IN the Gilded Age, things were grand for monopolists and their trust arrangements. Closed market men ruled many roosts in American business. Rockefeller and Carnegie (of Standard Oil and US Steel respectively) amassed tremendous wealth by simply buying out the competition – or running them out of business.
Oh yeah – and they did so with the tacit approval of a government stacked with bought-and-paid-for-politicians. There were virtually no campaign finance laws.
What finally helped break their grip on these industries and force more open competition?
Public pressure on the government to bust the trusts and break up the monopolies.
So powerful and so publicly supported was this progressiveism in the early part of the 20th century, it was a bipartisan affair. Both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt espoused it’s virtues. At the core of the populism that swept both of them into office was a drive to break up stagnant capital in the form of privileged monopolies bound by trust arrangements.
Teddy fought to bust every trust he ran across and touched a central nerve in the American electorate in the process. In his last run for President – as an independent – he battled Democrat Woodrow Wilson for the progressive label.
One trust that did escape Roosevelt’s ire – one that is still draped over the US economy today – was set in stone when US courts granted Major League Baseball a series of anti-trust exemptions some 90 years ago.
In one of these later decisions still protecting the US closed league system from anti-trust litigation today, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously summed up the what turned out to be quaint majority opinion:
Flash forward 90 years or so. Major US pro “sports” are now an interconnected web of billion dollar businesses – and billion dollar owners – who profit handsomely under these protections. More than one sports business attorney I spoke to called this archaic opinion the embarrassment that grants all current bigtime US sports the benefit of the doubt on trust and monopoly challenges.
Under these circumstances, it is interesting to see Major League Soccer attempting to run their competition out of business – or buy them out. NASL is under this very attack, as MLS either trundles into their markets or plucks teams directly from our US Soccer sanctioned second division.
If MLS is blatantly meddling with our US Soccer sanctioned second division, they’re literally mounting the third. Through their partnership with USL they are currently packing the league with reserve sides – aka minor league teams – while hinting at the same faux promotions they’re orchestrating with NASL sides.
All of this is being done under the watchful eyes of a governing body stacked with their cronies. It also includes a hardening line against the promotion and relegation system on which their power – and their sanctions – ultimately revolve.
The infantile Holmes opinion that holds their protectionist scheme together and the naked plutocratic forces arrayed against us are also vulnerable. All we require are extraordinary measures and a special case to defeat them.
We have both.
Extraordinary measures are the specialty of promotion and relegation advocates. We have spread the word to millions on social media, blogs, and traditional media. We are only ignored at great cost to the legitimacy of the press who choose to pretend we don’t exist. Perhaps in this new world of internet media – ignorance from a biased few in the mainstream media is less important than ever before.
The best part may be that in US club soccer we finally have a game that can break out of cryptic vestiges of the Guided Age. Unlike the big 4 of NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, soccer is governed by an independent federation system. Say what you want about FIFA, but it is the international governing body of soccer, and MLS – via US Soccer and CONCACAF – does answer to them.
In this system, a groundswell of support for promotion and relegation is making a difference.
‘Ridiculous’, you say? Can you name a US pro-sports commissioner that has faced — any — questions about promotion and relegation?
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has faced dozens.
As a perpetrator of some of these questions, it has been fantastic to watch the inquisition – even if the inquiries were of the wrong guy. Moreover, it is a testament to the level of public pressure for promotion and relegation.
On top of public pressure and anti-trust pitfalls, these vacillating answers also spoke both to FIFA’s public position on promotion and relegation. It is – in their official correspondence – ‘the essence of the game.’ Not only has Garber had to respond to public pressure for pro/rel and dance carefully to the tune of a legion of lawyers - he had to slant his answers for fear of FIFA retribution.
On first glance, these might appear to be blows to the chances of promotion and relegation ever occurring in American soccer.
Of course they’re not.
Just as open markets weren’t Standard Oil or US Steel’s call, neither are they MLS’s. We’ve been asking the wrong guy.
These aren’t setbacks from which pro/rel advocates must recover. They’re actually the opposite. I never believed that MLS’s lip service was anything but a delay tactic. It is wonderful to see that pressure has built to the point where MLS must finally discount it. Not doing so was probably showing up in MLS’s bottom line.
Can it be that the rise in promotion and relegation debate is limiting MLS’s ability to extract franchise fees? Absolutely. MLS acts when it’s interests are threatened. If lower division clubs believe a path to D1 will open without an exorbitant franchise fee – and without giving up the rights to the club itself – nothing threatens MLS more. Like any good pyramid scheme, the league relies on those fees.
Even more intriguing – their toughening stand on open leagues has drawn more legal gazes then I’ve seen in years. As they should. Virtually no other major US pro sport is so governed by an independent federation. US Soccer has a unique and special relationship with MLS. it is the only major US league that relies on a globally recognized D1 sanction from an independent federation for it’s legitimacy. US Soccer President Gulati himself recognizes the value of that label, calling the specter of promotion and relegation an “expropriation”.
Now that MLS officials have all but promised that they are in sole control of that sanction – their relationship with US Soccer snaps into vivid technicolor focus:
It is a naked trust arrangement – even when set amongst their scantily clad US contemporaries.
No other US sports league so relies on a D1 sanction from an independent and globally recognized sanction for their legitimacy. By anointing an increasingly avowed closed league that sanction, US Soccer is clearly picking winners and losers in the marketplace.
That’s why I’m so excited about MLS’s hardening position against promotion and relegation. It is not only proof positive of the effective pressure pro/rel advocates are applying, it is exposing US Soccer to a legal threat that may even finally beg the question with them.
It can’t be overstressed: It was never Don’s call to start with. Don is doing us a favor. By saying “no”, he helps take MLS out of the equation. A victory for those of us who have been persistently asking the question – because it begs a legal question as never before.
Questions on open leagues are now perfectly framed for our federation – as they should be: Will US Soccer act to open the market and end this MLS trust arrangement – or will they expose themselves to legal risk by continuing to choose winners and losers in the marketplace via D1 sanction for a increasingly recalcitrant closed league?
Turns out we may see legal action sooner than later – via a twist in the story:
NASL – home of storied US club brands like the New York Cosmos and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers – and the only legitimate MLS competitor – deservedly holds the US Soccer second division sanction. The league is currently outdrawing USL at the box office by a wide margin – despite the fact that some USL outlets are literally giving away tickets to all comers. ESPN is broadcasting NASL. USL has no national broadcast partner. The very fact that MLS is plucking teams from NASL speaks to their strength as a D2 league.
I’ve been told by more than one source that any move to bump NASL from D2 for USL will surely trigger legal action. Under these circumstances, I’d certainly hope so. Millions of dollars in investment – if not billions – are at stake. Like Sunil said, the value in the MLS trust arrangement is so great, breaking it would be tantamount to an expropriation.
All this dicking around helps illustrate how the debate has shifted. When MLS took a soft line on promotion and relegation, they could throw a lot of distracting disclaimers around on the future of the US soccer pyramid. Their hardening line on pro/rel combined with their maneuvers on the US Soccer board now further exposes them for the closed market trust arrangement they are.
See? It’s a wonderful time to fight for promotion and relegation in American club soccer. MLS can’t stop it. They can only help bring it to a head. Not only does US Soccer inaction risk annoying thousands of US supporters who demand it, any move to separate NASL from D2 is likely to trigger legal actions that unwind our shuttered pyramid from the ground up.
We are poised to break open the closed US Soccer market – the one rigged solely for MLS profit. We’re going to avail the entire US soccer pyramid to $billions in new revenues – not just one league. By doing so, we’re going to reverse the slide that has left our current top-flight with the smallest slice of the US soccer market in their 20 year history. The great soccer clubs that only promotion and relegation systems support – the ones that will finally be allowed to go toe to toe with the best in the world – are tantalizingly close.
So stay tuned – and stay focused. To Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ horror, the US pro sports privilege system is now a trillion dollar business. Billionaire owners don’t need blanket monopoly exemptions. At least US professional soccer deserves an exemption from the exemption.
Don’t stop asking about promotion and relegation in US club soccer. Just don’t bug Don. Instead, ask US Soccer – and President Sunil Gulati – AKA @ussoccer and @sunilgulati on Twitter.
In fact, he’s one of the most respected coaches in the US.
According to their website, Gary is one of “Two brothers, born and raised in the US, who grew up with a soccer culture – Their parents are Argentine. They have played this game since being able to walk, watched a ridiculous amount of matches, and analyzed the crap out of the sport. They continue to do so and currently coach club in Southern California.”
2013 marks the 100th running of US Soccer’s US Open Cup. I just double-checked the math. Preliminary matches have been going on for months now. This professional tournament is one of the oldest continuously running national knockout competitions on the planet. The world record holder for goals in a top-flight league season featured in it. Legions of top international players fought bitterly for it. Every member of the only USMNT to broach the World Cup semifinals featured in it. It has recently drawn record crowds of over 30,000.
Odd that as of February 25, 2013 – US Soccer has chosen to tell virtually no one.
You may have seen the 100th birthday banner at ussoccer.com. Like Steve Goff of the Washington Post, you might assume they’d drop in a concurrent reference to the centennial of the US Open Cup. If so, you’d assume wrong. Click through yourself.
Good news: It doesn’t matter. Not only have I done some math, I’ve done some research. I can say without a doubt: This year most definitely marks the 100th US Open Cup. Get out your slide rules: The first edition was held in 1914, making this the 100th edition. All you American soccer bloggers and MLS journalists don’t have to wait for the official press release. You and your readers are going to love this epic story.
It makes absolutely no sense to ignore it. You don’t want to be part of a missed marketing opportunity of millennial proportions. You don’t want to disparage millions of US supporters, thousands of US players, and hundreds of US clubs in the process. And since centennials only happen once every 100 years or so, you’ll never get this opportunity again.
At first it might seem a daunting task to take on such a legacy laden tournament. Don’t be intimidated by 100 years of epic performances. Here in the internet age, it’s not that tough to get your head around it. Let’s assume you are a New York Times subscriber. No need to plow through miles of micofilm. Simply log in to nytimes.com and search for “Brooklyn Wanderers” “Hakoah” “Brookhattan” “Bethlehem Steel Soccer” or early tournament alias “National Challenge Cup”. No need to specify a date range. Then try and read every relevant article since 1914.
