Commentary

What the future might bring for U.S. pro leagues

In my last article, I talked about the structure of the professional leagues in the USA and in Europe. Since that article has been published, there had been some announcements regarding professional soccer for the next year. USL League 1 (Division 3) will have 10 new teams for 2019 whereas NISA is expecting to get sanctioning for Division 3 with eight teams. This will increase the number of unique men’s professional teams in the USA. Even with the increase in number, the pyramid structure we see in pro soccer in Europe will not be observed in the USA at least for the time being.

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In this article we will discuss what improvements we can expect in pro leagues in the foreseeable future and what cannot be implemented and the reasons behind them.

The pro soccer leagues in the USA are modeled after the other professional sports in the USA. Having Canadian teams in MLS as well as having playoffs to decide the winner of the championships are all modeled after NBA, NHL and MLB. The single-entity model of MLS is a unique and genuine idea which is not modeled from the any other sport. 

Before discussing what is doable and what is not in pro leagues in the USA, we should have a look at the governance structure of the sport’s governing body in the USA and compare it to that of European federations. 

In Europe the National Council (NC) or General Assemblies (GA) of the Federations are composed of three basic entities: Professional Soccer, Amateur Soccer and other stake holders. The other stakeholders are players, coaches, referees, and some dignitaries like ex-presidents as well as representatives of beach soccer, futsal, disabled soccer and university soccer.  The percentage of representation of professional soccer in the GA could be anywhere from 10% to 83%.  (A unique case of Turkey is explained in one of my earlier articles.) Amateur soccer is usually represented through regional associations. There is no distinction between adult and youth amateur soccer, since if not all most men’s and women’s amateur clubs have both an adult team as well as a number of youth teams. As explained before in my previous article, in the pyramid system in Europe any amateur team has the chance to become a professional team through promotion/relegation. As a result of this permeability, most of the entities represented in the GA have common goals. The success of one entity affects the others. The federations formed through this kind of GA structure can easily make mandates and take decisions that all constituents can benefit from.

The NC structure of US Soccer consists of four entities: The Athlete’s Council, the Youth Leagues, the Adult Leagues and Professional Leagues. There is no permeability between the last three entities. Each of the last three entities is fractured in themselves competing among themselves for the same resources and customers. In such a governance structure, it is very difficult to focus on a common goal. In order for U.S. Soccer to make radical changes to the soccer landscape it has to navigate around the different entities of the NC that lack a common goal. U.S. Soccer can only do this if it can create a common goal that will benefit all parties and that will require a far more financially stronger federation. An annual budget of $150 million is hardly big enough to navigate around various entities for a common goal, so I understand and support the efforts of both President Sunil Gulati and President Carlos Cordeiro to primarily increase the revenues of the federation. Only with a strong finance you can navigate around conflicting interests and parties.

Let us start talking about the lack of promotion/relegation in the pro leagues. One should not question the benefit of promotion/relegation since it brings more competition to the leagues and hence help the development of players. Especially for U.S. Soccer who is responsible for player development and for the success of both USMNTs and USWNTs, a soccer landscape with promotion/relegation would be ideal.

Many of the presidential candidates during the last campaign advocated the idea of promotion/ relegation for the professional leagues. It was a correct idea but a romantic one, since it is impossible to implement promotion/relegation in the foreseeable future. 

Let us see why:

-- Most of the owners of the MLS teams come from a non-soccer background. So convincing them of the benefits of promotion/relegation is nearly an impossible one. They have invested millions of dollars for the team -- although as of right now we do not know which of the teams are profitable. Telling them that “the rules of the game have changed” and that their team will be demoted unless they finish in the top -- let us say 11 -- teams of their conference will be practically impossible. Even if you do it, most owners will pull their teams out of the league. Let us not forget that professional soccer in the USA, unlike in Europe, is business-first.

-- Another option might be two create two MLSs (MLS1 and MLS2) when the number of teams reach 32. There can be promotion/relegation among MLS1 and MLS2. Since teams cannot be promoted to and demoted from MLS2, one can hardly call that promotion/relegation. Even this watered down model of promotion//relegation will not be embraced by the owners easily.

The other problem is even if you implement promotion/relegation with the current structures the following question arises: Where will the MLS teams be demoted to and from where will the teams be promoted. 

The obvious choice for the time being is USL. The current Division 2 USL league has a number of MLS second teams -– to be exact 13 –- which cannot be promoted to MLS even if they win the USL championship. FIFA statues do not allow two teams with the same owner to compete in the same league. Also MLS and USL have different ownership and governance model, it will be literally impossible to use USL as a base for promotion/relegation, unless USL merges with MLS in due time.

On the other hand, both the USL and NISA claim that they are considering having promotion/relegation eventually sometime in the future. The USL and NISA have also different ownership and governance models. I cannot even imagine what the future overall professional league structure of our country will be like in a few years. Unstructured, not integrated and fragmented unless U.S. Soccer chooses to do something about it. I do not know of any country that has multiple leagues in each division run and managed by different organizations. These leagues might not fully serve the player development function that is expected of them by U.S. Soccer. 

For the reasons mentioned above, until US Soccer is financially very strong it will be reluctant to intervene too much in the structuring the professional leagues other than publishing and executing the United States Soccer Federation Professional League Standards.

But I believe there are at least two things U.S. Soccer can still do until then:

They can create a detailed club licensing system for different divisions. The licenses will be annually issued and revoked by U.S. Soccer. The standards will definitely at least include aspects of a club that is related to player development; like a detailed and tiered  youth development system, coaching/technical staff standards as well as standards for training facilities in addition to those that exist for stadiums. Each professional club – in all three divisions -- must have a youth development program. The standards of a Division 1 club youth development program will definitely be different than a third Division one. This club licensing system can be developed in cooperation with the existing professional clubs. 

