Saturday, August 4, 2012

Examining the USSF pyramid: The Third Tier

USSF series recap
- Tier 4: NPSL and PDL
- Tier 5: USASA and USCS


Now that we've cut through the jungled interior of the USSF pyramid — those cumbersome, overgrown vines of amateur soccer — we emerge on the other side in the top three layers of the USSF ladder. The following three installments of our series covers three directly sanctioned professional leagues by the USSF. Up today, our third-tier rep USL Pro. And boy is this one a doozy. To truly get into the professionalized mindset, imagine you have a very rigid idea of how things should be done, and then imagine you have 26 people shouting at you to do them another way. And now imagine the ensuing "conversation." Yes. Now you're ready.

It was the USL, a group I described in our last session, that shook the foundations of the USSF's lower tiers to its core just a few years ago. To understand where we are now, allow me to dive into the legal battle between the USL and the current NASL and why the USL Pro league looks the way it does today. And why it's now the third tier and not the second. We're getting into battle mode here today.

The tempest kicked up in earnest when Nike, former owners of what was then known as USL1, sold its controlling stake in the league to NuRock Holdings in 2009. It was a puzzling move for a few reasons, but mostly because it became clear that it was very clearly done without the league's best interests in mind (NuRock ultimately had the same bona fides as the musical Nu Rock movement spearheaded by Creed, but I digress). The previous set-up under Nike involved a USL1 and USL2, the second and third tiers of the USSF pyramid at the time. In the midst of a steady billows effect over its years of existence in this format — an intractable cycle of expansion and contraction that often left the leagues on shaky legs monetarily — the steel conduit between USL1 and USL2 offered America's only real look at a relegation system on our shores; though it should be said that clubs self-relegated themselves and this was not a direct function of league brass. And then NuRock stepped in and the landscape turned slate gray. Fast.

Once NuRock took over, the proverbial lines in the sand emerged. A group of USL1 owners led by now defunct-AC St. Louis owner Jeff Cooper made up a group called the Team Owner's Association (TOA). They assumed Nike would hand over its stake to them. Seeing as the TOA knew the league better than anybody — and they had a fairly defined course of action headed forward — they wanted control. Fair enough, yeah? So when NuRock took over, the earth cleaved and hell vomited out its violent rage on the USSF's lower tiers. After three months of lobbing veiled threats toward NuRock (and NuRock, in rebuttal, defiantly stood its ground in the face of its crumbling authority), the TOA formally lobbied to form a breakaway league out from under NuRock's control. That breakaway league's name? NASL. As of December 4, 2009, USL1 had three confirmed teams in its ranks: Austin, Portland and Puerto Rico. All the rest defected. Or sued to defect, anyway, until withdrawing their suits and agreeing to let the USSF mediate before the 2010 season commenced. The TOA contacted the USSF and FIFA, and this was, as the Brits say, "squeaky bum time" for the league's lower professionalized tiers. As we teetered on the edge, the future of our lower professional rungs in the balance, what the USSF did next was of vital importance.

Imagine for a moment you're the king of a modest but growing empire, and you own two particularly troublesome duchies with two particularly irksome dukes. These two dukes finally come to blows over what appears to be a silly tiff over a disputed barony and as a result invade each other while you look on in frustrated, almost bemused consternation. You (the USSF) can hold these petulant kinsman at arm's length from each other and repair their fractured holdings, but can you make them get along? Thus was the USSF's plight in 2010. They opted to send both dukes into a room together for a season and gave them a stern lecture. Talk it out, gents. Sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with a couple of adolescents, doesn't it?

The dexterity in the USSF's movement here is multifold. What they did was give neither party what it wanted, but rather combined both leagues into one. For a single season, the USSF formed and operated an emergency league called the USSF Division 2 Pro League. There were six existing teams with lingering ties to each league — the term half-baked comes to mind with this breakaway venture — so the USSF formed an NASL Conference and a USL Conference with the promise of figuring out a way forward after the season ended (if you care, the eighth-seeded Puerto Rico Islanders won the only D2 Pro League Cup in history). In the end the manufactured league cut a bizarre figure. USL sides Portland and and Vancouver were already pledged to MLS for the next season, NASL affiliate St. Louis was months away from collapse and the future looked strangely unstable.

As it turns out, there was a way forward, a sliver of hope. The USSF, like a doctor strapped for time, stepped in and scoped out the ripped and unusable cartilage from the bone, and from that emerged USL Pro. Aha! We're finally here.

On Sept. 8, 2010, USL officially announced a massive overhaul of its previous system. Once it came out of the restructured league, which was always just a stop-gap measure intended to buy time, USL condensed USL1 and USL2 — remember, those used to be our D2 and D3 leagues in this country — into a single entity. And there we have USL Pro. In a sign of the true upheaval, the Austin Aztecs were the only former USL1 team left over from the bloodbath. With a more consolidated base from which to work, USL took October to pull a number of clubs into its orbit. But as is expected on this level, things have been anything but easy. President Tim Holt's original plan for "at least" 28 teams by 2015 looks hilariously unfeasible and remote. The league's ill-fated Caribbean Conference collapsed before it was a year old. And when FC New York pulled the plug on its jump from the NPSL before the 2012 season began, USL Pro had just 11 teams. That's where it stands today.

The problem at this level is that the USL Pros and the NASLs lack the institutional control and financial regulatory measures of MLS. A team like Rochester is far out-spending its comrades, and therefore the Rhinos are able to scout better, travel lighter and pay better. The generally accepted range of a USL/NASL budget is in the $1-3 million range, which isn't chump change for an owner at this level with flagging attendance numbers and nonexistent merchandise revenue. Much like leagues with unfettered spending controls (La Liga comes to mind) the league, like silly putty, forms the shape that its denizens create. If you're a San Antonio Scorpions fan, you're golden. If you're a fan of a lesser-attended team, of which there are many, just hope your owner has the temerity to keep up with his built-in challenges, those being an inability to draw fans and thus an inability to draw talent. These tropes are unlikely to change any time soon.