On second thought – don’t do that. It’ll still take you months to get through it. Then, when you’re done, you’ll want to rip our federation a new one for their perpetual disrespect and dumbfounding silence. Take it from a guy who has done this exercise: You don’t need that kind of angst. For a lower impact study, you can always track #USOC100 on twitter.
After the wonders of the internet, you come into this centennial with another big benefit: You are probably still naïve enough to be certain that US Open Cup ignorance has an innocent cause. Perhaps US Soccer just forgot. Maybe MLS PR is just too swamped to get their facts straight. Either way, you’d be doing them a great service with a little in-depth reporting to gently remind them, your readers, listeners and/or viewers of our spectacular soccer story.
Here are a couple of examples of Cup memory lapses. In a recent interview on KickTV, Jimmy Conrad asked US Soccer President, Kraft Family Special Adviser, and Columbia Economics Lecturer Sunil Gulati why US Soccer didn’t promote the tournament more aggressively. President/Special Adviser/Lecturer Gulati said there was simply too much going on, and then forgot to mention that this was the 100th edition. In his recent piece on MLSSoccer.com, Jonah Freedman kindly acknowledged our greatest tournament, but implied that there was only one professional era – and MLS defined it. Then, just like Sunil, he totally forgot to mention the centennial. Apparently he’s also got too much going on to recognize that professional clubs and players have taken part since virtually the beginning.
No real surprises here. Busy people often engage in revisionist history – sometimes without knowing it. Help them pick up the slack. I know everyone at US Soccer, MLS and the wider American soccer journalism community doesn’t share their crippling workload (or perhaps their skewed priorities). No matter how innocent their ignorance is, if we wait for guys like Gulati and Freedman to stand up and take note, we may be waiting until the bicentennial.
Bad news: As long as the official silence on the centennial continues, a putrid pall rises around our game. Too busy to honor a history as phenomenal as ours is no excuse. Memory lapses don’t excuse anyone. If we don’t take this opportunity to acknowledge our epic history, it’ll ebb that much further away. It’d be like ignoring your 50th wedding anniversary. That damage is kind of irrevocable.
Oh and please – don’t feel obligated to mention me. If I had a dime for everyone who says they wish they could publicly support soccerreform, I could fund a really swanky party. Maybe land Pitbull. I get it. Perhaps I’m too mean. Maybe pointing out the buck-naked conflicts of interest in our federation is just too darn divisive. I might have been too hard on a few American soccer journalists who are just struggling to rub two pennies together. You don’t need flack from them for mentioning me.
Pretend instead that you’re in the stargazing business. Halley’s comet is streaking overhead, but you haven’t gotten a press advisory on it from US Astronomy yet. Would you just keep your mouths and lens caps shut about it?
Maybe you’re the spiritual type. Would it help you if you felt the ghosts of Billy Gonsalves, Archie Stark, Charles Schwab, Joe Gaetjens, plus the entire 1930, 1934 and 1950 World Cup squads looking down on you? Virtually every one of them played in the United States Open Cup – and that 1930 team went to all the way to the semis without being scored upon. Might that Field of Dreams make the hairs of journalistic integrity stand up on the back of your neck?
Most of you claim to prosthelytize for the game. Wouldn’t a reference to a professional US sports trophy second only to the Stanley Cup in age help you convert the US sports heathen?
Sure, suddenly recognizing the depth and breadth of this story is tough from a journalistic consistency standpoint. Few in your generation have ever fully recognized our legacy laden Cup. Since there’s virtually no living precedent to meet with your peers, there’s little professional pressure. You may have even heard it repeatedly panned. Players and coaches have whined to you about the extra fixtures with minor league clubs. Maybe you believed MLS when they implied they were the only pro league of significance in American soccer history. Perhaps you didn’t know that professional clubs have been entering US Open Cup for most of its history – beginning in at least 1923 with ASL. Possibly you didn’t realize that an Amateur US Open Cup has been running alongside it since that year. It’s conceivable that you didn’t believe central European powers threatened to move to expel US Soccer from FIFA around that time in response to ASL raids on their top pro players. You could be excused for not realizing that the Scottish FA called it “The American Menace”.
Really – It’s OK. Nobody will hold your ignorance against you. It’s a centennial! Pop the Goldschlager! Fire up the Freedom Train! You’re allowed a sudden epiphany every century. Most of the country doesn’t know the awesome history of our US Open Cup yet either. In fact, it’s so obscure that any one of you can still break this story!
And for crying out loud, there’s nothing to be afraid of from the powers that be. Of course there’s no subterfuge to hide American soccer history. Both US Soccer and MLS are honorable enough not to threaten your career and attack your integrity for celebrating it. Seriously, how could anyone involved in American soccer subvert a history as rich as ours, with backbone as solid as US Open Cup?
But hey – if you believe otherwise, that might make an even better story.
APPARENTLY, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was asked about promotion and relegation at halftime of MLS Cup XVII. Haven’t seen the footage yet myself. Like most soccer supporters in the US, I wasn’t watching. Not a stop-the-presses moment by any means. He’s given lip service to opening US leagues on more than a few occasions – most famously by coining the term “simulated promotion and relegation” a couple of years ago.
We all know MLS Cup ratings are doing the limbo. Here’s one way to put the numbers into an historic how-low-can-they-go perspective: In 1979 (two seasons after Pele’ departed) ABC averaged 2.6 for regular season NASL broadcasts. Despite the ballyhooed Beckham farewell, 2012 MLS Cup ratings dropped to .7. If you’re wily in the ways of Nielson, you know it’s not always wise to compare post and pre-cable ratings – so let’s add a little more context: Even after crossing the cable divide, no other US professional team sport has experienced a similar decline. Imagine if 2011 Superbowl ratings dropped to 27% of the 1979 NFL regular season average. I’d laugh, but no doubt many NFL owners would cry.
In light of this meager TV interest, it was neat to hear about the Commish’s latest pro/rel lip service. I was more surprised by the unprecedented volume of questions on twitter that prompted it. It used to be that a core tenant of the anti open league establishment was the cluelessness of the average American supporter. After last Saturday, I know we’re well on the way to debunking that myth once and for all.
At the risk of surprising everyone, allow me to debunk another wives tale: My primary objective isn’t to copy Europe. Instead, I want to grant US clubs the same basic freedoms as any in the world: The ability to use their support in any way they see fit. I certainly don’t want to see relegation imposed on any limited MLS outlet. It wouldn’t be fair. Salary caps and sundry league micromanagement mean the final call on personnel lays with the league itself. With such little autonomy, relegating an MLS team under these circumstances would be cruel and unusual punishment.
The facts are stark: Free top-flight clubs and closed leagues do not mix. The failure rate of this combination is virtually 100%. The only system proven to accommodate free clubs is an open one. American soccer history is strewn with the wreckage of top-flight closed leagues of unlimited clubs – and this phenomenon is not unique to the US. I have yet to find one example of a US-style closed league of uncapped club…. That has survived. It simply doesn’t happen.
This isn’t about promotion and relegation. Most of my vociferous critics join Don Garber in lip service to it. This is discussion about the captivity of American soccer clubs. I want every US club to have same basic rights as any in the world: The freedom to rise as far as investors and supporters can take them. It just so happens that the only system proven to accommodate that level of freedom includes promotion and relegation.
Here’s where the tiny critics chorus pipes up: Isn’t NFL a great example of US pro-sports system success – in which teams are limited for domestic parity and the sustainable search for profit? Isn’t it more important to the US pro-sports fan that every team has a shot to win the title? Wouldn’t New York and LA dominate in a pro/rel system of unlimited clubs? Won’t we just become the Scottish Premier League, where the same clubs always win and overspenders like Rangers always threaten the entire system?
First of all, even the parity premise that MLS defenders often cite is bunk. The Los Angeles Galaxy have taken part in seven of the seventeen MLS Finals. Four teams owned by Phil Anschutz have featured in the last two MLS Cups alone. This doesn’t sound like competitive balance to me.
Second, our successful closed leagues operate under entirely different conditions. NFL enjoys a level of isolation and dominance that MLS will never have – and I argue those two factors are key in the success of their provincial business model. Put it this way: When MLS drives every other soccer league in the world out of business or into subordination, doesn’t play any international matches, and doesn’t have lower divisions underneath them, I’ll stop ranting about pro/rel.
Do Americans abhor unlimited clubs? Obviously not. NBC just paid 800% more to broadcast English Premier League matches than they paid MLS for a similar privilege. I’m not going to waste any text defining the rapid growth of EPL ratings the precipitated that contract. Sounds like Americans appreciate great autonomous clubs as much as anyone.
If history is any guide, neither a New York nor an LA club will dominate open leagues. If London is any example, both US megalopolises will host multiple well-funded clubs, splitting support and limiting the ability of any one of them to dominate their table. New York City itself demonstrated this tendency in the ASL of the 1920s. At any given time, Gotham hosted a disproportionate number of teams in our first stable multi-city top flight, but they did not win a disproportionate number of titles. In fact, they didn’t win any.
The first ASL of the 1920s (like the NASL of the 1970s) was also a fine case study of what happens when top-flight closed leagues harbor unlimited clubs: They ultimately collapse. While it is certainly possible to argue about the causes – the outcome is always the same. In that light, can it be a coincidence that in our latest attempt at closed league top-flight soccer MLS limits teams? I don’t believe so. While I don’t subscribe to their small-minded decision to limit clubs in response, I have to give them credit for identifying the problem.
As far as the doomsday scenario in which we become the SPL goes: Bunk. Soccer may not be, and may never be the biggest pro-sports phenomenon in the United States. We do have dozens of potential markets – far more than Scotland, and far too many to be in D1 at the same time. Turns out that Rangers fiscal irresponsibility fits the open league pattern: Unlike in our closed leagues, the intransigence of any one club has never resulted in an open league collapse.
So we’re limiting top-flight American clubs so that the closed leagues they’re trapped in survive. Who cares?
Club soccer was long ago defined in an unlimited global market, and there is no indication that will change anytime soon. Despite cases of financial mismanagement and horror stories of top clubs facing collapse, few argue European supporters will accept MLS-style limits on their clubs.
