American Soccer in Flux

The first week of September, 2015 has been the most profound in American soccer history – since perhaps the one preceding the Great American Soccer War of the 1920s. Within the span of a few days, our soccer history, our soccer present, and our soccer future have entered a period of massive flux.

Where it’s going – nobody knows.

Here’s a recap of Fluxtember, 2015:

• NASL threatened to sue US Soccer over MLS’s D1 sanction if an agreement cannot be reached on amending it.

• MLS announced that Frisco, Texas was the front runner in US Soccer Hall of Fame host bidding.

• Evidence surfaced that US Soccer planned and announced to the press a promotion and relegation system in the late 1980s.

The consequences of each of these actions are serious. Combined, they sum up what is pivotal week in American soccer history this was.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, we’re at a fork in the American soccer road. Which one should we take?

In the big news, decorated US sports anti-trust attorney Jeffrey Kessler – fresh off his victory over NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the Tom Brady Deflategate case – announced plans to challenge US Soccer’s D1 sanction of MLS on behalf of NASL. As someone who has long argued that this sanction reeks of an anti-trust violation, I couldn’t be more pleased.

It’s plain as day to me that – without the meritocracy of promotion and relegation – MLS’s unique D1 sanction constitutes little more than a stinky little tinpot trust arrangement. In it, an independent US sports federation is deciding which league is major. As such, It is completely unique in American sport, and I argue achingly vulnerable to legal challenge.

As construed in the world of club soccer that more Americans love every day, divisional sanctions depend on the assumption of open leagues. In closed leagues, they amount to a series of anti-competitive advantages – primarily for those in D1. They simply legitimize a caste system. In this challenge, whatever the financial benefit these advantages construe to MLS, those are the damages NASL should claim.

I applaud virtually everything around this effort: A distinguished attorney experienced in the lowest levels of US pro sports fraternity intrigue – and the man who challenged MLS single entity structure in the Fraser case – is running the show. The case itself is practically an admission that D1 carries with it a cash value – something NASL appeared reticent to admit until recently. The very public challenge has driven plenty of supporter interest and discussion on both NASL and the promotion and relegation they oft claim to aspire to.

You feel the “but” coming?

Here it is:


Instead of overturning the pyramid altogether and starting fresh with an open one, some are hoping for this case to resolve itself in a court order – or a resolution – in which both MLS and NASL are given D1 status.

This is one bad hope.

First of all, joining MLS in an anti-competitive trust arrangement leaves the anti-competitive arrangement intact. The only difference will be that two leagues share the cartel benefits of one. Some would argue that a co-D1 situation would be instantly untenable and quickly dissolve into a full upending of the closed soccer pyramid. They say FIFA doesn’t permit two D1s in the same nation. They tell me to trust that NASL will grasp the opportunity to create an open system.

I wonder if instead – suddenly finding themselves in possession of of MLS’s crowning entitlements – NASL owners might suddenly discover reservations to sharing it. It may dawn on some on some of them not to share these prime perk with yet another league by opening into a promotion and relegation system – especially next to a persistently closed MLS still empowered with a D1 sanction of their own.

Most importantly for me, a shared D1 leaves MLS with entirely too much power. I fear it may be the only scenario in which a fully open pyramid could be annihilated. Leaving MLS with that top-flight sanction – and the entire closed league US pro-sports establishment behind them – seems like a cataclysmically bad idea. It seems to me that instead of creating the conditions for open leagues, one is creating a gladiator arena in which leagues fight to the death.

I think it’s fair to say that’s the arena MLS wants. They enter it still armed with a nod from FIFA – and with little or no incentive to avoid a death match with NASL. Add to that the fact that their most powerful owners are all heavily invested in the competition, be it NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and even BPL. So ensconced in this US closed league sports owner fraternity, they’ll be able draw from a raft of top owners that comprise a who’s who of American pro-sports. From there, they can access a raft of politicians, broadcasters and other ancillary businesses  – and bring them to bear on the task at hand for every closed US pro sports league:

Eliminating, annihilating, dismembering and cremating the competition.

And let’s be honest – As of September, 2015, neither FIFA nor CONCACAF is in a position to challenge any of this. Sepp may be still able to chime in on events in Armenia. He can’t even set foot if America without risking FBI apprehension.

