American soccer's missing resource: time

The only thing American soccer never got was time.

Time to grow to quietly, over generations, outside the bright lights of television.

Like soccer around the world, which got a half-century start on the American game, the major American sports grew organically in cities and towns long before the pro games thrived.

The first sporting event I ever went to was an NBA game at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1962. My dad did a television commercial with Jack Twyman, who played for Cincinnati Royals, and he took me to see them play the Knickerbockers. I got to go into their locker room after the game and meet their other stars, Oscar Robertson and Wayne Embry. The NBA had just expanded -- to nine teams.

The NHL had six teams until 1967 when it doubled in size. The watershed moment for the NFL was the 1958 title game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. It had 12 teams then. Major League Baseball was the biggest, most popular and oldest pro sport but until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, the 16 teams were concentrated in 10 cities, none west of the Mississippi River.

Expansion came to American leagues after generations had grown up playing and following these sports. The community and sport clubs of Europe that everyone talked about this past week were the high school and college programs in the United States. The kids growing up playing soccer in the streets and parks were American kids growing up playing baseball and basketball and football on their own.

All the prime real estate for sports parks and gyms was taken long before soccer came along.

The debate about whether American soccer should be an "open" or "closed" system is a moot point because it was always going to be a "closed" system, investment in the sport was going to have to made from the top down, and it was always going to be a struggle in face of an entrenched sports establishment. It doesn't make the model better, but it's the way it was.

The NASL collapsed in 1984, seemingly ending any chance of outdoor pro soccer making it, but it had at least done its job and sparked interest in the sport across the country.

The late Ron Newman is perhaps the most famous soccer pied piper, best known for his work and that of his players with the Dallas Tornado in the heart of football country, but he moved to the United States to play for the Atlanta Chiefs in the new National Professional Soccer League in 1967. As our Soccer America colleague Ian Plenderleith described in his NASL book, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Soccer," "12,000 schoolchildren went through the Chiefs soccer clinics, while 42 area high schools had begun to play the game.”

The work of the Chiefs and Tornado was repeated by others across the country. The Cosmos would not have taken off in 1977 without the groundwork their first coach, Gordon Bradley, did introducing the game across the New York metropolitan area. Soccer leagues and school programs popped up around the country, but they never became local institutions the same way that football and basketball, or baseball and ice hockey in their own ways, became linked to local high schools and colleges and in turn fed and feed players to the pros, tying the rope that connected them to the major leagues.

I've followed probably close to two dozen pro soccer leagues -- men's and women's, outdoor and indoor -- over the last 60 years. My oldest soccer memory is of watching a Sunday night telecast of an International Soccer League game in 1962, the same year my dad took me to the Garden. I didn't know what I was watching, but I remember going the next day to get my biweekly Monday haircut (ugh!) at Pete the barber's in Sloatsburg, New York, the next town over from where we lived, and Pete, who was a short Greek man, was talking with one of his friends sitting in the shop about the same game I had just watched.

The most successful pro soccer league -- by a wide margin -- has been Major League Soccer. In terms of its staying power (26 years). Its size (27 teams). Its support (five straight seasons of average attendance of more than 21,000 before the pandemic hit). Its infrastructure (all the soccer-specific stadiums and training facilities built at a cost now in the billions of dollars). And its stability (only four teams have folded, only one, Tampa Bay, never replaced in their city). But interest in MLS remains minimal on the national level. One only needs to see where the audiences for the two opening games on ABC and FOX rank in terms of 2021 network soccer broadcasts or more broadly compared to network broadcasts of American major leagues.

I'd argue that has much to do with soccer's lack of strong local institutions that the other American major leagues benefit from and is the most important reason why an "open" model should be considered, both for creating stronger local soccer institutions and connecting them to MLS.

I have heard a lot of people last week talk about why an "open" system should replace the "closed" system that is in place in MLS and has been in place in every pro league since the Chiefs' outlaw NPSL and the rival United Soccer Association began in 1967. I haven't heard anyone say they believe an "open" system will happen any time soon. (I'd add that no one could have imagined, say, in 1985 that we'd ever see an outdoor league like MLS is today either.)