If MLS teams continue participating in open global competition, this puts them at permanent and distinct disadvantage. How they ever go toe-to-toe with the best of the world if their league continues to unilaterally limit them?
Worse still, how can we expect our lower divisions to thrive under these circumstances? From what I hear, the Commish pointed to underdeveloped lower divisions in his defense of the status quo. If the English FA allowed EPL to close up shop, could anyone legitimately argue that investment in – and development of – lower divisions wouldn’t ebb? When guys like the Commissioner of MLS predicate closed leagues on weakness in our lower divisions, do they really not consider for a moment that our closed league policies don’t serve to limit investment in our lower divisions the same way they would in England?
And what about USMNT development? A common characteristic of World Cup winners is a thriving and open set of domestic leagues. I don’t think it stretches common sense that a vibrant and compelling top-flight whose clubs capture the imagination of fans is instrumental in player development. I don’t think its any coincidence that the core of our 1990 World Cup squad was composed of Cosmos fans. For all of their closed league flaws that left them vulnerable to a financial crater, NASL captured a lot of imaginations. Indeed, enough to average 400% higher ratings in 1979 than the 2012 MLS Cup.
Here lays the most inconvenient truth: US Soccer has given MLS the power to limit American club soccer for profit – even if that means conceding millions of US supporters to foreign leagues. I’d argue MLS is taking our federation up on that offer. Amongst all the external factors used to excuse MLS low ratings, I think this is the most ominous.
Finally – warmed as I am every time Don Garber gets a question about pro/rel – we have to stop asking him. In the final analysis, this isn’t his responsibility. Like any national federation, US Soccer is in charge of defining the pyramid. It is they who make the D1 call. Currently they use their responsibility to rubber-stamp MLS salary caps that limit investment in our top-flight and limit our clubs in international play. They also grant those closed league entitlements that limit investment in our lower divisions.
While it’s been fantastic to see the Commissioner of MLS quizzed on promotion and relegation again – now is the time to recognize it’s not his call. It’s time to ask US Soccer. They alone define the US pyramid, sanction club and league behavior, and set policy and procedures that every club and every league must follow to get their stamp of approval.
On occasion, my views on an open US soccer pyramid have been characterized as unrealistic. Usually my detractors come closer to calling them utter fantasy. I on the other hand characterize anyone who believes MLS will break itself up and expose their owners to the same competition all great clubs face as completely surrealistic. MLS owners value their entitlements. We can’t leave promotion and relegation up to them.
Admittedly, our federation can’t force any league or any club to do anything – but like every federation they can decide what kind of behavior to sanction. MLS, like any club or any league, must decide for themselves whether they want that sanction or not.
If you’ve followed me at all on twitter, you know what to do from here. Policy makers set policy. FIFA preference for promotion, relegation and independent clubs couldn’t be clearer. Regardless of when we get proper open leagues of independent clubs, it will be because US supporters demand it from US Soccer – in every available forum and at every available opportunity. It will not be because MLS evolved into it.
That’s why tweets from US supporters demanding pro/rel warm my heart more than any lip service commish.
I place MLS’s single entity business model in the realm of pathology. It’s symptoms include limited club autonomy, quality and investment. It debilitates top US clubs in a very open global market. It develops little American talent, as evidenced by paltry sales of US players on the international market compared to even moderate soccer nations. Despite the fact that pro-soccer is second only to NFL in key under-24 and Latino demographics, it relegates the US club game to miniscule TV ratings. It constrains the game into small stadiums, and even artificially limits capacity in larger ones. It curtails the ability of lower division teams to raise capital.
Most recently, the MLS single entity syndrome has left our second division clubs so weak, they must sell home field advantage in US Open Cup – the most legacy laden national club tournament in the Western Hemisphere. Worse still, it leaves our federation too incapacitated to fight that corruption in our storied US Open Cup.
Now the disease is showing signs of mutation. As often happens in the wake of scandal like Cupgate, and under increasing pressure from fans, the MLS medicine show is cranking up – and biggest bottle of snake oil on the wagon is MLS formula 1 and 2.
To be fair, rumors of dual MLSs have been knocking around for quite some time, but I’ve noticed an uptick recently. If this is an attempt to triangulate dissenters, it comes at critical juncture in US club soccer history.
On the bright side, when MLS 1 and 2 try to take center stage – it will be because of increasing supporter pressure in the United States. It will be remarkable evidence of increasing supporter demand. No doubt it is also an indication of continued FIFA pressure on US Soccer to integrate our club game with the rest of the world.
On the brain tonic side, it is just another gimmick-laden delay tactic to preserve the mind numbing MLS single entity.
For me, this is a critical battle in the war for the same unlimited clubs that the rest of the world enjoys – and around which the history of the game revolves. It is a fight to reach the vast potential of the club game in the US. It is about giving us clubs that can capture the imagination of supporters, not just a few risk-averse (and often conflicted) investors. It is about giving our lower division clubs access to new investors and new streams of capital with which they can develop US talent. It is about sending our top clubs into international competition as unlimited as their opponents.
For MLS and SUM, this is a battle for single entity survival. US supporters of promotion and relegation are often accused of being sheer copycats. We’re told we just want the game to look like England’s. The nutty thing is, if MLS forms a second division with pseudo promotion and relegation and while still locked under a system of drafts, salary caps and DP rules – that is exactly what we’ll get.
Let’s say MLS 1 and 2 gather momentum among US supporters and come into being. Here’s how things likely play out: The most successful MLS expansion teams are already pseudo-promotions. Sounders Timbers, Whitecaps and Impact have all set the bar for expansion outlets – and perhaps saved MLS neck. MLS 1 and 2 would simply institutionalize this process, and increase the league’s grip on the game. If the league does open a doggie door to promotion, it will only be availed to teams pre-selected for expansion, and will be quickly closed once MLS 1 reaches whatever they decide is full complement.
Do not expect to see relegation from MLS 1. Instead, anticipate that promotion itself will be ended when they’re done building their chain of top-flight outlets. Also, do not assume any changes to the MLS multi-layer marketing scheme. Be secure in the knowledge that clubs will still have to pass through the MLS single entity event horizon to get into either “league” and avail themselves to the same micromanagement and quality limits. Be assured that the connivance in which the league trademarks their properties (while clubs continue to pay them for the privilege) will continue as usual. Just as we will not see unlimited futures for any club, neither will we see any additional incentive to invest in lower divisions. Erik Wynalda is leading a fifth division team against the Portland Timbers in the US Open Cup this week. There is a fundraising effort underway to support his club. I haven’t heard any rumors of MLS 5.
No matter how you splice it, when MLS breaks itself into two salary capped and micromanaged “leagues”, it will not cure our single entity pathology. It will be a mutation designed to add another layer of resistance to the disease. It will mark an effort to copy the appearance of promotion and relegation – without getting any of the qualitative benefits of independent and unfettered clubs.
For me, bandying terms around is not sufficient. For most supporters of promotion and relegation, it is not about copying nomenclature or echoing the slogans of open systems for marketing purposes. It is about a fundamental change that will allow us the unlimited clubs that only a true system of promotion and relegation can accommodate. For me, the real cure for single entity syndrome is true open leagues and unlimited clubs, and the only way to get them is via a change in federation sanction.
For MLS/SUM, this is a whispered pro/rel medicine show.
After a century of trying to do soccer like Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League – the results are in: the US game has failed to reach its massive potential in our closed league system. Even today it continues to reject every effort to cloister it.
Meanwhile, the game thrived in open leagues featuring promotion and relegation.
Dysfunctional relationships between federation and closed league are chronic. Autonomous governing bodies played a critical role in the global development of the game. They ushered it to universal success. Instead of being a potent force in the development of our game, our federation has been bullied, ignored and finally subordinated by our closed leagues. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that the behavior of US Soccer vacillated between bellicose, ineffective, inane and complaisant.
The inability of US closed leagues to tolerate independent federations is easy to plot. Our first great top-flight league showcased world class clubs, top European talent, and a wave of US player development. It also featured a falling out with US Soccer so complete, it set American soccer back fifty years and left the federation shell shocked. In our second well financed shot at the big time, one league jolted the US into a footy craze, made soccer the most popular youth sport in the country, and produced a generation of players that took us back to the World Cup for the first time in forty years. They also chose to simply ignore our federation – and collapsed as quickly as the first. In our latest attempt at D1 professional soccer, US Soccer has simply accepted an unprecedented level of subordination to a top-flight league that limits investment, access, and interest in the US club game. Perhaps federation control is a key component of MLS closed-league single entity survival, but TV ratings, player development and our national team stagnate alongside it.
In 1985 Giorgio Chinaglia told the Montreal Gazette, “Fans want to see strong international play. Anything less will not draw fans.” (see timeline) In an effort to insure the survival of club soccer – in our pro sports model – MLS uses powers extorted from our federation to limit club quality. By limiting club quality, the league prohibits teams from reaching their potential. Judging by their consistent inability to draw interest, MLS – like all their closed league predecessors – cannot meet the demands of the increasingly sophisticated US supporter. To be fair, they cannot accommodate billions of fans around the world who demand both stable leagues and clubs that are not arbitrarily capped in caliber.
In the twentieth century, closed US leagues of independent and unfettered clubs tumbled over financial cliffs like so many lemmings – despite consistent and demonstrable affection for the game among many Americans. In the meantime, a wildly successful, stable and unlimited global club game developed in the rest of the soccer world. It did so under a free market system of promotion, relegation and independent clubs. It relied on an umbrella of sovereign and potent federations, and accommodated the autonomous and boundless teams around which the game revolves.
Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” After watching US Soccer try the same thing and get the same results since Herbert Hoover, perhaps he would advocate joining the rest of the world in the open market of club soccer. As a devout supporter of the United Nations, he would certainly support a system of healthy, independent and effective governance.
Despite Chinaglia’s warning and Einstein’s logic, our club and international game continue to flounder far behind. The US closed league straight jacket has been laced down tighter than ever before. Today MLS survives on a cornucopia of privileges from US soccer based on precedents set by sports that little in common with soccer. Can it be sheer coincidence that they fall further from reaching the US soccer market today than at any time in their history?
