Change and Chattanooga: What’s the next step for U.S. pro soccer?

(This post has been updated three times. I blame Zoidberg.)

After a few weeks of post-election doom and gloom on Twitter, it’s refreshing to see the “change” movement in U.S. Soccer moving forward with something constructive.

The Summit for American Soccer in Chattanooga asked a lot of interesting questions:

  • Can we have professional teams outside the restrictive Pro League Standards?
  • Is U.S. Adult Soccer the best gateway to accomplish that?
  • How do we build something sustainable?

And the questions showed how quickly things have progressed. Consider that, as of a couple of weeks ago, Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer was under the impression that the USASA wasn’t an option.

But it can. And that tweet was in response to me asking why they didn’t follow the lead of the ASL, which has already gone that route, albeit in more obscurity than the people at the Summit would want. (Hey, my Twitter feed is good for something!)

What was missing?

The people who could give the best answers.

A lot of intriguing people with interesting ideas were in the room. But aside from U.S. Adult Soccer president and longtime U.S. Soccer board member John Motta, there wasn’t much institutional knowledge.

(UPDATE: Chris Kivlehan informs me that John Motta wasn’t there. I did learn very late in writing this post — it’s the last paragraph of Nipun Chopra’s report — that some U.S. Soccer personnel were in attendance.

(UPDATE UPDATE: Nipun has clarified that no USSF personnel were present.)

“Good,” you might say. “We need fresh ideas.”

Sure, but knowledge is not a bad thing. Whether you consider U.S. Soccer a flawed organization or an outright enemy, nothing good can come from misunderstanding it. And it’s good to learn from people who’ve tried to do similar things in the past, such as the team owners who were involved when the USISL tried to move toward pro/rel in the past.

(By the way — the MLS/USL partnership is a relatively recent thing, and it might not be as solid as you think. Partnership efforts early in the MLS era were clumsy and quickly fell apart, and people who’ve followed the lower divisions for more than a few years will remember when the two leagues were not close. So seeking the advice of a USL/USISL/A-League team owner circa 1998 or 2005 would not be the same as calling Don Garber.)

And there was one notable absentee: Peter Wilt. The explanation I’ve received from Chattanooga FC chairman Tim Kelly, the organizer and host, is that the summit was geared toward clubs rather than leagues, so there was no need to bring in the man trying to get the third-division (for now) NISA off the ground. Other league representatives — the NPSL’s Joe Barone and a few folks from the ASL — are also club representatives. Yet they found room at the last minute for the NASL’s Rishi Sehgal to participate on a panel called “Soccer Landscape,” which seems odd.

But Wilt isn’t just some guy with a league idea that may or may not work. He’s a start-up specialist: Chicago Fire, Chicago Red Stars, Indy Eleven, indoor teams, etc. He’s also a former USSF board member. And it’s not as if he’s some tool of the “establishment” — he campaigned quite vociferously for Eric Wynalda’s presidential run.

At some point, bringing in people like Wilt and others with experience is simply due diligence. You have to do research on several issues. Having too many like-minded people with similar (and not much) experience in one room can quickly lead to unproductive groupthink. And no, having Stefan Szymanski in the room isn’t going to help — like a lot of economists, he falls prey to thinking solely in terms of economic models and ignores the historical and cultural forces that affect pro soccer as well. (See Paul Gardner’s classic column from the MLS players’ suit, where Gardner memorably shredded the testimony of a sports economist called in as an expert witness and ridiculed players who took the stand and pretended not to know that the league below England’s Premier League is below England’s Premier League.)

Let’s be clear here — the tinfoil brigade in the U.S. soccer community may be declining in influence as thoughtful new leaders like Kelly, Palmer and Dennis Crowley rise up. But it’s not gone. Consider what happened this week, thanks to a Twitter account that appears to have some influence among some of the “change” contingent’s most notable voices:

Which is utter nonsense. The nominees for the Hall of Fame meet specific, objective criteria that are published for all to see. (An omission from those criteria: A nominee who isn’t named on 5% of the ballots in a given year will not be on the ballot the next year. If you find someone who meets the criteria but isn’t on the ballot, that’s the likeliest explanation. The other possible explanation is incomplete records, in which case please let me know and I’ll pass it along to the folks at the Hall. Or tell them yourself. They’re not out to omit anyone.)