So, I advocate a different path: Instead of hoping such a shared D1 arrangement breaks down accordingly into a sustainable open system (and risking another in a long line of US closed soccer league fratricides in the process) why shouldn’t we hope judge throws out the entire US Soccer sanctioned closed pyramid as the sketchy trust arrangement it is argued to be? Wouldn’t that clear the decks to assemble an open one?

MLS aspires to be a closed American league – akin to NFL or NBA. As such it requires no internationally backed D1 sanction of major leagueness. Closed American leagues govern themselves. Let MLS go outside the federation governed pyramid where it belongs.

Overturning the pyramid is the clearest path to an open system – all the way to a single D1 – for those clubs who would like nothing more than to fully fledged participants in the open global market of club soccer. Let MLS be the American closed league of limited soccer outlets it wants to be – without a D1 sanction. Eliminate the risk. Skip the middle man. Ditch the closed one. Install an open one. Don’t leave a string of unresolved maybes between us and our open league destiny.

Of course, some argue that gloves are off right now, and MLS is doing everything they can to annihilate NASL today. They don’t see any difference between now and a D1 roomie situation with MLS. They cite curious blocks to westward expansion, funky barricades to stadium construction, and weird editorial choices from media outlets as proof of MLS meddling. To them, I say – you ‘aint seen nothing yet. If a co-D1 persists for any length of time – the difference in magnitude will be akin to a ladyfinger and a neutron bomb.

I could be wrong. NASL may shock me. They could suddenly garner overwhelming American fan support and massive international investment to counter what will surely be a American soccer war of biblical proportions. It’s just that as a student of American soccer history, I’ve seen too many examples of this kind of fratricide. I’m also old enough to remember the hubris of Donald Trump’s USFL – and I don’t want a replay. NFL made short work of them. I think taking on big 4 US sports leagues, virtually every US broadcaster, a pile of friendly politicians – and an MLS still armed with a D1 sanction seems like a tall order for 3 year old NASL.

Obviously, even without a D1 sanction, MLS is going to come out guns blazing if NASL wins this fight. That being said, history is conclusive on the following point: As long as the initial conflagration ends with MLS outside of D1, there’s virtually nothing they can do kill our fledgling open leagues in a retaliatory strike. Over 100 years and 209 nations, No fully open soccer pyramid with sole possession of divisional sanctions has ever collapsed anywhere in the world. The chances of it happening here are beyond remote.

So let’s not mess with that perfect record by adding the entropy of a shared D1 buddy system with a closed MLS. One is quite literally messing with perfection.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that well placed MLS apologists agree with what I’m saying here. Show me a long time MLS bot who is cool with sharing first division status, and I’ll show you a pundit who wouldn’t be sad if MLS wiped NASL off the map and permanently entombed them a leaden sarcophagus.

So, without the hyperbole: In order to ensure the survival of an open pyramid, the current closed one must be completely overturned for the illegal trust it is. Otherwise, you leave it very vulnerable to MLS retaliation.

I can only hope Esquire Kessler and every NASL owners agree: They are guaranteed valuable properties in a stable open system. They are guaranteed an serious and credible effort from MLS to grind them into dust in in the wormhole that is co-D1.

1947 US Open Cup Champs Ponta Delgada - Pride of Fall River

In the next big news, MLS pronounced Frisco, Texas as the heir apparent to the now shuttered US Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, NY.  Of course, they’re not the deciders, and the final decision has not been made, but facts like this have never stopped MLS from trying to pronounce anything before.

Unlike the NASL legal challenge to MLS, this idea is howlingly bad. The complaint about Oneonta location was always remoteness. Frisco makes Oneonta look like a centrally located plumb – a thriving metropolis within easy reach of one of the densest population centers in the US and withing a few hours drive of cradles of the American game.

Apart from being in the middle of nowhere in terms of population and American soccer history – it would be physically attached to the MLS Pizza Hut Park stadium complex. This puts it under the influence of one of the more regressive and tentative MLS ownership groups – Clark Hunt and/or his siblings. Granted their dad Lamar was a progressive stalwart next to them. In fact, I’ve recently heard that he accepted the possibility of promotion and relegation, and indeed agreed to invest in such a system. Unfortunately this generation of Hunts are not only as deeply involved with the NFL as their dad was, they’re also much more outspoken against promotion and relegation.

