Beer and Soccer

Image taken from http://www.randomactsofkelliness.com/2013/06/summer-activities-in-salt-lake-city.html 

I have two big hobbies in my life. The first is Soccer. It drives my wife nuts, I can watch any game (from Women’s College, to kids bronze, to Champion’s league). My DVR is full of games to watch or watch again. There have been times when my oldest (he’s 16) and I have been watching a game and we start talking about what’s going to happen next and she’ll realize we are watching a repeat.  Like I said it drives her nuts.

My other hobby, and in some ways even more fun, is craft beer.  At one time I brewed my own, but after a couple of moves and as the kids grew older I ran out of time and space and got rid of my homebrew kit.  Living in San Diego its no true loss as there are literally dozens of different sized micro-brews scattered across the county. The smallest only sell on-site, the biggest are building breweries in Germany.

While enjoying a Stone Brewing Company Enjoy By 10/15/15 IPA I started to think about the state of beer making in this country and how it compares to soccer.

I’ve made the comparison before on twitter. (I know I’m not the only one, it is a common analogy) But when you look at it you can see the obvious connections.  Right now the United States is dominated by one Soccer Brewery, Major League Soccer, who serves up one basic style of American Lager.  There may be some minor regional differences, but every stadium offering MLS soccer basically serves the same pale brew.  There is no room for a different brew, in fact there can’t be by the very nature of the salary structure in the league.  A team can’t go out and acquire high level journeymen to implement different styles of soccer because they are limited in the way they pay their players (I am going to ignore the underlying reality that MLS holds all player contracts).

There is nothing wrong with American lager.  A lot of people worldwide enjoy the style of beer.  The biggest breweries in the world make Budweiser and Miller beer, but only having one option makes for a poor choice.  In the early 1980’s, the Craft Beer movement began in the United States with 8 breweries. They persevered and paved the way to the current industry where 3,500 craft brewers now serve 1 of every 10 beers in the United States. In San Diego alone there are at least 115 craft brewers of all shapes and sizes with more on the way.

What’s that have to do with soccer?  Everything.  Right now American soccer is in the 1980’s of the craft beer movement.  Even with the vast limitations in the ability for smaller soccer outlets to grow (lack of promotion relegation), there are groups out there seeking to bring different brands of soccer to their local communities. In San Diego County alone there are two WPSL teams (The San Diego Sea Lions and Xolos Women), two NPSL (San Diego Flash and FC Force) and one SoCal Premier League team (Chula Vista FC) who won 2 games in the last US Open Cup (finally losing to Sacramento Republic FC).  All of these teams have plans to grow but are limited by the nature of US Soccer.

San Diego is also home to huge youth clubs.  Clubs like Surf Soccer, Albion SC and Nomads (actually a small club with long history in SoCal, its alumni include National Team players and they once had a team that played in the WSA, WSL, and APSL) are all members of the United States Soccer Development Academy. Kids from these clubs have played at all levels of our national teams and are scattered across our nation’s professional and semi-professional teams.  The Xolos, from Tijuana, are constantly scouting in the area and recently signed a cooperation agreement with Nomads.

San Diego has a long history of soccer teams ranging from the Jaws, Sockers and Toros who all played in the NASL, Gauchos (USL), Spirit (WUSA), Sunwaves (USL-W), SD United (NPSL, and USL-W), Southern California Fusion (NPSL), and Top Guns (USISL).  The Sockers were the most famous as the last surviving NASL franchise (playing both NASL and NASL indoor, before dominating the MiSL), they have been reincarnated as an indoor team in the MASL.

It is obvious that the desire for soccer in the region is constant.  Despite the horrible way leagues and the Nation’s Federation have run things for the last hundred years, people continue to try to bring the Beautiful Game to the area.  Why haven’t they succeeded?  Perhaps because all we are really allowed to have is Bud Light.  No one can make a triple hopped San Diego Style IPA in the soccer world.  They are limited to setting up a Hooters and serving bad wings and overpriced domestic beer.

If the Federation opened the pyramid we would see the craft beers of the soccer world.  Maybe Chula Vista FC, full of kids from the low-income neighborhoods of Chula Vista and Imperial Beach, could grow into something big.  Perhaps San Diego Flash with their plans to re-brand and build a stadium at the old Balboa stadium site could gain traction and rise through the levels.

