Journal of the Emerald Specter 62: Fixing US Soccer

You’d all be so proud of me if you knew that I wrote this well in advance and didn’t wait until the last minute.

Oh, well now you do! Boom.

I was listening to the Total Soccer Show (the “10 Ways to Fix US Soccer” episode) and I decided that I wanted to throw my own thoughts in on the subject. I’m going to parrot a little of what the guys were talking about, but I’m also going to try and not JUST parrot what they said.

All of this stems from the US Men’s National Team being eliminated from the World Cup qualification. I’m not a big World Cup follower, I’d rather see the league play from any league other than the World Cup, but I’ll allow this to be the push to get things started.

In order to have a quality US Men’s National Team (USMNT) to compete and actually be a viable to win the World Cup, we have to take a look at the entire US soccer system and understand that it sucks. In fact, it sucks so much that it is the one thing that the general US population doesn’t “care about” because they aren’t any good at it.

Why not FIX the problem?

Our recruitment system in the US sucks. We don’t foster the youth programs but a fraction of a degree to which other countries who ARE successful do. Forget about the idealized Brazil, Argentina, or other “mythologically” great teams… they aren’t myth, those countries work really hard to identify their quality players at a very young age and put them through the training they need to be big names on the world stage. The US, as far as I understand, doesn’t have anything even remotely close to a system that does this… and it shows.

Once the US recruitment system identifies and puts the new recruits through their training system, they need a place to go in order to grow. Every single other league in the world has a promotion/relegation (pro/rel) system in place except the US. Why?

The story about this, from most of the US citizenship, is that if a club wasn’t competing with the rest of the top leagues in the country, that club would lose all support.

That is an excuse.

Let’s look at the NFL… first as is and then as a pro/rel system. (Please note that I do not think American Football should have a pro/rel system installed.)

In the NFL, there is a system in place (the Draft) to reward teams who fail to have a winning record in the league. The Draft allows a small boost, in the form of a few new talented players, which can then lead to signing free agents who believe that newly drafted player can raise the team up. After a few more signings, ridding the team of naysayers, and maybe even a rebrand (planned over the course of years), those teams can rise up… possibly even to the point of making a decent Super Bowl run, or get close for several years.

Before free agency, a terrible team would linger in the gutter for a decade or more, being beaten down year after year until they get a shot to build up.

Now let’s look at the NFL with a pro/rel instituted… and for the purposes of this example, I’m going to make up a second tier league that I’ll call NAFL (North American Football League). The NAFL will have 16 teams, in markets that the NFL currently doesn’t fill (San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Memphis, Orlando, ¬†Richmond… and five teams from markets the NFL could stand to branch out into in this part of the world: Mexico City, Vancouver, Toronto, Quebec, and San Juan).

The first part of this is eliminating “the NFL Draft,” which forces the “undrafted NCAA talent” to enter the general free agency market… and let’s eliminate the salary cap, too.

We now enter a “slump” where San Francisco and Indianapolis have really bottomed out, being the worst two teams in the NFL. After the Super Bowl, those two teams are relegated to the NAFL and the two top finishers in the NAFL, in this case Mexico City and Toronto, are promoted into the NFL in their places. This gives San Francisco and Indianapolis a reason to try harder to recruit better players, spend the money necessary to improve to be promoted, and the other NAFL teams are just as motivated to be the next ones to be promoted, too. Every team in the NFL has every reason to compete as hard as possible, spend what is necessary, and get the best talent they can to remain in the NFL.

The next season, maybe Toronto finishes last and the New York Jets finish second to last… Indianapolis manages to redeem themselves to be promoted again, along with the second place NAFL team San Juan getting their chance to advance out of the NAFL.

Yes, this scenario screws up the regional divisions a bit, but teams that suck will be given a reason to not suck.

The Barclay’s Premier League, or the English Premier League for the uninitiated, have four or five clubs that are really strong all the time with everyone else taking a swing at them and striving to beat them. Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea are those clubs, with an occasional other club managing to compete at the highest level for a season or two. When clubs get relegated, they work harder to get promoted again, as well as making sure they don’t just get relegated right away again.

There is nothing even remotely like this in US soccer. So, let’s go all the way back up to my “recruit the youth” situation, with a concentration on the “system those young talented players can come up in.”

In a state of the league address by MLS commissioner Don Garber, the commissioner wanted MLS to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. With the “NFL style” system used in MLS, that isn’t going to happen. Despite what the MLS believes, we are still the “hey, I’m well past my prime but I can play in the MLS for a few years and make multiples of millions of dollars in the process because they are starved for the highest quality talent” league.

Things working against the MLS in becoming “one of the best leagues in the world” are: 1) time… MLS is one of the newest leagues in the world and since everyone likes to point at tradition, MLS is almost a century behind in the legacy department… 2) salary cap… because limiting the amount of money that can be spent, which also falls into limiting how many “designated players” a team can have, is always good for business (I say that with extreme sarcasm)… 3) no pro/rel… if you don’t want a club to fold or move on, institute a pyramid system so that team can be properly relegated and allow another club can rise up and fill their place, enriching the competition because someone else doesn’t have to spend money to “get in”… 4) thinking MLS will ever be anything close to the NFL… Garber has such a hard on for how popular the NFL is that he’s forgetting that simply “white washing US soccer to be like the NFL” isn’t going to end well, mainly because soccer fans don’t want MLS to be like the NFL, they want MLS to be like other world leagues.

Build a “tier two” league. Limit MLS to 18 clubs, 20 at the very most, and anyone wanting in to the MLS has to win their way out of T2. The US actually has two leagues that can fill the role of a tier 3 and tier 4, so why not bridge that gap and finally take the plunge to make the MLS the league Garber would like it to be: competitive on the world stage.

One last thing… if you want to compete with the world, you should be on the schedule that the world is on. Put the MLS in the fall/winter/spring and keep the players from dying of heat stroke in the summer. Very few leagues in the world compete over the summer, and ALL OF THEM are second tier leagues… because they can’t compete with the top tier leagues (your Barclay’s, Bundesliga, Ligue Un, etc).

Show the US how to excel by doing it on the same schedule, so that when there is an “International break” for the World Cup qualifications, the US isn’t in the midst of the MLS wearing our top tier players out in the process.

And now I’ve come full circle.

You want to be the best? Start beating the best at their own game, using their own rules, and competing when the best of the best compete… otherwise, Garber’s words are just going to be like some politician’s words when they’re just trying to get you to vote for them.

Enough preaching. I would like to see the MLS be more like the other leagues in the world… until then, I’ll keep watching the “real” football leagues in the world.