U.S. Soccer will eventually have to go onto the field by forming regional centers around the country. The monitoring of the club licensing standards will be executed by the appropriate staff of the regional centers.

Leagues will only admit clubs that have the division appropriate licenses to their leagues. 

U.S. Soccer has the know-how of how to run leagues like Development Academy leagues. It can start developing a parallel universe of professional leagues from bottom up. In cooperation with USASA they can form semipro (fourth division) regional leagues consisting of the state men’s and women’s champions and runners-up. Bigger states can promote more than two teams to this regional league. Somehow when the state champions and runner ups are selected the US Club Soccer-based clubs must also be included in the process. U.S. Soccer should organize a National Championship for the regional semipro leagues winners. There should be promotion relegation between the regional semipro leagues and the state amateur leagues. This organization will be the first step towards a singular integrated pyramid structure. When the right time comes, this can be integrated with the other leagues.  

I personally believe that U.S. Soccer should intervene more in the molding of the structure of the professional leagues to promote player development if it wants soccer to be a preeminent sport of the country. 

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of 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, TX.

8 comments about "What the future might bring for U.S. pro leagues".
  1. Bob Ashpole, November 9, 2018 at 12:38 a.m.

    Ahmet, MLS is not just a league. MLS is the teams too. Unless MLS has changed its business structure since I looked at it, the MLS franchise owners cannot "pull their teams out of the league" because the teams are not theirs to pull out. MLS holds the player contracts. The franchise owners can sell their clubs to someone else with MLS approval.

    They cannot pull their teams anymore than a McDonalds franchise owner can decide to split his franchise away from the McDonalds corporation.

  2. Ahmet Guvener replied, November 9, 2018 at 1:28 a.m.

    I know the MLS model. An Owner selling the club to someone else has the same effect. It will lose its value. The bottom line is without all the owners approval pro/rel is not implementable. Unless as you say they change the business model which is unlikely. 

  3. Bob Ashpole, November 9, 2018 at 12:43 a.m.

    The problem with relegation is that MLS franchises would lose a lot of value. In addition relagation doesn't fit a business model that is based on competitive parity and spending limits on rosters. Those same features also make international competition more difficult.

  4. John Soares, November 9, 2018 at 12:31 p.m.

    Bob, I agree, but beating that dead horse (pro/reg) won't stop anytime soon. Also, won't these second and third tier teams, NASL, USL... develop/produce talent as much as second/third divisions in other countries? Why not? MLS teams would be competing for these players. Yes, teams would lose some talent as we now lose some of our best talent to Europe.
     How do you stop  that?
    OK, one more, if you believe European soccer is not run as a business, you really have not been paying attention.


  5. R2 Dad replied, November 10, 2018 at 8:44 p.m.

    John, 2nd/3rd divisions can't develop top players, because no one gets better surrounding themselves with mediocre teammates. The saying is, "If you're good enough, you're old enough"...old enough to play with/against better players. The competition is the forge that develops players, improves techniques--young players learning from better older players (and occasionally coaches). Martin Odegaard went to Real Madrid so he could train with some of the best players in the world, even if it meant he went to Castilla. No 2nd/3rd division teams develop top players--they're sold on to better teams/leagues that CAN develop players. We as a country are 100 years away from what you are proposing.

  6. Rob Lepley, November 9, 2018 at 8:24 p.m.

    It's really just a pro/rel article.  And not really a compelling one at that.  

  7. R2 Dad replied, November 10, 2018 at 8:34 p.m.

    Nothing personal, but your apathy is what's killing development in this country. All the USSF voting members are sitting fat and happy because 1) they're making money, and 2) they're not thinking too much about the generations of wasted talent in this country that whithers on the vine due to inattention. Change can never happen in this environment--it takes courage from people in power to allow change. Either that or regime overthrow. There is no scenario from the status quo (USSF/MLS) where we develop our youth players to world class standards, hence the interest in pro/rel, which is proven system to do so. Even then, there is no guarantee--look at the EPL. Sancho decided he would never get minutes and left for Dortmund. Now Foden wants out, too, because the big/bad/powerful EPL doesn't have rules in place that establish minimum minutes for young talent, and development that follows.

  8. R2 Dad, November 10, 2018 at 9:09 p.m.

    Ahmet, thanks for your depressing summary of player development in this country. I had hoped we would get to a WC semi in my lifetime, but now I know we never will. Here's how REAL change will happen:

    In 20xx, when MLS has 32+ teams and is supposedly fabulously wealthy, the entire edifice will come crashing down during a prolonged recession. MLS the business is made up of members who are stakeholders. Once MLS gets to this size, there will always be 1-5 of those teams struggling to meet expectations, meet cashflow forecasts, meet attendance levels. Then some key owner divorces will occur (like the Dodgers recently). It happened before with Chivas, but that was only 1 team. This time, 5+ teams will want to turn over the keys and want to cash out--all at the same time. Like the 2008 housing crisis, an economic slow-down will punish the marginally-capitalized or cashflow-impeded. This will cause a cashflow issue for MLS, a crisis of confidence, and an implosion of the league that $1B of reserves will not staunch. Then, and only then, will this country decide that putting business before the sport/fans is not just a bad idea, but an insidious idea. Then we will have the opportunity to build from the ground up, and will have 2-5 more generations of fans that will care that business people don't make all the soccer decisions.

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