When will the soccer “change” movement get serious?

This will start out on a personal level, but bear with me — it’ll get to big-picture stuff. And we’ll talk about the desperate need to change a few things in U.S. soccer and at U.S. Soccer.

I think the state of the soccer “change” movement can be summed up (pardon the SUM pun) in three conversations I had this weekend and another one in which I did not participate.

One: Someone on Twitter was surprised to learn I am not paid by MLS or SUM.

This person apologized.

I asked why he made the assumption in the first place.

“Likely because I’ve seen folks attribute that to you on Twitter.”

Not the first time I’ve had a conversation that follows this path:

  • Person attacks me, thinking I’m a paid MLS/SUM shill who hates open systems or any criticism of MLS.
  • Person learns I am none of those things and that I’ve actually put forth several plans to work toward promotion/relegation (or, failing that, a wide-open “Division 1”), few of which have gained any traction because everyone’s so firmly entrenched these days. (Some on Twitter insist pro/rel is all or nothing, which will come as a great surprise to people in the Netherlands, where they can’t seem to open a full gateway between the second and third tiers. Maybe that’s why they didn’t make the World Cup, either.)
  • Decent conversation ensues.

For those of you who are new, here’s my restatement of facts (skip to the next bold type if you know all this):

  • The only time I was ever paid by an MLS/SUM affiliate was when I wrote fantasy soccer columns for MLSNet, the forerunner of MLSSoccer.com that was run by a different company. They also hired Eric Wynalda, who suffers no accusations of being an MLS shill today though he wrote far more than I did. (And used to play for the league. Him, not me. Obviously. I played U14 and beer league.)
  • Yes, I wrote a book called Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer. I was iffy on that subtitle at first but agreed to it because the standard at that time was survival. I would agree that it’s fair to set a higher standard for “success” today. MLS gave me access but paid me nothing. The book is old now and barely sells, so whatever MLS does next isn’t likely to affect my bottom line. (Maybe I’d write a sequel if something substantial changes, which means my self-interest would be in change, not the status quo.)
  • I am not personally against promotion/relegation. As a fan, I’ve enjoyed pro/rel drama since I was an elementary schooler watching Soccer Made In Germany. As a journalist, I’ve simply found occasion to explain why it hasn’t happened so far. I believe it’ll happen when the marketplace is ready for it, and I believe calamity will ensue if any entity tries to force it to happen in a way that harms MLS while its teams are investing in facilities and academies.
  • Summing up (again, sorry for the pun): I have absolutely no interest, financial or otherwise, in the status quo.
  • The fact that people claim otherwise about me should make you very suspicious of those people’s motives.

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Two: Respected people in soccer continue to associate with and even amplify anonymous Twitter accounts that regularly slander people. 

I’ve actually learned who runs one such account. Not a well-known name, but it’s hilarious that it’s someone who has played and coached for “Christian” schools. I guess they’re soft on that whole “bearing false witness” thing, though the school’s site does say good people of the Bible should not engage in “profanity” and “lying.” They list those two right before “homosexual behavior.”

When I spoke with a particular supporter of such accounts, someone I certainly respect, I got a deflection to a conspiracy theory involving Kyle Martino.

Which was far from the strangest thing I heard along those line this weekend …

Three: Someone in a position of responsibility in U.S. soccer (not the Federation) lumped together most of the presidential candidates and a few other folks into a conspiracy theory.

This theory — again, offered by someone in a position of power whose actions certainly affect others — included the following people:

  • Sunil Gulati (no surprise)
  • Don Garber (also)
  • Kathy Carter (yeah, OK)
  • Kyle Martino (again, not the first to say that)
  • Merritt Paulson (MLS/NWSL owner, OK)
  • Grant Wahl (SI writer — stretching here)
  • Steve Gans (wait … what?)
  • Hope Solo (whoa … seriously?)
  • Eric Wynalda (OK, hold on here …)

I asked for proof. I was told this person had been advised not to offer proof at this time.

But this person, apparently in an effort to demonstrate insider knowledge, pointed out to me that he/she said back in December how everything was a setup.

For Kathy Carter.

Who didn’t win.

Four: The conversation in which I didn’t participate involved the consternation that Rocco Commisso was unable to get an audience with U.S. Soccer for his “proposal.”

Hey, it’s tough to get an audience with U.S. Soccer. Much tougher than it should be. Believe me, I feel your pain. I won’t go into details here, but I’m starting to think it’d be easier to get an interview with Prince that it would be to get some specific information I’m seeking now. And yes, I’m aware that Prince has passed away. (Dammit.)

But when NY Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso told U.S. Soccer he wanted a meeting to discuss a possible $250 million investment (expandable to $500 million when others join in) if they let him have 10 years to build up the NASL, the response should’ve been the following …

Dear Mr. Commisso,

Thank you for your letter. Unfortunately, we are not able to discuss anything involving the NASL or the Pro League Standards while we are engaged in legal action, some of which you initiated, on each of those entities.

If you would like to make a significant investment in an existing league (NPSL, USL, UPSL) or a newly proposed league (NISA), you are welcome to discuss the matter with those leagues.

