Last time we waded through the expansive lowlands of the last rung of the American soccer ladder, comprising both the USCS (our club soccer bros) and USASA (basically everything else under the sun). From here, we beginning reaching the borderlands of the fun parts, where developmental gears start clicking together in ways recognizable to the American soccer fan. With respect to USCS and USASA, those represent the base underpinning of the American ladder, a necessary drip pan for the rest of the organizational tree. Now we start getting to the meat, though this stuff is still admittedly rump roast.
If you'll remember, we touched on the all-encompassing nature of the USASA and how its smaller professionalized branch affiliates are held in higher esteem by the USSF. Two of these representatives, the NPSL and PDL, comprise the entire fourth rung. That's where we're headed today. The important thing to remember is that USASA is the governing body for amateur adult soccer in this country and essentially works in parallel union with the USSF. The two leagues we touch on today are the USASA reps on the fourth rung (though they are considered independent) because they are deemed by the USSF to be more professionally organized. The PDL, which is run by its parent organization the USL (though also affiliated with the USASA), is the other half of the fourth tier. If you thought things were confusing at the fifth rung, hang on.
We'll take this apart piece by piece, but before we dig in it is important to note that this is not a precise science, the judging of amateur league stature like this, so don't take it for more than it is. It is here that you get a sense of the fragmentation of the country's soccer organization and how many cooks we have in the kitchen. This can be decidedly detrimental, though it has its advantages when dealing with large populations. We'll get to those later. For now, we start with the PDL, which is the USL's developmental baby at this level.
Before we get to the PDL in earnest, it's important to welcome the USL to the scene. The USL currently has six different organizations under its umbrella, though only two appear on our ladder, the PDL and USL Pro, previously a fiery crater of controversy that we'll traverse at our next stop. Elsewhere, we have the W-League, the longest-running women's league in the country, the one-year-old Major Indoor Soccer League and two developmental youth leagues: the Super-20 League and the Super-Y League. The USL was formed in 1986 as the Southwest Indoor Soccer League and was given its current moniker in 1999. When Nike sold the PDL to NuRock Holdings in 2009, a number of clubs jumped ship and formed the current iteration of the second-tier NASL (which the Cosmos just crashed). This posed a major threat to the developmental nature of the ladder, and so USL-1 and USL-2 merged into USL Pro last year. But now we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The important thing to know about the PDL's growth is that it became the PDL in name in 1999 and continued absorbing smaller leagues and teams throughout the 2000's. It's been an oddly stable league in a sea of turmoil and "produced" a number of players you'd recognize: Charlie Davies, Brian Ching, Robbie Findley, Eric Lichaj, Kei Kamara, Eric Wynalda, Tim Ream... the list goes on. Even Jurgen Klinsmann has PDL experience after he played with Orange County Blue Star in 2003. The league fronts itself as a developmental league that allows college players to play and still retain their college eligibility. It's a crafty workaround for a system that still bucks the worldwide trend by encouraging college experience, though this is slowly changing. It has 73 teams in four leagues (the four-league format is incredibly popular) and they play a 16-game schedule with eight home-away matches.
Here we begin to see the turn toward professionalism. The PDL in 2009 adopted the PDL-Pro doctrine which makes it legal for teams to pay their players, although the sums are relatively marginal — nobody earns more than $1,000 a month, and even that is a rarity. Of course this means that college players can't play on PDL-Pro teams and only against them, but it does add an encouraging wrinkle to the league's oeuvre. The league's age rules are geared toward youth development, much like the new DP rules we've seen recently put into place in MLS. Teams are required to have at least three 18-and-under players on the roster and can carry no more than eight players over the age of 23. As we've seen with the rolodex of players who have swept through this league, the PDL has developed into a first stop of sorts for pro teams looking for young undiscovered talent. It is an expansive league but not so big that you can't get your arms around it, and it has been relatively stable (and I do stress relatively). Still, the league is only run in the summer months and is primarily used as an experience-builder for college players. Take it as it is.
It is here, if we are serious about deemphasizing college experience, that we'll have to cut out workarounds for college players and outright force them to make a choice. It's convenient to continue to walk the company line by saying we need to make professionals earlier and cut out the college tier, but until organizations like the PDL make it a priority there will be no traction. And what impetus do they have to take such measures into consideration? Sad as it may be, the college soccer experience as a proving ground isn't going anywhere any time soon. And thus we have organizations that cater to the college player. It's a self-perpetuating cycle that has no easy solution. You feel for the men trying to remedy this issue. The system in place is actively protesting them.
The NPSL is more or less the USASA's "best" arm. This is essentially the elite USASA clubs broken off into an offshoot league that purports to play at a higher level, though it is independent. There are 48 teams in 19 states organized into six divisions and was formed in 2002. Like every league we've gone through to this point (except for a scattered few PDL-Pro teams), it is comprised entirely of amateur players, which includes all high school, college and former pro players. It is lumped in with the PDL on the ladder because it offers the same competitive advantages to college players who want to play competitively at high club levels and yet keep their amateur playing status. The main difference between the two is that the NPSL does not carry similar age requirements, thus making it more wide open and not quite as institutionally bent on development.
At this level we see a necessary paring down of teams and players as we begin to funnel toward the inevitable professional ranks, which is where we're headed next. Both the fourth and fifth tiers we just breeched in the last two segments are deemed "approximate" by the USSF. In essence, this is the organizers recognizing that the structure at this level is too fluid and expansive to boil down to anything worth defining so rigidly. As such, the USSF didn't necessarily designate the PDL as a "better" league than USCS, it's just the way the structure settled. That said, there is some method to this madness (and madness it is). There are affiliations and umbrella groups and organizers and ... it's exhausting.
Now that we've scythed through the amateur organizations in this country, it is important to note that things will get easier to understand. Recognize that there are so many people playing soccer at these amateur levels that, with our country's wonky upside-down development pyramid, things at this level are complicated. There are calcium deposits built up over more calcium deposits to the point where the development of each level is needlessly convoluted. It shouldn't take an advanced analytics degree to untangle this stuff. That said, it is this way because of sheer numbers and the lack of a traditional model, which Jurgen Klinsmann has battled publicly. As he's found, instituting any kind of regimented model will take years if not decades to sink in. And that's assuming Klinsi's predecessors carry on the good fight. In their current formats few of these leagues are more than 12 or 13 years old. With that in mind it's hard to point damning fingers at the organizers. This a big, big task that will take decades, not years to refine. We are in early, Darwinian stages that require bigger, better models to push out the bad ones. This is a natural progression that, when watered with money and consistent public interest, will eventually result in solvent and successful leagues. Now that search lights are out for the solvent models, more will spring up. In a social media-mad world patience isn't always in ready supply, but it will have to be when it pertains to our amateur ranks. It's the only way.
Next up we'll get into the real meat of the issue: the pro leagues and a backbiting few years on the D2/D3 levels. Intrigue; we have it.
- Will Parchman