The State of Our Soccer Union is Not Good
Presidential candidates, American Outlaws, fans of franchises and clubs, athletes, parents, distinguished readers, members of the board, and delegates to the USSF election,
My fellow Americans, This summer’s July 4th holiday will mark the 242nd anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence. That same day will also mark the 30th anniversary of hosting rights for the 1994 FIFA World Cup being awarded to the United States, kick-starting the rebirth of domestic soccer in this country. These last 30 years have been ripe with memories, records, and the continual dawning promise that soccer was America’s sport of the future.
As we fast forward three decades, it becomes clear that we find ourselves in one of those seminal moments in history where our task is tall and the requirements strenuous. Seldom have the stakes been higher for soccer in America and this opportunity for change, if not taken now, may soon quietly pass us by.
Our republic’s founding document states that, from time to time, the executive shall give to the Congress information of the state of the union and recommend to their consideration measures both necessary and expedient. While this provision may not be enshrined in governing documents of our sport, it is vital that the collective wisdom of the founders be taken for the purposes of accountability and leadership.
Given the position in which we find ourselves, due in part to the existing leadership of U.S. Soccer, I deliver to you today this written message in the spirit of Presidents Jefferson through Taft, not as a leader in American soccer, but as a voice in the crowd.
I write to you today to report that the state of our soccer union is not good. Our men’s national team has inexplicably and embarrassingly missed out on qualification to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. Our domestic game is structured improperly and is more notable for stupid, avoidable drama off the field rather than the competition on it. Our youth system remains gratuitously expensive, poorly coached, and improperly refereed, hindering American player development from the beginning. And in all of these areas, the federation’s willful abdication of leadership and responsibility is actively hurting American soccer, rather than serving its principle mission of growing the game.
It is also true that our women’s team is now no longer head and shoulders above the rest of the world. The benefits of Title IX, passed in 1972, paved the way for our women’s team to have a several decade headstart on other nations in terms of sporting infrastructure, and we have been rewarded through our achievements on the field.
Though the women were knocked out of the 2016 Olympic Games in the quarterfinals, one unfortunate result does not define a team. Our women’s national team bounced back to end 2017 ranked number one in the world. We are the current holders of the Women’s World Cup and look to qualify for and defend that title during the summer of 2019 in France. Our goal is to walk away with nothing short of a second straight winner’s trophy in what will no doubt be the most competitive Women’s World Cup played to date.
My fellow soccer loving Americans, let me be clear: women’s national team players should be paid for the same work as, with the same bonuses as, and with the same perks as, the men. This isn’t about business metrics, though they financially pull their own weight; this is about fairness and a commitment to equality. This is not club soccer, where a club’s financial means affects what it can and cannot pay its players; this is about the awesome honor that is to represent the United States of America. For every game in which a national team player is called in for, they should be paid an equal and fair amount.
In order to achieve this end, I am proposing that our men’s and women’s national teams negotiate collective bargaining agreements together in a unified players union. This is a bold step towards uniting all members of the player pool eligible to represent the United States on the world stage in the global game. While the women recently renegotiated their CBA with the U.S. Soccer Federation, they should be invited back to join the men when the men’s deal comes for negotiation. We will follow the lead of the Norwegian players and help set the example for what is right, not only for the international soccer community, but also for all Americans.
In regards to the men, the failure to qualify for this summer’s upcoming World Cup cannot be categorized as anything other than a top-to-bottom, total and catastrophic failure. The players didn’t get it done, yes. But players are only as good as we develop them and players are only as good as we coach them. So while it is fair to say that our players didn’t get the job done, we must also look to the federation for leadership, for ownership, and for responsibility. Yet those characteristics are the antithesis for which this federation stands.
Make no mistake, if the federation cannot take responsibility for its failures, then it has lost its authority to be the governing body of soccer in America. If the federation will not take ownership of its own problems, then we shall do it for them. And if the federation refuses to provide leadership to remedy the current state of soccer, should we not then find new leadership that measures up to the task?