US soccer history is replete with closed leagues trying to edit and re-edit each other out of history – and I suspect the Hunts are no different. That’s why I support a serious study on placing the Hall in Fall River, Massachusetts. Unlike Frisco, it is an actual hotbed of American soccer history. It is in one of the population centers of the US. Perhaps most importantly, it is independent of any league. Like so many communities in the US, Fall River could sorely use the investment.

Those who argue for Frisco say money is the only issue – and that this situation addresses it. I say American soccer history is too important to simply hold out a cup for someone to fill with cash and editorial.  Instead, we should act as responsible custodians of an American soccer history that spans dozens of leagues and more than a century. We shouldn’t leave it vulnerable to those who might choose limit it’s size and scope for the marketing of any one league.

As a former fundraising pro who raised tens of millions of dollars – I know of plenty of alternatives to secure the funding for a such an important project – alternatives that don’t threaten to take independent editorial captive. Holding out a cup for the first MLS consortium to fill it does not accomplish that.

If you want a remote US soccer Hall of Fame editorially neutered by MLS and more rarely visited than it’s predecessor, you’ll be happy with Frisco. If you want a vital and independent Hall unencumbered by the narrative of any one US league – in a cradle of American soccer and in one of the biggest population centers in the nation – let’s explore Fall River.

The late, great US Soccer President Werner Fricker

Speaking of history, here’s the third big thing to happen in American soccer this week: It was revealed that US Soccer announced a three-tier open league system – with promotion and relegation – in the late 1980s.

As with so many pieces of US soccer history, I knew the abridged version. I heard US Soccer President Werner Fricker was deposed in a coup. I was told he was an amateur when it came to setting up sports leagues. From all the information out there, I understood that he wasn’t bringing the kind of investment to the table that would be required to set up a US top-flight league – per FIFA mandates around hosting the World Cup in 1994.

I also heard that promotion and relegation was being discussed during this period, but never knew the full extent of it. I assumed a little chit chat on open leagues. Maybe a few spats in board meetings.

I was wrong. Instead, Fricker’s US Soccer decided on open leagues with promotion and relegation.  It’s impossible to overstate it: The entire pro/rel narrative took a crazy turn this week when Daniel Salvatore stumbled across what appears to be part of an official US Soccer press packet for the 199o World Cup – one that quite literally screams out across the decades:

It’s impossible to overemphasize the significance of this find: US Soccer under President Werner Fricker not only discussed promotion and relegation. They planned it. In 1989, promotion and relegation was far from unconsidered, utterly alien and culturally incompatible in the United States. In fact – it was decided on, and released to the press.

This story gets even better when inserted into the established timeline. Just a few months later, former LA Clippers executive Alan Rothenberg deposed him – apparently with FIFA and Sepp Blatter’s blessing – and began to assemble the pile of cash from US closed league sports owners that would become single entity MLS.

Instead of series of three open leagues, we got a totally unique closed league system so controlling – Rothenberg himself admitted that it’s only corollary was then known as the World Wrestling Federation.

First of all, I’m proud of Werner. He stood up for promotion and relegation in a way that seemed almost impossible in the American soccer landscape of the late 80s, and paid the price. Like me, he wanted to give every American community a shot at producing a top flight soccer club. Think about it this way – If Sunil Gulati’s US Soccer made this statement, MLS owners would be devouring his head for happy hour today – with mango chutney and a craft IPA.

I knew Fricker was a true American soccer icon. He was a member of USMNT in the early 1960s, when it was far from fashionable. He played for one of the grand old American clubs – United German Hungarians – who trace their roots back to 1925. He embodies virtually everything authentic about the American game. If he would have gotten his way, we’d have a thriving open system today – anchored by some of the oldest and most legacy laden clubs in the United States.  That’s exactly what I call for today.

Fricker’s promotion and relegation plan may have been thwarted by an unholy alliance of the NBA, NFL and US Soccer, but his insistence on the revitalization of the US Open Cup may be the only reason that tournament is still with us. It was part of his plan then, and it is still with us now. We owe him bigtime.