The local connections that tie neighborhoods and towns and cities to clubs are what make soccer unique around the world. They prop the sport up in the face of market forces that otherwise make it increasingly unsustainable. (Many point to the flood of American money into European soccer as a sign of the strength of its model. The counter: European leagues are desperate for investors, any investors, to keep their clubs afloat, and many clubs are for sale at bargain-basement prices.)

Without those local connections, an investment model grew the sport in the United States, and MLS took it one step further, instituting all kind of mechanisms -- single-entity, salary cap, targeted spending, limited free agency, restrictive player entry, all incorporated into a collective bargaining agreement -- to deal with those same market forces that set off the current crisis in European soccer.

Every now and then, the so-called Fricker plan is brought up. The plan the late Werner Fricker, the USSF president for seven years (1984-90), developed as the answer for a new pro league -- an open system with promotion and relegation across three tiers -- and presented at the 1988 AGM in Philadelphia.

We covered that AGM extensively in Soccer America. It was the USSF's 75th anniversary, and FIFA president Joao Havelange attended, just weeks after FIFA awarded the USA in the 1994 World Cup finals. But we forgot about the Fricker plan about as quickly as the plans for the Super League were dropped this week. Not because it was a bad plan -- it was, in retrospect, the best chance to introduce an "open" system -- but because the Fricker plan was simply never going to happen.

The Fricker plan was never going to work because there was nothing to build it on. American soccer was probably at its lowest point in the late 1980s. Ironic, given FIFA's view of the U.S. market as a gold mine. The stain of the NASL was still fresh on the walls of American soccer. The pro teams that existed in the new American Soccer League and Western Soccer League were weak. Most of the ethnic clubs that kept soccer going after World War II had disappeared. And the explosion of Latino soccer was still a few years off. College soccer was growing (modestly) but it didn't count -- it was outside the federation family, and if anything it was competition for everything the federation needed: donors, facilities, media support, coaches.

Those working on a new pro league were having a hard enough time trying to get one league off the ground -- the 1994 World Cup came and went without any certainty that MLS, even with a plan as brilliant as the plan was that Alan Rothenberg, Sunil Gulati and Mark Abbott devised, would happen -- let alone a multi-tiered league like what Fricker had proposed.

And then there was one other issue. Those that mattered -- FIFA pushing the federation to start a league, the networks offering coverage on which everything else in the league depended -- were never going to give what something like the Fricker plan needed above all else: time.

Sixty years of trying -- I'll include Bill Cox's ISL, my introduction to the game -- has gotten us to where we are today. MLS plus four other outdoor pro leagues (men's and women's). Eighty-nine pro teams operating this spring. Quite amazing actually. But still very, very imperfect.

Downing Stadium Photo: Paul Gardner

11 comments about "American soccer's missing resource: time".
  1. Kevin Sims, April 26, 2021 at 12:50 p.m.

    Paul ... Thanks for this important historical perspective. IMHO, what best explains whatever struggles the USA men have encountered to get to the mountaintop is the lack of cultural saturation. The men's game is still young by world standards. The women's game, on the other hand, began its development in the USA before the vast majority of other countries, aiding its ascendancy to the mountaintop. The increasingly competitive global women's game of relatively recent times is due in large measure to countries with cultural saturation of the game giving support to the women's game. I am thrilled with the terrific success of the women's game and generally impressed with strides being made on the men's side ... while both are fighting uphill against the yet emerging cultural saturation. The response to The Super League announcement speaks to this matter of the sport being integral to so many cultures elsewhere. An Atlanta native, I am proud that my father coached the first high school team in Georgia in 1956 and then worked to spread the game to other schools. The arrival of the Chiefs was a wonderful catalyst and my memories of those teams and people are dear. The return of professional soccer to Atlanta, received so well by the community, is a source of joy. 

  2. beautiful game, April 26, 2021 at 1:03 p.m.

    Thank you Paul for the deja vue experience. 

