Commentary

England, Japan and the USA -- the relationship between league and federation

In my last article, Soccer Made in Germany, I have discussed the success story of German MNT and the lessons we can learn from them. Now let us have a look at a three other countries and the associated professional men’s leagues, namely England, Japan and USA, three countries from three different continents. I should note that information is limited for the Japan /J1 League due to the limited information in English and for MLS due to their limited transparency.

Country League League Ranking MNT Ranking League Revenue
England EPL 1 13 $5.3B
Germany Bundesliga 2 1 $2.8B
USA MLS 13 35 $461M
Japan J1 League 14 46 $440M


If we look at the table, you will see that Germany is the most successful country, both on the business side (ranked second) and the developmental side (ranked first).
The English Premier League is by far the most lucrative soccer investment. Its 2016 revenues of $5.3 billion are nearly twice the revenues of the Bundesliga ($2.8 billion). It is natural that other leagues to try to model the business aspect of the EPL.

On the other hand, the English MNT has not won a single major competition since the 1966 World Cup. The English MNT was only once in the World Cup semifinals in 1990. The English MNT’s record in the European Championships is not any better. The English MNT played only twice in the semifinals of the European Championships (1968 and 1996). Out of the 15 European Championships since 1960, five times it did not even qualify for the championships. One can say that the EPL started in 1992; well, the record is even worse then. The recent U-20 championship might give some hope to the English MNT fans, but the history shows that no correlation exists between the U-20 WC winners and the winners or even the semifinalists of the WC in the years ahead.

How about the EPL teams and the UEFA leagues (Champions League and Europa League) since 1992? They won the UCL four times (Liverpool 2005, Manchester United 1999 and 2008 and Chelsea 2012). They won the Europa League three times (Liverpool 2001, Chelsea 2013 and Manchester United 2017). For the league ranked No. 1 in revenue with a good margin, the results in international competitions could hardly be counted as a success story. So the bottom line is that EPL is a business success story. Its positive reflection on the English MNT and the international competitions is very questionable. Some EPL teams play with a starting eleven of all foreigners, since there is no limitation on foreign players in EPL.

It is interesting to note that EPL’s mission statement (*) has six items. Only the sixth and the last one talks about youth development. “Use our resources to develop playing talent that will provide for international success with England team at all levels ….”
It is obvious that the owners of EPL only care for the team to be profitable and be successful on the pitch. For EPL clubs being profitable and being successful on the pitch are related because of the promotion/relegation in the English leagues. Whether they are successful with English players or not is not their concern.

Even then EPL has a document for Youth Development, which is 188 pages long (d). The adherence to these standards is monitored by Double Pass. I do not how much of this effort is due to the FA requirements and how much of it is genuine.

Now let us have a look at the mission statement (*) of the J1 League: The very first item on the mission statement is: “To raise the level of Japanese Football and promote the diffusion of the game through the medium of professional football.” That shows that the owners of the J1 League care about their MNT.

Also the J1 League has very specific conditions for membership in five categories:

-- Incorporation
-- Hometown
-- Players and Coaching Licenses
-- Team Structure
-- Stadium Facilities

Under team structure, the minimum requirements for youth development are defined.
J1 League clubs have won the AFC Champions League five times in the last 25 years. They rank second in Asia after their historical rival South Korea (11 times) in the number of Champions League championships won.  The Japanese MNT qualified and competed in the last five World Cups. They made it to the round of 16 twice (2002 and 2010). Both Japanese MNT and J1 League show comparable success on the field and in the accounting books.

After a thorough search on the internet, I could not come up with the mission statement of MLS. I am sure it exists, but it is a well-kept secret.

CIES last year published a report: “Governance Models across Football Leagues and Clubs." Although published last year, the research covers the 2013-14 season. It researches 16 Leagues and affiliated clubs in six confederations for governance models including the EPL, MLS, J1 League and Ligaverband (German League).

One can learn a lot from this publication. For example, according to this research, the three leagues that do not employ promotion -- relegation are MLS, A-League (Australia) and Papua New Guinea’s NSL. You also learn that there are only two leagues that do not have their national association (the soccer federation of that country) with shareholding interest: MLS and NSL (South Africa).

Well, one might be hopeful to find the missing information of MLS in this publication. Alas, other than a couple of responses, wherever there is MLS in the report it has N/R (not reported) with it. Even a simple question like “Legal form of clubs required by the League” has an N/R associated with it for MLS.

So MLS’s concern for privacy even extends to a formal survey of FIFA. Hence, I am not surprised that one cannot access their mission statement, let alone their annual loss/profit values for the clubs.

