Beau Dure, a Virginia sportswriter, has a column in The Guardian this morning (Why the US men will never win a World Cup — and that’s OK). It’s an entirely acceptable restatement of the current consensus among American soccer writers, a relatively insular group of advocates who have witnessed the calcified absurdity of the sport’s domestic FIFA bureaucray up close.

The job, as the soccer-writing fraternity seems to perceive its mission, is to help explain and popularize the World Game here, even as it leads jingoistic new converts toward a gentle understanding of why soccer in the United States (population 326 million) is unlikely to match the quality and success of the game in places like Mexico (127 million) Argentina (43 million), the Netherlands (17 million), or Portugal (10 million). Not any time soon, at least.

It’s not that Beau is wrong. He’s right. Yet in describing the current state of the men’s game sport in the United States (our women are the world’s best), I noticed that he’d focused entirely on the intractable problems, without noting — even in passing — the stunning changes that are reshaping the game here. American soccer is improving in spite of U.S. Soccer’s obvious weaknesses, and might yet produce the fresh crops of world-class male players needed for a shot at international glory.

 

THE INVERTED PYRAMID

When I began following football seriously in 2010, Major League Soccer had 16 clubs. Attendance was generally poor, MLS had no television presence to speak of, and the league was just eight years removed from contraction that had reduced it to a mere 10 franchises. Though the top division had begun to grow again, everything seemed awash in red ink.

The lower divisions were in even worse shape. After years of chaos, minor league soccer reached its modern nadir following the 2009 season, when a group of owners in the United Soccer League — the sport’s “second division” at the time — announced plans to quit USL, begin play as a resurrected North American Soccer League, and challenge USL’s D2 status before the sport’s national sanctioning body. The feud split the lower divisions into warring camps, and without sufficient time to resolve the various legal challenges, the United States Soccer Federation was forced to intervene, splitting the league into a temporary USSF 2nd Division and a de facto third division league administered by USL.

American soccer history is a story of self-inflicted wounds, and the 2009-10 split threatened to undo more than a decade of progress. After all, following the failure of the original NASL in 1984, the United States went more than a decade without a Division 1 league for the US Soccer Federation (USSF, aka U.S. Soccer) to sanction. The lower divisions kept the professional game alive in small markets like Richmond and Harrisburg, but as MLS and USL sputtered toward stability, the curse of American soccer seemed to be repeating itself.

The breakaway USL owners — with teams in larger markets like Montreal, Minneapolis, Tampa and Miami — weren’t merely shattering the delicate economics of the lower divisions. They were proclaiming themselves competitors with MLS for first-division status.

So that’s the situation circa 2010. The NASL rebellion had thrown professional soccer into turmoil, and all the progress toward rebuilding the game here following the U.S.-hosted 1996 World Cup looked tenuous. The top three divisions comprised just 34 franchises: 16 in MLS, 12 in USSF 2nd Division, and a mere six in the USL 2nd Division. Four of those teams — three from Canada, plus a team based in Puerto Rico — weren’t even from the continental United States.

Here’s where things stand just eight years later: MLS has 23 clubs, with expansion teams in Nashville and Miami both expected to join the league no later than 2020. NASL is dead everywhere except in federal court, a victim of its own corruption and vanity. And USL — which looked all but finished in 2010 — has regained its Second Division status and emerged as the largest soccer league on the continent. Its 2018 season boasts 33 clubs (nine of which are owned by MLS teams) divided into two entirely distinct regional conferences and united by a playoff to produce a single champion. Six more teams are preparing to begin or rejoin USL play next season.

So that’s 56 professional teams in the top two divisions this year, growing to 62 teams by the spring of 2019.

But here’s the news that’s even more important to the future of American soccer: USL will fill the vacant Third Division slot in the US soccer pyramid in 2019 with its new league, USL D3. USL says the league will begin play with at least eight teams, and has already awarded three franchises to teams that will begin competition next spring (they’re in Statesboro, Ga., Greenville, SC, and Madison, Wi.).

 

RIGHTING THE PYRAMID

In a truly functional soccer pyramid, there are more teams at the bottom than at the top, and regardless of promotion-relegation rules, there should be some degree of fluidity between divisions. In the United States, where there are three sanctioned divisions, plus room for both professional and amateur leagues in Division 4 and below, that means we’ll have MLS in the first division, USL in the second division, USL D3 in the third division, and an unofficial fourth division with at least two leagues: PDL, a developmental league comprised of collegiate players and owned by USL, and NPSL, officially an independent amateur league, but with no age limits,. While “D4” remains a largely unstructured concept in the United States, there are currently 172 teams playing in either the NPSL (98 teams) or  the PDL (74 teams).

