TYSON HILGENBERG - Monday, August 25, 2014
Development of youth players in the United States is a changing phenomenon and the current landscape is full of opportunity and pitfalls.
A growing number of American players are staying in the states to play, or coming back after fledgling careers elsewhere. With the progression of supposed tier 2 and tier 3 professional leagues like NASL and USL Pro, and developmental leagues like PDL, the chances for young American players to compete at a high level are increasing. Not to mention the addition of two more MLS expansion teams next season in Orlando City and New York City FC (NYCFC).
However, additional teams could dilute the overall quality of the league if they are added too soon. Too many teams and not enough quality players is potentially an issue, although it's hard to argue against expansion when huge amounts of money are available to these new teams.
Manchester City owned NYCFC have the backing of one of the richest clubs in Europe and therefore the ability to start a team from scratch and bring in big names like Frank Lampard and David Villa. The problem is that Major League Soccer is the entity that actually has to negotiate and approve all signings and transfers. That creates a system where the talent is spread over all the teams and is very controlled. Look at the situation with Jermaine Jones right now and his negotiation with MLS. Chicago Fire and New England Revolution both want his signature. Jones would prefer Chicago, although he said he would go to New England but only for more money, which the league doesn't think he's worth, so the whole thing has stalled.
The involvement of MLS in transfers and negotiations can be very frustrating and seems "big brother'ish", even downright socialist at times. The allocation rule, in which certain teams have first choice at big players, like the DeMarcus Beasley to Houston deal, is another element that makes things complicated in general.
The whole MLS structure also affects the lower leagues and the ability of these clubs to be independent and really build their team how they deem best.
NYCFC has a vast amount of finances at their disposal so they can at least build their infrastructure without too much intrusion from MLS. What happens on the field with players or in the academy is a different story.
MLS and professional soccer in the U.S. have become slightly enamored with the idea of expansion teams. Justice might be better served to young players if not only MLS, but all leagues focused on first building higher quality teams within an organized overall structure, instead of simply creating more teams. From MLS all the way down to PDL.
PDL, a lower level developmental league has 64 teams spread over multiple regional conferences. It's not technically professional, although in the USL family. It includes college athletes in their off-season and you can retain your amateur status. The NASL has 10 teams with 3 more joining in 2015. USL Pro currently has 14 teams, with supposedly 5 expansion teams in 2015. It's a definite situation where if you can pay enough and prove you have somewhat of a market you can have a team. Both leagues are constantly changing and adding, dropping, or merging teams.
Clearly there seems to be something missing in the middle. It's an uneven balance. Not really a complaint about USL Pro or NASL as they've grown and improved quite a bit. It's more about how do we make these leagues more competitive, more profitable because of future potential, and generally more interesting?
Both the NASL and USL Pro are arguably equal, but confusing in their connection to MLS, if any connection really exists. NASL is technically considered the 2nd tier of American soccer behind MLS, however the two entities don't work together like USL Pro and MLS have begun to do. NASL has actually made it known that their long-term goal is to compete with MLS as the top league in America, not work with them.
The current MLS structure makes it impossible to recommend a relegation/promotion strategy, but it would offer an interesting incentive for those USL Pro and NASL teams.
There is a groundbreaking idea you've probably never heard before- What if all of American professional soccer was organized by USSF (U.S. governing body of soccer) into a clear-cut system, similar to England and most other soccer nations? Yes, sarcasm intended.
Maybe this is only in my dreams, but having been around many PDL teams, and a part of the USASA Elite soccer leagues (amateur elite adult soccer), and of course MLS and USL Pro, I feel a strong desire to give these clubs more incentive.
For example, we could take 20 of the PDL teams and invite them into the lowest rung of American professional soccer and the other 40 or so teams, most likely in the smaller markets, remain as they are, but now in a smaller more cohesive developmental league. Obviously too much travel is an issue for PDL teams, so maybe it's divided in a way that limits travel. Then you have the base of the pro soccer pyramid, say tier 3 made up of the best current PDL teams. This would of course change the business model of these PDL teams and require a certain amount of financial security.
Then we could merge the NASL and USL Pro leagues to create tier 2. Because of the changing landscape of USL Pro and NASL and neither one showing its extreme superiority they would have to merge in some fashion. USL Pro side Orlando City is becoming an MLS franchise already, so we lose a team there. To round out the competition in Tier 3 however, a couple NASL and USL Pro teams would drop down. It could be the teams without the financials to compete in Tier 2, or the teams that finish in the bottom of their respective leagues.
The option of course exists to make a clean split and create tier 2 and tier 3 by simply using NASL as tier 2 and USL Pro as tier 3, and keep PDL as a developmental, but still offer a route for promotion into tier 3. Although as mentioned, it's not really a fair way to do it.
And of course MLS is tier 1.
In addition, there are some very good USASA Elite amateur club teams out there, especially in Southern California. A couple of these teams have consistently made it to the US Open Cup and beaten MLS based clubs and USL pro teams. Maybe there is some room for promotion for those teams based on some type of competition? It gives those clubs more incentive and more opportunities for sponsorship. If these teams had a route to becoming pro other than USL simply saying, you can become a pro team if you have enough money, it might change the mind set.
This system would require a re-organization of MLS and its ownership structure and probably won't happen, but maybe it should. MLS doesn't make money yet. It actually loses millions of dollars a year.
Now, MLS is improving in a great way and becoming a solid league but it can only buy big name older players for so long. It really needs to be about fostering the youth in a system that allows players to progress who are good enough. Similar to the minor leagues in baseball, where clubs really get a chance to find out what their players are all about before they make it to the big leagues. Yet it still gives the players some system they can understand and move up in. LA is trying their hand at this idea with the creation of LA Galaxy II.
Many USL Pro and NASL teams don't currently have a big enough fan base to be in MLS. This is the argument you often hear. But if there was a chance at promotion I guarantee that would change. Granted if a team did gain promotion it would sign some big name players and other guys on the roster would have to stay in the lower division by moving to another team, but that's the name of the game. The cream rises to the top.
Either way we need to organize the structure of pro soccer in some manner, making it more like a pyramid instead of a confusing blend of leagues where the parity from NASL to USL Pro and even down to PDL can be negligible. And in some cases NCAA teams are better than all these teams, although that's slowly changing with the increase in club academies, like that of LA Galaxy's. Many top college aged players are choosing to get paid and be a part of these club academies instead, with the added bonus of being able to move up, like in the case of newly formed LA Galaxy II competing in USL Pro.
The academy system is good for young soccer players but the lack of cohesion and organization in the other pro and top developmental leagues is problematic and could stunt the growth of U.S. players down the line. In addition, the MLS ownership structure will continually hold outside clubs down, unless it changes.