Breweries fail and soccer teams may too, but here in San Diego there is proof at the tap that we have an appetite for better beer, and I think we have the same appetite for better soccer.

In 1996, I was sitting at the bar in my cousin’s restaurant when a guy came in carrying a 5 gallon keg on his back.  He offered us a taste of the beer he was trying to get restaurants to carry.  It was my first taste of Stone Brewing Company’s Pale Ale and I told my cousin he should put that on tap.  Today, Stone Brewing Company is the 14th largest brewery in the United States and is opening a brewery in Berlin, Germany. A local brewery who didn’t even bottle their own beer, now is directly competing in the strictest (and possibly toughest) beer market in the world.  Don’t our soccer teams deserve the same chance?

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MLS Parity is a Myth

Myth

  1. a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
  2. a widely held but false belief or idea.

During the intermittent battles that spring up over whether promotion/relegation would be an improvement to US Soccer (I’m clearly on the record that it would be) an argument that MLS parity makes for a more competitive product always rears its ugly head.  The typical line spouted is that MLS has had “nine different champions” in nineteen years and the EPL has had five.  But this is comparing apples and oranges.

First, we actually have to compare the same achievement.  Most of the world considers their league champion to be the team that earned the most points throughout the league calendar.  In MLS that is the Supporter’s Shield, not the MLS Cup.   (Instead, the MLS Champion is the winner of the MLS Cup, a tournament competition between a certain number of teams who make the playoffs and I’ll touch on that below.)  In every major league in the world, each team plays a balanced schedule against every other team in their division.  MLS doesn’t do this.

For the first three years MLS didn’t even have an award for its regular season champion.  Starting in 1999 it began awarding the supporter’s shield.   The award was backdated to include the prior year champions.  Worse from a sporting perspective, MLS has always had an unbalanced schedule where teams play regional rivals more than teams on the opposite coast.  The argument for this has been cost of travel, but it makes teams in a tougher conference play far stiffer competition than teams in a weaker group.

On paper, MLS looks pretty competitive in how many teams have won the Supporter’s Shield.  Ten teams have taken the trophy in the last 19 years.  (Two of those teams have folded, Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.)  Comparatively, five teams have won the English Premier League.  During the same period five teams have won both La Liga and Serie A, six teams have won the Bundesliga and eight teams have won Ligue 1. This would seem to support the argument that MLS is somehow more competitive than the EPL (this weakens when compared to Ligue 1, which has had almost the same number of winners in a far more difficult league).

The argument breaks down once you start looking at actual numbers.  Four teams have won almost seventy percent of all the shields (13 of 19).  MLS has been dominated by DC United, LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew and San Jose.  If you add in two more teams (Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City) the same six teams have won the Shield 15 of 19 times (79%) AND have been runner’s up 13 of 19 times (68%).  Parity is non-existent.

Meanwhile, MLS crowns its “Champion” with the victor of a limited Cup.  “[MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shiled] two separate competitions,” Arena said. “They’re unique in themselves, one has nothing to do with the other.”[i] During the last 19 years there have been nine different winners of the MLS Cup.  Again, on paper, MLS looks like a very competitive league.  When you look at the details that Myth becomes exposed.

Two teams have won the MLS Cup nine times (47%) and five teams have won 15 of the 19 cups (79%).  The rest of the soccer world has their cup competitions too and during the same time frame there have been eight different winners of the FA Cup and 11 different winners of the League (Capitol One) Cup in England.  In Germany’s DFB-Pokal there have been 8 different winners.  In France there have been 12 winners of the Coupe de France and 12 winners of the Coupe de la Ligue.  Italy has had nine different winners of the Copa Italia and Spain has had 11 winners of the Copa del Rey.

MLS parity is a myth.  Just like the rest of the world a small number of clubs win most of the time.  The difference is here, our soccer is artificially limited by the Byzantine rules of MLS and the lack of promotion/relegation.

[i] Bruce Arena, quoted in SB Nation http://www.lagconfidential.com/2011/10/28/2521737/la-galaxy-manager-bruce-arena-talks-mls-cup

US Soccer Federation is still in the Dark Ages.