The critics will say that one result does not define a program. Indeed, even I mentioned that in referencing our women. But the failure to qualify for the World Cup was not solely on our inability to get a point in Couva. Our failure to qualify for the World Cup was also our failure to secure a result at home against Mexico or in either match against Costa Rica. With the exception of home games against Honduras and Panama, our style of play throughout qualifying was uninspired, our effort lackluster, and our ambition not befitting that of a team representing the United States.
This was not just one result, but a cacophony of failures resulting in monumental disaster. CONCACAF is globally regarded as the easiest confederation to qualify out of and, for a national team such as ours, that failure rings even louder. There is nothing that justifies this failure.
Obviously, the next step for the men’s national team is to identify and hire a permanent head coach for the 2022 World Cup cycle. This step should be taken by the new president, working with the technical director, by the end of July 2018. While the creation technical director position should be questioned for its motive and timing, the position itself is necessary and should help to provide much needed sporting leadership to the entirety of the men’s program.
The 2019 Gold Cup will be our first test under the new administration. While the tournament will have no bearing on World Cup 2022 preparations as FIFA will likely be eliminating the Confederations Cup, it’s an opportunity for new players represent the United States in a FIFA sanctioned competition. This will bleed into the first rounds of World Cup Qualifying and the likely return of the Copa America tournament in 2020.
The future must be better and those efforts begin today. Integral to those efforts is the United Bid Committee for Canada, Mexico, and the United States to bring the 2026 FIFA World Cup back to North America. Thirty two years later, it is time for the World Cup to return to these shores and every legal effort should be made to ensure that it happens. The hosting of a World Cup will provide a perfect event to showcase the growth and evolution of American soccer. It is that same growth and evolution that, through meaningful and necessary reforms, will allow the United States to be a serious competitor and consistently challenge for World Cup trophies.
When it comes to club soccer, domestically, we have seen some progress. Hundreds of new franchises and clubs have been added over the last decade. Clubs in amateur leagues like the NPSL and PDL, such as Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC; Tulsa Athletic and Des Moines Menace, and so many others have brought soccer to communities where there wasn’t a team to root for, to places where soccer wasn’t thought to be able to succeed. Teams like FC Fresno, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic, Indy Eleven, and the year old MLS http://flashlivescore-de.com/soccer/concacaf team Atlanta United FC have shown that soccer can thrive.
But we have much more to accomplish. If growing the game is our biggest goal then there is far more to do. The current structure of the professional game is too onerous; the barriers for entry too high. Those that wish to have a team or club must have a multi millionaire or billionaire on speed dial to enter the professional game. The current closed system makes no sense as a long term plan.
I’m not saying the barriers into the top division should be easy?—?the premier division of the the United States should be one of the toughest and most challenging leagues in the world. But there must be a system that affords to everyone the opportunity to determine their own place. There must be a way for a new club to advance. A way that is based on fairness and merit. A way that does not involve paying a corporation for the right to compete. A way that grows the game instead of holding it back.
If five guys with a dream in Omaha, Nebraska come together to start a new team, then they should be able to without needing to seek a multi millionaire investor to play in a professional league or to survey the several national amateur leagues for which one is the best fit.
Left to their own devices, the amateur and professionals leagues in the United States are an axis of absurdity.
Major League Soccer, in the midst of a record breaking season by Toronto FC, made more headlines for its expansion sweepstakes that better resemble a made for reality TV show than its on field competition. The only thing missing was Commissioner Don Garber handing out a rose to prospective owners. Worse yet, this season will be remembered for Anthony Precourt’s arrogant, conniving, underhanded, gutless, and reprehensible ploy to remove the Columbus Crew from their home in Ohio and into Austin, Texas.
If MLS’ single entity model seems strange compared to the rest of the world, then the corporate model of United Soccer League is antithetical to everything soccer should stand for. With its McDonald’s style franchising system and fast food wages for players to boot, USL’s business model makes a mockery of how soccer should be structured. The league may bill itself as one of the most prominent second divisions in all of world soccer, but it’s franchises are second for a reason and, as long as the system remains closed and absent $150 million to light on fire, they’ll never be first.
While the USL is adding franchises and has somewhat temporarily stabilized a portion of the lower divisions, it exists as a closed corporation with the barrier to even attempt to operate a team costing some millions of dollars. Those are millions of dollars going to enrich the owner of the league, instead of invested in players, marketing, stadiums or youth development.