Obviously, this blog post is barely scratching the surface of all of these stories. I look forward to watching each one unfold. Like so many others in American soccer history – they’re related.

• Will MLS have the opportunity to disembowel NASL in a Co-D1 grudge match?

• Will MLS then be able to capture the narrative of American soccer history in a Hall of Fame attached to their outlet in Frisco, Texas?

• Will MLS use that editorial control over American soccer history to blot out stories like the one about Werner Fricker trying to bring fully fledged soccer clubs to the US in a fully opened system of promotion and relegation?

One thing I’ve learned about MLS over the years: If you don’t stand up against them – the answer is always:

Yes, they will.





“All Star” Games – A Hallowed and Subordinate US Soccer Tradition

IN 1926, European superclub Vienna Hakoah kicked off what would become a long craze in American soccer history – the foreign club v US all-star game.

Tonight marks the latest installment in the long series. The MLS All-Star Game features Tottenham Hotspurs v the best MLS can offer. Right here in Denver.

MLS might not want you to know that format is one of the most hallowed traditions in American soccer – but it is. Dozens of foreign clubs have played the antagonist since the Viennese started it.

Like closed leagues without promotion and relegation, the league all-star format is common to nations that place soccer in a subordinate sporting role. Perhaps it’s telling that it remains in use here after nearly a century.

Please note – this is by no means a full representation of every US all star selection that has taken on a European opponent.

Just a tiny “selection”.






Increased Exposure for US Open Cup Good. Glass Ceiling in US Open Cup Bad.

THE recent growth of US Open Cup – the third oldest national knockout soccer tournament of it’s kind on earth – has been wonderful to watch.

For me, it is  the greatest single soccer tournament in the world, so any added promotion should be greeted with glee.

As wonderful as it is to see US Open Cup get the positive attention it deserves – increased exposure should also draw our gaze to persistent inequities in the structure of the tournament itself. For me, it’s interesting that the same unfair practices can be found throughout US club soccer structures. The very same ones that hold us back the most.

For those unversed in it’s special properties, the Open Cup holds a very unique position in our sports landscape. It is the oldest trophy in American pro sports sports next to the Stanley Cup – and it’s the only example of a longstanding US team sports competition that includes amateur and top professional clubs.

It is also uniquely consequential: To the winner goes a ticket to the increasingly lucrative CONCACAF Champions League and a shot at the Club World Cup beyond – the only venue in which a US club can meet a top European side outside of a friendly match.

Under these circumstances, it’s strange that the tournament has languished in a vacuum of effective marketing for at least the last two decades – and some would argue for the last eight. During that span, US Open Cup was easy to ignore, and systemic inequities within it were just as easy to write off as inconsequential.

Thanks to Jeff Crandall, things are beginning to change on both the ignorance and inconsequence front. Jeff has given the tournament a smidgeon of professional marketing for the first time since… maybe 1930 or so.

He’s done 2 things I’ve been recommending and/or doing for years:

He built the competition it’s own twitter account at US Soccer! With USOC video streams are growing in quality and frequency at a phenomenal rate – Crandall saw that US Soccer even hosted then on their site!

Yes, those exclamation points should trigger your sarcasm detector. Lord knows why it took so long for tournament organizer US Soccer to implement these two simple and virtually free efforts. Still, relative to the total ignorance tournament organizer US Soccer has treated it with for years, Crandall ‘s efforts have been groundbreaking.

Sure, anyone can set up a twitter account and embed YouTube video on a website for free – but in this case, the results have been instantaneous and dramatic. I’m a long time Open Cup streamer. This year I watched streams proliferate – and viewers spike – beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Despite the absence of most strident MLS journalists, social media buzzed around the tournament as never before. #USOC2015 trended in Pittsburgh, and am just as certain it did so in less measured places like Louisville, Chattanooga, Charleston and Chula Vista. According to US Open Cup guru Josh Hakala – attendance doubled between 2014 and 2015 in the fifth round alone. The first round game I attended drew more fans than I had ever witnessed at third round games.

A US Open Cup play even made SportsCenter Top 10 last week – featuring a lower division ‘keeper to boot!  Great job Jimmy Maurer.

Suffice it to say: A little investment in time (and probably almost none in actual money) went a LONG way towards granting US Open Cup more interest and exposure.

