Monday, August 13, 2012

Examining the USSF pyramid: The Great Tie-In

USSF series recap
- Tier 2: NASL
- Tier 3: USL-Pro
- Tier 4: NPSL and PDL
- Tier 5: USASA and USCS

There are a lot of things I could say about MLS here in my fifth and final installment of my USSF series. That the league was famously unstable in its early years, that spasms of contraction threatened the base of support, and that the league was probably closer to shuttering at one point than the general public knows. And, finally, that it is solvent beyond our wildest, Pearl Jam-infused dreams from 1996. But none of it is particularly instructive in the sense that MLS is what we do, what we know and what we follow.

And in any case,'s Matthew Doyle laid out many of the points on which I would have touched in this well-reasoned article a month ago. He even plumbs the depths of the lower tiers a bit, our stomping grounds, and the shady wastes of the land between MLS and the rest of the pyramid.

The title up there is purposefully (and perhaps a tad satirically) grandiose and hyperbolic. The tie-in is entirely self created. The "great tie-in" is essentially the result of your own analysis meeting a healthy spine made of facts. What do we know and what can we do? I'd like to open the floor for discussion, questions, answers, madly angry missives, quiet platitudes and whatever else. My take, and I'm sure Sunil Gulati agrees, is that well reasoned conclusions come from a panel of intelligent, calm, deliberate people discussing informed options, facts and opinions. Here are a few of my final take-aways. Feel free to add yours. That's what this is all about, right?

— MLS has to figure out a way to translate its success to its brethren in the lower tiers, yes, but the lower tiers have to figure out a way to capitalize themselves in the interim. That means borrowing from successful models like San Antonio and Orlando and importing real soccer culture. NASL and USL-Pro clubs cannot rely on the cache provided by professional soccer, and thus must appeal to their soccer diehards first. This requires a front office with a real underpinning of understanding — an understanding of social media networking, the evolutionary future of the internet and how to better connect with followers through viral marketing. If you can't provide your fans with David Beckham or Tim Cahill or even Chad Marshall, you need to appeal to their sense of interest in other ways. Innovate. Learn. Grow. But above all, respect the fans you cultivate. They are the tide that will float your ship.

— Constant reorganization and league overhauls are inevitable on our amateur/semi-pro levels. Just look at the English National League System, which some federations hold up as a biblical standard for lower-tier organization. Even the English FA, which has a dizzying number of clubs to manage, took a stern look at its system and underwent a three-phase change beginning in 2004 that added a tier to the NLS system and bumped a further six tiers down a level. The league that previously occupied the tier that the newly created Conference North/South supplanted had been in continuous operation since 1894. To think we won't undergo more seizures of collapse, reorganization and structural reformation at this stage in the game is naiveté. The key is to weather the 'quakes with grace and continue to look for answers as situations arise. Staying malleable and open to change amidst storms is so very key for us right now.

— The college question is unique to America, and answers are not fast in coming. It is essentially a question of enticement. What can you, NASL, offer a college player that, say, North Carolina can not. A meager wage? Playing for mostly small, half-empty stadiums? That's not to say that nobody makes the jump or that college is definitively a better decision, but it cuts out several years of vital development time that could be used in pro academies instead of on college campuses. As an 18-year-old like, say, Darlington Nagbe, why would you not play a year or two for Caleb Porter at Akron, moonlight in the PDL during the summers and then hop to MLS whenever you're ready? The whole system is set up to support Nagbe in that regard (the SuperDraft being included in that), while it indirectly punishes players for skipping college altogether and using the bottom two tiers alone to gain recognition, which can be a dicey proposition. The main fix to be made now is splitting the two tracks, removing the tie between the USSF and college. Make players make a decision — you're either in college or you're climbing our pyramid, but you're not doing both. If players can see tangible gains being made by young players using NASL and USL-Pro to jumpstart careers, the thing will slowly but surely take off. Quite a bit easier said than done, but it's a start.

— The key for the rest of the pyramid is not to copy MLS' organizational model but rather find ways to work with the league to build trust and cohesion. Since the matter of relegation is quite out of the question for the foreseeable future — and any person in his right mind will echo that sentiment — the leagues need to fight to reclaim the gray area between MLS and the rest of the system. Once MLS closes its doors to expansion, there will no longer be the enticement of top tier ball luring investors into these ventures. When that happens, these leagues need to be comfortable not only as talent suppliers to the top flight but also in maintaining their level of play without the promise of MLS. It remains to be seen how this works in, because we've never dealt with the issue before.

— Much of this will simply take time. In the same way a good rack of fall-off-the-bone ribs needs to slow cook, you can't rush the development of an entire system. And you certainly can't fake tradition, which we are sorely lacking at all levels. The upshot here is that discussion begets a lively community of caring individuals, and that begets innovators. From this soup of interest is born a league of giant ideas. It is an undeniably beautiful fact that we are inching closer to it every day.

- Will Parchman


Anonymous said...