The common view of the Dark Ages is that it was a grand fall from the heady days of the Roman Empire.

The reality is that the reason it is “Dark” for later historians is that precious few writings survive from this period.  Whether due to neglect, war or a general lack of scholarship is up for debate.  What does this have to do with US Soccer?  We live in a country mired in its own dark age of back alley deals, byzantine rules and a general failure to try and educate the US Soccer public.

This is blatantly obvious when you look at FIFA. Many of the soccer establishment in the US like to call FIFA secretive and corrupt, but FIFA and its European counterpart UEFA publish amazing documentation of every aspect of Football as they see it.  A quick click on FIFA’s document page provides links to hundreds if not thousands of documents covering every aspect of the game, from FIFA’s governance, to marketing, to development.  These documents examine, in great detail, how the game is played, grown and sold world wide.

UEFA, comprised of most of the most powerful and strongest leagues in the world, publishes amazing documents covering the beautiful game in Europe.  The member associations within UEFA do a great job of documenting what is happening within their jurisdictions (England, Germany, Spain). Rules for the various leagues are easily found and plain to anyone who is literate in the appropriate language.

There are also ancillary organizations publishing in depth reviews on the state of the game in Europe.  The European Club Association’s research arm has published informative works on academies, 3rd party ownership, and transfers.

Everywhere in Europe an independent press pushes against the natural human tendency to keep things secret and asks questions of the powerful federations that govern this sport.

Here in the US? We have none of that.

Instead we are tossed weak fluff from Don Garber, Der Commissarof MLS on the state of the game, promising us poor gullible souls that “There will come a time when there will be far more transparency than there is today.” (As quoted by Andrew Das, NYT).  Why?  Der Commissar states the league “needs flexibility” (same source).  What a load of crap. Secrecy invites corruption and leads to irrelevance.  A failure to make the inner workings of MLS open to the public, begins the comparisons to WWE where all the contests are rigged for viewing pleasure.  There may be athleticism and strength, but without openness it just boils down to a circus act for the masses.  In England this information is available for the Premier league, Championship, League one, etc. down to some tiny regional leagues.

Meanwhile Sunil Gulati, the nominal head of the US Soccer Federation is an invisible man.  For years his salary was paid by Bob Kraft (owner of the New England Revolution and Patriots), a massive conflict of interest.  Soccer in America is more than MLS.  There are dozens if not hundreds of professional and semi-professional teams in the country and thousands of youth clubs generating billions of dollars in the business of soccer here.  But our Federation barely documents what is happening.  Try finding a link to any documents on the Fed’s website.  Its not possible.  There is no list of who is on the board, what their salaries are, what business do they do, what is the state of the game in the US, or anything else that is de rigueur for every other major soccer Federation.

It is time for soccer in America to grow up, to enter an age of Enlightenment and begin to act like an adult in the soccer world.  Take off the dark cloaks and let the people see what is really going on.  Demand that our Federation act like the independent entity it should be and start making decisions on what is best for all soccer here.  Start documenting what is happening in US Soccer so that an open and honest debate can be made by all sides, on all issues affecting the game. Stop acting like Soviet Russia protecting state secrets so the enemies of the people can’t overturn the dictatorship.

Finally, since we started with Monty Python, a good philosophical debate on soccer:

Benefits to Youth Development from Promotion Relegation

This is a continued look into issues that affect the United States due to a lack of Promotion Relegation.  My last post looked into the readiness of lower divisions for Promotion and touched on how to insure quality of clubs that are promoted.