Now let’s deal with what it exposes: An incredible soccer tournament with the market potential of March Madness – and a series of stilted procedures and inequities within it stand in the way of non-MLS sides.  I’d argue these inequities wil be the next roadblock to wider interest.

As increased attention begins to burn through the haze of ignorance and inconsequence that has long surrounded US Open Cup, a common feature begins to emerge. It is the same one embodied in our tightly closed soccer pyramid of leagues:

Another glass ceiling.

With so much on the line for each and every lower division side in American soccer – we need to stand up and shatter it.

So, ball peen hammer in hand, I give you 3 the most obnoxious and unfair practices in USOC – and their simple remedies.

First – An MLS outlet must win fewer games than any other club to win the competition. D1 MLS outlets come in at least a round later than those from all other leagues – including second division NASL sides. This leaves means they must win fewer matches to win the competition – a gigantic benefit in a knockout tournament. I’ve seen a lot of MLS defenders claim that the same holds true for FA Cup – but it doesn’t. Premier League and Championship sides (D1 and D2) arrive together in the same round.

Imagine if the NCAA tried that in March Madness. College hoops fans would revolt if that knockout tournament was rigged thusly for the ACC.

Second – teams must still pay for the right to host matches in US Open Cup. Although some work has been done by US Soccer to correct the blatant corruption of teams buying home field advantage outright in the tournament, teams must still pay a fee to enter the home field draw in later rounds.

Finally – one legged matches at biased venues are not a fair format for a consequential tournament. Virtually all non-friendly soccer tournaments either adhere to a home and away format – or a neutral venue for a one off. Not so for US Open Cup.

Especially under our closed league circumstances – at least every pro side deserves a  shot at this Cup. Here are the changes that give them a fair one.

The solution for the first problem is simple. D1 and D2 – and I’d argue all professional sides – should enter the tournament in the same round. As the Cup consistently shows year in and year out, US Soccer’s divisional sanctions are – at best – very arbitrary. In 2015, MLS has dominated the tournament – and USL sides had their way with NASL clubs.  In recent years, NASL sides have wiped half of MLS out of the tournament.  Too much is at stake to grant byes to any division when divisional sanctions are not doled out by merit alone.

The second problem also features a straightforward fix. Any and all club entry fees must be waived. Surely a little media revenue would go a long way towards eliminating the need for clubs to be charged for a chance at home field advantage. With YouTube already hosting many Open Cup streams, might they be sold broadcast rights? I remember Alexi Lalas hinting at a YouTube broadcast deal for MLS last year – so perhaps its not as far fetched as it might sound.

Not that I dismiss traditional broadcast possibilities. Remember how NBC broadcast every single match on the last day of the Barclay’s Premier League last spring?  Whilst US Open Cup might not yet draw same attention as the Prem in the US – if the growth curve continues, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Finally, we must go back to home and away series in US Open Cup - at least in later rounds. On it’s face, this issue appears s a little tougher to implement. It would, of course, impinge on MLS regular season scheduling.

Hold on a second, though:

MLS doesn’t feature a balanced schedule. There’s no hard and fast rules on how many league fixtures they must play. As US Open Cup continues to grow in stature, it only follows that it should feature more prominently in their schedule. It remains the most authentic national club soccer tournament we have – and undoubtedly that’s part of its growing allure. With any publicity at all, it’s sure to help reach a market that a plastic MLS consistently fails to do. Home and away series would help do just that.

St. Louis leg of 1933 US Open Cup Final featured Stix Baer and Fuller v New York Americans – from Dave Lange’s book “Soccer in St. Louis”

This wouldn’t be a new format for US Open Cup. In the golden age of the 1920s and 30s, it was the rule. The home leg of the 1929 US Open Cup for New York Hakoah v Madison Kennel Club  drew almost 30,000  – a record that would stand until the Seattle Sounders eclipsed it in 2010.

When the New York Cosmos departed the tournament last week, it marked the end of a disturbing trend: The 2015 edition of US Open Cup has seen less lower division penetration into the later rounds than virtually all tournaments in the MLS era. Lower div sides only knocked off two MLS outlets this year – an all-time low if my memory serves.