In other words, beginning next spring, the United States will have a semi-integrated soccer pyramid comprising about 140 teams, with about 100 additional teams competing in the NPSL. Here’s the logic: MLS signed a cooperation deal with USL in 2013. USL governs professional play in the second and third divisions. And since it also owns PDL, there’s your through line: An MLS/USL partnership wrangling a business structure from the amateur ranks up through multiple divisions to the top. American soccer has never looked so organized.

That’s not a done deal, and the structure I’ve described could still face competition from upstart leagues. But the issue in American soccer has never been eliminating competition, but preventing fracture. And we appear to be on the verge of that.

I find it entirely probable that within five years we’ll see a 28-team MLS, a 30-team USL, a 30-team D3, and a D4 that includes not only PDL, but a true semi-professional league. And since I anticipate that USL will become the umbrella structure for that semi-pro league, one business entity will effectively encompass professional soccer from youth development to D4 to D2.

 

Pro-Rel: Sort of

Once that lower-league pyramid clarifies itself into about 75 D4 semi-pro clubs, maybe 50 teams in D3, and about 30 teams in D2, each divided into sensible regional conferences, you’ll have all the pieces in place for USL to announce the beginning of a pro-rel in the United States. While it’s made no statement about such plans, USL hinted at them in 2017 when it quietly trademarked the names USL Championship, USL  League One, USL League Two and USL Youth. To American fans of soccer in the United Kingdom, the names speak for themselves.

That’s not promotion-relegation the way other countries do it, where organizations like England’s Football Association manage the system. And it certainly wouldn’t include MLS, at least not at the beginning. But once USL has a properly structured pyramid, the company can begin a pro-rel experiment with little more than a nod from the stodgy old USSF.

Pro-rel is the Holy Grail for many American soccer fans. Personally, I really don’t care. I’d be happy to see it, but I’m far more interested in fostering the conditions required to make it possible: Profitability, stability, economies of scale, and regionalism.

While all of these goals are necessary for soccer’s improvement, the most overlooked — regionalism — is absolutely the most important when it comes to the future of American soccer. If you can’t guess why, let’s consider a few numbers.

 

Scotland vs. South Carolina

With about 30,000 square miles and 5 million people, the nation of Scotland is roughly the size and population of the state of South Carolina. Scotland has 42 professional teams spread across four divisions. In 2018, South Carolina has a USL team in Charleston (my former employers, the Charleston Battery) and a first-year NPSL club in Greenville. Next year Greenville will launch a D3 professional club entirely unrelated to its current NPSL team.

Hence, numbers: There are 123,809 Scots per Scottish professional club in 2018, and there will be about 2.5 million South Carolinians per the state’s two professional teams in 2019. And it isn’t as if the state’s one 2018 pro team is bursting at the seams. While USL attendance has surged over the past three years, attendance at Charleston’s 5,100-seat soccer-specific stadium dropped from 4,080 per game in 2015 to 3,167 in 2017. It’s up slightly this season, but remains well off the 2015 pace.

By standard American sports logic, the solution to Charleston’s attendance failure isn’t more local competition, but less of it. And that’s entirely wrong. While Scotland’s professional leagues might be a bit more profitable with slightly fewer clubs, it’s the density of professional soccer there that makes it so strong. Scotland suggests that a right-sized Battery might sell more tickets as a D3 club in a league with teams from places like Columbia, Savannah, Greenville, Charlotte, Asheville and Augusta. If D4 semi-pro teams crop up alongside those markets, the more the merrier.

A party’s just more fun when more people show up. And the more densely packed the region becomes with soccer clubs, the higher the level of play will rise. Because while it all starts with viable professional teams, it’s really all about the kids.

Consider Scottish footballer Nicki Paterson, a friend of ours from our Charleston days. He grew up in Motherwell, a town of about 30,000. Motherwell FC, the local club, has been in Scotland’s first division since 1985. That would be like my current home — sleepy Easley, SC — holding a Major League Soccer franchise for three decades.

As a kid, Nicki signed with Motherwell’s youth academy, located just a few minutes drive from his house. His parents didn’t have to pay for his training and coaching. Because Nicki showed talent, the club paid those costs. They didn’t do this to be nice, either. They owned his rights as a player, and stood to benefit financially if Nicki developed into a professional.

Eventually Motherwell sold Nicki’s rights to another Scottish club located about five miles south. Hamilton Academical, which had just earned promotion to the Second Division, needed young talent, and 17-year old Nicki made his professional debut as a midfielder there. Though he wound up leaving Scotland to attend college in the United States and went on a nice professional career in the U.S. and Canada, he returned Scotland at 32 and signed with a third-division club in East Fife, finishing out his professional journey 60 miles northeast of Motherwell, where it all began.

Now compare Nicki’s story to that of 22-year-old Memo Rodriguez, currently a midfielder for the Houston Dynamo. Rodriguez was born into a working family in Wharton, Texas. When he was 15, he did well at a tryout camp and was invited to join the Houston Dynamo Academy. Memo was one of the lucky ones: It was only about an hour’s drive from his home to the Academy’s training facility.

