing this thing out and me maintaining a hold on my sanity. We'll see where it takes us.

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First up is the fifth tier, a conglomeration of US Club Soccer and the US Adult Soccer Association, the largest of all the classifications with north of 250,000 members. We begin our tip into the dungeon today with USCS.

US Club Soccer is a constellation of amateur club soccer satellite leagues spread into four geographic divisions — East, Midwest, South and West. It's ruled over by a revolving committee of nine board directors, two each from each of the four regions in addition to a chairman voted on by member clubs in "good standing." In the eyes of its founders, its formation filled a gaping void in the USSF's system. In 2000, a group of soccer heads convened in Chicago and identified club soccer as a fertile proving ground of first refuge for young talent, eventually deciding to tack in onto the end of the US pyramid. The aim was to take the hundreds of club leagues across the country and condense them into an organizationally-run entity that can better identify, nurture and move on talent. In 2001, USCS was born.

An important yarn at this depth of the ladder is open-ended play. Unlike higher tiers which generally tend to get stricter and more regulated as the revenue stream increases, it is crucial that the more widely attended and less technically proficient levels are allowed to experiment. In that respect, the USSF has done an admirable job in keeping things relatively loose. USCS requires every tournament organized under its banner to be sanctioned by its overarching governing body. But within that framework USCS encourages sanctioned clubs to invite non-sanctioned teams from out of the classification to these tourneys. Teams are also permitted to organize small-sided games that generally focus more on technical ability than broad-scope tactics. Likewise, the prerequisites a league must meet to gain USCS sanctioning are minimal. Four teams and the agreement that all of them can play up in age group at any time — that's it. Assuming the club's application passes muster, USCS's notoriously lax requirements are generally welcoming. In addition, USCS provides insurance to its members.

But let's be honest. As fans of the game, you're not necessarily visiting the fifth tier to watch. You care about player development — something that's killed us as a country at this low level. So what is USCS doing to push on its best players? That's where the id2 program comes in. USCS chairman Phil Wright once called it a "better, cheaper and more equitable way to identify the top players across the United States," and it began with a question. Not long before the id2 program began in 2004, USCS members went to the USMNT staff with questions of how the lowest tier of US soccer can help the highest. The answer was to aid in the identification of the country's best U-12 and U-13 soccer players, and thus a mission statement of sorts was born and arguably the lasting legacy of USCS kicked into gear. There is no cost to the player for scouting fees or recommendations, and the payoff is an invite to one of four id2 training camps spread across the country. Id2 is four days of evaluation and scouting open to any player on the map regardless of US Soccer affiliation. Its target is U-12 and U-13 players and it allows higher branches an opportunity to scout four different events spread across the country at different times of year. Select players from within the camps are then selected for an international tour, which was Spain this year. How well is it going? The id2 NSIT team beat Barca's academy team 3-1 in March. Not too shabby.

This brings us to USCS' partner, the USASA, and this is where it starts to get a little sticky, so try and stay with me through a few twists and turns. The USASA in its current format was founded in 1995 and has a number of national affiliates (the PDL and NPSL being the most prominent), which basically means it has more specialized and professionalized versions of the mothership version USASA provides. The fourth-tier NPSL, which we'll get to in our second segment, is a USASA affiliate but is considered a fourth-tier league mostly for historical reasons and because it is deemed by the USSF to be of a higher level of play. The USASA has arguably the toughest organizational job of all in wrangling all of amateur soccer in the US and providing the pool for more specialized endeavors. This is the pool from which many, many other leagues are formed because the USASA is the only amateur soccer organization for adults recognized by the USSF.

The set-up follows the same basic format as USCS — four distinct regions — but branches off in the way it approaches its vast player pool. There are 54 national state associations (accounting for splits in Texas, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) that make up the base of team support. From there, USASA splits into more stringently regulated regional and national levels that are after higher levels of play. There are currently two national leagues, and that's where the fourth-tier PDL and NPSL leagues come into play. See how that ties together?

These are positives. It's hard enough to exercise institutional control when there are so many small branches, so it's important that a level of autonomy be granted to each satellite. It seems the USSF has done well by its club teams in this regard. The end game is essentially to get as many non-sanctioned leagues playing under similar guidelines to create some sort of tangible expectation where rules and play are concerned. Keep in mind that USCS is 12 years old and growing out of rocky soil that has never been tilled by organizational hands. This is tough stuff. And as much as the USASA wants to "develop, strengthen and promote a unified soccer community," (that's an official pillar of USASA's mission statement), it's hardly possible to develop something that binds 250,000 members together in a strict sense. That will continue to be an issue for an organization as broad in scope as USASA, while the USCS continues to butt into problems with its member league formation and the tightrope walk between free enterprise and regulation.

It is at this level that you truly grasp the difficulty of the developmental nightmare we face in this country. This is a nuanced business, and with this many moving parts we've handled it with a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel. Among other contributing factors, its no surprise why neither China or India are world players in the sport, and why countries with concentrated populations like the Netherlands have been killing it for decades. Implementing a nation-wide formula of play, even one that's fairly nebulous, will always hit hardest at the lowest levels of the tree. This is where USSF must attempt to grab the root most vigorously and shake off the dead leaves. The difficulty is in the enormity of these leagues, and they're only getting bigger. It's impossible for one man to implement a single overriding theme by himself at this level, so the USSF has to rely on a micromanagement style that is undeniably un-soccer-like, with a web of hundreds of coaches charged with putting a loose set of rules in place. This is not ideal in the global sense of youth development, but there are workarounds to our plight. Hiring more coaches certified under a more stringently monitored, unified system is a start. Yes, you might think, its hard to put a value on the lowest tier, which generally doesn't produce the best players. Ah, but there's the rub. It can. With a stringent look at streamlining, condensing and institutionalizing, the fifth tier, the lowest tier, can become a font of talent. It's not only about where you look. It's about who's looking.

- Will Parchman

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