Updated after a tweet that got way too much attention March 15, 2019. Updates have asterisks and italics
Promotion/relegation could make U.S. pro soccer more interesting for fans, and with the potential for new investment at the lower levels, it might help take the game to the next level in this country.
That’s a good argument. I can’t find any fault with it. It doesn’t make any false claims, though I’ll grant I used the weasel words “could” and “might.” But even without those words, it’s enough to demonstrate an idea that should be taken seriously. You can certainly go into more detail about things like building a better soccer culture.
And yet the argument is not taken seriously. It’s an argument that is invariably sidetracked by emotion and a refusal to address the counterarguments for which we need to account.
I’ve been involved in these discussions most of my adult life. And I’m old.
With rare exception (say, an actual news development*), I’m no longer talking about promotion/relegation on Twitter. I’ll talk here or on one of my blog posts, but that’s it.
(* – I suppose there was an actual news development on the 14th: a letter from over 100 clubs to various bigwigs asking them to put pro/rel in the U.S. So I wasn’t completely lying when I posted this.)
I know my parody account thinks I’m trying to drive ad revenue or get the ego trip of people visiting my blog, but frankly, it’s just about time. I simply don’t have time to keep repeating the same arguments over and over,* getting nowhere at best and taking a bunch of abuse at worst. I need to spend my time working on things that make money or driving my kids around. Or sleeping. Or staring at my lawn. Pretty much anything else would be higher priority in my remaining years.
(* – And I summed it all up again in a book that drops in November. Enjoy.)
So here follows a page with one-stop shopping. I’ll do my best to address all the issues concisely. Here’s the order:
- REFUTED ARGUMENTS for promotion/relegation and ROADBLOCKS in the way of making it happen
- POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS to move forward
- HISTORY of the pro/rel debate
- PERSONAL STUFF about me reflecting on 15 years or so of this
Scan through, use your “Find” function, whatever you want.
ROADBLOCKS AND REFUTED ARGUMENTS
In some cases, it’s just that pro/rel’s impact on the issue is overstated. Especially the first one of these …
OVERSTATED: This is how we get rid of pay-to-play youth soccer
You’ll never get rid of pay-to-play youth soccer for this reason: Most of the world has club academies and then what we would call recreational soccer, but the USA has a large middle tier we call “travel.” That’s not going away unless parents suddenly decide they’re going to quit paying coaches and traveling outside their metro areas for their kids’ soccer. We all want to cut costs there, and the most obvious way to do that is to cut out “travel” part. That’s true even at pro academy level, where the time and money they’re spending on air travel could surely be put to better use.
It’s true that professional clubs that generate a lot of revenue are much more likely to be able to subsidize free academy programs. Most MLS academies are free. But even at a long-standing nicely sponsored club like the Richmond Kickers, where pro players supplement their income by coaching youth, the youth programs are the big revenue generators, even in their affiliated academy program.
Then consider England, where they’re managing to develop a lot of elite players (see the 2018 World Cup team along with the 2017 Under-20 world champions and the 2017 Under-17 world champions) even as some pro clubs cut their academies.
REFUTED: But pro/rel-fueled youth development is how European clubs make money to climb the ladder
It may help a club like Southampton pay the bills to stay at the level they are. But show me the clubs that have made a substantial climb — from amateur to strong pro, from strong pro to title contender — simply by stocking up on homegrown players or selling them for profit. Surely there are a few, but I’d be very surprised if it happens often without a giant infusion of money. Hoffenheim didn’t suddenly start developing players with a keen eye for talent; one of its alumni struck it rich and decided to plow that money into his hometown club.
Even Ajax, with its vaunted academy, is an afterthought in today’s big-money European soccer.* The opportunities to build from within have actually shrunk in Europe in the era of big spending.
(* – OK, Ajax is making a nice run this year.)
Make no mistake — if we get more investment in pro soccer, there’s a decent chance it’ll trickle down to the youth level. I’m certainly not saying pro/rel would be bad for youth development. I’m saying its effects on ending pay-to-play are overstated.
OVERSTATED: But youth soccer will be much better because clubs will have *incentive* to develop players
They have incentive now. Youth soccer is a hypercompetitive market. If you can point to pros and high-level college players you’ve developed, you’re that much more likely to get parents to spend money on you. You might even attract a sponsor. (I’ve seen sponsored shirts even at the very lowest levels of youth soccer, believe it or not.)