The North American Soccer League harkens nostalgia back to the old days of big names, big stadiums and the hope of soccer tsunami in America. While there are teams allegedly interested in joining this league, without a major recalculation it will forever be a New York Cosmos vanity project to rage against the soccer powers that be. With little help from the federation, few best practices or a semblance of strategy from headquarters, the league is waiting a appeal that will end poorly and will remembered only for failure, scandal, and a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. A lawsuit in which there is plenty of smoke, but the source and scale of the fire remains unknown.
At the amateur levels, the less that can be said, the better. The United Premier Soccer League and National Premier Soccer League have over 250 clubs between them. They serve the same market and the same goals, yet can’t be bothered to work together, find the time to keep accurate and up to date information, and in some cases, provide guidance for how playoffs will be structured before six days in advance (that actually happened). This doesn’t even account for another 400 amateur clubs that compete in regional or city based United States Adult Soccer Associated affiliated leagues, like the Cosmopolitan League, the Gulf Coast Premier League and the Maryland Majors.
Their saving grace, their one saving grace, is that the barriers for entry are low. These amateur leagues provide a perfect opportunity for those interested to start a local club from scratch and build upon even a small foundation. It is how the stories of Chattanooga FC and Detroit City FC captured the hearts of their communities and sent ripples throughout the American soccer landscape. Those successes led the way for FC Cincinnati and Louisville City and for Atlanta United. Without grassroots soccer leading the way, professional soccer in America would be far more lonely. Perhaps the next great startup club will be FC Columbus, a new Ohio club with no chance of ever leaving for Austin.
The present structure of loosely configured, competing closed leagues, with no direction from the federation, is one of the roots of why we find ourselves in this situation. The time has come for a reckoning, much like the one conducted by the German Football Association after their disastrous Euro 2000 campaign. U.S. Soccer must start by pivoting away from a loose confederation of leagues and form an association of clubs.
Choosing an association structure, with professional, semi-pro, and amateur tiers, will bring order to the chaos that is club soccer in the United States. It is the proper way to organize the beautiful game and it is the recognized way across all of the world. Once this most necessary change is made, then the rest may follow. It should not and cannot be the only step; but one of many in a series of reforms to move forward as a soccer nation.
I call on the federation to commit itself to this goal, to be completed by the time of the 2026 FIFA World Cup: to merge all professional and amateur leagues, franchises and independent clubs, and affiliate associations and their affiliate leagues into one association pyramid in order to create four professional and three amateur divisions and to begin promotion and relegation in the season following.
I know that it will not be easy and that there will be many forces fighting against us. But maintaining a system of closed leagues with obscure rules is counterintuitive and hurts all clubs, both big and small, as well as the national team. Yes, those that own teams in MLS, NASL, and USL may see their investment dynamics change; those that run their teams poorly will see more risk. They should be afforded the opportunity, and will have plenty of time during the next eight years, to sell their teams to those that are interested in carrying American soccer into the future, including through supporter ownership.
A true pyramid will see sporting merit be the determining factor in how clubs do, if they move up or down, and if they are successful or not. That competition will breed more competition and both the American player and the American fan will benefit as a result. Better players means the national team might stumble it’s way back into the World Cup in the short term. In the long term, this and other important reforms will allow our national team to become a perennial challenger, considered among the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Italy.
If the barriers to starting a club are lower, the group in Omaha, Nebraska doesn’t have to worry about finding someone with fifty million dollars to start a brand new professional team. They can instead pool their resources and start their team as low level professional or even as amateurs, building support for the team and over time may rise up the pyramid?—?maybe even one day reaching the top division.
Without an open system, Omaha doesn’t have a shot at being an American Bournemouth, Burnley, or AFC Wimbledon; their fate is already set?—?the die, already cast. We talk about growing the game, but how many people are we missing out on because there’s no opportunity for advancement? If the majority of people get into the sport because of their local club, then how can we expect MLS and MLS alone to drive eyeballs to our national team and the sport of soccer? Are we really growing the game?
