How U.S. Soccer is like the school cafeteria

Jon Townsend does an eloquent job in his article, “Deconstructing the American Game and the Problems So Many Thought Never Existed,” of laying  out the key issues in U.S. soccer.

Here’s a key issue:

The United States has no shortage of resources, players, fields, minivans, orange slices and participants. What it doesn’t have is a true culture on a large-scale basis. Vital elements like self-play, recreation games, and street football are not woven into the fabric of society in ways that basketball, American football and baseball are.

Too many people believe systems and coaches develop players and that’s where they spend a good deal of their energy.

They overlook a key truth: Culture develops players.

That’s been true of the sports woven into the fabric of our society forever, but it’s a cause and effect that’s hidden in plain sight. Few notice.

Near the end of the article, Townsend writes:

There is unlikely to be a single solution that operates as a panacea for all the ills and deficiencies of the domestic game from the youth to professional levels. If there is one, it is a truly open system where player development becomes an industry. Where investment in all tiers of the game is not a Ponzi scheme but a truly open and free market. Additionally, incentivising player and coaching development must be key drivers. Creating and fostering football as a cultural pillar is paramount.

Yes.

It’s tough for many folks to imagine the difference in outcomes between open and closed systems, but it’s big.

Restaurants are an open system. From it we get a lot of choices on where and what to eat, as well as when.

If restaurants were run like soccer in the U.S., our dinner choices would look more like school cafeterias. Decent, but mediocre, at best.

Of course, we wouldn’t know because we wouldn’t be able to imagine what we were missing.

For those pushing for an open system, we’d hear critics say, yeh but…some restaurants will fail, and that will put people out of work, and nobody will invest in a restaurant if there’s a chance it could fail. These are the types of reasons advocates to keep our closed soccer system.

But, imagine replacing your favorite restaurants with school cafeterias. The quality and selection would be meh. Hours of operation might be shorter and they may not be as conveniently located. The atmosphere may not be as nice. You may not be able to get your favorite cocktail or that one dish at that one place that you look forward to each month.

You may still not be able to imagine all that you’d be missing.

I remember visiting a family member in a different state. I couldn’t get beer after 10 pm because all the state liquor stores were already closed. When I went out the next day, I had to drive a good distance to get the beer.

At home, where the liquor market was more open, there are a dozen or more places within a short drive where I could get beer at any time.

Those that lived in the closed system were used to it. They didn’t know what they were missing.

I’ll keep my open system, thank you. Most will after experiencing it.

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.

What’s in a name?

US Soccer Federation – The name of the governing body of the sport of soccer in the U.S.

The Football AssociationThe name of the governing body of the sport of soccer (football) in the U.K.

One sounds like it’s driven from the top. Clubs exist to give the heads of soccer their power.

The other sounds like it is driven from the bottom.  The power exists to enable the clubs to be the best they can be.

Power of Voice and Exit in soccer

We have two powers at our disposal.

  1. The power of voice — If we don’t like something, we can try to convince the powers that be to change it.
  2. The power of exit — If we don’t like something, we can try alternative — often a competitor or substitute.

Having both is important.

If there was just one beer maker, we’d just have the power of voice in the beer market. The chances of getting the beer we wanted would be low.

Thankfully, we have many beer makers that make many different beers — so we have both the powers of voice and exit and a much improved chance of getting beers we like.

In fact, we have so many beer options that we don’t need to exercise our power of voice to convince a beer maker to make the beer we like.

We simply exercise our power of exit. If we don’t like a beer, we choose another. If enough of us do that, it rewards the beer makers who make what we like and punishes the ones who don’t. The latter either changes or goes away.

An election for the president of US Soccer will be held in February (2018).

One group of soccer fans would like to see a pro league structure that includes promotion/relegation, among other changes. So far, their power of voice has been ignored by US Soccer officials.

Promotion/relegation (“pro/rel,” for short) is where the bottom 2-3 teams in the top league (in this case, the MLS) each year would be relegated to a lower league, while the top 2-3 teams in the lower league would be promoted to the top league, hence ‘pro/rel’.

The current US Soccer administration is against it for various reasons. One reason is they think it would make it tough to attract investors in teams if there was a risk of losing their ‘major league’ status.

The “pro/rel” folks are now trying to use their power of voice to influence who wins the election for US Soccer president. They want a president that supports their ideas.

Unfortunately, the power of voice is muted without the power of exit. It sometimes works. But that’s not the norm because getting enough people to agree on something is difficult enough without politics and corruption. Even more so with it.

With US Soccer having a big say over how soccer is done in the U.S., the power of exit is limited. But, the power of exit is more effective way to get what we want.

Basic question…why does US Soccer have so much say over how soccer is done in the U.S.?

I could be wrong, but I think it’s because FIFA (which organizes international football competitions) recognizes just one soccer federation per country and so US Soccer has a monopoly on dollars from international competitions sanctioned by FIFA.

That makes it difficult for other soccer associations to emerge to compete with US Soccer.

I will add that soccer federations in other countries seem to view their role in soccer a little different than U.S. Soccer. More on that in the next post.

MiB criticizes soccer in the U.S.

In the last 15-20 minutes of the 12/15 Men in Blazers pod, Rog and Davo have some good and critical words to say about soccer in the U.S. and the MLS, especially about the franchise model of the MLS vs. clubs.