“It makes sense to invest in youth development because with an efficient youth academy the clubs save money on transfers and inflated salaries.  A greater top down investment from the club to the youth academy is to be encouraged, since the costs of investment will offer a return, not only financially, but also in terms of players’ loyalty, identification with the club and its supporters’ base.”[i]

A country full of strong clubs striving to reach the peak level of play requires a strong youth structure to complement it.  In the United States we spend more than $5 billion dollars on youth soccer. The exact number of people who play soccer in this country is hard to pin down but there are over 3 million boys and girls registered to US Youth Soccer.[ii]  AYSO has over 600,000 registered participants.[iii]  There are dozens if not hundreds of other smaller regional recreational programs of varying size spread across the country. Over 790,000 kids played high school soccer.[iv] In all some 24 million people play the game in the United States.[v]

Despite this we do not produce high level stars, let alone world class players like Ronaldo or Messi.  Why?  It is my contention that the lack of a truly competitive environment stifles the growth of the American player.  Our National coach Jurgen Klinsmann said as much when he bemoaned the return of top US players to MLS.  Other commentators have noted that our soccer players do not realize the effort needed to succeed at the highest level.

Repeatedly, athletes comment on the intensity of practice in Europe, where every player is vying for a spot and every team is determined to climb the ladder or keep from falling further down.  We do not have those pressures here in the United States.  Here we have players just happy to be hanging out with their buddies and having a barbecue.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  But, it will not make us a great soccer nation.

If the USSF would actually do what it’s supposed to and call for a nationwide system of promotion and relegation, with a deadline of today, tomorrow or five years from now, the dynamic would instantly change.  Teams would be forced to do more than tread water, hoping to pick up a Designated Player or two and make a run at the playoffs.  They would be forced to search for every advantage and it would make them far better and more competitive in the long run.

Local Clubs Inspire

When a player sees the reality of playing top level soccer for the local team, it changes the way they look at the game.  It also changes the fans perspective when a local kid becomes a star. How often do we hear fans in England sing?

Those fans are celebrating that it’s a kid who came up through the program, a neighbor’s boy, a homegrown.  It is that connection to the community that inspires true passion in both the players and their supporters.

Now, I’m not going to argue that the United States should already have that level of local connection, when our soccer structure has been failing this country for a hundred years, but the time is ripe for it to exist and to grow.  Today there are 20 teams in MLS, with 2 more on the way.  NASL has grown to 11, again with 2 more teams in the works.  The USL has 24 teams and has made noise of expanding to 40.  That means there are least 55 teams playing something which could be called top flight soccer.  The youth growing up in those communities actually can see someone, only a few years older than themselves plying their trade on the turf.

“Ever since I have been around the game I have wanted to be a professional in that atmosphere and in his shoes. It’s never been a question as to whether I wanted to do something else or be something else. This has been my passion since I can remember.” Duncan McCormick, S2 (referring to his dad)

It is beginning to happen.  But the problem is in a nation of 300 million we have a limited number of outlets and those outlets are being further artificially limited by the necessity of teams to pay an entrance fee to reach the highest level.  Absent that artificial limitation, any number of teams from any city in the country could reach the highest level.

Bournemouth in England is a coastal resort town of 183,000 people and home to AFC Bournemouth.  During the 2008-09 season, Bournemouth was almost relegated from the Football League(League Two), ending the season fourth from bottom. With 10 matches to go in the 2014-15 season they are in first place in the Championship poised to reach the Premier League.

For the youth in that town there is direct proof that working hard can allow your team to achieve the ultimate goal.  Here in the United States, kids growing up in towns and cities without MLS clubs can aspire to play in a far flung city, but their local club will never achieve promotion to a higher level.  The dynamic changes when it is your team doing great things and it those local roots which make great fans.

 “When my dad took me to spring training, seeing the work ethic of the players I realized I’ve got to work my tail off.”  Drew Finley, High school pitcher.

You hear this in baseball all the time.  Sons of coaches and former players, or just a kid lucky enough to spend time around the ballpark know that a player has to actually put in work to be at the top of their game.

A kid who only sees soccer players on TV, where they are usually either playing in the game or goofing off for the camera, has no understanding of that work.  A quick drive to watch your local team practice and the image changes.  When your cousin, or your friend’s brother trains with the team, you learn firsthand how hard a player needs to work.  This is a big element of what is missing in the game here.

In Europe 92% of all academies are an integral part of the club[vi].  The youth players practice on fields near the professional team.  Older academy players often practice with the first team.  This integration allows the youth players to see their heroes at a close level, get a feel for how hard they must continue to train, and gives them opportunities to stretch themselves as a player.

Until there is the opportunity for every community to have a club that can rise or fall on its own merits there won’t be those ties that inspire kids to actually put in the work necessary.