You know, one of those aforementioned countries will be staying home from Russia this summer. And I promise you this: there is already an inquisition underway in Italy as to what went wrong for them and what they can do to ensure that it never happens again. That’s what happens when we take things seriously. If we choose to go along and pretend that everything is fine, nothing is wrong, and we’re on the right path, then we are doomed to remain in the annals of world soccer for all of our lifetimes and our children’s lifetimes too.
After we commit to the process of creating a pyramid comes the hard part. Decisions will have to be made as to the nature and makeup of the pyramid itself. Issues such as the number of teams in the top division or whether the top division will be a single table should be decided first, as that will determine how the rest of the pyramid is constituted. I recognize that there will be many opinions on this makeup and don’t profess to be the single authority on these issues. But let me give my opinion for your consideration and tell you why I think it’s the best option at our disposal.
I believe that the best, most perfect method to set up the premier division is with twenty teams, each playing the others twice in a double round robin. A single table will produce, at the end of the campaign, a true league champion. At the same time, American sporting tradition needs playoffs. It is in that mindset that we should maintain end of season playoffs for the top four teams in the table, along with a season long running U.S. Open Cup competition. The shortened playoff schedule will ensure that the regular season has meaning and that playoff qualification isn’t something a team can achieve without winning for three months, as is the case today.
Once the format for the premier division is decided upon, then comes the makeup of the lower divisions. I propose that there be 36 teams in the second division, split between equally between East and West. These Eastern and Western Conferences would then be able to also play in double round robin formats, similar to the premier division. The third division should be even further regionalized, with 72 teams total split into quadrants on the same double round robin schedule as the second division. And the fourth divided even further, reducing costs even more for small clubs and their fans promoting growth and stability for their local clubs.
Even beyond the professional ranks, there are hundreds of amateur sides competing in the United States this year. Established teams like the Des Moines Menace and Myrtle Beach Mutiny in PDL; Kitsap Pumas and Kingston Stockade in NPSL; and LA Wolves and Santa Ana Winds in UPSL. These teams are all in competing organizations, which fight amongst themselves to survive the Soccer Warz. It’s counterproductive, counterintuitive, and simply counter to what is right for our sport. Unifying these amateur leagues will help keep budgets even lower, allowing new and established clubs alike the opportunity to stay solvent.
At the same time, the federation must also become a resource for those interested in starting a club. They should create, publish, and keep updated best practices, using data from member clubs of all sizes, in order to share the realities and the potential for starting and owning a soccer club. Additionally, the federation should build upon the good work that the United Soccer League is doing and expand efforts made through their Preferred Supplier Programs, especially helping new USSF member clubs navigate the challenges of operating a soccer team.
The benefits of this proposal are numerous. The most important one, the only thing that matters, is that both players and clubs no longer have to wonder if there will be a league in which to play the following season. The instability of American soccer’s lower divisions, while brought upon by mismanagement, scandal, and corruption, has been entirely avoidable if U.S. Soccer was willing to do what was right, what was necessary, and ironically, what was best for the growth of the sport in America.
My second recommendation is this: to follow the lead of the North American Soccer League and alter the season of play from as it exists from March until December to an August through May model, bringing the United States in line with the best leagues in the world. I have made this proposal because it’s the best thing for American soccer.
Fully aligning with with the calendar used by most European associations, with league play pausing for international breaks, will set the US up to compete in major summer competitions without interfering in the middle of league play. It also will make easier the transfer market for our domestic leagues, as the majority of player transfers happen during the summer, which is currently the middle of the season. Altering the calendar increases the number of players that our domestic clubs will be able to sign and will allow players in our leagues more opportunities in the world market.
Detractors will say that it is too cold for players and fans in the winter and the threat of snow can make play unsafe. Their concerns are noted and valid. It would be silly to compete on a schedule similar to the English pyramid. The more applicable example here is Germany, which holds a winter break to rest, recharge, and avoid the worst of the weather. In that same mold, I propose a winter break to the domestic calendar, for a period of 5 match weekends.
Like with the proposal for promotion and relegation, this change should not take place immediately. There are perfectly valid questions as to what should happen during the spring between the final spring-fall season and the new fall-spring season. Those questions should be worked out in due time. In fact, it makes no sense to alter the domestic calendar until after the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, to be played in November and December of that year. Having a special short season in 2026 leading into the World Cup is, in my opinion, the best option to kick off the first wave of events in America’s soccer evolution.
