US Soccer Deformed: The Pro/Rel War

It’s been an interesting week for me as a football fan, especially one living in the US.

The landscape here is unique to say the least.  I’ve seen outright disdain for the sport.  I’ve seen a steady increase in casual interest from the mainstream.  I’ve witnessed people who are red-white-and-blue, US Men’s & Women’s National Team & MLS fans.  I’ve met passionate Liga MX fans, ex-pat Europeans, even Europhile Americans that simultaneously support Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.  I’ve met mixtures of the whole lot.  I’ve seen Euro fans at loggerheads with domestic fans.  I’ve seen the same fans embraced in beer and song at National Team games.

There is a hot-button issue in American soccer though; one which I’ve blogged about before.  I refer to the infamous promotion and relegation debate.

My last entry on the subject was a relatively straightforward explanation of how pro/rel (as it is colloquially coined here) came about, why it came about and why the US was both unready for it and why the ownership groups in Major League Soccer would be unlikely to ever institute it.  That’s still my story and I’m sticking to it.

However, there is certainly a movement in favour of the system and it’s gathering rather more steam than I’d like.

Let’s be clear: I am not against pro/rel.  I like pro/rel. I’ve always said that pro/rel does a fine job at achieving what it was designed for.  When you’ve got too many teams of a similar standard to accommodate in one league or division, splitting them up based on perceived ability and using promotion and relegation to keep them at an appropriate competitive level, is a pretty good way of handling it.

Understand though, that just about every nation that has implemented pro/rel to date, already had something approaching this situation before forming their national leagues.

The last bit is very important.  While teams have come and gone around the world, it must be entirely understood that a preponderance of teams is why pro/rel was adopted.  Pro/rel did not begat a bunch of teams.  A bunch of teams, begat pro/rel.

Does pro/rel add to late-season drama at the top and bottom of divisions? Certainly.  It’s entertaining.  Under different circumstances I’d be eagerly typing my arse off in favour of it.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Now there are some that would beg to differ.  There are a number of “pro/rel” activists and groups on this side of the pond, a couple of which are almost pseudo-celebrities among the “soccer community”.

Like I said, it’s a movement gathering steam and as much as I hate to be a spoiler of a good bandwagon, I find myself progressively less able to just let it slide. My fear is that these people get their way and two decades of progress could be dismantled, only for those responsible to realise all too late that the parts can’t be reconfigured in the way they expected.

These groups are disseminating a lot of information and making a lot of challenges, some of which I’d like to challenge myself.  So here goes:

“There are 9000 teams in the USA that are being held back by MLS and the closed system”:

Does the US actually have 9000 teams?  Certain FIFA documents state it.  Wikipedia in referencing this information agrees.  The pro/rel advocates are running with it.

What isn’t remotely clear however, is who or what this 9000 is comprised of.  What is clear is that any professional pyramid would require teams to be fully professional at the first team level.  Getting a count of the teams that fall into that category shouldn’t be too hard:

Major League Soccer has 20 teams at present, with 3 new teams slated to join the league.  Atlanta United & LAFC are new teams starting in 2017.  Minnesota United FC (or whatever they’ll be called – I may blog on this later) currently play in the NASL but will move up in 2018.

The NASL (designated as Division 2) has 10 teams not including Minnesota, with Puerto Rico, Miami and Rayo OKC starting play this year for a total of 13.  That gives us 36 teams so far.

The USL (designated as Division 3) has a whopping 29 teams with 2 more imminent.  However, at least 8 of those are MLS 2 teams akin to “B” or “II” reserve teams in places like Germany and Spain.  So that’s 23.  So that makes 59 fully pro clubs either in existence or pending.

You’ve then got dozens in the PDL and NPSL (Both Division 4), though they are semi-pro as they include college athletes and other unpaid players.  As amateur and developmental leagues, you can’t really count them as part of any pro/rel pyramid structure.

The ASL (also Division 4) is a new league formed in 2014 and will start its second season in 2016.  It has 10 teams and is professional, though somewhat regional and in its infancy.

So that’s makes 69 pro teams, some of which have yet to kick a ball.

Then there’s the difference in standard.  The NASL is not to MLS as the FL Championship is to the Premier League.  Most NASL and USL teams do not currently have the players, resources or infrastructure to compete in MLS.  Those that may are either already slated to move to MLS or are under serious consideration.  However, even upon admission, it typically takes a couple of years for such “promotees” to be ready for their debuts.

Unless I’m counting things wrong, that leaves us 8900 teams short and the dynamic between this menagerie, makes a weak case for pro/rel.  The truth is, the FIFA information that cites 9000 was a general tally of all manner of teams operating within the domestic association.  Like the fact that America has one of the highest numbers of registered footballers in the world, it’s not actually that relevant to the debate but makes for good soundbites, tweets and slogans.

“But if the league is opened to all, it will attract investment in the lower leagues”:

It’s one thing to speculate that if the top division is more easily accessible then a lower league team may attract investment in a bid to push it up the ladder. That sounds feasible. But who these investors might be, how much they have to invest and how prevelant this practice would be is like the old adage “how long is a piece of string?”.