Solidarity payment and training compensation would help, of course, but that’s a case for the lawyers and the MLS Players Union.*
(* – A running theme here is going to be the tension between FIFA statutes and U.S. law. Maybe not only U.S. law. See this piece on FIFA’s international immunity. In any case, the legal battle here is just beginning.)
Still, in the sense that we might have more investment in the sport as a whole, and that investment might trickle down to youth level … maybe. And casting a wide net, which will happen if we have a lot of pro academies that might not be free but will have ample scholarships available (as, frankly, most big youth clubs have today), certainly isn’t a bad thing.
But this argument is based on the notion that the rest of the world produces great players through club academies. Yes, but even in Germany, that’s supplemented by federation programs to make sure people don’t get left behind. From the DFB:
In the summer of 2002, a few months after Germany lost to Brazil in the final of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, DFB introduced the “Talent Development Programme”. At the initiative of Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, DFB president at the time, 390 bases across Germany were set up where football talents worthy of being further developed would start their training. … Once a week, in addition to the club’s normal training routine, the DFB invites the regions biggest talents to an “extra session” in the talent development programme.
Finally, here’s a warning I’ve issued before: Promotion may indeed bring about better youth development. Relegation can hurt because youth programs may be cut. (We’ll get to some “all-pro no-rel” ideas later.)
So if your goal is to increase our talent identification and development, great. Pro/rel (or at least “pro”) might help a bit. You’re still going to need supplemental programs.
OVERSTATED: MLS clubs have no incentive without relegation. (Related: MLS clubs would play more young players if they had incentive for academies and so forth.)
I’ve been in the locker rooms of losing MLS teams. It’s not a pleasant place to be. I’ve seen a whiteboard with a freshly punched hole in it after the Houston Dynamo violated league rules and kept the media out for far longer than the regulated time.
And you think MLS personnel have no incentive*? OK. Jason Kreis doesn’t have a job right now. Mauro Biello lost his job with the Montreal Impact in the offseason. Curt Onalfo didn’t even get a full year in 2017. Dominic Kinnear? Pablo Mastroeni? Jay Heaps? All out.
(* – Some of these people have since found new jobs, but not necessarily as head coaches or any other top-division league.)
OVERSTATED: Pro/rel makes players better because they face more pressure
We’ve all heard the story about someone throwing a shoe at Eric Wynalda because he tried to make a joke after losing in Germany, and we attribute that to pro/rel. If you’ve read Ian Plenderleith’s harrowing tales of being a ref at the very low “never going to the Bundesliga” levels in Germany*, you know that Germany would probably have a lot of flying shoes under any league system.
(* – I should surely link to Ian. Here you go.)
MLS actually gives its front offices more leeway to kick players around than the typical club does. Check the number of players who had “options declined” after last season. (Some came back … for less pay.) You can even be waived in some circumstances.
At the end of a typical season for a non-playoff MLS club, you’re playing for your job. The coach can throw a bunch of young players onto the field and see if they’re up to task. Will they get relegated? No. Will they be in the lower divisions the next season if they don’t show something in those games? Yes.
Compare that with Aston Villa in their relegation year. That was a team of sleepwalkers.
Also, a lot of the U.S. players who failed to get the team to the 2018 World Cup have more experience with pro/rel than any of us.
And finally, a lot of the people who lose their jobs when a club is relegated have nothing to do with how the team did on the field. See Con #3.
So, in case you can’t tell, I’m not impressed with the “incentive” argument. Not at all.
REFUTED: We’re violating FIFA statutes by not doing it
By most readings, probably not. At the very least, if you follow that link, you’ll see that it’s up to FIFA to clarify if they really want the USA to do it.*
Also, everyone is certainly allowed to set criteria besides “sporting merit.” England’s criteria are quite picky.
Anyway, not everyone does it …
(* – Since this was published, the USA was named as a co-host of the 2026 World Cup. FIFA doesn’t seem too upset with us right now, even without pro/rel and even after the Justice Department made their hotel stays a little less than pleasant.)
OVERSTATED: It works in the rest of the world
Almost. The only other large country that doesn’t have pro/rel in its men’s leagues is Australia, and they might be working on it.