Today most youth clubs in the United States are little more than a logo and a group of teams.  The best of them have a common core of how they want their teams to play, have coaches who actively work to develop training programs to reach those goals and all of whom hope to make the kids who play for them into the best players they can be.

The problem is those clubs aren’t tied to anything.  There is no first team that you are striving for.  There is no long term goal, besides the ephemeral college scholarship or possibility you might be seen by an ODP scout. There is an inherent inefficiency because there is not enough pressure to make MLS sides seek out players who will change their team.

Why shouldn’t these youth organizations be allowed to create a first team and try to grow it into something special?  Local professional clubs would change that dynamic.  Professional Clubs would seek out the players plying their games on the local fields and bring them into the fold.  Throughout Europe, scouts show up at every level of grassroots games and watch, hoping to spy that special talent.  Here, a kid playing in the inner city, in the Mexican leagues of Southern California, on the cow pasture fields of some regional AYSO team, have little to no chance of being seen.

When the youth teams become tied to a club and the club is receiving benefit from them, the club absorbs the cost of training that player.  It is a cost of business, money that will be recouped when the player improves the team and/or is sold on to another team.

Benefits to the Youth Market

“The Ajax youth academy is like the lifeblood of the club. … We’re not capable of spending large amounts of money for players.  Which means you have to develop them yourself.” Danny Blind, AFC Ajax

Beau Dure, soccer writer and an active participant on twitter opined that MLS would stop spending on money if they feared relegation.[vii]  I disagree.

When clubs are responsible for their own salvation in a competitive market it is imperative they develop talent that will keep them in the top division. If there is no pressure from lower teams trying to take your spot, it doesn’t really matter if you miss out on youth talent.  You can always draft another college kid, or pick up a journeyman from the discards of a fellow member club.  But when you need to be good enough and money is an issue youth development becomes a necessity.

The United States touts that it spent 30 million dollars on its academies and other player development last year.[viii] This is an investment of just over a $1.5 million per team.  It’s a good start, but not good enough.  The truth is in the rest of the world almost every professional team has some form of youth program.  Those programs provide professional training in the hope the player will either strengthen the team or can be sold to another team for profit.  We need to reach the point where every club in the nation has its youth program.

66% of clubs in Europe have an academy program that takes up more than 4% of their total budget.  For 15% its more than 10% of their budget.[ix]  Over 70% of the clubs spend more than 3 million € a year on their youth budget.[x]

A Club like Ajax spends around €6 million on its academy training 220 players, starting at the age of 5, to play their style of soccer.  At the age of 16 to 17 a promising player can be assured they will see first team playing time if they are good enough.[xi]  Ajax pays everything involved in training its academy players, from equipment and uniforms, to travel expenses (including bussing them from school) and the 25 academy coaches.[xii]

Ajax has 50 scouts in the Netherlands, a country the size of Maryland, searching for kids to bring to its academy.  Any player can apply to the club and can be seen at the talentdagen (tryout). They have another 5 scouts that travel the world to find players.

In comparison the United States National Team only has eighty or so scouts, scouring the entire country.[xiii] MLS teams had no scouts a few years ago and most now have a head scout who works with a stable of scouting agencies.[xiv] This is crazy.  There is no effort to find the brilliant gem, toiling on a back lot.  It’s a fill in the numbers approach that is extremely inefficient.

Benefits to the Clubs

Value from developing players.  Over 60% of the clubs in Europe view their youth academies as source of income.[xv]

Ajax has sold 18 players in the last 3 years earning over €85 million.[xvi]  During that same time period they have spent approximately €18 million on their youth academy.  This is an amazing rate of return.  During that same period the Seattle Sounders sold 2 players for €4.91 million[xvii] Those are the only 2 players they’ve sold during the last seven years. FC Dallas, often touted as having the best youth academy[xviii] in MLS sold one player during the last three years, Brek Shea, and he is now playing for Orlando City SC.[xix]

Granted MLS academies are in their infancy, but the rigor of training to develop players desired by the richer clubs of the world is not there.  This should be the goal of each one of our academies.  To develop players who other teams salivate over, clamor for.