PDL Pro made things easier on this front through consolidation, but there are still challenges. A USL Pro player salary is typically between $12,000 and $36,000 a year, and it's more often on the south side of that estimate. And that's before taxes. The future of this league requires solvency, and that requires fan support. The reason other countries are able to support several tiers of professional soccer is because they have built-in fan bases, not only from years of support but also because soccer is often the most popular sports attraction on the block. That, unfortunately, will never be the case here. So unless a good-humored Daddy Warbucks shows up with a soccer scarf in one hand and a briefcase with millions in the other, expect leagues at this level to continue their inexorable expansion, contraction, consolidation, collapse and re-formation merry-go-round for the near future. It may be a bleak outlook to take, but it's hard to see it any other way. There is reason to be optimistic, don't get me wrong, but it must be tempered with the cold steel of reality. Like an iron thread running through each of our entries in this series aside from MLS, the reality isn't always the prettiest thing. It gets easier as we go up, but here, the ocean is still an inky hue of blue-black cobalt. The sun doesn't always reach down here.

Next time we'll drill into the NASL a bit and trawl for answers to questions left in the ether by the USL. Namely why NASL was given second-tier status and USL Pro, which consolidated two leagues after years as the No. 2, was relegated to third. Sticky situations, these.

- Will Parchman

8 comments:

Doherty said...

I'm shocked you could write an article about USL-Pro without once mentioning Orlando. Orlando is the club with an interested millionaire owner. Rawlins has not only invested in quality players (foreign and domestic), but he has also overseen the revamp of their developmental system. Orlando will field teams in the Development Academy in 2012-13 and have won back-to-back league titles but Rochester is your poster child for investment?

Rochester is the team that refused current and former professionals during preseason tryouts because they couldn't handle the burden of two more players on the roster.
Your overall points are valid but you use the wrong evidence to back it up.

Will Parchman said...

I think you're missing the point, especially considering Rochester was a brief example and not meant to be an instructively broad sweep of every financially solvent club in USL Pro. Rochester is certainly not my "poster child for investment" and I can't imagine where you got that idea. It was a single example.

And anyway, its less about individual clubs and more about the organization itself. Especially considering Garber just said "it's not a matter of if but when" about seeing Orlando as an MLS expansion club. USL needs to figure out a way to develop solvent clubs interested in sustaining a successful model on this level of play even when the immediate promise of MLS isn't dangling in front like a carrot. Orlando will not be in USL Pro much longer.

dikranovich said...

pacman, it seems like doherty knows his stuff. maybe being dismissive of his opinion is not the smartest way forward.

dont you guys see that as a general problem within us soccer blogosphere? most times you cant have a soccer discussion without someone calling someone else an idiot. and its always someone offering up their credentials, like we give a flying fudge cake.

Will Parchman said...

Dik,

It's less a matter of pleading guilty to not accepting arguments and more a matter of accepting arguments that dig at the issue of the matter. I'm more than willing to engage in meaningful back-and-forth on why the USSF has succeeded or failed in a particular avenue. But at the same time, I will defend certain points of my argument to the death.

The idea that I'm being dismissive of an argument that sucks at the real marrow of the bone is beyond me. I don't see it at all. I'm engaging it if anything. And the idea that I've called anyone an idiot is hilariously misguided.

Doherty said...

All right.. You said that the Rhinos was just a brief example, and maybe that's the problem. You spend the entire article talking about background history and colorful metaphors but you only mention one club. Further to my original point, Rochester is not a great (albeit brief) example. They are not the oldest club, Richmond and Charleston in 1993 and Charlotte in 1991. They are not the richest or most successful. It seems almost random. Maybe I got the idea of Rochester as a poster child because it's the only USL club you mention in the whole article.

"considering Garber just said "it's not a matter of if but when" about seeing Orlando as an MLS expansion club." Isn't that another reason why Orlando should have been mentioned? You all but acknowledged that Orlando is the strongest franchise. NYTimes had an article earlier about exactly how well operated the club is. It is also noteworthy that Orlando was successful before MLS was a dangling carrot. I think you've got the cause and effect wrong on that one.

Regardless of how immediately dismissive you may or may not have been, I admit I was a bit abrasive at first, what is this post even about? The title suggests the article is about USL-Pro, but the majority of the article deals with the bickering institutional infighting that happened 2-3 years ago. Your last comment suggests the article is about the relative success or failure of the USSF, but that's not the case.

The points that you're defending to the death seem to just be that the article is scatterbrained and only ankle deep. Maybe it's just beyond me and I don't see it at all. But thanks for taking the time to respond.

Mike M said...

Will, why do you think United Soccer Leagues maintains a system of lax institutional control over team salary and expenditures? It would seem like this is a critical point in fostering a young league. Is it meant to keep interested owners from balking at the prospect of subsidizing existing clubs that are already losing money? What do you think?

Will Parchman said...

Mike, it's just a matter of time before we get more institutionalized controls, but you basically hit it on the head there. At this point, at this level, it's more about attracting investors than about laying down narrow ground rules for operation. I think once MLS gets solidified in its club number and our lower leagues start calcifying with their clubs in place, we'll see more flexibility with rules. Until then, it's a very, very fluid situation down here.

dikranovich said...

it sounds like the future is going to be a promotion/relegation system among the lower leagues, with NASL being just below MLS. maybe all future expansion teams will have to win NASL before they can apply to MLS.