Additionally, with a unified pyramid structure, U.S. Soccer should also negotiate all media deals, including the men’s and women’s national teams, men’s and women’s domestic professional leagues, both promotion and relegation playoffs, and the U.S. Open Cup, as one. By including both national teams and all divisions together, we will be able to end the discriminatory system in place today and ensure that every level of the pyramid is invested in the other levels. This will also provide more content to media providers and result in even larger deals for the federation for distribution to member clubs, according to their division. Just a little bit of support, just a little bit, will help strengthen soccer at the grassroots levels of this country.
My final recommendation as it relates to the domestic game is this: even before promotion and relegation can connect the divisions in the United States, the U.S. Open Cup should become a much more prominent event. This long and storied competition is the one avenue that our sport has of seeing teams from all of our rivaling leagues compete against one another for the crown as the U.S. Open Cup champion. Not many people involved in our sport will forget FC Cincinnati’s incredible run to the semifinals this past year, or the cinderella runs of amateur sides Harpos FC and Christos FC, the former attached to a bar and grill and the latter named for a liquor store.
As Americans, we live for the underdog making a run. Well, this is U.S. Soccer’s March Madness, played out over a season’s time. We should make this competition more visible, more available, better promoted and more exciting. And that’s something we can do today. In addition, whenever a team from a higher division is drawn with a lower division club, the lower division club should be automatically designated as host, assuming that basic hosting requirements and minimum standards can be met. We should also reform the fall qualifying rounds to put a greater emphasis on regionalization to keep travel costs down for amateur teams, reducing forfeits and allowing all competing teams the honor of playing for such a prestigious cup.
The women’s domestic game also needs some improvements. While the NWSL is younger than its male counterparts, the league shows promise and the federation should take every step it can to ensure the success of the league. As the NWSL goes, so too goes our women’s national team. The federation should take much more of a hands on approach to the league and the first step is to remove the “interim” tag from Commissioner Amanda Duffy’s title. She’s more than earned the right to be the permanent commissioner of the league.
I also encourage existing professional teams to look inward and to strongly consider using their economies of scale to launch a women’s professional team. Teams like the New York Cosmos, Sacramento Republic, San Antonio FC, and 1904 FC in San Diego are already in a good position, even without being in the nation’s top division, to begin the process of launching a women’s club.
As the league grows and a federation wide media deal begins to kick in, player salaries should rise enough so that no more will a female player have to look outside of professional soccer in order to make ends meet. Everyone will be able to chase their dreams as a professional in the hope of representing their country and winning a World Cup. Until that time, the federation should provide as much assistance as possible because our players are worth it and women’s soccer is worth it too.
Through increased marketing, investment, support, and working with our friends and neighbors in Canada, we can, together, continue to build women’s soccer throughout North America at both the professional and amateur levels. Leveraging the support of two federations, a more visible regionalized second division, and using benefits from a shared media deal, we will be able to take the steps used years ago to nourish men’s soccer in our two countries. Steps, which once were needed, that are now obsolete on the men’s side. One can only hope that in two decades, we will be at a similar point with women’s soccer as well.
We should also establish the Tony DiCicco U.S. Women’s Open Cup as one of the ways to honor an important figure in U.S. women’s soccer and continue to grow his beloved game. What better way to celebrate the beautiful game by opening up a cup competition to all who enter?
Now, reorganizing professional soccer’s structure into a smarter system is just the start. For if we create a better system to grow the game but do not nurture the players every step of the way then we will have exerted so much effort for nothing. After all, without the players that represent our communities and our nation on the field of play, there can be no soccer and there can be no national team.
So many families today sacrifice so much for their children to chase their dreams. For some, it’s the dream is a college scholarship. For others, it’s a chance to become a professional soccer player. They spend a countless hours shuttling their children back and forth between practices and on the road to weekend tournaments, all at a significant hit to their finances. Some families can afford to spend the time and the money it takes to do all of this, but many cannot. Still, many do as much as they can anyway because that’s what parents do for their children. We should work tirelessly as a federation to make it easier, just a little bit easier, for all of them.