Welcome to the asylum.
A group of ex-British enthusiasts meet in Newark, NJ to form the American Football Association. It already the fourth attempt to form a national governing body for soccer.
In first international match outside the British Isles, Canadian and US teams face off at Clark Field in Northern NJ.
The governing body of English football adopts an open league model featuring promotion/relegation between two top leagues of independent, professional, autonomous clubs. They decide the existing FA Cup, a competition open to every pro, amateur or league club in the country, will continue unchanged. This basic system would stay largely stable and intact until the present day, and would be embraced by the vast majority of nations over the next century.
AFA preference for semi-pro clubs drives amateur New York clubs to break away and form the American Amateur Football Association.
The first attempt is made to establish a fully professional American soccer league. It is also the first attempt by another major American sport to co-opt professional soccer into the budding American closed league model. The six-team American League of Professional Football (ALPF) is not promoted by any of the existing soccer associations, but is formed by a group of professional baseball owners from the National League.
ALPF collapses among heavy financial losses during its first season.
Independent clubs survive when the major league baseball attempt to co-opt the game fails: American Cup Final sells out, Fall River and Kearny already fully established as soccer hotbeds. New York Times, March 4:
The National Association Football League (NAFL) is formed on a closed league model, but is created by lifting top teams in the New York City and New Jersey regional leagues. Founding members include Kearny Scots, who endure today:
NAFL is suspended due to waning fan interest.
FIFA forms. US soccer supporters are unable to coalesce behind a national soccer organizing body, and cannot secure membership.
St. Louis Soccer League goes professional, but does not adopt promotion/relegation open league model that has already produced a thriving, stable pro league in England.
NAFL is revived, again under a closed league model.
Bethlehem Steel FC formed.
After nine years of infighting between AFA and AAFA, FIFA finally accepts AAFA assembled bid for US membership: The United States Football Association. Despite this victory for supporters of the professional game, a divisive rift between professional and amateur club supporters will persist for fifty more years.
In their crowning achievement, US Federation inaugurates National Challenge Cup – competition known today as the US Open Cup:
The Southern New England Football League forms under a closed league model.
Club scene thrives in San Francisco:
Steel Field is built in Bethlehem, PA. First soccer specific stadium in the US, it still stands today:
Bethlehem Steel wins third US Open Cup Final in Pawtucket, RI:
Charles Schwab sends his Bethlehem Steel FC on a Scandinavian tour. Club draws sellout crowds and compiles a winning record against top flight competition:
In a move partly designed in part to purge poor, low performing clubs stagnating in their respective closed leagues, NAFL merges with SNEFL to form the nucleus of the American Soccer League (ASL). This marks the beginning of the first golden age of US club soccer.
Sam Marks builds 10,000 seat soccer specific stadium in North Tiverton, RI for his Fall River Marksmen.
St.Louis Soccer League fields top-flight clubs:
ASL becomes the second most popular pro sport league in the United States behind baseball’s National League.
Fall River Marksmen celebrate their first ASL championship.
US fields second Olympic squad. Defeat Estonia 1-0 in opening match:
In prophetic early battle between federation and closed league, ASL advises clubs not to enter the National Open Challenge Cup (later to become the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup) claiming schedule conflicts.
American Archie Stark sets current world record for most goals scored in a single season for a top-flight club – 67 in 42 games for Bethlehem Steel, FC
Stark (front row center) tallies four times as the USMNT defeat Canada in Ebbet’s Field:
Attendance at ASL matches regularly passes 10,000.
October 31 Fall River Globe – Alarmed at exodus of top players to ASL, Scottish FA cries foul:
Vienna Hakoah tours the US. The European superclub’s first three matches against ASL opponents draw 25,000, 30,000 and 36,000 spectators respectively. The tour culminates in the famous May 1 1926 match against ASL New York stars from the Giants and Indiana Flooring at the Polo Grounds: 46,000 attend the match, setting a record for an American club soccer match that will stand until 1977:
ASL establishes first “Champions League” with three ASL and five top Canadian clubs.
New York Times reports on Eastern European plot to oust US Soccer from FIFA. Austrians and Hungarians upset by ASL recruitment efforts:
Problem of cash strapped low performing clubs lingering in a closed league strikes again. Recently purchased Philadelphia FC struggles mightily out of the box and is dropped from the season via a league office decision. In order to balance the schedule the league abruptly drops Hartford, another struggling team.
La Liga forms as the first division of Spanish club soccer. Unites top clubs under an open league model featuring promotion/relegation.
American “Soccer War” begins begins in earnest, marking the beginning of the end of the ASL and defining persistent battle lines between closed leagues and federations. League announces that it wants US Open Cup competitions moved to the end of the league season or its teams exempted until the season is over. US Soccer refuses, and the ASL orders teams not to participate. Bethlehem Steel FC, Newark Skeeters and New York Giants defy league and participate anyway. ASL President Bill Cunningham institutes fines and suspensions on these clubs, who appeal to the USFA. ASL refuses an order from the federation to reverse these actions and is suspended by US Soccer.
ASL continues to operate as an outlaw league, and the USFA assembles the three renegade ASL teams with other clubs from the Southern New York State Association, leading to dispute between the SNYSA and the USFA. SNYSA teams up with the ASL against the regional Eastern Soccer League and USFA.
The New Bedford Whalers jump to the ESL mid season.
In an early example of US Soccer inefficacy, US Olympic squad chosen in an elimination tournament instead of via all-star selection. Result was an 11-2 drubbing by Argentina:
Disappointed in the quality of ESL play, New Bedford jumps back to the ASL.
The ASL and US Soccer finally reach an exhausted compromise. ASL abandons partially competed fall 1929 season, and in another move to purge the league of poor, underperforming clubs, merges strongest teams with better ESL teams to form the Atlantic Coast League.
Serie A forms as the first division of Italian club soccer and unites top clubs under an open league model featuring promotion and relegation:
Fall River Marksmen defeat Bethlehem Steel in their final US Open Cup matchup:
With a properly selected squad composed entirely of US club players, USMNT reach semi finals in the first World Cup undefeated and unscored upon – netting back to back 3-0 shutouts against Paraguay and Belgium. Fall River Marksmen Bert Patenaude becomes first player in the history of the tournament to notch a hat-trick:
The New York Times calls the USMNT “Favorite to Win World’s Soccer Title”:
Argentina ends the USMNT World Cup run in the semifinals, defeating them 7-2.
Storied NAFL and ASL club Bethlehem Steel FC folds
Top Mexican side Nexaca embarks on US tour.
Scottish champions Glasgow Celtic tour the United States:
After moving to Yankee Stadium for one season as the New York Yankees – and beating Scottish champs Celtic behind three goals from Billy Gonsalves – storied SNESL and ASL club Fall River Marksmen fold.
ASL is reorganized out of existence along with every remaining storied club. It marks the biggest closed league debacle to date, and ends the first golden age of U.S. club soccer.
Second American Soccer League (ASL II) formed with entirely new line up of clubs as a closed league – but elevates strongest amateur and semi pro teams from local leagues, including storied NAFBL clubs Kearny Scots and Kearny Irish. Initially, league is confined to NY/NJ/Philadelphia region. It will survive for 50 years and become the longest surviving extra-regional closed league in soccer history.
USMNT exits World Cup in first round, losing to Italy 7-1.
Kearny Scots win first of five consecutive ASL II league titles.
ASL II sponsors first Charlton Athletic US tour.
Chicago Sparta win US Open Cup 8-0 on aggregate:
Citing political tensions, USMNT withdraws from World Cup in France.
St. Louis Soccer league goes regional as Cleveland Slavias and Chicago Sparta join their “Inter City Soccer Loop”. First attempt at Midwestern League only lasts one year.
Mexico forms national first division and adopts promotion/relegation system:
United States Football Association changes name to United States Soccer Football Association.
North American Soccer Football League (NASFL) formed on the closed franchise league model.
ASL II sponsors first Liverpool FC US tour. Reds defeat NY Select team led by ageless former Fall River Marksman Billy Gonsalves:
Chicago Viking defeats Fall River Ponta Delgada for the US Open Cup 3-2 on aggregate. First leg held in soccer specific Mark’s Stadium:
ASL II sponsors first Manchester United US tour. Defeat Joe Gaetjens and NY ASL All-Stars 9-2:
USMNT appear in their third World Cup Final and stun England 1-0 in first round behind a Joe Gaetjens’ strike:
National Soccer Hall of Fame opens:
CONCACAF qualification for the 1954 World Cup consists two home and away series. In the first, US Soccer mysteriously allows scheduling of both WCQ in Mexico – and organizes no practices for the veteran squad. USMNT lose both matches, and are eliminated before second series with Haiti begins.
US fields Olympic team, but is routed by Czechs 9-1 in their first an only match.
US, Mexico and Canada battle for one World Cup Finals slot. Again, many players did not even meet until they arrived in Mexico for the first match, and US Soccer is unable schedule any practices.
After two losses to their Mexican rivals, US federation changes strategy radically: Team is disbanded and entire US Open Cup Champion St. Louis Kutis squad is drafted to represent the country. Strategy fails as Canadians win both remaining matches.
ASL grows to ten clubs across five states.
Manchester United tours the US again. Draws over 20,000 fans to a friendly with Hearts of Midlothian at Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn.
The second International Soccer League (ISL II) a closed league formed with off season international clubs including Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon, and Red Star Belgrade, and a U.S. club of stars from ASL II.
US fails to qualify for the 1962 World Cup, but ties regional power Mexico in Los Angeles 2-2.
US Open Cup Final features intriguing East/West matchup:
Manchester United tours the United States for the fourth time since 1950:
West German club soccer coalesces from regional, semi-professional closed leagues into the modern Bundesliga and adopts an open league model featuring promotion and relegation.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy attends Brazil v USSR friendly, meets Pele’:
ISL II folds.
Tape delayed ABC telecast of 1966 World Cup Final between West Germany and England sets a US ratings record for a soccer match that will last until 1994.
ASL II expands nationally with franchises in the Midwest and Northeast.