  3. Inter 76, April 26, 2021 at 1:06 p.m.

    My interest in soccer came from having lived in Porto Alegre, Brazil and having the good fortune of watching Internacional win two Brazilian championships in the "beautiful" game. 

    I went to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City and really was enthused by the match. When I returned I sent letters to lots of people, who I thought might be interested in a new soccer league just in CA, AZ, TX, FL, and possibly others where Latin people lived. And bring players from the Latin countries not the "elders" from Europe. 

    Of the many letters I sent, only August Busch, Chairman of Budweiser and Ted Turner, Chairman TBS answered me. Mr Busch explained al that they were doing in the St Lours area, which was impressive. 

    However, the reply from Ted Turner was very cogent. He said that soccer would never become popular because the television networks would not broadcast games unless they could control the rules of play. Sadly this was true. 

  4. R2 Dad, April 26, 2021 at 1:25 p.m.

    Thanks for the review and going over most of the history of the game in this country. We are fortunate to now have a formalized league, and as you mention it's not a perfect setup. What are the impediments to improvement? I personally think the economic expectations of business owners in this country are not conducive to stable teams, and USSF has not facilitated stable leagues making the problem worse. RE: American owners. Look what's happening over at Bordeaux--inexperienced American ownership has an incomplete understanding of what is involved and required to run a successful club in Ligue 1. The reality in European soccer is The More Money You Spend, The More Money You Have To Keep Spending. Soccer is an asset play, a place to park your money. There can be no expectation of returns back to ownership without starving the clubs of capital for operations. Every owner that tries to balance the books ends up angering the club's fans for lack of investment (Liverpool have seemed to do a better job than most, until last week). American owners may not like this arrangement, and their expectations of Returns on the investment just exacerbate the problem. Bordeaux may collapse, or be sold, and/or get points deducted for this misunderstanding. The same impatience exists everywhere there are American owners used to being spoon-fed with the closed league model. To Garber's credit, he did see this dynamic and for the past 10 years or so has been focusing on getting ownership groups with a dozen or so smaller members rather than one big honcho who might throw a dumb Al Davis/NFL-style team-moving temper tantrum. The other problem will be financial stability. MLS single entity has allowed a league to prosper for the past 25 years, which has been a good thing. But the Chivas  soap opera should have been a warning to MLS & USSF that franchisee claims can unsettle the league and  if there are simultaneous requests for returns on investment MLS could very easily get into financial trouble. I don't know the specifics of that franchise agreement, but based on how the sale/transfer/dissolution of that club transpired I have no doubt that if 5 teams want their money back tomorrow Don Garber would be hosed. What are the odds that happens? Which teams are most likely to fail?

  5. R2 Dad replied, April 26, 2021 at 1:26 p.m.

    In my book USSF is too chummy with MLS. I'd like to see some very public game theory/risk assessment developed by USSF to better understand  why unstable leagues are bad for the sport. This may seem Duh obvious, but USSF has been more than happy to watch men's leagues and clubs die on the vine with little public help or support. If all USSF measures is MLS, they can then happily ignore all the clubs and leagues that have died of their neglect. That is not to say financial support, but certainly a careful roadmap for the buildout of the sport and support of the amateur and lower-level professional clubs in this country is the very least USSF can do. England has shown that clubs are the lifeblood of the sport. Unfortunately, MLS single entity appears to have hog-tied USSF into a sort of benign neglect of the sport at lower levels.

  6. David Kilpatrick, April 26, 2021 at 2:09 p.m.

    Didn’t know of PK's Rockland roots!
    89 teams competing tells us the time has come, if not overdue, no? 
    How many have died in the past 25 years, the past 60 years, that would not have with an open system?

  7. Russel Buetow, April 26, 2021 at 3:21 p.m.

    Really enjoyed your op-ed.  I would love to hear what you have to say about the impending intersection of MLS and USL, especially given the fact that MLS clubs are also operating USL Championship Teams.  Seems like the idea of an MLS to USL pro/rel model could be something to look at in the future (I wouldn't see it happening any sooner than say 2027 as I think it would take 5 years to get there and this year doesn't count).