I don’t know if that tweet was intentionally misleading, but (A) it would be consistent with that account’s behavior in the past and (B) whoever runs it hasn’t bothered to correct or clarify the record.

These are not the people the “change” contingent wants as allies. They are trying to “change” people with slander, which never works. If you think honesty and transparency are lacking in the current soccer climate, why would you add more dishonesty from the veil of anonymity?

And those folks would be happy to hijack this movement. Consider the truck, parked outside the United Soccer Coaches convention in Philadelphia, which was intended to undermine candidates Kathy Carter and Carlos Cordeiro but may have helped get the latter elected because it was so nasty, clumsy and lacking substance.

Even those with better intentions can get caught up in attributing to malice that which can be attributed to something else. Consider this, from Chris Kivlehan’s report at Midfield Press:

While there was a sentiment to be open minded and give new USSF president Carlos Cordeiro a fair shot individually, the overall feeling toward the USSF board still heavily influenced by Sunil Gulati and Don Garber is one of skepticism. For example, a recently effort to get the New York Cosmos, Jacksonville Armada and Miami FC US Open Cup berths via the USASA was shot down according to one source at the meeting.  Due to the perceived bias of the USSF board toward MLS and USL, many see investing hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars into a professional soccer club under the PLS as risky.

The U.S. Open Cup rules, for better or worse, require a team to be in good standing in a league throughout the competition. That’s why amateur club El Farolito is out this year. The same rules also ban a lot of USL teams from the competition because they’re owned by MLS owners, a rule that was passed in Spain a couple of decades ago and Germany more recently. All of those rules can be debated on their merits, but it’s not some sort of ad hoc decision to ban the Cosmos and Miami this year.

So, as with so many other aspects of U.S. soccer, what some call conspiracy actually has a more prosaic rationale.

(UPDATE: That said, the Cosmos have asked why teams have moved from the NASL to USL have been allowed into the Cup this year. Will probably update again whenever we get a response.)

The “change” movement failed in the election because voters saw too many accusations, many unfounded, and not enough experience to back up the ideas. That’s a mistake this movement needs to avoid repeating.

Frankly, the NASL failed for similar reasons. Starting from the fateful moment in which they turned away from an MLS partnership in 2012 and accelerating through several changes in management and ownership, the NASL gained more bombast and less experience. The league lost a lot of good will. Then lost a lot of teams. Then lost its D2 sanction.

And now what’s left of the NASL has gummed up the works with a couple of lawsuits. There’s no way U.S. Soccer is going to revise the Pro League Standards (or implement my pet proposal to replace the Pro League Standards with Pro Club Standards, which would be in line with the “Club >> League” philosophy we’re getting from Chattanooga) while they’re being sued. (Maybe the Chattanooga organizers invited Sehgal so they could send the message that they care about the remaining NASL clubs but not about the albatross of the NASL brand name? Maybe?)

george

All of which raises another question — does this group really want the backing of Riccardo Silva (Miami) and Rocco Commisso (Cosmos), who seem quite cozy in their embrace of the “burn it all down” brigade?

truth

One more person the Chattanooga change group should consider calling in: Steven Bank, the lawyer who writes terrific explanatory pieces on the soccer law landscape. Bank’s most recent piece (linked above) throws cold water on the assumption in Chattanooga that “adopting promotion and relegation is not only the proper course for US Soccer to pursue legally …”

We should also ask what’s stopping the Chattanooga group from chatting not only with Peter Wilt’s NISA (which could theoretically be part of a pyramid they’re envisioning) but also the USL. I for one don’t think the USL is expanding with the sole purpose of taking markets away from another pro league. I think they’re expanding for the same reason the NPSL adds a couple dozen teams at a time. They want to be bigger.

So that’s a look at who was and was not in Chattanooga and why it matters. Here’s a quick look at some specifics being tossed around, thanks to some info I’ve received and a report by Chris Kivlehan at Midfield Press (and now a report by Nipun Chopra at SocTakes):

Should we form a new federation?

Apparently not. Kivlehan says that idea “was quickly put aside as a quixotic initiative unlikely to succeed in swaying FIFA.”

