US Soccer is the Myspace of soccer

Critics of promotion/relegation for soccer in the U.S. argue that the closed-leagues of the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL work fine and that’s just how things are done in the U.S.

Question: Do these sports also have professional league standards (PLS) like soccer?

I don’t think they do, but I could be wrong.

Soccer PLS started with good intentions. Soccer leagues in the U.S. came and went. The hope was that by setting some standards, like high minimum net worth requirements for owners, the PLS could bring stability to a league to help establish itself and give national team players a consistent place to get better.

But, in the past few years, the intent of PLS have become more sinister. US Soccer now uses it to to create a barrier to entry to competition to its leagues.

It baffles me that in a free country and in a sport that hasn’t established itself, why the the PLS are needed at all.

What if MySpace got to dictate the standards its competition had to meet?

Myspace’s competitors would look and feel like Myspace because Myspace managers would have a hard time imagining and allowing for solutions that looked different than their own.

That wouldn’t have allowed for the mutations from which the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have emerged.

Many mutations failed, including Myspace. Add Friendster, Orkut and Google + to that list.

In business (and many other things) trial-and-error and mutations in those trials is how success is happened upon.

Alexi Lalas likes to challenge critics of MLS to “build a better mousetrap.”

He doesn’t acknowledge that US Soccer’s monopoly on sanctioning professional soccer leagues in the U.S. and the PLS makes that much less likely to happen.

So here we are, stuck with the Myspace of soccer running things.



Pickup sports is full of important and unmistakable feedback

In addition to providing the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, competition gives us feedback. It benchmarks our play against others and exposes us to different ways to play.

One thing I see holding back top level of soccer in the U.S. is that kids in prime development years primarily compete on teams, which provides easily mistakable feedback on their individual performance.

When I started playing adult soccer, we had a superstar on our team. He won us a lot of games. It would have been easy to delude myself into thinking that I was pretty good, too, because, we were winning.

I wasn’t.

Our team wins gave me a mistakable signal on my individual performance.

I see a lot of kids in the same situation on their youth team. A couple rock stars carry the team and the other players lure themselves into complacency by mistaking the team’s results as a reflection of their own ability.

I’ve seen those players lose years of development by being shrouded from the truth of their own performance.

What’s missing in their development is competition where their individual performance is less mistakable.

I wrote about an approach to do this used in Belgium here. They focus less on team competition and more 1v1’s with little ones.

I think that’s on the right path, but still misses something.

Learning basketball in the U.S. also requires a lot of 1-on-1’s, but the bulk of those 1-on-1’s takes place outside of organized play.

Pickup play in driveways, parks, playgrounds, community center gym and churches teaches about 10x more basketball than team ball.

Your individual performance in these venues is close to unmistakable.

In case you do mistake your performance, like making excuses for losing (we all know people like that), your friends will keep you honest.

There’s nothing wrong with playing on soccer teams at young ages or keeping score.

The problem is that if that’s the only place you compete, it’s too easy to hide from your own performance for too long and not realize how far behind you are until it’s too late.

Absent pickup play, Belgium’s approach is better than the standard approach. That teaches 3-4x more soccer than the standard approach, which is not near the 10x pickup can teach.

Why U.S. Soccer is hypocritical for de-sanctioning NASL’s Division II status

U.S. Soccer de-sanctioned NASL’s Division II status because the NASL wasn’t in compliance with U.S. Soccer’s Professional League Standards of minimum number of teams and minimum number of seats in the stadiums, among other things.

I wonder when FIFA will de-sanction U.S. Soccer since it doesn’t comply with FIFA standards of promotion/relegation, training compensation and solidarity payments, among other things?

What is meant by “authenticity” in soccer

In the podcast referenced in the Tweet below, host Daniel Workman talks with NPSL head Kenny Farrell.

In it is a good discussion of what is missing in soccer in the U.S.

I hear the term ‘authenticity’ a lot when discussing soccer in the U.S. and how American soccer lacks it, while other countries have it.

But, what does that mean? Soccer is soccer, right? How can a sport lack authenticity?

I touched on it in this post from 2017 and this follow-up says more.



Pro/rel doesn’t scare owners away

One argument against pro/rel in US soccer is that “rel” would scare away owners who have been bought a team in the top league.

Yet, I’ve never heard thoughts from the actual owners about this.

My guess is that owners are not nearly as concerned with pro/rel as critics of pro/rel say they are.

How do I know?

