A quick interlude in my youth soccer work to reiterate some things that, based on discussions I’m seeing, need reiterating:
1. Before MLS, the USA had two substantial pro men’s leagues. The ASL of the 1920s and early 30s was successful for several years and provided the bulk of the players who helped the USA take third in the 1930 World Cup (don’t get too excited — only 13 countries entered) before falling apart in a series of stubborn arguments with national and international federations. (Sound familiar?) The NASL started in the late 60s and peaked in the late 70s before collapsing in the mid-80s, having done little to put down solid roots. In the rest of those decades — 40s, 50s, most of the 60s, late 80s, early 90s — U.S. pro soccer was a wasteland.
2. At times, the USA has been outright hostile to soccer, even if Jack Kemp walked back his complaint that the sport is “socialist.” Sort of. Newspapers often refused to cover it seriously. Academics have spilled boatloads of ink explaining why soccer faced an uphill cultural battle in this country until a few things changed the scene (say — 1994, 1999, 2002, etc.)
3. If big events on TV were any indicator of interest in regular professional competition, the highest-rated shows would be the NWSL and the Diamond League. (I’m betting a lot of you are opening a new tab and Googling “Diamond League.”)
4. Since 2001, MLS has grown substantially by every metric except TV ratings, which is indeed an issue and may be explained by any mix of three factors: substandard games, substandard TV production, the growth of EPL and other leagues on U.S. TV. Every other metric — number of teams, number of teams doing well at the gate, overall attendance, number of committed ownership groups, investment in facilities, investment in youth academies — is trending strongly upward.
5. MLS is not part of a conspiracy to keep soccer from getting as big as the NFL. There’s no record of MLS turning away substantial investment aside from the vaporware media rights “offer” Riccardo Silva made, knowing MLS couldn’t accept. Indeed, several MLS owners today — Stan Kroenke, City Football Group, Jason Levien — also have ownership stakes overseas, so they directly profit from the EPL and MLS chipping away at the U.S. sports marketplace. And if Anschutz, Hunt and Kraft wanted soccer to fail, they would’ve let MLS fail in 2001 instead of digging far deeper into their pockets to keep it going.
6. While the USSF Pro League Standards have some criteria worth arguing, U.S. Soccer is not unique in having standards. Check out what you need to be in the Football League in England — 2,000 seats under cover, a closed-circuit surveillance system, an external boundary wall of 2.2 meters, individual seats with back rests (sorry, no high school stadia with bleacher seating), a computerized turnstile monitoring system, directors’ boxes with guest rooms, press seating with 20 desktops and 10 power points, etc.
7. Plenty of soccer clubs in the USA have meticulously chosen their level — amateur summer leagues, amateur fall-spring leagues, USL, etc. — and don’t want to change.
8. If you subscribe to the notion that the U.S. men’s national team has gotten worse (not that the competition has gotten better), you have to account for the fact that more players in the old days were produced through pay-to-play clubs and college soccer.
9. The NASL (the new one) made its own bed and now, thanks to constant turnover and the quiet disappearance of a lot of big-talking backers, lacks the institutional knowledge to remember that it did so.
10. Just as the NY Cosmos argued that their investment was based on retaining Division 2 status, a lot of investment in academies and infrastructure over the past 20-plus years has been predicated on retaining Division 1 status.
11. The USA is huge. Like, really huge. Yes, Russia’s bigger, but the area hosting the 2018 World Cup is smaller than the USA, even including that little hop over Belarus to Kalinigrad, and the Premier League just has the occasional team from the Pacific Coast. (Besides, do we want to copy Russia?) Ensuring a national footprint is a worthwhile goal.
12. You can make a good case for promotion/relegation (or, at the very least, for other reforms) in U.S. soccer without denying the truths listed above and accusing the people who remind you of those truths of being paid shills setting up Twitterbots on behalf of the MLS illuminati. So why not give it a try?