Sure. Give MLS a little credit. Part of the reason for the early exit of lower division clubs this year is a positive one. Most concede that our top-flight league has – so far – taken this tournament more seriously than ever before. Most MLS outlets sent out their first teamers this year – an interesting development in and of itself.

It’s great that MLS took the tournament seriously this year – but the truth remains.  Lower division sides are not given a fair shot. Just as in our closed soccer pyramid, US Open Cup is currently another example of MLS institutional preference.

That’s why I can only hope our lower divisions are fighting for these 3 changes. Virtually nobody argues that MLS’s US Soccer D1 sanction doesn’t afford the league huge benefits in investment and interest over their lower division kin. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the same US Soccer is prejudicing the market for MLS in US Open Cup as well.

Recognizing the problem is one thing. Solving it is another. As with every issue surrounding unfair practices in American soccer, US Soccer is sure not to address US Open Cup inequities if nobody stands up and fights. NASL officials like to hint that they don’t really consider themselves D2. Yet US Open Cup is just another example of how our federation treats them like a minor league. With the growing popularity of the Champions League, that kind of institutional discrimination carries with it a real cost.

Without a merit based system of promotion and relegation, US Open Cup is critical to the  international ambitions of every US club MLS disenfranchises. Under these circumstances, it’s not only long past time to level that playing field – it’s imperative that we be sticklers about it.

People often tell me that we can’t implement promotion and relegation overnight.

Maybe they’re right.

Who would argue US Soccer can’t make most of these changes in US Open Cup tomorrow?

Dragged Kicking and Screaming to a Promotion/Relegation Panel

WHEN I saw that the Kicking and Screaming Film Festival was doing a panel on promotion and relegation last week, I was surprised. Never before had I seen a panel on the issue at this kind of event – much less with this caliber of panelists.

After sizing up the panel, I promptly let Kicking and Screaming know that there were probably no advocates of American promotion and relegation on it.

They kindly reminded me I was welcome to attend.

I’ve been saying promotion and relegation is a marketable topic for years. I’d best respond to the marketing.

So I bought a plane ticket.

I almost cut it too close. We’ve all been there. You board the plane, they shut the door and… nothing happens. I’m connecting from Denver in Charlotte, not 5 hours before the showing of Jack to a King and the subsequent panel discussion. I’m wondering if I made a bit of mistake not taking into account the willy nillyness of the Northeast air traffic corridor.

So, I did what I always do in these situations: I tweeted.

About 15 minutes of idle trolling later, the Captain came on the PA and said that ATC clamped a two and half hour delay on the flight – and then rescinded it 30 seconds later.

Dratting my misfortune, we blasted out of CLT for LAG. I guess MLS thought better about messing with ATC. They knew I’d have a field day with that.

Landed with hours to spare – and took the subway straight into a raging thunderstorm.

Luckily, the trip from Astoria to Canal Street was perfectly timed to get me to within feet of the Tribeca Cinemas, and right under the storm.

2 brushes with fate averted.

I walk in the door, and the first guy I see is… Greg Lalas.  I can’t find my tickets on my phone, when I look up to ask someone if I can do a will call thing, and there he is. I introduce myself, he’s magnanimous and introduces me to MLS’s own Matthew Doyle – who barely looks up from his phone. Greg says he hopes I participate in the Q and A.

Luck be a lady today!

K and S staff find my name on the list – and I’m in like the wind.

I made my way back to the Varick Room – where the panel would meet after the film – and plugged my drained phone in for some juice – and then drained a Stella.  (Had to walk past the kids doing street soccer tricks festooned in Red Bull regalia to get there. Not a selling point, K and S.)

My phone didn’t have much time to charge, as Jack to a King started within a few minutes.  It was packed, and worth the trip in and of itself.

J2K is a fantastic film that makes the case for promotion and relegation from start to finish. It clearly and effortlessly paints the galvanizing force that open leagues play in the creation and maintenance of soccer supporter culture.

According to one person in the film – a billion people watched the promotion playoff match that landed Swansea City back in the Premier League.

As I quickly noted on Twitter, that’s 999 million more viewers than MLS Cup draws.

Movie wraps up, and patrons filtered back into the Varick Room for the panel.

