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, MLSsoccer.com'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