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Re: “The future of American soccer: a primer for those just tuning in to a running saga


Thank you for bringing up a legitimate worry in a discussion that can quickly degenerate into absurd conjecture. For all of my support of the original NASL, it was a league of imported players. This was actually a step up from a couple of their predecessors - two of which imported entire clubs on summer break from their European and South American Leagues - so in a weird way, it was progress.

The American soccer world has changed dramatically since then. Today, we export players to Europe - something unheard of in the 1970s, but a trend that started before MLS. Despite this, we think it's still important to stimulate US talent with some protectionist measures. Our transition plan to open leagues includes provisions that encourage protectionist measures along the lines of the work permits issued in the UK. While we can't copy that system - our immigration laws are different - we think there must be a way to limit imports by accepting only those that have been capped by their national teams.

This measure would leave a huge role to play for homegrown talent. Sure, top clubs could choose to import the majority of their players, but this would be cost prohibitive for most. Also, when we get to the full complement of 160 American clubs in eight leagues across four top divisions, there won't be enough capped foreign players for everyone.

As a result, lower division clubs, and many of their top division brothers, will have to rely on American talent - and that will develop our player pool.

When talking to supporters of the current system (a fraction of the fraction of number of viewers that are watching pro wrestling) you will often find them quick to cloak MLS practices in some kind of cultural imperative. They'll tell you we can't possibly adopt such an goofy system from across the pond, that the meritocracy of promotion and relegation is somehow socialist, or as weird as drinking warm beer.

In fact, we're the weird ones. American sports owners are used to their entitlements, of which the single entity is just the latest installment. I know it's impossible for the average NFL owner to conceive of a world in which promotion and relegation rule. You certainly can't have pro/rel with tight league controls like salary caps and squad size limits.

It may not work for the conventional American pro sports owner, but please don't argue that it doesn't make for good TV. As you are a Carolinian, I suspect I only have to make the faintest mention of a couple of small college basketball teams in your state that manage to draw abnormally large national tv audience every March - despite the fact that their TV market is defined as practically non-existent on Madison Avenue.

If it wasn't for a guy named Steve Ross, soccer wouldn't be the most popular youth sport in the USA. We wouldn't have the Seattle Sounders, a Portland Timbers, or maybe even an MLS. In an ownership group comprised largely of NFL and NHL owners looking for a low cost sidelight to their primary businesses, he bucked the trend and hired Pele, and maybe more importantly, Giorgio Chinaglia. As a result, for a year in the late 1970s, the Cosmos outdrew both the Giants and the Yankees, awoke American soccer from a forty year siesta.

Yes, MLS deserves credit for keeping club soccer alive for a decade and a half, even if on life support. It's amazing what they have accomplished, given that they've produced such a debilitated version of the game, and robbed it of one of it's core tenants: The meritocracy of promotion, relegation and independent clubs.

One thing is becoming clear. What works for Applebees does not work for club soccer. Tight corporate style constraints have never been a part of successful club soccer, and they don't work today. Despite the growing popularity of the game, MLS average attendance records were set in 1996, and are in no danger of falling today.

If instituting promotion and relegation worked, it might be a threat to our closed sports system, and the entitlements bestowed on our pro sports owners when Congress granted the National League their landmark anti-trust exemption in the 1920. It might expose owners to great risk. But it will capture the imagination of a new generation of fans, and will bring us a unique, exciting game.

Thanks for the opportunity to give my two cents - don't kill me with the edits!

Ted Westervelt

Posted by on 01/18/2010 at 12:55 AM

Re: “The future of American soccer: a primer for those just tuning in to a running saga

Nice work - except for one thing: It's not complicated why we don't apply promotion, relegation and fully independent clubs here. The apathy about soccer experts not expecting any change in the situation is true, but that's why we have to step out and change it. It's going to take a grassroots effort, and that's what we're trying to do.

Look, WWE is beating MLS 25 to 1 in cable TV ratings. That's not a failing of MLS, or American soccer, that's a failure of MLS. It's a failure that's not surprising, given a single entity system that may shield owners from risk, may allow them to experiment with tight controls on every aspect of club autonomy, and may allow them to try and develop a fan base that doesn't threaten their other endeavors, but it doesn't improve our club game, and isn't drawing a respectable TV audience.

It's time to break it free. Institute an open league system. Let clubs develop local fan bases free of ridiculous salary caps, barriers between leagues, and competing owner interests.

The open league system has crossed every other socioeconomic, geographic, and political border on the planet. It's fundamentally more free market than our socialist system of closed leagues. After century of trying to jam soccer into our domestic system, it's time to set it free...

Posted by on 01/14/2010 at 6:23 PM

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