Then again, England has moved away from pro/rel in its women’s leagues. And a lot of countries have minimal or no pro/rel between its pro tiers and its amateur tiers. See the Netherlands, where the pro/am pro/rel window is erratic. In other leagues, amateur clubs may or may not apply for promotion.* Even in England’s men’s leagues, they played for nearly a century without forced pro/rel between the pro and amateur leagues. By that standard, the USA should have a full open system no later than 2095.
(Incidentally, FIFA had an interesting report that surveyed transfer spending and league structures worldwide, and if nothing else, it effectively refutes the notion of an “international calendar” other than the schedule of windows for national-team play.)
(* – Someone brought Japan’s league to my attention. Basically, they have pro/rel among the three pro tiers. To move up from the amateur tiers to those pro tiers, clubs have to meet strict criteria. For now, at least, there’s no relegation from J3. So would this appease the clubs that signed off on the pro/rel letter?)
REFUTED: But pro/rel is why the rest of the world is great and we’re not
Pro/rel is pretty far from the only thing that makes the USA different.*
- History: Hey, if the ASL of the 1920s had lasted, maybe things would be different.
- Culture: If you grew up in the 1970s or worked in media in the 1990s, you know how much hostility this country has had toward soccer. (Also: That “anti-immigrant” thing the USA has going on right now? Yeah, it’s always been there. So many immigrants showed their eagerness to assimilate by playing “American” sports. See my bookshelf.
- Other sports: American football is huge. Baseball is huge. Basketball is huge. Hockey is pretty big. With the twin collapses of the ASL (early 1930s) and NASL (early 1980s), soccer fell pretty far behind.
- Geography: If you concentrated all the soccer support in the USA in one region, you’d really have something. Fans could easily travel to away games. We could have many divisions without worrying about travel costs. That isn’t the case.
(* – Again, book coming out in November)
REFUTED: U.S. Soccer killed the NASL* because they were scared of pro/rel
First, the NASL was an utter mess. Its best clubs moved to MLS. Previous management either departed or got arrested. Here’s my timeline and here’s former employee Kartik Krishnaiyer. Denying its Division 2 sanction for 2018 is an easy decision to defend.
Second, the NASL only ever paid lip service to pro/rel. See what happened when the NPSL made noise about playing ball with it (that post also rounds up a bit of the abuse I’ve taken on Twitter over the years).
If the NASL clubs wanted to get pro/rel going, they’d regroup, probably without the brand name (an odd choice for a pro/rel banner-carrier anyway — the original NASL was an un-traditional a league as you could ever find), and work on something new.
Instead, they’re suing everyone. What does that tell you?
(* – The new one, of course. The old NASL was the least traditional soccer league I’ve ever seen.)
REFUTED: In the 2018 USSF presidential election, most people who weren’t on the heavily weighted Pro Council or Athletes Council voted for pro/rel
Not really. Let’s look at the vote totals from the first ballot:
- Carlos Cordeiro, probably not the pro/rel voters’ top choice, got 36.3%
- Kathy Carter, undeniably part of MLS and SUM (it was her job, though she quit after the election), got 34.6%
- Eric Wynalda, the most passionate pro/rel guy, got 13.7%
- Kyle Martino, who actually had a concrete pro/rel plan even though some people think he was in the race to derail Wynalda, got 8.6%
- Steve Gans, who gave the old “yeah, it’d be nice, but we’re a long way off” argument, got 4.1%
- Hope Solo, who argued a bit in favor, got 1.6%
- Mike Winograd, who floated the idea of “guest” teams being promoted without relegating anyone, got 0.6%
- Paul Caligiuri got 0.5%
It’s probably safe to say no one voted for Cordeiro or Carter specifically in order to bring about pro/rel, though maybe some picked Cordeiro over Carter in part because he seemed more open to it. That’s 71%, including 25-ish from the Pro Council (24-ish of that to Carter) and 20% from the Athletes Council (all Cordeiro).
I can tell you from my reporting and observations in Orlando that Martino’s support was much more about hearing out state associations than it was about pro/rel. Gans and Winograd voters surely weren’t thinking pro/rel. Solo’s supporters had other issues (fair treatment of the women’s team) on their minds. I have no idea about Caligiuri’s support, though the most interesting points he made were about youth soccer.