USSF is a large organization. It’s not about a couple of people on the board. It also includes people who are trying to build up the Open Cup, people who are really trying to dig into youth soccer’s problems, and people who are trying to secure the money it’ll take to fix both of those things. (By the same token — FIFA has good people, too. Not just the people who gave one World Cup to a doped-up dictatorship and another to a desert country building stadiums with slave labor, then look the other way when such things are brought to light. If we’re not breaking away from FIFA over the deaths of abused workers in Qatar, why break away from USSF over the Pro League Standards?)

Should we play unsanctioned professional soccer?

Look, there’s always the MASL! So far, FIFA doesn’t seem to have banned those players from FIFA-sanctioned futsal and beach soccer events.

But Kivlehan points to the problem here: “Another potential route would be to play without sanctioning from USSF, which would introduce challenges around FIFA player contracts, hiring referees for matches and would result in exclusion from the US Open Cup.”

We have enough trouble finding and keeping good referees. No need to split them between a sanctioned organization and an unsanctioned organization.

Um … many of us are still using college players …

That’s a point so many people forget. There’s a slide showing the Kingston Stockade’s financials (all open source, thanks to Dennis Crowley’s vision of ultimate transparency) that shows a couple of areas of improvement from 2016 to 2017. One constant: “Player Roster: $0.”

Some people involved with lower-division soccer insist on referring to it as “pro” or “semi-pro” or “pro-am.” Occasionally, you’ll find a professional team registered in one of these leagues. If a single college player is on that team, it’s not “pro.”

… and we want to keep travel costs down …

This might be an area where reasonable people differ with Peter Wilt, who has been known to insist travel costs aren’t as much of a barrier as people think. The Kingston slide has an exclamation point next to a line item showing “travel and hotel” cost dropping from $10,615 to $0. That’s a pretty big deal for a team that lost $36,799 in 2016.

Here’s Chris Kivlehan again:

Previously there had been talk of a multi-tier setup within NPSL, with a national level (likely consisting of the NASL teams and the 7 NPSL clubs that had NASL Letters of Intent per court documents), a full season elite amateur level for those ready for a longer schedule but not necessarily ready to go fully pro and then the traditional short season NPSL league.  The momentum in this discussion shifted to a flatter, more regionalized setup to start with, but this is likely open to discussion in future meetings.

Please don’t tell anyone Dan Loney, violent slayer of pro/rel propagandists, has been saying the same thing for years.

Also note from that quote from Chris …

Are we playing summer or full-season? 

Here’s a bit of disconnect within the “change” movement. Eric Wynalda insists we should all be on the English calendar to align transfer windows. The NPSL, like the WPSL, UWS and PDL, plays in the summer.

Granted, that’s a side effect of using college talent.

We need stadiums

No kidding. Everyone needs stadiums. And this is where people who’ve been through stadium-building wars (again, Peter Wilt springs to mind) would be useful to have in the conversation. D.C. United didn’t spend 22 years in RFK Stadium because they were attached to the raccoons.

Can fans own the teams? 

It’s a romantic notion that has the backing of Wilt and a lot of folks within the NPSL. It may be limiting in the long run — the Bundesliga may end up doing away with group ownership so German clubs can keep up with the Premier League’s owner-oligarchs — but as long as a club can put up a reasonable performance bond for the level at which it competes, does it matter?

But as Nipun reports: “Per Kelly, the idea of supporter ownership received pushback from some of the attendees.”

That surprises me a bit.

Can we make money streaming?

Ask the NWSL folks. This is where facilities matter — the Maryland SoccerPlex, home of the Washington Spirit, has immaculate fields but wiring that doesn’t lend itself to 21st century Internetting.

MOVING FORWARD

The idea of clubs being more important than leagues is long overdue. One slide put it well: “Leagues should be thought of as networks and platforms for the promotion of its clubs.”

And the message of ending divisiveness is long overdue. U.S. soccer has spent generations beating itself up. The old ASL was huge in the 1920s and then collapsed, thanks to the Depression but also the egos of those involved.

It needs to go farther. Best practices need to be shared more widely. How did Peter Wilt build fan loyalty with the Chicago Fire? What were the early Rochester Rhinos doing well? How did Atlanta United — to the surprise of native Georgians like me — get 70,000 people in the door with a tremendous atmosphere?

Ultimately, this group and the MLS wing of U.S. Soccer need to build bridges. But until that day, calling upon the lessons of history — and calling upon those who lived them — is not a bad idea.

 

 

 

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