This takes a massive change in the way we scout for players and how those players are trained. It’s not enough to hold open tryouts and hope some kid from the barrios of Los Angeles, or the dusty streets of Bakersfield find their way to LA Galaxy or the soon to be shuttered Chivas.  The teams should be sending dozens of knowledgeable scouts out to find these players and giving them an opportunity to become great.

Opening the country pyramids will force teams to find these players and the teams can reap the benefits. If the fetters are taken off completely, one day the US may have clubs that can compete with the best in the world full of homegrown players being sung to by the local fans.  Even if we never become the new Premier League or Bundesliga, true youth development will improve our leagues across the board.

If we continue down the path we are on we have no hope of ever being more than a retirement league.  If we have to choose between being a retirement league and being a selling league, I will choose selling every time.  Watching young players develop and then move on to greater things elsewhere is far preferable than watching old and tired players go through the motions to pick up one last paycheck.

Next time I will delve into the problem with pay to play and how the failure of USSF in implementing and enforcing player compensation acerbates that problem.

[i] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 152

[ii] http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/media_kit/keystatistics/

[iii] “History of AYSO”. American Youth Soccer Organization

[iv] http://www.nfhs.org/ParticipationStatics/PDF/2013-14_Participation_Survey_PDF.pdf

[v] http://www.ussoccer.com/about

[vi] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 106

[vii] https://twitter.com/duresport/status/576369097878945792

[viii] Los Angeles Times, “MLS may lose momentum if players strike before 2015 season starts,” January 31, 2015

[ix] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 100

[x] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 99

[xi] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 22

[xii] Parents do pay a €17 insurance fee

[xiii] http://www.foxsports.com/foxsoccer/usa/story/united-states-secret-service-network-mens-national-team-070313

[xiv] http://www.wakingthered.com/2012/12/10/3702816/scouting-in-mls-part-one

[xv] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 17

[xvi] Transfermarkt.com

[xvii] Transfermarkt.com, includes €1.14 million loan fee of Fredy Montero

[xviii] http://www.topdrawersoccer.com/club-soccer-articles/dev-academy-evaluations:-a-closer-look_aid28323

[xix] Transfermarkt.com, Brek Shea to Stoke for €3 million.

On the soapbox.

This is my chance to get on my soapbox and talk about what I think is wrong, and hopefully right, about American soccer.  I’m a small club coach in San Diego, California who has been a lifelong fan of the game.  Thankfully, soccer is an actual topic worthy of discussion in the United States.  When the NASL collapsed and the future of soccer was looking grim in this country that wasn’t always the case.

But there is much that can be improved and in the days and months to come, I plan on putting my thoughts down on this blank canvas and one day see some of those problems get improve.

An Argument for Promotion-Relegation in the United States

  1. FIFA Circular no. 1132 – Sporting integrity – principles of promotion and relegation
  1. “…A club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season.”

  2. In addition to qualification on sporting merit, a club’s participation in a domestic league championship may be subject to other criteria within the scope of the licensing procedure, whereby the emphasis is on infrastructural, administrative, legal and financial considerations. …”

It seems no other topic in the world of American soccer puts people on edge more than the idea of instituting Promotion and Relegation. Proponents argue that, “It’s the way the world works”; opponents counter “It’s not the American Way.” This article hopes to chip away at some of the myths of promotion and relegation and provide a contextual basis for its implementation.  I’m not going to advocate a single table or a balanced schedule (which I also think is important) but hopefully take a nuanced look at the benefits, and possible detriments, of promotion and relegation.

Why Promotion and Relegation?

“It’s got to be competitive, every club has got to have that ambition to get to the Premier League, that’s why our league is so good.  … It would ruin and kill English football.”  Dave Whelan, Wigan Chairman

Drama and Storylines

Today’s sports world craves drama and storylines.  The ecstasy of promotion and relegation adds drama to what would otherwise be the dullest part of a sports cycle.  Without the risk of relegation teams at the bottom of a league, go through the motions and start planning their off season.  A common quote is “They’re playing for pride,” or even worse, “they’re playing the role of spoilers.”  Both are hopefully true, but if a team knows it can be relegated, those previously pointless late season games become meaningful.  Now they are not playing for a draft pick, they are playing for the right to remain in their current division of play.