Inspired by huge American television audiences for the World Cup, two rival investment groups led by owners of other professional sports franchises form the United Soccer Association (USA) and the National Professional Soccer Association (NPSL). Both are set up as closed leagues.
Per the ISL II model, the USA arranges importation of entire international clubs for their inaugural season in order to get a leg up on NPSL rivals.
Two top flight leagues hit the US at once. USA and NPSL compete for US market share and both nearly go bankrupt in their first seasons. NPSL nails a $1 million CBS contract but not a US Soccer sanction. The USA obtains sanction, but no national TV.
The New York Times struggles to explain latest US pro sports owner attempts at soccer:
First major league soccer match takes place in Atlanta:
USA and NPSL purge low performing clubs and merge to form the North American Soccer League. NASL retains US pro sports model, and does not obtain US Soccer sanction.
Manchester City tours the US. Loses to former NPSL side Atlanta Chiefs twice:
Chicago Mustangs embark on European Tour:
Fans flood Yankee Stadium to see Pele’ and Santos defeat Napoli June, 22 New York Times:
NASL drops to five clubs and splits season into two halves. In first, league reverts to USA model of importing entire foreign clubs. In the second, clubs begin play with their own rosters.
St. Louis utilizes homegrown talent in the second half – 14 Yanks on 18 man roster.
CBS terminates NASL TV contract.
Madison Square Garden draws 17,000 fans to watch a World Cup match on television.
NASL takes the extraordinary step of “promoting” 2 ASL clubs to stay alive: Rochester Lancers and Washington Darts. Rochester leads the way in attendance at over 5000 a game.
New York Cosmos admitted into NASL.
NASL carries all teams from previous season – a first for the league – though Washington moves to Miami. Also becomes first soccer league to set up college “draft”.
US qualifies for first Olympics since 1956:
NASL has an American year: an American leading scorer, three Americans among the top 10 scoring leaders, an American as the league leading goalkeeper, an American Coach of the Year, an American Rookie of the Year, four Americans on post-season all-star teams and a champion that started six Americans in the league final.
Brand new Philadelphia Atoms draw over 21,000 to their league opener go on to average 11,382 per game for the season (a new league record) win the championship, and their goalkeeper becomes the first soccer player to ever grace the cover of Sports Illustrated:
Seattle Sounders admitted into the NASL:
NASL side LA Aztecs defeat Mexican powerhouse Monterrey:
San Jose Earthquakes admitted into the NASL
Pele’ debuts for the New York Cosmos. Second golden age of US club soccer begins:
NASL reaches twenty clubs.
Portland Timbers admitted into the NASL.
Tampa Bay Rowdies purchase Rodney Marsh from Queens Park Rangers. San Antonio sign former England captain Bobby Moore away from Fulham. Los Angeles-and new part-owner Elton John – sign 29 year-old George Best. Giorgio Chinaglia joins Cosmos from Lazio.
Sounders draw over 58,000 to the first sporting event held at the Kingdome: A pre-season friendly with Pele’ and the Cosmos.
Minnesota averages over 23,000 per game.
Playoff game between the Cosmos and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers draws 77,691 fans to Giants Stadium, breaking the record set by Vienna Hakoah and the ASL’s New York All-Stars forty-nine years earlier:
Cosmos average 34,000 fans per game, defeat Sounders in 1977 Soccer Bowl.
NASL clubs participate in record 48 international friendlies. Cosmos tie Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in front of largest crowd of the season. Also defeat Atletico Madrid at Vicente Calderon.
Giorgio Chinaglia scores fifty regular season goals for the New York Cosmos:
Chinaglia finds the net seven times in one playoff game:
ABC averages 2.7 rating for NASL telecasts – about 2 million households – more than double the ratings of any single MLS Cup telecast:
RFK Stadium hosts NASL Soccer Bowl:
ASL II, the longest surviving closed professional soccer league in history, folds.
United Soccer League (not to be confused with the United Soccer Leagues) formed on the closed league model:
Seattle Sounders drop out of NASL
(approx) Soccer becomes the most popular youth sport in the United States.
Los Angeles Olympic soccer matches draw massive crowds, including 78,000 for US v Costa Rica and over 100,000 for both medal matches.
New York Cosmos defeat Italian champs Juventus in front of 36,000 at the Meadowlands
Western Alliance Challenge Series (Later the western Soccer Alliance) another closed franchise league, begins with teams in San Jose, Victoria, Seattle and Portland, playing an abbreviated 7-game season.
Chicago Sting win final NASL Soccer Bowl.
Montreal Gazette previews fall of the New York Cosmos.
The most storied US club since the Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel FC, New York Cosmos is reorganized into a local soccer academy.
Like their storied ASL predecessors, NASL - at least the seventh major attempt to force top-flight soccer into US style closed leagues – collapses in a sea of red ink.
Portland Timbers reincarnated into WSA.
Only four professional outdoor soccer clubs remain in North America – the lowest number since 1905. Still, one of them draws a visit from Manchester City:
USMNT fail to qualify for World Cup final.
Lone Star Soccer Alliance debuts in Texas and surrounding states as a closed franchise league.
The third American Soccer League (ASL III) debuts as a closed franchise league in the eastern US:
FIFA awards World Cup 1994 to the US on the condition that the USSF establish a first division professional league.
Sunbelt Indoor Soccer League (SISL) a closed franchise indoor league based in Florida and run by Former NASL executive Francisco Marcos debuts an eight-club outdoor season.
43,000 fill Franklin Field in Philadelphia to watch the USMNT defeat top Russian club Dnepr 1-0.
USMNT qualify for first World Cup Finals since 1950:
USMNT make first World Cup Finals appearance since 1950. Eliminated after losing every group stage match.
FIFA endorsed candidate Alan Rothenberg defeats long time incumbent USSF President Werner Fricker.
ASL III merges with the WSA to form the American Professional Soccer League (APSL) under the closed league model. FIFA sanctions APSL as the US second division league. Together, they employ future US MNT stars Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, Kasey Keller and John Harkes:
APSL nearly folds, but survives through another purge of non-performing, financially weak US clubs from a closed league.
SISL outdoor league grows to 21 clubs under a closed franchise model and is renamed the United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL):
Trying to meet FIFA demand for a first division league, an investment group headed by USSF President Alan Rothenberg that includes NFL and former NASL investors battles, APSL, USISL, and the indoor MISL for FIFA/US Soccer first division sanction. Federation takes bids for leagues, does not open leagues for clubs.
J-League inaugural season marks the beginning of an open league model, featuring promotion and relegation, for Japanese club soccer. Japanese professional baseball maintains American closed league model:
Canadian Soccer League folds. At this juncture, no D1 soccer league exists anywhere in the world fully committed to US style closed model:
Aided by the vast net worth of his partners, Rothenberg led group calling itself Major League Soccer prevails in battle for US first division sanction, promises to begin play in 1995. US Soccer sanctions MLS despite their continued adherence to a closed model – at least the eighth such national attempt in US club soccer history. Federation also grants MLS a unique single-entity business model in which league owns every tea – and with it the power to limit the quality of every club via salary caps and squad limits.
APSL bid for D1 rejected, despite the fact that league is up and running with six clubs including Tampa Bay Rowdies and Montreal Impact.
USMNT play record 34 matches in preparation for 1994 World Cup Final – nearly a full club season in many countries.
USA hosts first World Cup Final, draws record 3.6 million spectators, at a record average of 67,000 per game – despite the fact that the country does not have a running first division soccer league.
Top six best attended soccer games in US history remain World Cup matches held in the Rose Bowl. Final between Italy and Brazil draws all time US record 101,799:
USMNT advance to second round for the first time since 1930.
Seattle Sounders join APSL.
APSL refuses offer from MLS to join their single entity. Owners prefer to own clubs and players as practiced all over the world.
MLS moves back opening day to 1996.
APSL changes name to A-League.
Chasing ghosts of Bert Patenaude and the 1930 USMNT World Cup semifinalists, Earnie Stewart and his USMNT storm to Copa America Semis in Uruguay. Run includes a 3-1 trouncing of Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina:
In a consolidation of power unprecedented in over one hundred years of professional US club soccer, the A-League and USISL work out an agreement to act as farm systems for the MLS. For the first time, the United States has a recognized three-tiered league structure, sanctioned by FIFA – although clubs are still institutionally blocked from moving between divisions.
Major League Soccer (MLS) arrives. League places a high priority on relative team parity and discount pro-sport ticket pricing. In response to the problems their predecessors encountered applying the American closed franchise model to national club soccer, US Soccer grants MLS an unprecedented array of intrusive top-down policies and procedures. On paper, MLS is organized under a single entity corporate structure with teams managed by investor/owners. League manages all player salaries, signings, allocations, approves all trades limits teams to five foreigners, institutes a salary cap of $1.25 million per team and a maximum player salary of $175,000, and pays all players directly. Investor/owners of each team “invest” to the tune of $75 million – ostensibly to cover expected operating losses for the first five seasons of the league. Ten corporate sponsors sign, and television contracts are signed with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and Univision. NFL owner and NASL backer Lamar Hunt is a major investor.
Top Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos leaps into MLS:
DC United win inaugural MLS Cup.
MLS average attendance hits 17,695.
USISL establish Select League of top teams in an effort to gain second division status.
Select League and A-League merge and receive second division US Soccer sanction under A-League name.
MLS average attendance drops by over 1000 fans per game.
US cannot advance out of World Cup group stage.
DC United win CONCACAF Champions Cup.
In the high water mark for MLS in international competition, DC United become champions of the western hemisphere by defeating South American club champion Vasco De Gama in the InterAmerican Cup:
USISL changes name to United Soccer Leagues. A-League is absorbed into USL-1 and recognized as American second division, USL-2 as third division.
MLS average attendance drops to all time low of 13,366.
LA Galaxy wins CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Former NFL International chief Don Garber named Commissioner of MLS:
MLS contracts to ten teams by purging Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.
Portland Timbers reincarnated into A-League/USL-1.
San Jose Earthquakes reincarnated into MLS.
USMNT advance to quarterfinals in the World Cup.
Only a heroic effort from Oliver Kahn and suspect officiating keeps the USMNT from making their first World Cup semifinal appearance since 1930:
Manchester United pays MLS $4 million transfer fee for Tim Howard:
Kraft Soccer Executive and Columbia Econ Professor Sunil Gulati ascends to volunteer Presidency of US Soccer.