  8. Kent James, April 26, 2021 at 3:22 p.m.

    As someone who lived through the collapse of the NASL and the dark days of the 1980s, I am profoundly grateful for all those who make the MLS a success. The problem now is that the MLS is trying to compete on the world stage, and that stage is pretty crowded and the competition is stiff.  There is only so much "top of the world" talent available (by definition), and right now that talent is concentrated in a few countries in Western Europe.  Logistics make it tough for teams in North America (or South America for that matter) to actively compete on that stage, so even if somehow an MLS team got as good as Real Madrid, it couldn't compete in a meaningful way.  Maybe the difference between world class talent and the rest of the world has lessened, so maybe you can have teams that are almost as good as the best teams in the Champions League competing in similar competitions on other continents, but I have my doubts.  I'm not sure what the answer is other than to be thankful for what we have, grow the game as best we can, and try to field the best teams money can afford.  

  9. Bob Ashpole, April 27, 2021 at 8:41 a.m.

    Great work, Paul. I have been out of touch now for over 5 years. I haven't coached or played. Now my heavy exercise is going for a walk around the block.

    With that qualification, I want to point out that our country is not homogeneous. There are and always have been, soccer families and soccer neighborhoods. Not to mention that there are over 60 million Hispanic citizens. Unfortunately I grew up in Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s. There wasn't any soccer withing a 100 miles of me. Literally. I always looked forward to going to University because they had intermural soccer. When I got there though it was 1970 and the intermural program was filled with foreign students. At my dorm they let one US student play because he had played 2 years of college soccer at an East Coast school. He got to sit on the bench. I didn't get my chance until I moved to New York when I was 35 years old. It was worth waiting for. At that time (about 1986) it was thought that only about 100k adults (includes college) were playing soccer.

    I made my family a soccer family and I have visited some soccer neighborhoods. During the 1990's and 2000's I witnessed rich white suburban hovering parents literally drive Hispanic Soccer off the playgrounds, parks, and schoolyards in the DC area to make way for suburban pay-to-play. They used local ordinances, complex permit systems, literal purchase of fields on public property, and vigilante enforcement.

    It was a very sad time for soccer.

    So yes for a majority of citizens soccer is ho-hum. But there are also about 100 million of us soccer people here too. Don't let the majority demoralize us. Our 100 million is more support than most soccer powerhouse nations have. 

    We just need more soccer and less organization. 

  10. Wallace Wade, April 28, 2021 at 7:43 a.m.

    Soccer was marketed and presented to the American People in the 1960's as a "girls sport". This was facilitated by those in power of American Football. The American Football leaders have always feared the potential of "Soccer" in thisy Country! Then you had Title IX. None of this was accidental. Today, the same American Football people are still in total control of Soccer in this Country. They dictate to a weak and disorganized Federation. MLS is run by a Ex-NFL executive, and many of the franchise owners are NFL billionaires. Youth Soccer now in this Country will be made to "register" all their players now through a platform owned by Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboy's! More $ generated by young soccer players going into the NFL bank! These people refuse to let the "Genie out of the bottle"! This is the story of Soccer in this Country from the 1960's to today. These are the hard facts. Soccer deserves much better! These Leaders will have to go to have any real future in the USA. 

  11. Peter Bechtold replied, May 3, 2021 at 11:02 a.m.

    Interesting perspective, WW. I would qualify a few of your comments. In the 1960s,where I lived and played, soccer was not presented as a "girl's sport"; girls did not play before Title IX yet. Instead, soccer was described by the media as a "foreign sport", sort of like cricket is nowadays. The opposition to soccer came more from baseball in my experience, esp. in the Boys and Girls Clubs where more and more children enrolled in soccer than in "traditional" American sports. This development had much to do with the shifting social and economic conditions, and especially the rise and explosion of new suburbs with abundant sporting facilities.
    If you look at the top level: at WCs the nations who qualify are almost always the same few: US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Japan,China Brazil. Recently, the game has spread to UK,France,Spain, Italy and marginally to a few in Africa and South America. They will catch up to us if the US relies overly on English coaches. Time moves on.

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