Because there are many pro/rel leagues around the world and they don’t have trouble finding owners. Some of those owners are even American who also own teams in non-pro/rel leagues.

American Stan Kroenke, for example, owns teams in the non-pro/rel MLS (Colorado Rapids) and pro/rel English Premier League (EPL) (Arsenal).

American-owned Fenway Sports Group owns a team in a non-pro/rel league MLB (Boston Red Sox) and pro/rel EPL (Liverpool).

As does the American Glazer family who own a team in a non-pro/rel league NFL (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and pro/rel EPL (Manchester United).

An unintended consequence of US Soccer’s Professional League Standards

U.S. Soccer’s PLS (Professional League Standards) sound good when you first hear about it, but as you learn more you see how it they can actually hold the game back.

The US Soccer Federation instituted the PLS in 2010 for good sounding reasons like protecting the safety of fans, preserving the experience of the game (e.g. field size requirements), to help make sure the teams are well financed to protect pro players from not getting paid and providing markets stable teams.

Some things the PLS dictates are the minimum number of teams a league can have, the population size of the area where the teams play and the minimum number of seats needed in stadiums.

I’d like to illustrate one negative unintended consequence of these standards.

The Kansas City market has a Division 1 (MLS) and Division 2 (USL) soccer, both operated by Sporting KC/MLS.

The Division 2, USL team, Swope Park Rangers, used to play their home games in an easily accessible, small, quaint venue with 2,000-3,000 seating capacity.

This field sits in a complex where youth teams play and has hosted Kansas City’s former NWSL team, college championships, the DA championships last summer, as well as USL’s Swope Park Rangers (see below).

Swope FieldIt was a nice, convenient alternative to Sporting KC. Low key, easy to get to and made for a nice relaxing, and inexpensive evening of soccer.

I coached on other fields at the youth complex while Swope Park Rangers and NWSL games were going on and encouraged players to go watch after our game.

I saw youth and their parents walk across the street and pay the $5 so sit on the grass berm to enjoy and learn from high-quality soccer being played on this field.

But, that venue did not have the minimum number of seat required in the PLS for a Division II team, so mid-season last year, the Swope Park Rangers moved their home games to Sporting KC’s home field to satisfy the requirement.

That quaint, small soccer atmosphere now looks like this:


The empty, cavernous feel makes you a little sad for the players and fans.

You can dictate the number of seats a stadium can have, but you can’t dictate that they be filled with fans.

Swope Park Rangers were better off at their previous field as was the Kansas City soccer community, for having this convenient alternative.

Sporting KC fills the above stadium for its games and Swope Park Rangers used to draw a pretty good crowd to make for a nice atmosphere at its previous venue.

They also lack the convenient draw of the youth players in the same complex.

In my opinion, if US Soccer wants to grow the game, it needs to stop doing dumb stuff like this.

Competition and monopolies in soccer

I thought the following dialogue about monopoly and competition from this 3Four3 podcast, with guest Ciara McCormack, was well said (around the 36 minute mark, emphasis added):

Host John Pranjic: The lack of competition, the lack of ideas being thrown into an arena, to let it fight it out and see which is best, that is what Canada lacks, that is what United States lacks, that is what Australia lacks, when it comes to soccer.

You get this one-size-fits-all attitude, from the top-down, that mindset alone is what kills the soccer environments in those three countries

Guest McCormack: There’s a reason in our societies, economically, that monopolies are frowned upon. It’s exactly the thing you are talking about. The lack of creativity.

I always liken it to, if I step on the field and I know I’m in the starting eleven every week — I can be good, I can be bad, I can sit and pick flowers the whole game and line [something] — and I know that I’m starting every week.

I’m not becoming better. People around me aren’t becoming better. They become stagnant.

Growing up in Canada, I’ll use my White Caps experience as an example. That was the only club team you could play for if you wanted a shot with the Canadian team.

The amount of power that gives the people in charge to treat the players what ever way they want, it just creates this awful culture.

When I was in Denmark, that would never have happened. You’re at a club and things aren’t going really good, then you go to another club.

Then another club starts with revolutionary ideas, that club rises to the top…


As I’ve mentioned before, we all have two powers: the power of voice and exit.

Pranjic and McCormack here describes negative consequences of not having a strong enough competition, or low power of exit, in a soccer federation.

These principles of voice and exit are true for all organizations from governments, private enterprises, schools, soccer federations and, as McCormack points out, teams.

It would be interesting to go deeper into how soccer federations are organized in other countries to compare to the U.S., Canada and Australia.