It is a well-known fact even though U.S. Soccer or CSA does not mandate MLS with youth development systems, but still all USA MLS clubs except one -- Minnesota United -- had DAs in 2016-17. (Minnesota United's DAs debut later this summer). The standards of the DAs are put down by U.S. Soccer and the DA leagues are run by U.S. Soccer.

MLS at this stage of financial maturity needs the DAs to cut down its costs. None of the MLS clubs can afford to pay millions of dollars for soccer stars of Europe and South America. If one day MLS is ranked in the top three leagues, I can assure you they will not be the least interested in youth development.

In the Concacaf Champions League (2008-09 onwards), only Liga MX teams won the championships. Prior to that in the Champions Cup era (1962-2008), two MLS teams -- D.C. United 1998 and LA Galaxy 2000) -- won. Although Liga MX ranks 10th with $555 million revenue and is comparable to MLS’s revenue, it’s on the field performance is far superior.

The USMNT has been competing in every World Cup since 1990. It made the quarterfinals once (2002) and the round of 16 three times. That might look like a success story. Let us not forget the USMNT competes in Concacaf with 3.5 slots available to it in the World Cup. Only one Concacaf MNT team ever finished in the final four at the World Cups: the USA in 1930 (semifinals). With the USA and Mexico the only dominant soccer countries in Concacaf, it usually would require a miracle for the USMNT not to qualify for the World Cup. Just be honest, if USMNT competed in Conmebol or UEFA, would it have qualified for all the World Cups since 1990?

It is obvious a national association cannot depend solely on the business success of its professional league to launch a successful MNT campaign. Most of the time, the interests of the professional leagues and the owners will collide with the interests of the national associations. This is inevitable.

The national association -- U.S. Soccer -- should realize that it has the upper hand. The upper hand is given to the national association by FIFA. Unlike any other professional sport in the USA, an international governing body has incredible powers that the National Associations can pursue effectively. For example, if U.S. Soccer does not sanction MLS as a professional league, MLS teams cannot play in a single international tournament, it cannot transfer a single foreign player and the list goes on. One cannot witness the same relation between NBA, USA Basketball and FIBA.

The USMNT can be a world soccer leader. You need three things for this to happen:

-- Time and patience;
-- The awareness of U.S. Soccer of its rights and power bestowed on it by FIFA; the fair and wise use of this power.  
-- Correct governance structures for both U.S. Soccer and MLS.

That is that simple or complicated depending on one’s perspective.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.

*Governance and Policy in Sport Organizations, 3rd Edition by Hums and MacLean, pages 367-369.
21 comments about "England, Japan and the USA -- the relationship between league and federation".
  1. Mark Lange, July 28, 2017 at 12:38 a.m.

    I found the MLS mission statement on the first search.

  2. Mark Lange, July 28, 2017 at 12:44 a.m.

    To make soccer, in all its forms, a preeminent sport in the United States and to continue he development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels.

  3. Ahmet Guvener replied, July 28, 2017 at 12:49 a.m.

    I ama sorry but that is the mission statement of U.S. Soccer NOT MLS.

  4. Mark Lange, July 28, 2017 at 12:46 a.m.

    Good article - I am an American living in Japan and follow both the J-League and MLS.

  5. Greg Krauss, July 28, 2017 at 1:10 a.m.

    Mark Lange that once coached the Clearwater Chargers?

  6. Mark Lange replied, July 28, 2017 at 3:16 a.m.

    Yep - that is me Greg Krause!

  7. Mark Lange replied, July 28, 2017 at 4:37 a.m.

    Greg - you on FB? My email address is gakukai@mac.com

  8. Kenneth Barr, July 28, 2017 at 1:23 a.m.

    At its inception in 1996, the MLS mission was to establish a successful first tier professional league and to develop players for the US National Team. This was before Canadian teams were admitted to MLS.

  9. Kent James, July 28, 2017 at 1:24 a.m.

    Very informational article,but I'm not sure where you're going with it. The MLS has an odd structure, but I'm not sure what you're recommending should change (if anything) to help the USMNT.

  10. Ahmet Guvener replied, July 28, 2017 at 1:30 a.m.

    That is for US Soccer to find out and enforce it, like the DFB did for German soccer 15 years ago.

  11. don Lamb replied, July 30, 2017 at 2:25 p.m.

    But, Ahmet, why qualify the US's "success" by pointing out the easy nature of qualifying from CONCACAF without making the same qualifiers about Japan, which has had less actual success IN the World Cup? You were obviously trying to give an unbiased report, but this point seems to suggest there is some bias.