Once In A Lifetime – The Extraordinary story of the New York Cosmos debuts in theaters.
MLS moves storied NASL brand San Jose Earthquakes to Houston to become the Dynamo.
Fulham pays $4 million transfer fee to MLS for Clint Dempsey:
Cultural Icon David Beckham signs with MLS/Los Angeles Galaxy:
MLS average attendance rises to 16,202.
MLS sells Jozy Altidore to Spanish first division club Villareal for record transfer fee of $10 million.
San Jose Earthquakes re-reincarnated into MLS.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces that preference will be given to prospective World Cup host nations who adopt open league model featuring promotion and relegation.
FIFA calls promotion and relegation by sporting criteria “The essence of the game.”
Australia’s soccer governing body announces plans to move from franchise model to open league model featuring promotion and relegation. Once completed, this move will leave the United States and Canada the last major soccer nations committed to a closed league model for domestic club play.
Average MLS attendance drops 1.8%
Seattle Sounders reincarnated into MLS for a reported franchise fee of $30 million – and average nearly 30,000 fans per game.
Despite remarkable success in Seattle, As of early June, MLS average attendance drops 8.8%.
USL-1 club Puerto Rico Islanders advance further than all MLS teams in CONCACAF Champions League play.
US President Barack Obama announces bid for 2018/2022 World Cup Final. Meets FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the White House. Blatter asks US President when the US will adopt promotion and relegation system for club soccer.
MLS announces plans to reincarnate Portland Timbers into MLS.
As pressure mounts on US Soccer, MLS Commissioner Don Garber responds to question on promotion/relegation and open league play on the MLS web site:
“Unfortunately our country does not have the infrastructure to support promotion/relegation at this time. We’ll continue to monitor this, but it will likely be at least ten years before promotion/relegation could ever be considered.”
Americans buy more tickets to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa than citizens of any other nation.
USMNT lose to Mexico 5-0 in Gold Cup finals.
Massive US crowds assemble for international matches: LA Galaxy v Barcelona – 93,137 • Mexico v Haiti – 85,000 • Chelsea v Inter Milan – 81,224 • Mexico v USA – 79,156
Citing financial trouble, MLS and US Soccer allow National Soccer Hall of Fame close its doors. Invaluable collection amassed over sixty years is scattered across the country.
After struggling into the knockout stages, USMNT eliminated by Ghana in World Cup play for the second straight time.
Re-animated NASL brand obtains provisional D2 sanction from US Soccer:
Despite the efforts of President Clinton, Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Spike Lee and others, US loses bids to host 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively.
Despite little promotion, US Open Cup Final between Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew draws 31,311 fans to Qwest Field, breaking tournament attendance record set in 1929.
Another huge attendance year for international matches in the US: Manchester United v Barcelona – 81,807 • Mexico v El Salvador – 80,108 • US v Argentina – 78,682
Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps “promoted” and join Seattle Sounders in MLS. Reincarnated NASL clubs draw massive local interest and allow MLS to eek out a new average attendance record.
Seattle Sounders win their second consecutive US Open Cup, and set another new attendance record – 35,615:
Despite failure rate of lower division US clubs at nearly 75% since the inception of MLS, NASL narrowly avoids US soccer desanction. MLS Commissioner and President Gulati abstain from vote.
Real Salt Lake drives to the Finals of the CONCACAF Champions league, but succumbs to Monterrey.
Juergen Klinsmann hired to coach USMNT.
Fox begins broadcasting English Premier League games on broadcast television. Ratings dwarf those of any MLS Cup, much less MLS regular season matches.
The New York Cosmos brand is reborn. Club opens new academy, signs MUFC great Eric Cantona and USMNT legend Cobi Jones to lead the club back to MLS and/or top flight soccer:
Fox loses contract to broadcast MLS to NBC – though Fox bid was reportedly significantly higher.
Volunteer US Soccer President/MLS owner employee Sunil Gulati changes title at Kraft soccer from President of the New England Revolution to Special Adviser to the Kraft Family.
A century deep in US professional soccer history awash with closed league failures, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this when asked about promotion/relegation:
“While I personally think promotion and relegation would be very exciting, the professional soccer landscape in the United States and Canada is not mature enough to support this type of system.”
US fails to qualify for the Olympics for only the second time since the 1970s.
NASL Commissioner David Downs says promotion and relegation is in his wildest dreams.
Montreal Impact “promoted” to MLS.
Final US clubs eliminated in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
ESPN releases poll showing dramatic rise of club soccer popularity in the US:
NBC begins broadcasting MLS on their new sports channel. Ratings remain largely unchanged.
The momentum for change is real. Arguments for promotion, relegation and unlimited US clubs have propagated dramatically in the last decade. Fewer American soccer pundits insist that Americans can’t understand a truly free-market system of unlimited clubs than at any time in my memory. More regular old US supporters are speaking out for opening US soccer leagues than ever before.
And now, even US soccer league officials and owners are speaking up for the first time in American soccer history.
The caste system of American soccer is finally receiving the scrutiny it deserves. Instead of asking lower division teams to compete in system that limits competition, we’re asking for one that permits it. Instead of asking lower division clubs to assemble interest and investment they need to make promotion and relegation a reality, we’re demanding a system that will enable them to amass the interest and investment they need for promotion and relegation:
Promotion and relegation.
It is gratifying to hear MLS luminaries like David Beckham express affection for unrestrained teams. Intriguing to hear NASL officials talk hopefully about pro/rel. Awesome to see thousands of US supporters upset that we continue to fling top-flight clubs into unlimited international competition handicapped from a league that prizes domestic parity and owner profit above all.
Americans are wondering if closed systems designed for our dominant and insulated domestic pro-sports do not automatically apply to the global free market of club soccer – but legitimate (and sometimes illegitimate) concerns linger.
This octahedral plan was penned with both in mind. It ensures a wide geographic spread of clubs in every division. It gives MLS owners time and space to choose their destiny. When fully implemented, it helps mitigate travel costs. It accommodates playoffs and East and West divisions. It both acknowledges and harnesses both the vast market and geographic size of the United States. Most importantly, it gives every US soccer club the same opportunities as any in the world.
No doubt two pyramids will also please the purists. In a country the size of Europe, two top-flights of eighteen clubs mean every club can play a balanced schedule and most potential D1 markets can be reached while still leave plenty of schedule room for Champions League, US Open Cup and other competitions.
As claims of cultural roadblocks to promotion and relegation fall away, supporters become frustrated with unilateral limitations on every US club, and lower division owners and executives speak out for it as never before, the final bulwark between us and unlimited US soccer clubs snaps into focus: The fiduciary demands of MLS owners. Their argument goes something like this: We sunk plenty of cash into the league under the auspices that our first division status would be unassailable. It would be dangerous and unfair to expose us to relegation since our investments were based on our D1 entitlements.
Using the existing structure of MLS, this plan even addresses their concerns – to the tune of over $2 billion.
None of the typical open league worries tops my list. Open leagues don’t collapse like our closed leagues have for a century now. Soccer will not vanish if we abandon MLS privileges. With the World Cup setting US TV ratings records every four years, It’s obvious that this game is here to to stay.
Instead, I think the US market is simply too large for one soccer pyramid. I think California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Northeast would dominate top-flight US club soccer in a traditional twenty club single pyramid D1. It could leave most of the country a giant soccer flyover.
Regardless of how one judges the legitimacy of these fears – or how they are ranked – this responsible transition to a regionalized two-pyramid system addresses every one.
Structure and Transition
This transfer to dual open US soccer pyramids can be made within a dozen years, will protect MLS owners from relegation until the final stages, and drive badly needed investment and interest to our lower tiers. It only requires an activist, independent federation – a hallmark of healthy soccer nations worldwide.
First, US Soccer divides the country into East and West regions. These regions become the foundation of the two pyramids. First, second and third divisions are sanctioned, and existing MLS, NASL and USL clubs invited to join in their respective divisions.
Eighteen club limits are set for each division. Stadium standards will be set for each: If a club does not meet those requirements, it will not be promoted. Every club will be required to show financial ability to complete their season. This could take the form of an escrow account in which every club must deposit average travel costs in each league prior to every season.
Existing teams in every division would be offered initial sanction to their respective division.
When leagues reach full complement, lower divisions will promote two and relegate two. D1s will relegate two, send league winners into the CONCACAF Champions League, and host a playoff for the third slot.
Since each division will begin with only a fraction of the eighteen club limit, promotion and relegation will start only when leagues fill to capacity with clubs promoted from below. New clubs will be required to petition D3 or D4 for entry to the pyramid.
It all begins at the bottom. D3s will be required to fill to capacity before promotion to D2 (or relegation to a possible D4) can begin. At that point, two or three teams may be promoted each year from D3 to D2 until D2 reaches maximum size. Only when D2s reach their maximum complement of eighteen teams will promotion to D1 (and relegation to D3) begin. Two or three teams can then be be promoted – per year – to fill out our new D1s. There will be no relegation from D1s until they reach full complement of eighteen clubs.
Possibilities and Assumptions
If initial interest in D3 is large enough, a play-in tournament will be organized for every new club that meets financial and stadium standards. This would bring both D3s to full complement in the first year, and perhaps leave enough clubs for a functioning D4. Promotion to D2 would then be able to start in year two. Assuming three clubs were promoted each year, D2s could reach full complement by year five.
Two assumptions are intrinsic to this transition: Arbitrary salary caps and the player draft system will be removed from every league that was being promoted to or relegated from. Canadian teams will be required to reach special arrangements with US Soccer should they like to participate in our leagues – should their federation choose not to pursue an independent pyramid of their own.
Admittedly a two-pyramid system would require a special sanction from FIFA. As it adheres to the essence of the game as outlined by the world governing body, I hope they will sanction it.
The US market is comparable in size to that of the entire European continent. Europe hosts more than a dozen pyramids. I think FIFA would be wise to grant us two.