By mandating that solidarity payments are made, in accordance with FIFA’s rules, we can start the process required to reduce the current financial burden of our current pay-to-play system on our families. We can help both parents and their children and turn our youth system into one that favors long term development over the grifting youth club culture that often prioritizes profits at the expense of our youth. This is an important step that would not only incentivize teams at all levels of the pyramid to produce talent, but also change the system which cuts off so many from the organized game today.
Additionally, mandating solidarity payments domestically will also incentivize more professional clubs to start academies because they will have the opportunity to be compensated for players coming through their academy system. This will, in turn, increase the prevalence of free to play or low cost academies and further reduce the financial burden on parents. Meanwhile, lower division clubs will also be incentivized to play and develop their young talent so that those players might be discovered and bought for transfer fees, which will be able to be invested back into the club.
Another way of improving our status as a soccer power is to improve the coaching that players receive when they are young. Almost every athlete has that one coach they remember; the one coach that they would do anything for. Someone who mentored them, nurtured them, and pushed them not only to become a better player, but a better person as well. We need far, far more of these kinds of coaches. And they should have access to the best training and the best resources available.
Throughout the levels of soccer in this country, our coaches should be the best. We should have quality coaches from the premier division all the way down to the U-7s. And maybe those U-7 coaches should be the best ones of all. We must make more available the coaching classes and licenses that already exist through U.S. Soccer. It should not cost tens of thousands of dollars and many years to become a licensed class “A” coach in the United States, but that’s the reality we find ourselves in today.
To that end, I propose that we increase the number of coaching classes offered by USSF, spread out the locations of those classes across the country in order to bring them closer to prospective coaches, and that we lower the prices of those classes to levels more in line with Spain and Germany. Classes should cost hundreds of dollars, not thousands. This is another avenue where the game is restricted for the few; but we are going to open it up because soccer is for all those who call the United States home.
We must also work to improve the technical skills of the American player. As coaching is improved, we will have new conduits to teach those skills. We need more practice time and less game time at the youngest levels, so players may grow as athletes without the pressures of winning at the age of 6. We must be wary of the dangers of overcoaching our youth, and allow them to have fun and be creative, to try new things and, yes, occasionally fail.
We should build upon the work of the partnership created by Target and the U.S. Soccer Foundation and place thousands more futsal courts around the country, in every community and in every neighborhood. We should follow the lead of Detroit City FC and convert unused hockey rinks into indoor soccer stadiums. We should bring the game to all people who live within our borders, not for any potential gains, but because our mission is to grow the game of soccer within our communities. Let’s create safe places for children and families to have fun and to play the beautiful game and to learn and to hone their skills and let’s do it today.
Now, we must also avoid some of the pitfalls and unintended consequences of the traditional association system. The simple truth about professional sports is that not everyone is good enough to receive a professional contract. For a variety of reasons, the vast majority of players don’t measure up. I was one of those athletes that wasn’t professional athlete material. We should be doing everything we can to help young athletes coming through our system be prepared with the skills necessary to live and work outside of the game of soccer.
We must ensure that kids in the academy system are attending school, that they’re making good grades, and that they’re putting the work into their education. We make it our goal that every young athlete that comes through our system, citizen or not, academy player or not, professional potential or not, finishes their education with at least a high school diploma. And we must also work to encourage professional teams to form relationships with institutions of higher education in their own communities and to work with their players in order to ensure that a player forgoing the collegiate system still has access to an education, if he or she wants one. I would argue that some should seriously consider making it an option in players’ compensation packages or sponsorship agreements. And even if individual clubs don’t have their own higher education partnerships, the federation should be able to help facilitate those relationships, as how MLS has done with Southern New Hampshire University.
Education is so important to our society, but sometimes we don’t value it enough. By encouraging clubs to include college tuition in player contracts, we’re removing one of the central reasons why players don’t turn professional. We’re also helping to create a safety net for players when professional soccer doesn’t work out. And maybe, just maybe beyond utilitarian reasons, we’re doing something far more important; education feeds the soul of the human and that can only help make better humans of us all.