Are the Days of the Wild West Alive Again in American Soccer?
The rise of soccer in the USA has been tremendous, and with this growth comes new challenges.
THE SOCCER LEAGUE SHUFFLE: Recently, men’s soccer teams have been changing leagues — NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies & Ottawa Fury FC will be joining the USL for 2017 season and at the other end of the spectrum, NPSL’s NC Battalion is joining the USL’s PDL — the official announcement coming soon.
Of course there is always movement between leagues but this year, since the USL has aligned itself closely with the MLS, there seems to be a new, unbridled force.
The partnership between the MLS and the USL is growing strong — 11 MLS clubs have USL teams and the Houston Dynamo has the USL’s Rio Grande Valley FC as a development affiliate.
How strong is the connection between the MLS and the USL? If the recent USL Cup final is any indication — very strong. The championship final was between two MLS ‘farm’ teams —the New York Red Bulls II and Sporting KC’s Swope Park with the New York Red Bulls II winning 5-1.
Is the USL is the strongest U.S. Men’s professional soccer league below Major League Soccer (MLS)?
Isn’t that really the North American Soccer League (NASL) — the professional men’s soccer league that is ranked as the Division II league in the American league system?
While the United Soccer League (USL) may have been positioned as Division III, the NASL has already lost two of their current twelve teams. The USL, in contrast, has a thriving Eastern and Western Conference, along with 4 new expansion teams.
Are the league changes part of the new gold rush in soccer to align with U.S. Soccer and the MLS or simply a fight for market share?
The fabric of American soccer — is it strong enough to grow through the constantly evolving turmoil of teams being recruited and going from one league to another?
In Europe — leagues can’t recruit. Promotion and relegation are the way teams move up and down in the competitive leagues — and everything is done under the watchful eyes of the FA and their clearly delineated structure.
In America, free enterprise reigns supreme. U.S. Soccer is the governing body and while the MLS is atop the soccer pyramid, there is a lack of clarity in the alignment of the leagues below.
What is the rational for clubs to move from one league to another?
Usually, clubs seek a league which will provide the right level of competition but in America’s rapidly growing lower leagues — it is a bit more like the Wild West than an ordered level of sequential competition.
“In order to accomplish our goals, we have to align ourselves,” says Jason Barbato, Founder and CEO of San Diego’s NC Battalion. “Soccer is moving fast and I am committed to keeping my promise of being a heartbeat away from the pros.” The NC Battalion’s move signals the pervasive question, is being a part of the USL getting a club closer to the MLS?
What about the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) — the proverbial grassroots of organized semi-pro soccer in America? Sitting on the 4th tier of soccer with 87 teams across the county, this Division V level league is member driven and welcomes new clubs and players seeking alternative routes to the professional ranks.
With low entry costs for clubs and an obviously very large player pool with a broad range of talent, NPSL plays an important role in the growth of American soccer.
“Players do come out of the NPSL and make it into the professional ranks,” says Joe Barone, Commissioner of the NPSL who has grown the organization significantly since he took over. “There are plenty of players who use this level to get into the game and we are proud to push talent up the ladder into the pro circuit.”
Yan Skwara, Commission of UPSL, a smaller 4th tier league — concentrated in the Southwest agrees. “If there is a really talented player in the UPSL, I believe that player will be recognized – that’s reality.”
Barone is concerned that stimulating the growth of one league at the expense of another is not smart business. “America is a huge country with a lot of players and the NPSL serves the needs of many communities as well as the dreams of the players,” says Barone.
“If we look at the success of professional soccer across the globe, it is clear that local rivalries between soccer clubs fuels the growth of the game,” adds Barone. “A local derby builds soccer, and the NPSL provides this opportunity in many markets.”
The idea of the local derby is almost as old as the game of soccer — whether it is the Manchester Derby with Manchester United against Manchester City, the MLS’ Red Bulls against NYC FC or two teams in the NPSL creating a local competition, it is clear that fans rally around a local community driven contest. This passionate fight for supremacy helps grow the game of soccer and when a soccer club changes leagues, it can sadly curtail a local derby.
Barone is concerned that it is the game suffers the most when leagues fight over clubs and the focus is on recruiting instead of developing players and fans. While Barone has great respect for the game in the USA, he says, “What is happening is structured chaos — and I do not believe it is healthy for American soccer.”