Benefits to MLS
This responsible transition would be a boon to every level of US club soccer. First off, it protects MLS investors: They get at least another decade free of relegation – and major advantages over newly promoted clubs in legacy and continuity when it hits. Until D1s reached full complement – MLS could be allowed to continue with many of the single entity entitlement to which they have become accustomed. Prior to the beginning of promotion from D2, their single-entity business model could even continue to receive a US Soccer sanction.
For owners interested only in cash, there lays the opportunity to sell. As the owner of every team trademark, MLS could – and should – sell each and every team out of captivity. Assuming an average team value of $100 million, that’s over $2 billion MLS owners could bank in this transition to promotion and relegation.
Under this plan, by the time existing MLS teams have to face relegation most will have a quarter century of continuous D1 legacy to draw upon. This will give them a big advantage over the newly promoted clubs filling out our first divisions to the 16 or 18 clubs needed for pro/rel.
Perhaps most importantly, MLS has both the choice to either participate or not and the time to make that decision. Elimination of caps and player drafts would only be imposed on D1 when promotion began. This gives MLS the time decide for themselves whether they would like to participate in this transition, sell their outlets out of single entity captivity, or even continue to pursue their destiny in a separate, unsanctioned league.
In a scenario in which MLS breaks away from the US pyramid, D2 would become D1, D3 to D2, and so forth. Perhaps a provision could be made to allow MLS outlets to participate in the US Open Cup – should they choose to pursue it.
Capping lower divisions 18 teams apiece would mean only 34 league matches, leaving plenty of schedule room for inter and extra league play. US Open Cup could be expanded to feature East West match-ups. A Carling Cup type competition (or even a revived Superliga) could also be implemented and feature competition between the two pyramids. An East/West D1 playoff for the third Champions League slot would add interest. Indeed, an American style D1 playoff system between leagues could easily be implemented at every division level.
Benefits to Lower Divisions
Sir Alex Ferguson recently said the end of relegation would be suicide for lower division English clubs. By opening an avenue to promotion we will breathe new life into ours. Should MLS decide to maintain their strict salary caps during the transition, a few lower division clubs may surpass MLS outlets on the pitch quite quickly. Given the broad admission of preference for promotion and relegation in the US soccer supporter community I have no doubt lower division clubs would see a dramatic spike in interest and investment to go along with their newly unlimited futures.
One of the most common (if not overblown) fears of a pro/rel system is travel costs for cash strapped lower division clubs. Regionalized leagues would go a long way towards mitigating them – and I see no reason that leagues can’t be broken down to even smaller regions in lowest levels of the pyramid.
As previously mentioned, one big benefit to MLS: they could continue to limit clubs until promotion reached D1. With lower division investment and interest building at as rapid clip, this might not be a wise move. We will find out in US Open Cup play.
If I didn’t believe promotion, relegation and unlimited clubs will draw fantastic new interest and investment and quality to the US club game, I wouldn’t bother fighting for it. As promoted clubs up both US soccer pyramids, investment, interest, and the value of existing MLS brands are sure to rise with it.
As acknowledged, a core worry of US supporters is that promotion and relegation will hang MLS investors out to dry. This plan addresses those concerns directly. If existing MLS owners are too risk averse to continue, rising club values will enable them to sell high. Same rule applies to lower divisions. Interest will rise with a path to promotion – and the value of existing lower division clubs will rise accordingly.
If further regionalization is required in lower divisions to defray travel costs, I see no reason why that can’t be integrated into this plan. Structured correctly, it would also help widen the geographic spread of clubs.
We have tried to do club soccer our way for over century now. Our way has proved totally unstable – unless both club quality and league access are strictly limited. Every closed top-flight US league of unlimited soccer clubs has failed. I don’t believe in limiting quality, access, and investment in US club soccer so that a few US pro sports owners can get their way. I don’t think it is a coincidence that our national teams stagnate alongside that system.
Historically, stable soccer leagues are always open. Two open pyramids give us the same system of unlimited clubs every top soccer nation enjoys, while addressing our uniquely vast market and wide geography. They allow us to send the best clubs we can produce into unlimited international play. They give hope to dozens of US cities to host their own top-flight soccer league. They help draw new investment to our lower divisions.
Implemented responsibly, this system will give MLS owners time to adjust, puts the odds of D1 survival in their favor, and increase the value of their brands.
We’re a unique country. We cannot just graft a small market English system onto our massive pro-sports market. Two open American pyramids address more of our concerns than a British one. They are an American response to the promotion/relegation bogeymen.
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
The Cosmos of the 1970s defined the vast potential of US club soccer. They also proved our closed league system was incapable of sustaining the great clubs we needed to reach it.
It’s going to take some strong attitudes and in-your-face tactics to change our ways. It’s up to you, New York.
So far, the only way closed top-flight soccer leagues have been able to survive are under tight restrictions on access, quality and investment. That is the MLS/US Soccer system. Under that system, the New York Cosmos, every existing MLS outlet, and every lower division club trapped underneath them will never be permitted to be all they can be.
As the most recognized global brand in American club soccer – and one that minted their legacy as a truly unlimited club – the Cosmos should not be forced to accept MLS mediocrity. They should not relinquish their name to any league that foists a hyper controlled one-size-fits-all domestic pro sports model onto the global sport of soccer, no matter how much it shields owners from financial risk.
New York: You deserve the same shot at a world-class soccer club as any other world class soccer city. you definitely deserve more than another stunted MLS outlet. The only proven route to that land of unlimited opportunity winds through a US Soccer sanction of promotion, relegation and independent clubs.
Fact is, the one league structure that has proven totally incapable of accommodating unlimited soccer clubs like the Cosmos is ours. It is a system designed for dominant and isolated sports leagues whose teams do not face real international competition. Perhaps our local, cloistered domestic sports leagues tolerate intrusive management, quality checks, and demarcations on investment. Soccer does not.
After a league like NFL corners the global market on a sport, maybe they can impose whatever limits they want on their teams. Professional soccer leagues do not have that luxury. For starters, there are hundreds of professional soccer clubs in the world, compared with a tiny handful of pro American football teams. Unlike NFL teams, they all vie for supremacy in an open global marketplace. NFL teams can’t even play their Canadian brothers.
In order to really begin this conversation, a couple of myths must be dispensed with:
1. Overspending in and of itself did not kill the Cosmos or NASL. In fact, overspending only kills closed soccer leagues like the NASL. The Cosmos star rose as quickly as the pioneering US superclubs of the 1920s, only to fall prey to the same closed league suffocation that befell all their predecessors.
2. To those who believe that US professional club soccer didn’t exist in the 1920s: Ask the Austrian and Hungarian federations, who pushed FIFA to de-sanction US Soccer for allowing ASL raids on their top club players. Ask the Scottish FA, who called the phenomenon “The American Menace”.
Before succumbing to US closed soccer league malaise, the Cosmos and NASL proved the game was as hot a commodity in the 1970s as it was in the 1920s – when at least five top-flight clubs dotted the New York metropolitan area. Between 1975 and 1980, the Cosmos drew more fans than either the Yankees or the Giants, in Giants Stadium. In 1980, their league averaged ten times more TV viewers for regular season matches than the MLS Cup averages today. Perhaps most importantly, they left a legacy of new clubs, like the Sounders, Timbers, Rowdies, great soccer towns like Rochester and Toronto, and record levels of youth participation in their wake. Indeed, in 1990, a team composed largely of Cosmos supporters reached the World Cup Final for the first time in forty years.
Cosmos owner Steve Ross got it right. World-class players like Pele, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, and Alberto did not run the Cosmos or NASL into the ground. It wasn’t massive owner investments in personnel that created the conditions for another massive league collapse. The failure rate of closed top-flight soccer leagues of unlimited, independent clubs is virtually 100%. Even the Cosmos couldn’t beat those odds.
The Cosmos were an independent club – and how. They set their own spending limits, chose their own players their destiny was limited only by their quality of play (and lack of a FIFA sanction). This is the infinite universe in which the Cosmos rose and North American soccer interest re-awoke. Could they have built that lasting legacy with a MLS salary cap set at 1/40th of the average EPL team? Would they have set New York on fire as a limited MLS owned soccer outlet?
In all reality, it was a hapless US Soccer and an NASL incapable of questioning US pro sports owner entitlements that got it wrong. Despite all the evidence that change was required, US Soccer failed to adopt the system of open leagues and unlimited clubs that accompanied the game to global dominance, and our top leagues failed to lobby them for it.
To be fair, sanctioning promotion and relegation too big a job for any league. In comparison to our derelict federation, the NASL, their ASL predecessors, and the Cosmos can hardly be blamed for not implementing it. The responsibility for sanctioning the required open habitat for unlimited soccer clubs rests with strong, independent, and cohesive national governing bodies.
Problem is, we haven’t had one for a really long time.
By any measure of fortitude, US Soccer has always been is a basket case. Our top-flight closed leagues have consistently failed to work hand in hand with strong, autonomous federation, and our federation has failed to open them. As a result, league after closed league has challenged the authority and legitimacy of our federation, and the US game has always lost. The one sure-fire cure for runaway closed league power at the heart of this dysfunctional relationship is a federation sanctioned system of promotion, relegation and autonomous clubs.
After being walked on for so many years, US Soccer is simply too scared to implement it.
It is impossible to overstress the extent of this dysfunctional relationship. For starters, it has been going on for a century. Indeed, the last time our federation stood up against a top-flight closed league in any dramatic fashion was 1928. When ASL President Bill Cunningham tried to move US Open Cup matches out of the league season, our federation opposed that move. Unfortunately the sanction battle that followed this first great row between closed league and federation led to the first great US soccer league collapse. In the 1970s, NASL chose simply to ignore our federation and their US Open Cup. They disappeared a decade later.
These two big domestic soccer disputes are even sadder when placed in context: They both occurred during huge peaks in the number of professional US soccer clubs – the same conditions under which nearly every federation in the world sanctioned open leagues. Dead set on American style closed leagues – and battling for relevance in the club game – US Soccer squandered both chances. In each instance, our federation clung desperately to the only soccer league structure in the world to ever go bankrupt or fold – and ASL and NASL obliged.