So the people who were primarily interested in pro/rel would be a lot of Wynalda voters, some Martino voters and maybe some of Solo and Caligiuri’s voters. Generously, that’s about 20 percent.
REFUTED: MLS destabilizes pro soccer
Here’s that argument. It’s a bit curious because it says, in part, that clubs’ desire to move up from NASL or USL to MLS shows a “lack of stability.”
MLS has existed since 1996. Three teams have folded — two when they retrenched in 2002, one when the Chivas USA experiment failed. The San Jose team moved to Houston. And the Columbus team may move to Austin* — which, on a personal level, would greatly diminish my interest in MLS because I find it completely unnecessary.
(* – #SavedTheCrew)
And as much as I think moving the Crew would be a colossal mistake, I understand the concept that MLS expects more from its clubs today than it did in 1998.
You could argue that moving the Crew is a short-sighted move that squanders some of the history MLS has worked hard to build. Absolutely. You’d have a difficult time extrapolating from that to show the league is “unstable.”
Was NASL unstable? Of course. Its owners generally had their eyes on moving up to MLS or a delusional notion of forming a rival Division 1 league without laying the foundation. Other owners moved to USL, which has only been growing in recent years, partially because it’s now cooperating (in the past, it didn’t) with MLS.
And I wouldn’t be the last bit surprised if USL is the first pro league to do full-fledged pro/rel. They already tried it, tentatively and not successfully, in the late 90s.
OVERSTATED: American rich people are investing overseas
Yes, and overseas investors are investing in MLS (and sometimes elsewhere).
OVERSTATED: We’ll have so much more investment if we open things up
A few years ago, there was no tangible evidence at all to support this. Now there are two things: Riccardo Silva’s meeting at MLS HQ supposedly offering $4 billion for media rights* (see Graham Parker’s reporting on that) and Rocco Commisso’s offer of $250 million (rising to $500 million) over 10 years to build an MLS alternative.
(* – The MP&Silva collapse puts this offer in a different light.)
In each case, I firmly believe this is what Elaine on Seinfeld would call an “unvitation.” It’s designed to provoke conversation. Not to be taken literally.
Let’s be generous, though, and say Commisso really wants to put in all that money. OK. Now compare recent MLS investment:
- $700 million from adidas through 2024
- $150 million spent on training facilities in LA, Atlanta and Salt Lake
- $100 million spent on training facilities in Vancouver and KC (the latter includes some space for USSF)
- $400 million (including infrastructure) on D.C. United’s Audi Field
We’re told “modular stadiums” will erase most of the need for such spending, at least in terms of venues such as Audi Field. Unless these modular stadiums don’t require land, I don’t see it. And as much as we fans may gripe about luxury boxes and club seats, that’s how you land corporate investment.
So Commisso’s $500 million (if he’s actually able to get all that) over 10 years suddenly doesn’t look like a game-changer by comparison.
At a lower level, consider this — a lot of clubs have voluntarily self-relegated over the past couple of decades. It’s pretty simple. It’s a lot cheaper to operate an amateur team than it is to operate a pro team. We see signs now that the trend might be reversing, but we still don’t have an NPSL pro division or anything like that.
Even so, here’s Dennis Crowley, who has actually launched legal action toward pro/rel but admits the following:
One last thought (because I know this will come up in the comments/feedback) — when a club in our league hits the “So, now what?” point, that’s NOT the starting point for the pro/rel conversation. You can’t take a team that operates on a “amateur team, short season, regional travel” business model and then *promote* them to a “professional roster, full 30-game season, regional travel” business model just because they won the league. Teams have to willingly take the plunge from moving from one business model to the next. And once you have a critical mass of teams playing within either the “short season” and/or “full season” products, you can start to think about adding merit-based promotion *within those products* to better organize those teams. But the jump from “short season” to “full season” has to be just as much about business-model-merit as it is about sporting-merit (and the decision has to be entirely up the club’s management team) otherwise you’re not setting the club up for success (and you’re more than likely setting them up for financial failure).
If I said that, I’d be considered a jerk. So, pro/rel advocates, is Crowley a jerk? (He’s not. He’s actually quite a nice guy who’s new to soccer and is doing his best to infuse good business practices into the sport.)