After the crowd builds, maybe 50 are in the Varick room. Greg’s on the mic, introducing panelists one by one by one, and we’re off!

I’m psyched. After all, it’s been a lucky day so far. Maybe my luck will hold – and we will get a spirited debate on pro/rel from the panel I thought ill-equipped to address it head on.

And then… nothing happens.

So I did what I always do in these situations.  I tweeted.

As I merrily trolled away on the lack of happenings, Swansea exec Leigh Dineen and J2K producer Mal Pope both waxed poetic about pro/rel – but left the mythical cultural divide intact. Neither really gave any opinion on an American application for open leagues. Leigh even came to admit in the Q and A that he wished for salary caps in the Premier League.

Then, MLS Matthew (@MLSAnalyst) rambled on about the obvious financial negatives of pro/rel, and touted the MLS player development record (?). He asked for a show of hands of Leeds United fans. Seeing none, he indicated there would have been a lot more 10 years ago. Blamed relegation for lack of Leeds fans. Said relegation killed Leeds ability to develop players. Then touted USL and MLS performance in Open Cup.

Thank goodness for the Cosmos win over NYCFC in the tournament, or else he would have really rubbed that in.

Finally, Erik Stover of the New York Cosmos is on the mic. He began by saying he doesn’t see any way MLS ever permits promotion and relegation – and made comments on NASL as competition to MLS.

I knew going in that this panel looked pretty vanilla. That gave it too much credit. It was devoid of all flavor. The Brit panelists left a cultural wall between the US and England on pro/rel, and the American panelists huddled behind it.

Of course I had 1000 questions. I had a manifesto and a diatribe and an an encyclopaedic recitation on American soccer history ready to spill. How did Leigh think salary caps meshed with promotion and relegation? How did Erik sit back and permit MLS to eviscerate NASL value with the D1 trust arrangement they cooked up with MLS? What about the federation role in all of this? How about the fact that dozens of closed soccer leagues have failed over the last century, whilst virtually no open leagues have collapsed?

As the panel prattled on, I wondered how – after either watching that film with me or producing it – noticed how central promotion and relegation was to the narrative that compelled fans to follow their club.

When Q and A arrived, I didn’t really want the mic. I had no idea where to start. Crowd’s interest was understandably waning. To his credit, Greg asked if I had a question. I nodded yes anyway. I had about about 60 seconds to plot my response. I decided to try and distill everything down to one question in hopes that it would beg some of these questions.

I grabbed the mic and said, “Look, if the film is accurate, a billion people watched the match that granted Swansea promotion to the Premier League.  That’s 999 million more viewers than MLS Cup gets. Do you see any connection?”

Someone asked who the question was directed to.

“Everyone” I said.

After a short silence, I believe it was Mal that spoke up.  He said, “Because they’re older”.

And, that was that.

My luck had indeed run out. As I expected, the K and S pro/rel panel didn’t feature any American pro/rel advocates… of which there are thousands. Thus, as I predicted, it didn’t produce any actual pro/rel debate.

As the event wound down, Greg lamented to me on the lack of spirited discourse. He said he expected a more vigorous pro/rel offense from Cosmos exec Stover.

As I pointed out to Greg Lalas. Greg Lalas was the biggest American pro/rel advocate anywhere near the panel.

From my perspective, here’s what happened to the guy Greg thought would be his pro/rel “advocate”:  Despite the obvious anti-competitive US Soccer D1 crutch on which MLS leans, NASL is selling itself as competition to MLS. I don’t think they would have landed an owner like Carmelo Anthony if they postured themselves as a disenfranchised sidecar to MLS. So, Stover didn’t.

Of course NASL can’t lead us to promotion and relegation. They can – and have – asked all the right questions. Unfortunately they’re trapped in the system. They’ve already acknowledged their interest in pro/rel. Not unpredictably, neither MLS nor their captive US Soccer has taken them up on it. Thus, Stover has to live in the real world of US Soccer – where a trust arrangement between MLS and the federation is the current reality. NASL has money to raise, and investors to recruit. You can’t expect them to do that whilst pointing to an anti-competitive nexus their opponents employ.

Meanwhile, well meaning Brits Leigh and Mal were comfortable playing the foreigners – and seemed totally uncomfortable prescribing promotion and relegation to a foreign country.