Today we find ourselves at yet another peak of high functioning outdoor soccer clubs. Unfortunately, our federation is no better position to take advantage. Since the demise of NASL, US Soccer has gone from weak-and-irrelevant to weak-and-ancillary. They continue to adhere to the only soccer league structure incapable of accommodating a league of unlimited, independent clubs. Now they do so as an blatant subordinate to one league. Case in point: Our current US Soccer President is paid by an MLS owner – not the federation he leads.
Blinded by the success of the closed major league baseball system and enamored with their anti-trust exemptions, perhaps US Soccer could be forgiven for their shortsightedness in the 1920s. By the 1970s, they had become legally blind and gun shy. Today, perhaps they are simply blindfolded.
To be fair, US Soccer noticed the closed league conundrum. Perhaps they just couldn’t see well enough not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of disposing of a system that was incapable of accommodating unlimited clubs, they granted a cartel of MLS owners more power than any closed league before them. Their D1 entitlements, league ownership, salary caps, are just part of a wide array of permissions – unprecedented in the soccer world - to limit quality, investment, and access.
Despite a few welcome changes since the NASL days, we find ourselves in a familiar conundrum: The sport has again emerged in a very big way on the US sports landscape, while our game lags behind. FIFA insisted that the US form a proper pyramid as a prerequisite for hosting the 1994 World Cup, and US Soccer obliged. Thanks to their hyper controls on the US soccer pyramid, MLS even looks capable of surviving indefinitely. Unfortunately, the cost of MLS entitlements is very high: Our club game remains trapped in a closed league system that has repeatedly suffocated it. Our top league survives on infomercial TV ratings, quality limits and by riding the coattails of the international game and foreign leagues. Worse, player development – and the national team that depends on it – stagnate alongside our stunted pyramid.
US Soccer and their league bosses have convinced a few rabid supporters that their unique closed structure and single entity limits have been put in place to protect the game from failure. They insist their curbs on quality and access are designed to protect the game from the horrible damage boundless clubs like the Cosmos are sure to inflict.
It’s a bogus argument, Gotham. Their randomized match outcomes, tight controls on club autonomy and a caste system of lower division clubs may be the keys to MLS closed league survival. They also contribute to a chronic syndrome in which we continue to lag far behind the world’s top leagues in interest, investment and player development.
The truth is the Cosmos defibrillated the American professional club game – forty-five years after ASL crashed in their own closed league chaos. They did so by investing tremendous amounts of money on players. They didn’t kill the game by spending too much money. The simply couldn’t escape the creeping rot that infects every unlimited soccer club trapped in the clutches of a closed league.
It is also fair to say that the USMNT wouldn’t have awoken from a forty-year nap without them.
The only proven path to a boundless future for the Cosmos and the American game is a federation sanctioned system of promotion, relegation and fully independent clubs. When US Soccer has the courage to implement it, our destiny will be will be limitless again.
So speak up, New York. FIFA has already called promotion and relegation based on sporting criteria the “essence of the game”. Our clubs will be prohibited from freely exercising their support to improve their lot only as long as supporters like you fail to challenge sketchy MLS claims.
If the New York Cosmos become just another limited MLS outlet, it will depend on New Yorkers who don’t believe they deserve better. Instead, lend US Soccer your courage and your class. You’re loud, abrasive, direct and effusive. You’re a world-class soccer city that deserves more than a limited MLS soccer drive thru – even if you get free soda. A captive US Soccer can only do the bidding of MLS only as long as supporters like you permit it.
The history of American club soccer is embarrassingly epic in scope and scale. It’s a drama packed with gritty underdog performances, spectacular performances of unlimited clubs, and mind-boggling international upsets. It features world record-setters, remarkable personal highs and bottomless league lows.
In large measure, it is a narrative our federation no longer supports.
As in every footballing nation, the story of our game is rooted in old nationalist agendas, powerful passions and brash characters. It’s chocked full corny clichés, stacked with examples of our incredible stubbornness, and overflowing with stories of remarkable resilience and dramatic passion.
It is dark comedy that our passion for the game and our great soccer legacy remains largely untapped, uncelebrated, and unrecognized. It is a tragedy that our sports leagues fail to provide a habitat for the unlimited clubs at the core of soccer’s story.
I know I speak for Chuck when I say our federation should showcase more stories like this:
May 6, 1916 – Pawtucket, Rhode Island:
Coats Field stands filled to the gills for the third annual National Challenge Cup Final – a competition known today as the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
The Fall River Rovers are in a pickle in the 89th minute. Any Red Sox fan would recognize the anger building in the partisan New England crowd: Their team was in the process of getting robbed. Charles Schwab’s Bethlehem Steel, FC – the first superclub in US professional soccer – had converted a dubious penalty nine minutes before to make it 1-0. Since then his Pennsylvania Steelmen – stacked with highly paid British talent – had weathered wave after wave of underdog yankee pressure from the hotheaded Rovers – American born to a man. On top of that, Pawtucket lays barely twenty miles from Fall River, making it a virtual hometown crowd. The referee looks down at his watch just as an attacking Rovers player is sawn down in the box…. And there is no whistle.
10,000 New England Yankees pour onto the field – some of them literally from the rafters. The final whistle blows – in the midst of a full-blown riot.
That’s Why American Soccer for me. It’s coffee with three sugars in a seedy diner, not lukewarm tea with curdled cream at your auntie’s. I am not promoting New England hooliganism or lax building codes. I advocate for scrappy underdogs fighting against all odds instead of two teams limited in quality to produce a close match. For me, American soccer is about a group of US club stars from unlimited teams like the Providence Clamdiggers and the New Bedford Whalers taking us to the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930 – without giving up a goal. It’s the story a bunch of players from teams sponsored by local laundries and car dealers in St. Louis combining with recent immigrants from NYC to sting the English two World Cups later. It’s the tale of a mullet headed mob of Cosmos fans that that led us back to the competition again forty years later. It’s about the lowly D3 LA Blues taking a one-goal lead on David Beckham’s LA Galaxy in the 2011 installment of the competition, and the look on Bruce Arena’s face when they did it. It’s written on bloody mug of a lanky forward from Schaumburg, Illinois. His left eye is swollen entirely shut and he’s pouring everything onto the field in match between two teams limited by nationality – not a salary cap.
After failing for a century, there is little doubt our closed league pro-sports model is incapable of hosting the unlimited teams that play a critical role in this narrative. Instead of adopting a system that accommodates great clubs, our federation has decided to allow one league to limit quality in order that they might survive in our system. Problem is, that system is built for dominant leagues playing domestic sports whose teams are insulated from meaningful international competition. It doesn’t fit the global market of club soccer.
If you recognize Schwab’s name, chances are it’s not for his fiscal recklessness. Still, he wouldn’t have allowed a league to limit the quality of his team. He built one of the greatest clubs in the history of the US game – and a soccer specific stadium to boot – and he didn’t do it simply to make a profit off the game. By all accounts, he financed one of the better clubs in the world at the time to make his employees and Bethlehem residents proud.
Today, there’s no room in MLS for Chuck. They wouldn’t allow him a team in the little market town of Bethlehem. They would prohibit him from importing all of his players from the UK, and paying them whatever he liked for the privilege.
Some may attempt to use the demise of Bethlehem Steel FC a decade and a half after that spectacular cup final as an example of Schwab’s financial folly. They’ll say it proves unsustainable nature of unlimited soccer clubs. To them I pose this caveat: On the eve of the Great Depression, European federations were lining up behind the FA to open their leagues and implement promotion and relegation. Every one of those open leagues is still with us today. It was a brilliant move that ushered in a period of remarkable soccer stability in an era of massive financial and political instability. In that system, leagues couldn’t financially collapse since clubs were the central independent entities. Eighty years, a world war and countless financial crises later, their system has never allowed the financial irresponsibility of any one club to collapse an entire league.
In contrast, the US pro-sports system has chronically suffocated our club game. After the crash of ’29, top flight American club soccer suffered a financial implosion so complete, even Schwab couldn’t escape. It wiped every American Soccer League club off the map. The same fate awaited scores of our closed leagues. Cinderella stories of rag tag local teams fighting their guts out against behemoth superclubs like Bethlehem Steel have proven incapable of sustaining the game – in our closed system.
In order to maintain the Why American Soccer narrative Chuck and I appreciate – and a stable system of leagues – brave leadership from our federation is still required. It hasn’t materialized yet. Unlike other US pro-sports leagues, soccer is not a local domestic sport, and our top league does not dominate the world. Soccer clubs are exposed to high profile and consequential international competition. No matter the obvious financial protections inherent to our stilted leagues, they have proven incapable of producing a stable system that includes the great unlimited clubs we need to progress.
Since the 1920s, the rest of the world’s soccer federations have adopted a system that allows the game to work on global scale. It does so by hosting unlimited clubs while adding excitement to games in every league and both ends of every table. Indeed, Europeans figured out how to accommodate Why American Soccer for billions of supporters like Chuck and I over a century ago. They devised a free market system that rewards risk takers, entrepreneurs, supporters, players and great clubs that accompanied this great game to global dominance. They don’t turn away investment in the interest of financial responsibility.
In stark contrast, US Soccer has turned their back on us. They’ve allowed one league to limit access, quality and even attendance in order to peg the game into a closed sports system designed for provincial leagues playing domestic sports.
In their defense, they have allowed the great US Open Cup to survive. God bless the Pacific Northwest for caring about it, because today our federation and leagues hardly lift a finger to promote one of the most legacy-laden competitions in the world. They even scheduled a regular season MLS match on top of the US Open Cup Final in 2011 – an incredible oversight considering the fact that an MLS executive runs US Soccer on a volunteer basis – in his spare time.
Mad as I am that Europe beat us to Why American Soccer in the age of the steam engine, I’m not going to hold it against them. It’s time to be forthright and magnanimous about this, give them full credit, and come in last in the race to promotion, relegation, and independent clubs, and I am pretty sure Chuck would be with me on this.
He wouldn’t send his team into any match limited for league parity a la MLS. He wouldn’t send his club into the CONCACAF Champions League limited for domestic competitive balance. I bet he figured his shrewd supporters wouldn’t take to a club limited in quality by an agreement he signed with Rockefeller, Carnegie and Astor. That wouldn’t be Why American Soccer for him, and it certainly isn’t for me.