Three years later, Rodriguez became the Dynamo’s sixth “Homegrown Player,” signing a professional contract with the club as an 18-year-old. He went on loan to the Charleston Battery, and I was there to watch his professional debut in 2015. He spent 2016 playing for Houston’s new USL affiliate in Texas, and made nine MLS appearances with three starts and two goals for the Dynamo in 2017. A few months into 2108, Rodriguez scored his first MLS match-winner in dramatic fashion, beating the LA Galaxy in the 90th minute.

Rodriguez is the kind of success story MLS likes to tell. But if it weren’t for his family’s ability and willingness to drive their teenager an hour north to Houston, sit through each training session, and then drive him home, the 22-year-old wouldn’t have been there, lurking in front of the Galaxy’s goal on May 5, 2018.

An hour each way is a lot of time. But what if he’d lived a 90-minute drive away? How about two hours? At what point does a family say, “it’s just too far?”

Jonathan Amon was fortunate, too. He came from a sporting family that settled in Summerville, SC. After three years in the S.C. Battery Academy and stints with the US U15s, he caught a lucky break and the attention of a scout from FC Nordsjælland, a Danish Super League club. Amon signed a contract and made his pro debut as a winger in November. He was 19. His play in Denmark is already drawing the attention of U.S. Soccer.

Amon’s parents only had to drive him about half an hour to training with the Battery Academy. But the Battery Academy, like many youth soccer programs, is based on the “pay to play” system. With few exceptions, families must cover all the costs of their player’s coaching, training and travel. The usual payoff is some form of college scholarship, and that’s no small consideration. But it’s an investment many families can’t afford — in terms or money, time or support. During my time covering soccer in Charleston, I saw Battery Academy players who commuted from as far away as Savannah and Columbia, supported by parents who drove two hours each way just to give their sons access to top-level coaching and quality competition.

 

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

These are the challenges that face men’s soccer in America. We need more soccer, and we need it in more places, if only to get more professional-quality coaching closer to more young players. We need systems that steer the better prospects into better training and competition. We need sustainable revenue streams that compensate licensed coaches in youth programs. We need soccer organizations that are committed to growing the game, not just in terms of revenues, but in terms of reach. And at the end of the day, the books need to stay in the black. In the countries where it is most successful, soccer is a business, and yet the best young players get the best training at no cost to their families.

The U.S Soccer Federation can’t make that happen, yet somehow we imagine that improving America’s quality of play is U.S. Soccer’s job. I say let U.S. Soccer focus on what it’s supposed to do — running the various national teams, rule-making, officiating, sanctioning and compliance. The only way to improve play across the United States is to have enough professional clubs making enough money in enough places that we have not just dozens of youth soccer academies, but hundreds of them, spread across the map, offering our best young players the best available coaching. For free.

You don’t do that by reshuffling the deck. You do that by working with MLS, USL and any other serious start-up leagues to strengthen and expand the professional pyramid. If we’re serious about ending “pay to play” as our de facto player development system, we’re going to have to make it legal for academies to provide coaching and training in exchange for a player’s professional rights. Like they do it in Europe. The president of U.S. Soccer can propose whatever he or she wishes, but until we sort out the business side of soccer, it’s mostly just talk.

Title IX made America the dominant force in women’s soccer, and we can take pride and joy in that. The National Women’s Soccer League is showing signs of stability and success. Our women should continue to do well.

But this idea that there’s some magical Title IX solution to what ails our men’s game is part of what keeps holding us back. Today, most of America’s male soccer player pool is made of Americans raised abroad, the best players money can buy from the suburbs, the children of coaches and former players, and the occasional poor kid with exceptional talent and luck. Scrappers like Clint Dempsey. Athletes like Eddie Johnson.

The trick to U.S. soccer rising to the level of Mexico or Argentina is flipping the status quo: When the best players from the well-off suburbs are forced to compete on even terms with our best, hungriest, most ambitious young athletes from everywhere else, we’ll be on our way to a functional soccer culture.

Until then, we’ll be what we are now: A vast soccer backwater, cut off from the best ideas, developing talent selected by its geographical location and ability to pay, not its potential.

Will the U.S. ever win a Men’s World Cup? Who knows? And if winning is all you like, then enjoy our Women’s National Team. They’re fantastic, and we should treasure them.

But based on the growth of our professional game and the accompanying expansion of youth academies, it’s safe to say that the quality of domestic play 25 years from now will be dramatically better. And that’s a wonderful thought, no matter what happens in international competition.

I might even live to see it.

Dan Conover spent about 20 years in newspapers and about four years in soccer, first running a soccer website and later as the director of marketing and communications for the Charleston Battery. PHOTO: Jonathan Amon of the S.C. Battery Academy looks ahead during a 2015 match. Amon has since moved on to play professionally in Denmark, and in considered one of the most promising players in contention for a future look from the USMNT. Dan Conover photo.

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