Hi Will, thanks for your article. I appreciate reading your blog and your insights.
I think that the promotion/relegation difference between the MLS and the major world leagues is a huge factor which should be introduced. Not that it will be - I mean, why would a team owner risk being bumped out of the top tier when he holds all the cards - but it should be.
In my opinion, promotion/relegation addresses many of the issues you touch on in your article and could bridge the gap between our existing youth club structure and the top league/s.
Thanks again!

Jayboy said...

Ditto the above. Great stuff Will! I would love to see relegation adopted and I think it could actually work in the following way: When the League gets to 20 teams, make an announcement that you will now have "promotion" of one team a year for the next 2-4 years. At the end of that period, then add in relegation of 1 team, and include a playoff game against the "promoted" team, to minimize the chance of getting knocked down. The following year, expand it to 2 teams, both with playoff games. In reality, this would phase in relegation over like 8 years, with very little chance of a major market team getting dropped. All you need is to get a majority of MLS owners to get on board.

Will Parchman said...

I would love to see it work. The only way it's really outwardly viable now is essentially as an incentives program for owners/future owners, but I fear our fragile infrastructure can't support the burden yet. I'd like to see our lower tiers get at least settled enough that they're not on death watch before we tie MLS directly to a couple sinking ships. The depth of interest at our second tier isn't close enough to the first tier, in my opinion.

Like I said, love to see it happen. I just don't think we're ready to jump in that pool yet.

WilkersonMclaser said...

Great stuff, Will.

I'll jump on the relegation/prom bandwagon here. I think that, contrary to requiring stable Div2 infrastructure to work, it just might be the glue that binds the lower tiers to MLS in a better way (and vice versa).

Jayboy's idea is an interesting one, but it's only one. I think the general notion that promotion-relegation as not workable is generally correct, except that such sentiments presuppose a pretty rigid conception of what that actually means operationally-speaking.

I think there can and ought to be a way where we can split the difference between ensuring financial stability for our franchises while giving lower division teams a shot at the spoils.

I'm a Richmond fan, and I've recently come to the sad conclusion that MLS just will never happen in our town (despite my fervent belief that it's as good an expansion option as many and better than most). For me, the promise of promotion would be a godsend, since the only other way we'd have a chance at division 1 competition is via the unlikelihood of favorable MLS strategic planning. No, we probably won't be able to institute English-style pro-reg anytime soon (which is what most people talk about when they boost or dismiss it), but we can and ought to seek out creative alternatives that capture at least some of the creative energy that's spun from the exciting dynamic of a lower tier team climbing the ladder.

Example 1: say MLS moves to a full-blown confederal conference system. East and West. Let's add another -- say, MLS2, which is populated by the bottom 2 East and bottom 2 West from the previous season plus a couple other slots for USL and NASL champs. East gets 4 berths in the playoffs, West gets 4, MLS2 gets 2.

Example 2: Skip the whole MLS2 thing altogether, and just invite USL and NASL champs into the MLS playoffs. Not the same prize as playing "in" MLS via the 3rd conference idea, but it's still a higher level of play.

These are just a couple of thoughts. But the point is more that we can and ought to think creatively about it instead of just rejecting promotion because the English standard won't work. Let's create our own version, then.

Will Parchman said...

Good thoughts. I think you could be right that the pro/rel system could serve as the incentive itself. I'd be interested to get a group of NASL/USL-Pro owners in a room and get their takes on how this all looks to them.

Unknown said...

Great series, Will.
Your only conclusion that I have to question concerns the college game. Rather than cutting off college kids from the amateur leagues, why not try to get the more experience? Maybe NCAA All-Conference teams could play a circuit during the offseason part of the school year.
After all, college will continue to be the stopgap ambition for many potential pros and their parents. That might not be a bad thing, since not everyone will scratch the pro ranks, and some that do can also benefit from the social/mental development that they experience in college.
College isn't ideal, but I see no reason it won't continue to be a reality.

As for promotion and relegation, I agree completely. Before it could be discussed 2nd division clubs all need to be stable, and most would need their own adequate, large-enough stadia. That alone is a long way off.

Will Parchman said...

Re:college, that's valid. There's no question our college system isn't going anywhere, which has no doubt been involved in USSF's thinking where the PDL system is concerned.

I'm of two minds on the issue of what to do with that. I do think college plays its part in stunting pro development, but I also see it as a safety net that allows more people to play/get looks they might not get at the pro/semi-pro level. But — and I think this is important — the more time players spend in professional academies from a young age, the better off they are. You simply don't get the same level of attention/play in college, where your attention is notably divided. I think splitting the two tracks into two very separate entities can work, but not necessarily immediately.

Jesse said...

Its not quite a pyramid in the U.S. either. USSF can not offer MLS a business monopoly on Tier 1 status. Its against the mandates of the federal law that gives a sporting federation like the USSF any authority in the first place. If some other organization wants to hold themselves to the same quality standards as MLS, then the federation also has to grant that entity tier 1 status. So, instead of promotion-relegation we could instead have competing tier 1 leagues. NASL could at least theoretically challenge MLS's sole tier 1 status if they shore up their investors and stadiums

WilkersonMclaser said...

Will, do you think you'd be up for doing a piece (or series) on an array of creative ways to address the issue of promotion-relegation?