Birmingham survive relegation:

When was the last time you saw a last place Major League Baseball team and its fans celebrate an end of the season game like this? This game means something.

Drama is also created when a team snatches a chance at promotion.  Few games end in as exciting a matter as the second leg of a semifinal play-in game between Watford and Leicester in 2013, but there is no denying the stupefying emotion.

We could have that drama here in the United States.

Increased drama and better storylines make for better television.  The most popular soccer leagues in the United States are not our own domestic league but rather the English Premier League, Liga MX and the UEFA Championship.[i]  Why?  Some of it is probably the quality of the soccer, but a big part is the lack of credible drama until the playoffs.  One of the greatest attributes of American football is the sense that every game matters.  Granted in September this is hard to remember, but by the time late October and early November rolls around, viewers are regaled with the playoff implications of every game.  That creates tension and drama which any writer knows is essential in the middle of a book. Promotion and Relegation creates that drama in the world of soccer. Coupled with the playoff hunt it would make the entire season of MLS dramatic.

Investment

In 2013 NYCFC paid 100 million dollars in franchise fees to MLS and the second team in Los Angeles agreed to a franchise fee of around the same size in 2014.  The total wage bill for the entire league in 2014 was just under 130 million.  What are those franchise fees being spent on? Currently neither NYCFC or the proposed LA teams have their own stadium, nor do they have a true fan base.  There may be people wearing NYC blue and buying tickets, but they are fans of a new entity.  Similarly, Orlando City, another new MLS franchise officially lost its four year history[ii] when it joined MLS at the cost of a 70 million dollar franchise fee.

What if that money was spent on the team instead?  What if a team could take 100 million dollars and invest it in their stadium, their players, their coaches, their youth systems?  Wouldn’t that be a better use of investment capital than marginal payouts to existing owners? The benefit of a franchise is that you are buying into a known commodity.  A McDonalds in Alabama is the same as a McDonalds in Washington.  What differentiates those franchises?  The color of their uniforms?

Instead, a team that has true roots in a region has organically grown there.  Three of the more successful, at least in the stands, MLS franchises are the teams in the Pacific Northwest.  Portland, Seattle and Vancouver all have roots that stretch back to the NASL and continued to play in different forms until their franchising into MLS.  Would they have been served to use their franchise fees on their own clubs?

There have been numerous studies which show that franchising adds little societal benefit and often serves a detriment to the investor. [iii]  What benefit have these teams received by paying franchise fees?  They have gotten the right to play in Division 1 of the United States of America. With promotion and relegation they could have earned that right on their own merits and kept their own capital in the process.

That sunk cost of a franchise fee could be used in building stadiums, investing in youth structures, buying players, or any of the other myriad costs involved in running a soccer club.  Instead it disappears into the black hole that is MLS accounting.

Standards

            If you get involved in promotion/relegation arguments (via twitter, blog comments, in a bar), one of the issues that is always propounded is that the United States isn’t ready yet.  The theory goes “one day when the US is ready, not now of course, promotion/relegation will be necessary.” One notorious pseudo pro/rel supporter on twitter[iv] is famous for saying that the US leagues are equivalent to Division 1, Division 3 and Division 6 equivalents. In fact, soccer in the United States actually compares very well to England’s Championship, League One and League Two.

For Comparison sake here are some statistics from this year (2014-2015) English leagues and last year’s American leagues.

FA Championship

  • Largest: Sheffield Wednesday 39812
  • Smallest: Bournemouth 12000
  • Average:  26,761
  • Attendance Avg: 17662

FA League One

  • Largest: Sheffield United 32702
  • Smallest: Fleetwood Town 5327
  • Average:  13553
  • Attendance Avg: 6899

FA League Two

  • Largest: 20224
  • Smallest: 4850
  • Average:  10013
  • Attendance Avg: 4542

 Conference South (6th Division of England for comparison)

  • Largest: 8840
  • Smallest: 1500
  • Average:  4220
  • Attendance Avg: 513

MLS (All numbers are the official reduced capacity figure)

  • Largest: 40000
  • Smallest: 18000
  • Average: 22344
  • Attendance Avg: 19095

NASL:

  • Largest: 22500
  • Smallest: 5000
  • Average:  11071
  • Attendance Avg: 5501

USL:

  • Largest: 22000
  • Smallest: 2500
  • Average:  9319
  • Attendance Avg: 3114

The actual averages, largest stadium, smallest stadium, and attendance averages are very similar. The 6th division in England is Conference South, stadium size and average attendance are far worse than the USL and on par with the NPSL and other 4th division leagues in the United States.