Unfortunately, U.S. Soccer dragged this along, letting Commisso and his apologists dictate the narrative.

Which brings us to an important point …

federation

The Federation needs change. 

When the U.S. Soccer delegates who had just elected Carlos Cordeiro left the room in Orlando a few months ago, the path forward for changing the federation seemed clear.

Voters had rejected the anointed MLS/SUM candidate, Kathy Carter, in favor of someone who masterfully claimed the “outsider, but with experience and willingness to delegate to experts” ground. A few delegates spoke from the floor, urging the “change” candidates to stay involved. The soccer community was plugged into all the issues on all levels — youth, adult, pro, even a few words about the oft-neglected Paralympic, futsal and beach soccer sectors.

Stodgy old U.S. Soccer had gotten a wakeup call. Fans demanded change after missing the men’s World Cup. Parental ire over misguided youth soccer mandates had finally reached the Board of Directors. Every issue was in play:

  • Accessibility for all to play youth soccer at a level determined not by their money but by their ability level.
  • Clearer pathways to identify and develop all talent.
  • Getting the NWSL to fill its long-vacant commissioner position and build up the league’s standards and wages.
  • Making coaching education affordable and available (and good)
  • Easing the tension in pro soccer and helping lower divisions grow.
  • Hey, don’t we have national teams that need general managers and/or coaches?

I’d add one issue that has popped up since the election: Figuring out the role of state associations when youth and adult leagues are crossing state lines and ODP is being devalued.

And then … it all stopped. Mostly.

We have a few exceptions. The Chattanooga summit failed to unite NPSL, NISA and UPSL, let alone all the other factions in U.S. soccer, but at least it brought a few good issues to the fore with some rational discussions. “Change” candidate Kyle Martino jumped to the board of Street Soccer USA to do some of the grassroots work he had hoped to do as president. Surely hundreds of youth coaches and administrators have been energized to do more work at the local level.

But the national discourse is firmly in the hands of a different group of people. I’m not just talking about the usual toxic stew on Twitter. That’s been around longer than Twitter itself, and it hasn’t done a bit of good. (If anything, it’s hardened attitudes against promotion/relegation from people who otherwise would’ve been ambivalent or receptive.) I’m talking about the people who actually have influence.

And what we’ve seen from a lot of camps are purely symbolic gestures. Yes, that includes Commisso’s proposal, which I’ve often called, in Seinfeld-speak, an “unvitation.” He had to know there was no way USSF would or could meet those demands, and now he gets to claim (as Silva did before him) that the Federation has turned down easy money out of sheer stubbornness. A similarly PR-related proposal came up at the Annual General Meeting — more precisely, at the USSF Board meeting the day before the National Council meeting in Orlando. John Motta proposed cutting registration fees, currently $2 per adult and $1 per youth player, in half. That wasn’t going to fly, given that many presidential candidates had their own plans in mind (evening out the fees between adults and youth players may come up again). Sure, Sunil Gulati was unnecessarily condescending in his response, but the result was never going to change.

Is there a chance that soccer’s would-be reformers are self-sabotaging? In some cases, maybe. Much of the public discourse is designed more for status (as superior thinker or as victim) than for solutions.

Perhaps that’s not a surprise. For generations, being a soccer fan in the United States has meant rebelling against the norm. We are the “other” — by choice. A lot of soccer fans are like those tedious people we 40-somethings knew in college who used to be into R.E.M. but thought they sold out with Automatic for the People.

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So as soccer has grown more popular, that hipster “outsider” status is harder to achieve. And we all love victim status as well, which means we need an oppressor. Generations of soccer neglect are harder to personalize than That Guy Who Said Something You Don’t Like on Twitter. Or That Guy Who Had More Impact in the USSF Presidential Election Than You’d Like.

I can’t tell other people how to move forward. I’ve tried, perhaps too hard and too harshly. All I can tell you is how I plan to proceed:

  1. Muting more conversations on Twitter. I still plan to block only the incorrigible few.
  2. Getting back to work on youth soccer issues in particular.

If I had any pull at SiriusXM, I’d lobby to get Eric Wynalda back on the air. If I had any pull at other media outlets, I’d suggest more investigations on where the “change” agenda stands now. And if I had any pull at U.S. Soccer … where do I begin?

If you want change, pick a spot and get to work.

One thought on “When will the soccer “change” movement get serious?

  1. It is sad that you felt you needed to write this very thoughtful article. The problem has been for years (and still continues to be) that domestic soccer in this country is at the margins, incredibly fractured and what money that exists perpetuates the status quo at all levels. This leads to a small group of engaged people being able to do pretty much what they want without any real blow back, other than ignored complaining from outsiders with no power. The minimal influence national soccer reporters have on the broader media landscape means the insiders can pretty much continue to do what they want in hiding. The only real thing that is different in the soccer world today vs. the past is the money that MLS (and to a certain extent USL) is spending in USL 2, PDL, Academies, etc. to serve its own self-interests. That is the best hope we have as a country to become competitive internationally and I hope people stop the nonsensical dreaming about pro/rel and eliminating pay-for-play and start paying attention and putting pressure on these MLS efforts in the future.

    Like

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