USMNT and the development of elite players -- Professional leagues (Part II)

In my December 2021 article, I had a 30,000 feet look at the professional leagues in the World and in our soccer landscape. What that article revealed is that in order to move on the MNT rankings and play at least a semifinal in 2026, we must rely on an expanded and enhanced professional league system both quantitatively and qualitatively. 

How do you expand and enhance the leagues both quantitatively and qualitatively? I will try to answer that question as well as have a look at MLS as a tool for developing USMNT players in this and the next article in February 2022.

I believe that here are two methods of developing the professional league system so that the player development through the leagues can be enhanced:

  1. Reorganize the League system

The first thing that most people coming across the Atlantic or South America will start yelling is “Bring in the promotion and relegation” to the professional leagues. There is no doubt that promotion and relegation is a very strong instrument in bringing quality and excitement to any league structure. Let us not forget when MLS was formed in the 1990s, the professional sports scene in the country was in the cultural hegemony of NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, which did not have any promotion-relegation. If not all, but most of the owners of MLS clubs were also owners of other professional clubs of other sports. Trying to impose promotion-relegation by USSF in those years would have been a dead duck. There are still a lot of soccer pundits who would like to see U.S. Soccer to impose promotion-relegation in the soccer system. Unfortunately, in 2022 it is still not even conceivable at the highest echelon of our professional league system. First of all, the owners would never accept promotion-relegation since MLS is still in its financial infancy. 

Whether U.S. Soccer can impose such a change legally is also not very plausible. 

Ted Stevens Act Article §220523 says the following for the Authority of national governing bodies:

(a) Authority.—For the sport that it governs, a national governing body may—

(3) serve as the coordinating body for amateur athletic activity in the United States;

So, it is clear that U.S. legislation does not clearly allow a National Governing Body – in this case, U.S. Soccer – to coordinate professional leagues. USA Basketball. for example, does not regulate NBA. U.S. Soccer gets the power of regulating professional leagues from FIFA statutes. “Any association which is responsible for organising and supervising football in all of its forms in its country may become a member association.” (Article 11.1). Since professional football is one of football’s forms U.S. Soccer has the obligation to organize and supervise professional soccer as a member association. 

To cut the long the story short, U.S. Soccer by imposing promotion-relegation will be walking a legal tightrope in the most litigious society on the planet. I do not foresee any sort of promotion-relegation until 2030s in MLS. Maybe after the stabilization of the financial situation, and with substantial increase of broadcasting revenues MLS might split into MLS 1 and MLS 2 with some sort of parachuting system implemented for broadcasting revenues for relegated teams like in England. Another potential scenario in the years to come might be the merger of USL Championship with MLS. USL League One and League Two might go into a promotion-relegation scheme. That is all. So, the expected enhancement of quality in the leagues will not directly come from the expected added value of promotion and relegation but rather from the potential increase in the number of professional teams.

Another uniqueness of our soccer landscape is the lack of permeability between amateur leagues and the professional leagues. Scrolling through CIES’s report on Governance Structure of Clubs in the World (2014) is good enough to show our unique position in the professional league structures around the globe. In most countries, there is a well-defined pathway from the amateur leagues into the professional leagues. While promoting to the professional leagues, the amateur clubs usually meet some prerequisites or have the option of not getting promoted. In our soccer landscape, the amateur leagues are fragmented and there is no defined pathway into the professional leagues. Very recently, John Motta, the president of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association, came out with a very encouraging project. Motta said the obvious next step is to examine the feasibility of a tiered men’s national league operated by the U.S. Adult Soccer Association. If that materializes – which is not very easy in our country due to our individualistic culture – there will be a three tiers: National fourth tier (Division 4), Division 5 (Regional level) and Division 6 (State level). This might be the first step in reorganizing our league system, starting from the bottom. This might have a reverse cascading effect in the upper professional divisions.

  1. Professional League Standards

Even though U.S. Soccer might not like to walk a legal tightrope by imposing promotion relegation, it can convince the owners and the leagues to raise and to detail the professional league standards. If marketed and navigated correctly this is a very plausible scenario which can improve the quality of our professional leagues. This in turn will affect the player development for our MNTs.

The standards for the professional leagues were last updated in 2014 . UNITED STATES SOCCER FEDERATION PROFESSIONAL LEAGUE STANDARDS (2-28-2014). Just a word of caution for the readers; this document cannot be found directly in U.S. Soccer’s website. It is only a few pages long, including standards for indoor leagues. Compared to the standards of the rival Federations with which USMNT is fighting for dominance, it is at best very minimal. For example, UEFA’s Club Licensing Standards are 116 pages long. 

Promotion of soccer in this country is the sole duty of U.S. Soccer. MLS, USL or any other professional leagues are in the business of making money through soccer. They will benefit from better soccer development in the country but that is definitely not their main goal. Soccer development has three major pillars: Player, coach, and referee development. U.S. Soccer has left player development to the leagues after they pulled from supporting and organizing the DA leagues. 2014 standards say that “Each team must demonstrate its on-going commitment to the promotion of soccer at all levels in its home market.” This is a very vague statement and has no enforcability. Also, there is mention of player development only for Division 1 leagues: “Each U.S.-based team must demonstrate a commitment to a player development program. This requirement may be satisfied by supporting either an amateur or professional reserve team competing in a USSF-sanctioned league or by the league itself.” There is no such requirement for any of the other divisions. 

The standards for player development should be raised and detailed for different divisions. This has to be done in a collaborative manner rather than a mandating manner. The Federation could also think of financially rewarding clubs whose players are recruited to YMNTs and MNT.

U.S. Soccer can impose a minimal number of home-grown players to be on the roster, but this has its pros and cons. By the way home grown means players who is or will be eligible to play for our national teams. 

Also, another factor in developing soccer are the fields where the games are played. I watch professional teams playing on fields that are not in accordance with the LOTG. Also, there should be surface standards for turf fields. The field standards set in the above mentioned document are not detailed. 

These are a few areas where a little upgrading of standards by U.S. Soccer will go a long way for player development for our MNT.

In the last sequel of this series, I will have a look at MLS and what it is doing for player development. By then we might know where USMNT will be this year in November and December. I hope we will be in Qatar.

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