The ancillary argument is lower leagues need to increase their attendance and facilities prior to promotion.  I agree in part to the need to improve facilities, but disagree wholeheartedly with attendance.  Facilities I will discuss below in the section on promotion standards, attendance will be addressed herein.

The easiest way to point out attendance will improve upon promotion is to look at the case studies of the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders.  Both teams existed in some form prior to MLS.  Timbers average attendance from 2001-2010 was 7,241[v] and from 1994-2008 Seattle had an average attendance of 3,359. In 2014[vi], those two teams averaged attendances of 20,674 and 43,734 in MLS, respectively.[vii] Should those teams have waited to show higher attendance before obtaining the magic grail of 1st division soccer? It’s hard to imagine that would have helped their attendance now.  Arguments that lower leagues need to have MLS level attendance prior to promotion are disingenuous and self-serving to prop up the exclusivity of top-flight soccer at best.

Requirements for Promotion

The other leg of the counter argument against promotion in a promotion/relegation system is that many of the lower division clubs play in facilities which are not sufficient for top-flight soccer.  This is actually a better argument than most.  But, this is something that every league in the world deals with in a very simple manner.  In order to actually be promoted lower division teams need to be in compliance with upper level requirements.

The USSF already has published some requirements for 1st , 2nd and 3rd division soccer[viii] in the United States.  Some of the requirements are league specific, but for our purposes the only ones that matter are those that are team specific.  USSF sets out a minimum enclosed stadium size of 15,000.  The club must have at least a one year lease on that facility, they must show financial ability to operate for 3 years, must post a $1,000,000 bond to ensure operation and must be owned by a group worth at least $70 million with one owner owning at least $40 million (not including the team or their residence).  Further they must have a commitment to a player “commitment to player development program” and “maintain teams and a program to develop players at the youth level.”

A 2nd division club must have a stadium that can hold at least 5,000, must post a bond of $750,000, show financial capability for 3 years, have a principal owner owning at least 35% of the club and having a net worth of at least 20 million not including the team.  A 3rd division team need only have a stadium holding 1,000, post a $250,000 bond and have an owner worth at least 10 million.

The framework is already in place.  If a team wants to be promoted it must be in compliance with the USSF standards for the appropriate level.  In England this means a team must submit on or before January 31 of the league season their desire to obtain promotion if they are successful within the league, failure to do so and they won’t win promotion.[ix] The last team to be denied promotion to the First division of English soccer was Swindon Town in 1989-90 due to financial irregularities.  It would be simple for the USSF to set standards and then it is up to the lower leagues to comply if they want promotion.

Further Topics for Discussion:  Travel, Regional lower Divisions, Youth Development

I am not ignoring these issues as they are all relevant, but this article is already of sufficient length to start discussion.  The United States is ready for Promotion and Relegation and it would do our nation’s soccer a great service to increase the drama and tension in the domestic game. As a last aside, the USSF looks and acts like a child compared to its European counterparts.  You can find every FIFA and FA regulation online in easily accessible pdf form.  Finding the same for our Federation is like looking for a needle in a haystack.  This must improve.  If we want to be an international power we have to act like one.

Endnotes:

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soccer_in_the_United_States#Soccer_on_TV

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando_City_SC

[iii] http://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1347&context=articles

[iv] https://twitter.com/CaptainRelPro/status/572356215558184960

[v] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_Timbers_(2001%E2%80%9310)

[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seattle_Sounders_(1994%E2%80%932008)

[vii] http://mlsattendance.blogspot.com/

[viii] http://www.kenn.com/the_blog/?page_id=5449

[ix] Football League, Appendix 1 – Membership Criteria (Regulation 8)