Despite all that, I do think some communities (and their businesses) might be a little more interested in their local clubs if they had a chance to move up a rung or two. Just not to the extent that people think. Some communities may really jump at the chance. Others … meh.
REFUTED: The current MLS system stifles investment
Spend money on your academy. Spend money on Designated Players or TAM or GAM or YAM or whatever the new money mechanism might be. (I didn’t say it all made sense.)
I’m not a fan of MLS expansion fees. But they wouldn’t exist if people weren’t willing to pay them.
Now here’s the one that … well, I’m just going to duck before I say this …
ROADBLOCK: People have invested a ton of money to get MLS going, and they might not take kindly to being told they’re no longer guaranteed Division 1 status.
Whoa, whoa … calm down. If you don’t want to believe me, fine. One attempted refutation of the “MLS has invested so much already” argument is flawed because it focuses only on expansion fees, not players, academies, facilities, etc.
Let’s take a look at something else.
A couple of years ago, Silva commissioned a study by Deloitte on the prospect of doing pro/rel in the USA. It was, predictably, mostly bullish on the idea, and a lot of pro/rel advocates held it aloft like Brian’s sandal in Life of Brian.
But take a closer look. The report talks about mitigating risks. Implementing cost-control measures. A managed transition. “Implementation of new equity structures and revenue distribution models.”
Also from Deloitte: “US club soccer is not immediately ready for promotion and relegation.” One of the things that must be addressed: “The continued development and stability of a second tier competition to develop clubscapable in management and football terms of joining the first tier.” (That’s a pretty direct response to those who claim we don’t need to build up the second tier before embarking on pro/rel.)
Not exactly implementing the European model here.
And let’s restate some history:
- 1984: The original NASL collapses, and the most significant U.S. leagues are indoor leagues.
- 1996: MLS launches.
- 2002: MLS basically drops to three owners.
Three. If you wanted to reshape U.S. soccer, that was your opportunity. (Or you could’ve stepped up in women’s soccer in 2012, but it’s funny how few pro/rel folks on Twitter express the slightest interest in women’s soccer.) When you miss the boat, you can’t just tell it to turn around.
Some may be better than others. The general idea is to spread opportunity — for fans to be engaged, for talent to be developed and discovered as widely as possible, more broadly than, say, in England’s pro/rel ladder.
Pro/rel with a relegation “floor”
The idea I fleshed out at one point is to let clubs that make an MLS-level investment stay no lower than the second tier and let those who make a pro-level investment stay no lower than the third.*
(* – Again, see Japan)
Invariably, people accuse me of wanting to protect oligarchs. Let’s leave aside the class struggle for a bit (I do generally side with the proletariat, after all) and consider this: We want to protect youth academies. And we want as much pro soccer in this country as we can fit. No need to force clubs down to the amateur ranks.
Above, I threw cold water on the notion that relegation gives clubs incentive. But promotion does.
Pro/rel with a very wide base at the third or fourth tier
You might not need a literal “floor.” You could just have so many teams in the third or fourth tier (which would give you plenty of regional travel-friendly pro leagues) that it’s nearly impossible for a decent club to be relegated.
Forget pro/rel — just have a wide-open D1 as in college sports and have a year-end tournament
In this example, we could end up with a couple hundred “D1” clubs. As long as you meet basic criteria, you’re in. These clubs all play mostly in their own leagues, but as in college sports, they’d also have a few interleague matchups that could affect their selection for the big tournament. MLS would likely dominate at first, just as the ACC and other big conferences generally have the best college men’s and women’s basketball (and soccer), but you’d have the occasional Butler or Gonzaga. And just look at how the Big East was huge, then tiny, then huge again.
Ease into pro/rel by starting with D2 and D3, then cracking open window to MLS
One suggestion I had: Have elections, as the English had for much of their history before finally formalizing the arrangements. That gives MLS clubs a way to bow out and open space for teams that have achieved something at D2.
A lot of people have violent reactions to this idea. But again, Deloitte said pretty much the same thing. And in other countries, pro/rel became reality when they had too many clubs for one league, with those clubs building their names either in another league or in Cup competitions.