From my uneducated point of view, many seem to see their role more about fostering competition at all levels, rather than being in charge of competitions at levels.

For example, while U.S. Soccer seems focused on dictating the how many seats must be in stadiums and the minimum population sizes of team markets, England’s FA is more about ensuring that any team playing good soccer has a chance — no matter the size of their stadium or city.

I believe those in U.S. Soccer prioritize stability. That’s why they focus on stadium and market size. They think that will keep teams around, even when their results aren’t great.

I believe those in England’s FA prioritize the quality of soccer. It’s not that they don’t care about stability, but they believe stability comes from good soccer, not from the number of seats in the stadium.

The business of sports teams worse than their profiles

The authors of the book, Soccernomics, point out that soccer clubs are such high profile that people think they are bigger and more profitable businesses than they are.

But, their true finances contradict their large profiles. They are neither big nor very profitable and are downright bad businesses.

For example, the revenue from one of the largest, most popular soccer clubs, Real Madrid is just one-eighth that of a small food distributor in Rhode Island that you never heard of, United Natural Foods.

Owners don’t get rich owning sports teams. They get rich doing other things, like owning United Natural Foods, and their sports teams are a bit like vacation homes for the upper middle class — they don’t expect to see much financial return from, they just enjoy having some place on visit on Sunday afternoons.

The bad economics of sports teams is driven by the fact that there’s desire to win trophies.

The most effective way to win trophies is to hire the best talent possible.

The best talent possible is expensive and the team’s economic profits tend to go to the players rather than the owners.

The Soccernomics guys quote A.T. Kearney,

you could…argue that soccer clubs are nothing more than vessels for transporting soccer’s income to players.

This is true for all sports teams. The New England Patriots, the most successful team in the world’s most valuable league brings in about $600 million per year.

The NFL uses salary caps to help owners make a profit and to help spread the talent to create competitive parity (that doesn’t seem to be working).

Even with the caps, the Patriots pay about $200 million to players, $200 million to cover other expenses (like grounds keeping and front office staff) and have about $200 million left over to cover taxes, debt and to give the owner a return.

$200 million is not chump change, but considering that’s just about twice the income of the small food distributor, it puts it in perspective. The best NFL team of late does just a little better financially than a small food distributor that nobody has ever heard of.

To put it more in perspective, McDonald’s (more well known) operating income averages about $8 billion per year, or 36x that of Patriots.

First ball, then game

Wise words from Tom Byer in the tweet below:

“Fall in love with the Ball first and the game follows.”


Respect for the ball

Here’s a couple good highlights from this 3Four3 podcast with a soccer dad.

Words of wisdom, from a soccer dad to his daughter about how to approach the game:

Respect the game. Respect your opponent. Respect your teammates. And, have respect for the ball.

I learned when I was coaching that one of the toughest things to convince kids and parents from non-soccer backgrounds was to have respect for the ball.

Kicking the ball down the field works early on. Why mess with the “fancy” stuff?

Having respect for the ball and learning to master it doesn’t produce immediate results. It won’t improve your game that much next week or over the course of a season, but it builds over time.

On playing pickup:

The thing that really irritates is street [i.e. pickup soccer] or futsal that’s not free…and that is artificially created to be super safe and it never works. It has the opposite effect. You might as well be playing club soccer because the same people are running it. Not say club soccer is bad. It’s not. We obviously play it.

But it has to be organic. It has to be free flowing. It has to come from the right place.

And, the players who are participating on it, at some level, have to get it. And the parents have to to get it and see the value in it.

If you don’st see the value in it, then it’s a real hard sell.

People ask all the time, you know, ‘futsal and street, what’s the point? You’re going to get hurt. It’s just for fancy footwork and they’re not really scoring goals and what do you see the benefit of it.’

Well, if I have to explain to you, then it’s not worth it, because you don’t get it. Sometimes it’s not always about the results, it’s about the process.

If you boil it down, street and maybe futsal to a lesser extent, is soccer. So, if you got a kid that can go play street for 4 hours, well maybe that’s the sacrifice for that week and maybe the [club] game isn’t.

But the sell for that is real difficult.

That 4 hours of street ball is more true soccer time than the average club soccer kids get over the course of a season.

Playing pickup in any sport is an important dimension to development. The best basketball players spend countless hours on their driveway hoops and in the park with friends.

For some reason, that lesson doesn’t seem to translate well to soccer, until its too late.