No need for them to wade into a contentious debate whilst selling their flick.

This left MLS Matt plenty of room to blather on about Leeds United and trumpet MLS player development without much counterpoint.

So, in retrospect, the Kicking and Screaming panel on pro/rel proved two things:

1. Promotion and relegation is an effective marketing strategy.

2. If you are going to host a panel on American pro/rel that delivers the goods, you should include an undiluted American pro/rel advocate.

There’s a lot of us.

Choose one.


















Want to End American Soccer Plutocracy? Don’t Bother Don. Bug Gulati.

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:

He simply insisted that baseball wasn’t a business. Instead, he said, it was a “sport”.

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.

In the evolution of MLS’s answers can be found even more evidence of both our success and club soccer’s specialness. For years, league officials danced with various pandered answers to pro/rel questions. They used to throw out the possibility of some vague form of open leagues coming into being at some point. You might recall Don Garber rambling on “simulated promotion and relegation” in the lead up to the FIFA selection of 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts. Up until just recently, MLS scribes were talking freely about the possibility an MLS run pro/rel system.

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.

As pro/rel pressure built, MLS’s resistance to it stiffened.  Indeed, MLS second-in-command Mark Abbott cut through the bullshit last fall and promised no relegation in MLS. Since then, Garber has been stiffening his comments.  At this point, his stand has also been reduced to a virtual “no”.

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:

USL is seeking second division status.

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.

Any doubters as to the seriousness of a USL/MLS effort were recently silenced when  ballyhooed Portland Timbers ‘owner’ Merritt Paulson quietly stepped off the US Soccer Board for a USL executive. >> Self congratulation alert: Nobody in the US soccer press reported it until I called attention to the change on the US Soccer website. Most still haven’t. << NASL currently enjoys no representation on this body charged with the task of sanctioning leagues. Before the switcheroo, at least four board members were receiving significant compensation from MLS or affiliated owners and companies at one time or another.

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.

Still think it’s doom and gloom for promotion and relegation in US club soccer? Remember who became the first USMNT coach in 100 years to publicly support it? It was just a few months ago. And he still has a job.  Lest I forget to mention, NASL is still the most significant league in American soccer history to openly call for it.

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.

Expropriation or not, It’s not Don’s call.

Promotion, Relegation and Player Development – By a Developer

I’m no soccer coach.

Gary Kleiban is.

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.”

The other one now works for the LA Galaxy.

Read what he says about the lack of cohesive promotion and relegation policy from US Soccer.

It would be foolish for me to add a word.

Break the News or Break the Silence: It’s the 100th US Open Cup.

By Ted Westervelt

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  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 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, 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.



MLS Cup XVII – Lip Service Commish and the Ratings Limbo

By Ted Westervelt

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?

I do.

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.

MLS Simplex 1 and 2

I place MLS/US Soccer D1 trust arrangement in the realm of pathology. When combined with single entity, symptoms include:

• Limited club autonomy

• Limited quality and investment – especially in lower divisions.

• Debilitating limits on MLS sides in international competition

• Debilitating limits on US club soccer interest

• Collusive marketing arrangements that allow a MLS owners to derive revenue from subjugation on the pitch and in the marketplace

Simply put, this system handicaps US clubs in a very open global market – both on the pitch on on TV.  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 perpetually 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, this MLS/US Soccer 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. Under increasing pressure from fans and FIFA on promotion, relegation and autonomous US clubs, the MLS medicine show is cranking up – and biggest bottle of snake oil is MLS formula 1 and 2.

MLS breaking into two leagues and performing promotion and relegation on itself is not a cure for anything. It leaves hundreds of US clubs disenfranchised. It’s a virtual merger. Mergers don’t increase competition. They have the opposite effect.

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 will be incentivized to 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 critical battle for single entity survival. US supporters of promotion and relegation are often accused of being 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: An attempt to make American soccer look like a free and open market – one that accommodates great clubs and develops players.

In reality it’ll just be a gimmick. 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 to MLS 2. 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 their outlets 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 MLS trademarks their faux promoted 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 the MLS/USSF D1 pathology. It will be a mutation designed to add another layer of resistance to the single entity 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, it’s pro/rel medicine show.