Pro/rel has never to my knowledge been instituted with the purpose of encouraging investment in lower league teams. It might be a happy byproduct but again, it could turn out to be very limited in scope.

Furthermore, it’s not as if MLS, NASL or USL are struggling to attract investment. My count of pro teams above included eight teams either newly formed or moving up within the top three divisions. A new professional minor league in ASL was just founded. That’s to say nothing of the steady expansion we’ve already seen in recent years.

Numerous owners in NASL and USL are forming cubs with the stated intention of one day joining MLS. This flies in the face of the argument that those with serious top flight aspirations are sitting on the sidelines waiting for the pyramid to open up.

And surely if there are in fact 9000 clubs champing at the bit to scale the ladder, with investors looking to fund such a climb, why aren’t any of them getting together to form their own league system and force the issue?

“…it will cause new teams to form and increase attendance at existing clubs”:

This partly ties in with the previous point and can be similarly countered. I’m sure someone might be compelled to start a team with the dream of them one day reaching the top. But again, it’s not like new teams aren’t being formed already. Again, we have no way of knowing if the practice would become significantly more prevalent. Again I don’t know of any federation instituting pro/rel to solve the issue of not having enough teams.

As I stated at the start, the system is always instituted to cope with the existing number of teams. They may make provision for future expansion but that’s not the same thing.

Attendance? There would probably be a small bump. However, how long that bump would last and how big it would be (especially given the venues where such teams play) is debatable.

England and Germany have easily the best attended second divisions and even they see a notable drop off between levels. Other nations where soccer is king actually see attendances akin to minor league baseball in the US. And that’s where second divisions are a well known concept.

It’s a stretch to think that a country where the sport is niche and the top domestic league is already rejected in some quarters for its standard of play, would see a transformational increase in lower league crowds.

Indeed, we have data for clubs (past and present) announced to be moving into MLS in a season or two and typically they don’t see a major rise until they start playing games there.

“A large football pyramid would improve youth development and the Men’s National Team”:

Okay, so I’ve already pointed out that there’s no reason to assume pro/rel would cause this vast creation of new teams.

Even if it did, big football pyramids don’t equate to great youth development. Great youth development systems equate to great youth development.

The domestic women’s game is actually pretty tumultuous, yet the US Women’s National Team is at the pinnacle of their game. They have been for quite some time.

Meanwhile, England has as vast, deep and expansive a league structure in the Men’s game as anyone and yet our struggles to consistently produce players of world class caliber are well documented.

If you want to cement this further, a glance across the North Sea to the Netherlands sees a much smaller population, a much smaller professional league structure and youth development coming via the dominant clubs PSV, Feyenoord and most poignantly, Ajax. This system has produced true greats and scarcely a generation goes by without a number of World Class talents rolling off the production line. Similar can be said of Portugal.

Spain’s recent dominance had little – if anything – to do with their league structure and everything to do with players raised entirely through Barcelona’s youth system.

Despite all this, there is a sobering point; none of these nations (nor Germany, Italy, Brazil…) have it perfected. They all see peaks and troughs. They all see player development, tactics and approaches change and evolve. The development of great players is one of the sports biggest conundrums. If it was just a matter of having lots of clubs and pro/rel, clubs and nations wouldn’t invest heavily in studying the subject.

And here’s another thing: The USSF, MLS and company are not stupid. Owners have sunk hundreds of millions into the league since it’s inception in 1996.  Phil Anschutz and the late Lamar Hunt were at one point effectively keeping MLS a float.  They owned multiple teams each as Don Garber was nursing the league back to health.  Conventional wisdom is that neither AEG, nor the Hunt family are going to see much of their money back in the near future.

If a multi-tiered, hierarchical pyramid with pro/rel was the tried-and-true method of optimally producing top players, surely these guys would have tried to construct it years ago and fund it with expensive exports of talent, rather than closing it off and living with years of regular capital calls?

 

There are other issues wrapped up in all this and the pro/rel advocacy movement isn’t averse to political tactics.  I will certainly address that element in due course but for now, I think this answers many of the key arguments put forth.

To wrap this up, I’d like to answer the glaring question that my analysis raises:

“You say that pro/rel might not result in investment, new clubs and youth production… surely the challenge to that is that it actually might do those things?”

This brings us to the crux of the matter.

2016 will be the 21st season of Major League Soccer.  At this point, it has already lasted longer than any other top-flight professional soccer league in the history of the United States.  What’s more, it’s never been in ruder health.  It overcame a critical period in 2002, when things weren’t going so well and the two Florida clubs were contracted.  At this point, it feels like the league and indeed domestic football is flourishing.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues or challenges and that’s really the point of all this: bringing in pro/rel right now in a bid to test the above arguments, would be at best an experiment, at worst a gamble.  MLS and American soccer in 2016 is neither the time or place for gambling on untested theories.

US soccer history is littered with failed clubs and leagues.  If MLS were to be added to that list after coming so far, it would do nothing but further reinforce that old stereotype that this is not America’s sport and a major domestic league cannot be a success here.

Until “The Case for Pro/Rel” contains clear and tangible benefits that outweigh the inherent risks of adopting such a system, pushing for its adoption simply does not make sense.

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