Michael Farrow's sports blog

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…on the new USSF D-II standards

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Sunil Gulati - "I want a league. With nice stadiums. Across many time zones. With not so many pesky Canadians."

From all accounts, the USSF have conducted a throughly-professional review of the sanctioning for franchises in the second division, coming up with a set of standards to which all franchises must adhere, as well as guidelines for the league as a whole.  Brian Quarstad of Inside Minnesota Soccer, the Woodward and Bernstein of the whole USL-NASL mess, was provided with the guidelines by the USSF.  Many of the ideas seem sensible on the service and I suppose if you want to preserve the status quo, many of these things are applicable.  However, what do you do when the status quo is absolute crap?  Genuine crap.  Something that probably shouldn’t even exist?

Let’s look at the history for a moment.  Back in 1989, when outdoor soccer was virtually dead, two regional outdoor leagues decided to hold a playoff game between their two league champions.   The two leagues, the Western Soccer League and the American Soccer League, decided to formalise this arrangement and created a 22-team, two-conference league.  All sensibly arranged, with two divisions in each conference and no inter-conference play, the USSF gave the new American Professional Soccer League Division-2 status, if that even meant anything at the time.  After one year, 13 teams folded.  With just 9 teams playing the 1991 season, the APSL decided to go national and lost a further 6 teams by the end of the 1992 season.  If it hadn’t been for the failure of the Canadian Soccer League, with Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal looking for a new home, the APSL would be just another failed league blotting the landscape, instead of creating the awful status quo which we still put up with today.

Division-II restructuring is nothing new.  Back in 1997, the APSL had been rebranded as the A-League and was going through its own football war with Francisco Marcos’ USISL.  The defection of San Francisco Bay at the end of the 1992 season was a warning shot across the bow but by 1997, the USISL had developed its own pro league from its top amateur teams.  In a pseudo-merger, the original A-League folded, with its remaining franchises joining the USISL Select League in the new USISL A-League.  This created a regional league, somewhat like the original APSL and likes of which many advocate now.   However, the A-League started to die a slow, inexorable death from day one.  The regional leagues fell apart, franchise numbers dwindled and, helped along by a dreadful expansion policy, they ended up back in the same, awful, non-functioning model as the APSL.  It’s not as though regional divisions haven’t been tried, they just failed twice already.  So we are stuck with the insane idea of a nationwide second division team, with a set of guidelines which encourage a large geographic footprint.

In his recent four-part series, rethinking second division soccer, Quarstad interviewed with Rob Clark, the owner of the Rochester Rhinos.  In 2008, the Rhinos had their home stadium seized by the city of Rochester and were insolvent when Clark bought them.  After two years of losses, Clark hired experienced coach Bob Lilley and set about overhauling the squad.  The Rhinos have mainly signed young players with varying professional experience to reduce costs and feel they are on track to break even.  What’s more interesting is their group of hungry young pros currently leads the USSF D-2 League.  With an metropolitan area of 1m people, Rochester are currently the smallest market at D-2 level.  This is a city with a rich heritage in the game and the Rhinos were once the flagship franchise of the USL.  Given their current business model, what chance would smaller markets have?  Spectators are certainly not turning up for the quality of play.  If they’re not there for the quality of play, they have to be there for another reason, what Peter Wilt might call “the matchday experience” and this makes D-2 soccer an entertainment product.  It’s not about developing players, it’s an entertainment product first and foremost.

In terms of the minor league professional sporting dollar, baseball is probably the biggest competition and known for its  network of minor league teams.  They too operate as an entertainment product, in this case centrally marketed by Minor League Baseball.  However, the key difference is the interdependent relationship between the major leagues and the minors.  The majors need minors to coach, improve and season players, the minors get support from the majors.  Even then, the minor leagues aren’t stupid enough to go coast-to-coast, it doesn’t serve any purpose.  These are franchises whose existence is sponsored by the major leagues, with limited travel cost and, who play a larger number of games in stadia given to them on sweetheart terms by state or local government.  Not to mention baseball is vastly more popular at the box office.  There aren’t many franchises, even at MLS level, who could get their local municipality to throw down $50m on a new stadium, as Lehigh County did to attract the Phillies’ AAA affiliate to Allentown.  Very few franchises own or affiliate themselves with a soccer franchise in a lower division, with Vancouver having the most comprehensive development structure.  Some conferences in the PDL or NPSL have bigger footprints than AA baseball leagues.  Minor league baseball walks the line between entertainment and development because of the large sums of money and massive institutional support which provide an advantage to them. New York wouldn’t build a stadium for the Metrostars and what is now the Red Bull Arena took six years and $200m to get built in New Jersey.  Meanwhile, the City of New York built two minor league ballparks, one in Staten Island and the other in Brooklyn, to house the minor league affiliates of the Yankees and Mets. It’s not a level playing field by any means and it puts minor league soccer in small college or high school stadiums or, worse, sharing with a baseball team, paying extortionate rents on top of pointless travel costs.

Unfortunately, lower division soccer is caught between a rock and a hard place.  It doesn’t have the popularity or the institutional support to really make a go of it on its own and MLS isn’t in a position to take it under its wing and use it as a development league.  I haven’t even touched on the greater problem, which is that the whole US soccer system is a series of machines which work against each other.  Pro leagues which needs young blood set against a college system which punishes self-improvement.  Sometimes it feels like all pro teams should just drop to the PDL and play as pros there.

These standards exacerbate the problem, not relieve it.  There is definitely a question to be asked of why this has been done.  Are they trying to deliberately kill an unsustainable division?  Why is this not part of a greater look at the whole system?  Why is it just because a few people have a falling out that suddenly the USSF care?  Have they buried their heads in the sand for this long whilst self-interest undermined the game of which they are supposed to be the stewards in the US?


Written by Michael Farrow

August 17, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Posted in Football

Tagged with , , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Well done Michael. Well written and researched. I agree with most everything here.


    August 17, 2010 at 11:46 pm

  2. Except for the caption on the photo. It’s a bit harsh.


    August 17, 2010 at 11:48 pm

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