Open things up, but let MLS owners keep Soccer United Marketing money
Novel idea from pro/rel advocate Chris Kessell.*
(* – Same guy who publicized the letter. He also ran for vice president but was unable to get the three nomination letters, which I think is grossly unfair. Was Kessell going to beat Cindy Cone? No. Should he have had his time to bring his ideas, including many on youth soccer, before the Federation? Absolutely.)
I obviously can’t write the entire history of soccer discussion in the USA. No one can. But from my observations, here’s what I can see …
- Pro/rel simply wasn’t an issue through most of U.S. soccer history (aside from amateur leagues that went pro/rel with no fuss). The ASL of the 1920s and early 30s never had a quorum. I’m unaware of any serious discussion during the NASL’s heyday in the 1970s. I do know about the “Fricker Plan,” which was discussed in detail by Steve Holroyd. I followed up with one of the journalists Steve mentioned, but he didn’t remember much about it. (Also, this tweet by Fricker’s son will amuse you.)
- When MLS started, much soccer conversation that I could find was on the old North American Soccer mailing list. It was relatively civil. Not always. As far as I can remember, we talked about pro/rel less than we talked about the MLS “shootout,” which was a more pressing issue.
- By the early 2000s, much conversation had moved to the BigSoccer message boards. That’s where it got uglier, in part because Ted Westervelt (you may know him as “soccerreform” on Twitter) popped up trying to raise money (if he ever tries to deny it, check this). That’s where the accusations all started. If you pointed out any counterargument to pro/rel, you were on the MLS payroll. It was a campaign of discrediting the media that would make Donald Trump proud.
- Today, conversation tends to take place on Twitter and Reddit. Both are ugly. We’ve even had the occasional accusation of institutional racism (especially noteworthy given that the last two presidents of U.S. Soccer are people of color, whom I sure enjoy being lectured on racism by a white dude).
Well, I might not agree with the ugliness, but I’m glad they’re keeping the conversation alive
OK. What progress has been made from all that?*
(* – I wrote a Guardian piece recently about the in-fighting that keeps people from setting up a pro/rel league. No, I don’t think USSF would block it if they could set it up. They didn’t block USISL in the 1990s — that pro/rel model failed because clubs couldn’t handle it. Today? Maybe?)
Oh, you say interest in pro/rel is growing among new club owners from the NASL to the NPSL, and it must be because of angry lying serial slanderers on Twitter? Here’s the funny thing about that:
- You can make a case that soccer is growing quickly in the USA (not necessarily better players, but more fans, sponsors, TV interest, etc.), fueled mostly by the Internet and easy access to soccer on TV. (It was much different in the 90s, where we considered ourselves lucky to get one tape-delayed Premier League game on Monday nights.) I’m leaving aside any arguments on MLS. We’re talking overall interest in soccer, which has grown by any metric you can imagine.
- So why in the world do you think that overall growth in soccer, particularly European soccer on TV, has less impact on new club owners than the serial slander of angry men on Twitter?
Years ago, the typical lower-division club official with whom I spoke would say pro/rel will never happen in the U.S. Some of those officials were from England or elsewhere. They didn’t learn about pro/rel from Twitter.
In other words — if you think Peter Wilt, Tim Kelly and Dennis Crowley are taking their cues from the Twitter cesspool, you should really familiarize yourself with what they’re actually doing.
Here’s another take from Paste magazine.
But there’s a conspiracy involving USSF, MLS, SUM and the media
Anti-pro/rel people are mean, too
Yeah, they are. To an extent, it’s understandable. This has been going on a long time, and a lot of newbies come into the conversation thinking they know it all. It’s asking a lot for people to be nice and welcoming to such attitudes.
But I’d agree — some people could dial it back a bit. A lot of new people are coming into the conversation with a willingness to listen as well as talk. No reason not to welcome them.
Besides — they’re nice to me, and I’m not “anti” anything. Yes, I actually disagree with them a good bit. And I disagree with Don Garber’s dismissive take on the subject. He still talked with me the last time I bumped into him.
I’ll start with an introduction in case you don’t know me, then I’ll explain why this discussion has been so frustrating for me.
Who am I?
