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.

 

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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:

IMG-4521

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…

Exactly.

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.