Predictably, Soccerocalypse has brought out the usual arguments from the promotion/relegation crowd:
- Youth development will be so much better!
- Players will be under constant pressure!
If anyone could turn their attention away from Twitter long enough to read something longer than 280 characters at a time, they would have seen this addressed in the pro/rel series — both pros (and alleged pros) and cons.
The short versions:
Youth development: European clubs that have good academies have them so they can sell players (and yes, solidarity payments/training compensation is a legitimate issue with legal potholes I can’t fully comprehend). Chelsea’s inability to develop a first-team player from within is legendary, just one example of a “broken” academy system in the birthplace of soccer.
MLS has actually made progress in youth development because its clubs know they can avoid the boom and bust of pro/rel. They feel confident spending millions to create what wasn’t there before. Then they have a pathway, via their oft-derided relationship with USL, to send promising 17-year-old players to the first team via the USL bridge.
And then MLS teams can play their youngsters because they know they’re not going to be relegated. That’s one reason why MLS has developed so many players who turn around and beat the USA in CONCACAF. (I have heard arguments that MLS needs to impose stricter limits on international players. Then I’ve heard arguments saying MLS needs to spend more on international players to raise the level so that any U.S. players who make that first team will be more appropriately challenged.)
Pressure: Yes, we know. Someone in a German locker room threw a shoe at Eric Wynalda.
First of all, the idea that you’re “playing for your job” at every training session in Europe but not in MLS is inflated. European clubs aren’t going to cut people mid-contract. You can lose a starting spot, sure, and then you can regain it the next week. That’s not unique. If you want to see job insecurity, watch the NFL, where a kicker can miss once or twice on Sunday and be unemployed on Monday.
Second: Bobby Warshaw tells a different story of playing for a relegation-threatened team. His teammates in Scandinavia all just wanted to wash their hands of it and be gone.
And it’s not as if pressure always makes diamonds. Sometimes, it makes dust. In this clip, Woody Harrelson is Trinidad and Tobago. Wesley Snipes is the USA.
The USA didn’t lose because the media and supporters are too nice to them. They played tense. Cautious. Trinidad and Tobago did not.
After Prince died, Saturday Night Live ran a tribute. Jimmy Fallon told a story of being at a party where he was on stage wondering if he could get Prince to come up and play. Then he saw the crowd parting and Prince basically floating to the stage. Prince came up to Fallon and gave him a look that said, “Yeah, I got this.”
That’s what the USA needed. Not overconfidence. But that sweet spot between confidence and complacency in which they say, “I got this.” Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the same CONCACAF wars (or relegation battles — see Altidore, Jozy) as his teammates, played with that attitude.
But let’s say there’s a benefit to playing in a league that’s more intense than MLS — though, if you were ever in a locker room with Taylor Twellman or Dom Kinnear after a game, you know things can get pretty intense. Why is Germany more intense than the USA? Why is Germany more intense than Scandinavia?
It’s because Germany has a deeper soccer culture.
Same reason Mexico and the big Euro leagues are more intense than MLS or Scandinavia. For all the progress made in the USA since Paul Caligiuri took a wild shot in Trinidad in 1989, this country is still a good bit behind everyone else. Youth soccer participation plateaued and then started dropping, and while a lot of those kids turn up wearing Messi or Rooney jerseys, a lot more never watch soccer on TV or in person.
So if you want to make a good argument for promotion/relegation, try this:
Pro/rel will help deepen the soccer culture in this country.
And I believe that. Most of what I’m saying here on pro/rel is the same stuff I’ve been saying for 15 years, no matter how much it’s been misrepresented by the PRZ on Twitter. But this is an argument that I can’t remember hearing before. Maybe some people made it, but it was drowned out in all the “PRO/REL WILL OBVIOUSLY MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER BUT MLS/SUM/USSF/STEVE BANNON ARE CONSPIRING TO KEEP THE NFL BIG” nonsense.
This is your argument. This is something you can present to people who have money on the table — not the Monopoly money Silva and company threw at MLS so they could create the narrative that MLS turned down a gazillion bucks to institute pro/rel now.
Is it enough? I don’t know. The other realities still exist. We have a Division I soccer league now where we didn’t in 1992, and it’s because people were enticed to invest in a scheme that reduced the risk from “might as well burn your money” to “there’s a small chance this might work.” If you’d told people in 1992 we’d have a soccer league that consistently drew 40,000 people in Atlanta and Seattle, people would’ve laughed at you. (Especially Atlanta. I grew up in Georgia, and I’m astounded.)
But if the pro/rel crowd is willing to drop the nonsense, along with the conspiracy talk and nonsensical legal actions, maybe there’s a chance to win the argument.
If I were elected USSF president (no, I’m not running — there’s a reason a lot of sane, qualified people from Peter Wilt to Julie Foudy aren’t interested), I’d do the following:
- Divisions 2 and 3 go pro/rel next year. I’m torn on whether the USL brand name should stay. The NASL brand name should not. It has a history of incompetence, and even the glory days of the late 70s were built on non-traditional glitzy Americanized soccer. Besides, given the existence of Mexico, the “North American” part of the brand name never rang true. Keep the clubs — to start, put the clubs on the soundest financial foundation in D2 and the others in D3.
- Division 4 becomes the top amateur division (semipro clubs are allowed to compete, but it’ll be mostly amateur, as these leagues are now) for the top tiers of the major amateur leagues — PDL, NPSL, UPSL, Cosmopolitan, GCPL, other USASA Elite Amateur Leagues. Clubs that finish in the top three of these leagues can apply for D3 status — for the foreseeable future, only a few clubs will do that. (At this point, I don’t think we can or should relegate clubs from pro D3 to amateur D4. If D3 gets too big, start a pro D4, more or less mimicking what England has recently done with its fifth tier.) Have a D4 national championship if it’s feasible, replacing some of the existing and sort of redundant national amateur cups.
Two reasons to this. First, it’ll make the lower divisions much more interesting.
And it just might demonstrate to the powers- and purseholders-that-be that there’s a benefit to expanding the pyramid and building a soccer culture.
Or, you know, just yell and scream and sue. That’s working so far, right? And competition between uncooperative leagues worked so well that we’re about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ASL, right?