I graduated from college in 1991 and went into journalism. “Soccer writer” was never my full-time job — nor anyone’s, really, aside from the Soccer America staff and some hardy freelance folks like Michael Lewis. Much of the time at my first papers (Wilmington and Greensboro, both in N.C.), I wasn’t a writer, nor was I in the sports department the entire time. But I did fight for soccer coverage everywhere I’ve been.
At Knight Ridder Tribune News Service in 1999, I carved out time to write a weekly MLS column and a few pieces on the Women’s World Cup. Again, there was resistance. When I told a colleague my age we should work on something on the World Cup, he responded, “We don’t even watch MEN’S soccer in this country, let alone women’s.” I did my best not to tape a Brandi Chastain magazine cover to his face when it was all over.
In late 1999, I moved to USA TODAY. Again, I wasn’t even in Sports. My job was to oversee message boards, chats and other “interactive” or “community” content. But I convinced them to let me write a weekly column that covered anything and everything in soccer. See a sample that opens with indoor soccer before getting into the women’s league and MLS.
Over time, I started doing more soccer writing and reporting. And more MMA. And more online editing/content creation. Basically, more of everything. You can see why I quit in 2010. I didn’t really “quit” — I told them I’d stay if they would simply lighten my workload and let me focus on a couple of sports and a couple of duties. I knew they’d say no.
So ever since, I’ve been freelancing. And blogging. And podcasting. And coaching my kids’ rec soccer teams, which is interesting when you’ve been covering youth soccer at the macro level as well.*
(*- And now reffing.)
That’s the short version. See more clips if you like.
But I heard you work for MLS!
Nope. I wrote a fantasy soccer column for the league’s quasi-independent site, then called MLSNet, some time in the early 2000s. One of my fellow columnists, incidentally, was Eric Wynalda.
Well, you’ll still lose money if MLS has to change
Nope. If anything, I think there’s be a bit more interest in my book covering the first 14 years of league history.
I hate the subtitle of that book, calling it the “Success” story
Yeah, I hear you. It wasn’t my first choice. I went along with it because, given the low bar that was set after generations of failure to set up a pro league, it was relatively successful. If you want to set a higher bar for MLS in 2018 and beyond, that’s reasonable.
In any case, you still depend on MLS for access
Nope. I haven’t covered a league game in years aside from an Open Cup game in which I focused on amateur team Christos FC.*
(* – The streak ended last year when I went to a D.C. United game at Audi Field to write a piece on Wayne Rooney.)
I don’t believe you
Not sure what to tell you. I could show you my bank records, and there would still be people saying I have another account.
So why do you defend the status quo all the time?
I don’t think I do, honestly. My job as a journalist is to be skeptical (but not cynical) of everything. That means I press U.S. Soccer about their latest plans for youth soccer. That also means I evaluate claims about promotion/relegation and what it could mean for U.S. soccer. A lot of people see only the latter, as much as I try to get them to read my youth soccer work.
You come across as so patronizing on Twitter
I get that. I can always try to do better. But imagine you’ve been trying to explain things for 15 years, and you keep getting hit with wave after wave of people accusing of being ignorant … or corrupt.
I do think I’ll stop using the Socratic-questioning method. People don’t seem to like that. They don’t like it when Alexi Lalas does it, either — the abuse he takes is quite ridiculous.
Have you changed your mind on pro/rel?
Not really. I’ve always figured it’ll happen when enough people get together to make it happen.
That’s not a brave stance
No, probably not. But it’s not my job to take stances.
Do you want pro/rel?
I don’t really care. My weekend viewing preferences are typically (1) England, (2) NWSL and (3) MLS. I doubt that’ll change.
I just ask this: If you’re going to do it, do it well. I’d like for my kids to have decent soccer they can watch. The lawsuits are fun and all, but could we move on at some point either way?
Why would U.S. soccer fall apart? What are you worried about?
I was alive in the 1980s when the NASL collapsed and we had virtually no soccer of any kind other than indoor.
Things are different today in the sense that we have tons of TV networks and therefore a lot of soccer on TV. By any metric, the audience for soccer has grown from the days in which I had to fight for every column inch in the newspapers for which I worked. That’s good for us but not necessarily good for any U.S. soccer league. We’re generations behind the EPL, the Bundesliga, La Liga, etc., and whatever league we have will be competing with them on TV. Not to mention the competition from every other sport in the country, from football to Ultimate. (Hey, I’m bullish on Ultimate.)