Here’s Rog after visiting Columbus, OH and speaking to the fans who are disappointed about the prospect of losing their MLS team in a move to Austin, TX:

…they’re caught up in the middle of city politics, which they feel is the root cause of their nightmare, compounded by desperate ownership moves and the league’s ultimate sense of the teams as franchises, is what you [Davo] always talk about it, rather than clubs, which are rooted in community. Franchises can be moved and yanked around at will. I don’t think anyone in MLS fully appreciates the panic that Columbus situation is causing, not just for fans in Columbus, but for fans in all teams across the league. Relocation is really permanent relegation. It makes teams sleep with the fishes. And I look at the scarlet letter, worn still in English football, MK Dons, Google them if you don’t know who they are.

Davo responds:

I think you raise an interesting point….There’s something about football, there’s something about all sports, which is about authenticity and the franchise based system, the sort of central league system — [Rog:] Which works in NBA and NFL, [Davo:] And also works Major League Baseball, but those based on a long and massive history of those sports in this country. And so, there is a sense you are watching the NBA, when you’re watching the Cleveland Caveliers, you know, something which has grown through decades and decades and decades of this sports. There is also something about the NBA and the NFL which is very much about the urban makeup of America. About the diversity, about the culture and it reflects that…

I don’t think soccer has got to that place yet. But, what I think is starting to happen organically, which is why I’m so excited about what’s happening in other leagues and other cities [non MLS], it feels like there is an authentic soccer culture which is growing up.

And, I’m not saying that doesn’t exist around many of the MLS franchises, around many of the MLS supporters groups, around many of the MLS teams, but it can sometimes feel a little manufactured — [this says a lot here here –>] — I can just feel Alexi [Lalas, friend of the program and often accused Homer to the MLS] listening to this podcast and saying, ‘you’re not a fan…you are either with us or against us’…I am so with MLS…but I do think what they have at league headquarters, Lord Garber and his friends have to acknowledge that there is a desire among soccer fans, not only to not see what happened in Columbus, but to feel something authentic happening in American soccer culture. That is something Major League Soccer has to address and think about is what they are doing is somehow taking that away.

I think some folks would be surprised to hear this criticism from the Men in Blazers, because they are sometimes criticized for being soft on the system since some of their livelihood is depends on it.

I was surprised.

I think it was on point.

I would add on to their comparisons to NFL, MLB and NBA. Those sports and leagues do not have serious international competition. They are American sports that have not caught on in the rest of the world and there’s no international competitions, like the World Cup, that overshadows the importance of the championships of these leagues.

For example, the Super Bowl is the biggest (Am.) football event in the world. It is contested only by American teams. And we call the winners “World Champs,” which I’ve heard many children snicker at because even they recognize that’s a stretch since Am. football isn’t played elsewhere.

If other U.S. pro leagues had international competitions that overshadowed the importance of the domestic league and the U.S. teams had poor showings in those competitions, you can bet that these same types of discussions would take place for those sports.

Another factor that I believe detracts from the authenticity and community grass roots support in the U.S., that Davo gets at, is that sports clubs are structured different here than they are in the other countries.

In the U.S., youth sports are integrated with schools. Elsewhere, sports club provide the sport experience from ages 5 to 65 outside of schools.

I believe that contributes to the authenticity the clubs have in other parts of the world when compared to the pay-for-play club model that co-exists with high school and collegiate sports in the U.S.

Imagine joining sports club at age 5 and growing up with the club’s senior team — the equivalent of the high school or local college team here. That means from age 5, you are coached by members of the senior team, you practice beside them and you go watch them play on the weekends.

This goes back to the observations I made in this post as a missing ingredient in US soccer culture. Our school-based sports programs fragment that experience for young athletes.

It also subjects soccer to the rule-making of governing bodies that don’t have soccer as a priority — like the NCAA and NAIA which oversees all college sports at affiliated schools. So, you get things like short seasons that fit in with the rest of the sports programs schedules and soccer used as a sport to fulfill Title IX requirements.

 

Good reading for issues in U.S. soccer

Regarding soccer in the U.S., here’s some good background reading on the subject.

This guy has some very matter of fact things to say about the whole soccer thing in the U.S.

He supports (and perhaps influenced) my view that the soccer culture in the U.S. is not conducive to producing elite levels of ball control. He also talks about the difference between direct and possession soccer and why direct soccer (which doesn’t produce high quality ball control) is favored in the U.S. (it wins games at low levels).

The following two articles explore some key organizational differences in soccer in the U.S.: promotion/relegation, transfer fees and solidarity payments.

This guy makes a good case for making the MLS a “selling league”.  (HT: Men in Blazers)

These guys make a fantastic case for promotion/relegation (and also making the MLS a selling league).

A key point is that these features are nearly universal in the soccer world, but the U.S. did not adopt them and it holds us back.

US Soccer – What should be done?

With the U.S.’s exit from World Cup Qualifying, there is much discussion on what’s wrong.

How can a nation of 350 million people get beat by a country that has about half as many people than the Kansas City metro area?!?

Iceland, a country of 350,000, qualified! Yes, Iceland has almost as many people as Omaha, Nebraska and they qualified for the World Cup!!!

There are calls for a new manager. That is likely needed, but that won’t solve the problem.

The problem is that we have a top-down system trying to solve a bottom-up problem.

I will add to this post over the coming days with thoughts on this, but I have already posted many of my thoughts in previous posts.

I think a big missing piece of the puzzle is that pickup play in the U.S. is non-existent.