  12. Mark Lange, July 28, 2017 at 3:22 a.m.

    I am pretty sure that the US Soccer Federation mission statement is shared by MLS. They follow that overarching statement and have made it their own.

  13. don Lamb replied, July 30, 2017 at 2:07 p.m.

    H - Who is "forcing" NY, RSL, Dallas, LA to develop lots of homegrown players? Others like ATL and Seattle are producing a few players, and almost every club has at least one major homegrown prospect. You alwasy go on about how much better off Mexico is when it comes to development, but the signs are there that we are overtaking them. Liga MX is lacking young Mexican stars, and I would bet that more teenagers have played in MLS this season than in Liga MX. Do you still have your Mexico pom-poms?

  14. Joey Tremone, July 28, 2017 at 12:26 p.m.

    "If one day MLS is ranked in the top three leagues, I can assure you they will not be the least interested in youth development."

    --

    I don't know why that would follow. MLB and the NHL are the top leagues in their respective sports, and yet they invest in player development. The NFL and NBA do not, because they've got relatively sophisticated college sports systems underneath them doing it for free.

  15. R2 Dad, July 29, 2017 at 5:34 p.m.

    "If one day MLS is ranked in the top three leagues, I can assure you they will not be the least interested in youth development." Ze Germans decided that, after some poor results for their national team, their FA coerced the Bundesliga to change foreign participation rules to allow for more playing time for their young professionals. Only then did die Mannschaft climb to the top. I suspect MLS won't be able to break the top 7 until they do something similar. MLS has to decide if they are pursuing the EPL model (which they can't afford, and in which case youth development doesn't matter), or the Bundesliga model.

  16. don Lamb replied, July 30, 2017 at 1:53 p.m.

    Good point, R2. It's fairly obvious that MLS has recognized the importance of developing its own players. Which makes the declaration that MLS will certainly not invest in youth when it becomes a top three league a bit silly when that investment will have played such a big part of the league becoming that successful in the first place. Simple logic would lead us to believe that the more money MLS is making, the money it will invest in youth development, ala Germany.

  17. R2 Dad, July 29, 2017 at 5:35 p.m.

    Great analysis AG!

  18. Ric Fonseca, July 29, 2017 at 7:20 p.m.

    H Savage, Australia beat the USWNT yesterday simply and because the Americanas were ball watching, and looked like the three or four stooges, "no you get it, no I got it, I thought you were going to get it...." and not so much because they've invested into the youth developmental programs. The women's US national collegiate soccer game has improved by leaps and bounds, jeepers, I remember refereeing one day in the late 70's and into the early '80s when in the greater Los Angeles/San Fernando Valley area, the only girl's teams were non-existant in high schools, and then slowly but surely they began to spring up and grow, and tootin's my own bell, in 1980, as CSUN's first NCAA coach, I was approached by some students and asked to form a women's club, we did and even participated in a women's league vs UCLA, Westmont College, Biola Univ, USC and several others.... at that time UCLA was just barely looking at forming the first women's varsity program, as well as others. I see a similar situation with the women's program internationally, and the Matildas beat us because they just plain and simple wanted more than us!

  19. Ben Myers, July 29, 2017 at 11:29 p.m.

    Right. MLS owners have no incentive to develop players, and it shows at the international level. Our boys play hard and give their best, but they are very much products of a deeply flawed player development (non-)system composed of a lot of greed merchants. It's only by sheer luck that a player becomes a professional after being part of the high school college mess. Then you have pay-to-play soccer clubs, much of which are run by greedy club owners, some of which are actually sincere about player development, with decent programs and coaches in place. It will take a lot to unravel this mess, and, sadly, Sunil Gulati thinks he has far more important tasks to command his attention. Or maybe he thinks it is too difficult, hence he won't tackle it. I watched an MLS match today followed by the pre-season Real Madrid-Barca match. No comparison in the quality of play.

  20. don Lamb replied, July 30, 2017 at 1:58 p.m.

    First, that is not even close to an accurate portrayal of the current development system in the US. Second, did you expect an MLS game to match the level of a game between the two best teams in the world?

  21. don Lamb, July 30, 2017 at 2:13 p.m.

    Ahmet - Surprised you did not consider ownership when writing this article. How many of the EPL's owners are British. 100% of Bundesliga owners are German, correct? And a very high percentage of MLS owners are American, right? That has to have some bearing on the mission of a team as it relates to producing national team players.

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