Is it really that difficult to imagine a time in which U.S. pro soccer declines from where it stands today, and fans just shrug and watch the EPL instead?
But if you pushed for pro/rel, it might happen
You really don’t want me to share the page views on all the ideas I’ve put forth to push the discussion ahead. As it stands now, most of those posts are in double digits.
Besides — I’m a journalist. I’m not above a little bit of advocacy here and there, but my first priority is the facts. Which is why this page is thousands of words, and it’s why I’m no longer interested in playing pundit on Twitter any more. And if you want me to quit pointing out holes in pro/rel advocacy logic, here’s an idea — quit leaving those holes.
If you’d still like to chat, especially if you have something to add, the comments here are open. So are my DMs on Twitter.* Have at it.
(*- That may change shortly. Not really because of pro/rel but because it’s a little creepy to get messages from alleged women trying to lure me into some web of sending money so I can see them slightly more naked or something. But if you’d like to send a comment, it’s pretty easy to do so.)
6 thoughts on “All about promotion/relegation”
I initially forgot to turn on the comments. They’re obviously on now.
Someone on Twitter suggested that Jamie Vardy would never have been discovered if not for pro/rel. I don’t really follow.
Let’s examine …
Vardy is literally exceptional — an exception to the rule that elite players follow a straight upward line from at least the age of 16 or so, from club academy to pro club to bigger pro club. He’s a late bloomer. Sheffield Wednesday released him at age 16. He wound up playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels, which you can call “professional” if you consider 30 pounds a week a pro salary. He had a second job as a carbon-fiber technician for a medical supply company, and he had a curfew because of an assault conviction.
(Good read here: https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/sport/football/non-league/sheffield-wednesday-rejection-was-lowest-point-for-england-s-jamie-vardy-1-7294735
He was 23 by the time he earned a spot with Halifax Town, then in the seventh tier of English football. He helped them reach the sixth (Conference North), then moved on to Fleetwood Town, a phoenix club in the fifth (Conference). With Vardy now a hardy 25 years old, the upwardly mobile Fleetwood advanced to the League proper — the fourth tier — and sold him to Leicester for more than 1 million pounds, hailed by The Independent as a “non-League transfer record” but not recognized on TransfrMarket’s records (perhaps because Fleetwood had won promotion to the League at the time?).
That link, incidentally, shows how rare it is for a non-League (amateur/semipro) side to reap a ton of money from a transfer. I’ll have to check to see if Fleetwood would be due much money if Vardy were sold again — being in his mid-20s when Fleetwood both bought and sold him might rule that out.
So let’s compare — is the Vardy trajectory impossible in the USA? I don’t think so. It’s getting rarer, though, as MLS academies vacuum up a lot of top talent.
A few stories of late-bloomer success …
EDDIE POPE: He was a strong college player but wasn’t on anyone’s national team radar until he debuted with D.C. United in 1996.
CARLOS LLAMOSA: Emigrated from Colombia to the USA around age 22 and was working at the World Trade Center when it was *first* attacked by terrorists in 1993. Started playing again with the New York Centaurs of the A-League (second tier) at age 25. At 27, he moved to D.C. United. Naturalized at age 29, he joined the U.S. national team.
More recent …
MIGUEL IBARRA: Called into U.S. camp by Jurgen Klinsmann at age 24 while playing with Minnesota in the NASL.
MITCH HILDEBRANDT: Became Atlanta’s backup goalkeeper at age 29 after playing with FC Cincinnati.
MARK-ANTHONY KAYE: Left Toronto FC’s reserves in 2015 without ever having joined senior team. Went to Louisville City. Now at LAFC.
SEVERAL NEW YORK COSMOS PLAYERS: Now in MLS.
You might be able to argue that MLS should be signing more young Americans from the lower divisions and fewer players from Central and South America. But that’s not quite the same argument.
The myth that “Vardy couldn’t break through here” is hereby busted.
Quick, small edit: the line “$120 million spent on training facilities in LA, Atlanta and Salt Lake” should read $150, as per the link to the LA Times article ($60m in both Atlanta and Salt Lake, plus $30m for the LAFC project).
Yep. You’re right. I’ve updated. I think I initially broke out one of those investments separately and forgot to add it back in. Thanks!