USL-1 made a statement in the CONCACAF Champions League. No one will question this, and those like myself who have long been proponents of the second flight of American football were pleased by the results which saw USL-1 emerge on the media map in a mainstream fashion for the first time.
While the league as a whole has benefited from a public relations standpoint, the net result in terms of competition has given two teams a leg up on the rest of the league from both financially and by perception. The Puerto Rico Islanders in particular have opened up a gap in terms of talent with the rest of the league which can be interpreted as unhealthy for the league as a whole.
But USL-1, unlike MLS does not have any internal mechanisms to ensure a competitive balance and has seen many clubs either go out of business or relegated to lower division of the USL umbrella in recent years. While USL follows a strictly foreign model for football such as a single table (which I strongly oppose, but may work better in 2011 when the Pacific Northwest clubs leave for MLS), no salary limits, flexible squad limits, a form of relegation/promotion (financial instead of results based) and no revenue sharing, MLS follows a model to ensure survival and financial health.
In MLS, costs are controlled, while clubs are given every opportunity to improve and succeed. USL, is quite different as truthfully it is very difficult to win, attract fans and keep financially solvent in the league. The cream rises to the top but others fall by the wayside.
USL in some ways is more important than Major League Soccer because it keeps the flame of soccer alive in middle sized markets (as well as some massive markets like Miami and Long Island). The USL run PDL has also been critical in the development of turning college soccer players into professional footballers and in some cases US National Team players.
The success in Champions League proves the top USL teams are on the same level as MLS teams. I happen to believe the Puerto Rico Islanders would win in MLS with regularity but also concede that the squad they have assembled would be impossible to put together under MLS rules. But the issue here isn’t the quality and competitiveness of the Islanders or Montreal Impact but that of the bottom tier of USL-1 struggling to survive, perhaps especially now against richer clubs. These clubs wouldn’t stand a chance of staying competitive in MLS and now will have a tough time in their own league.
The lure of Champions League football has given the Islanders the ability to sign a number of players quickly of a high quality by USL-1 standards. No other team needed less offseason help in USL-1, yet made more big signings in the league. Players wanted to play in CONCACAF, and also receive the squad bonuses from advancement in that competition.
Puerto Rico has even been able to sign players directly from Europe recently, something that typically was difficult in USL. At one point Rochester has this same advantage, but the collapse of the Rhinos previous ownership group ended this ability of the club. The Islanders results have no gone unnoticed in Europe. I was in fact asked questions about this “American club the Islanders” in England and via the internet in January and February.
USL-1 finances aren’t as readily available as those of MLS, but my assumption is that Puerto Rico and Montreal made enough money during their deep CONCACAF runs to be able to spend far more on salaries than the US based USL clubs. When you further consider the fact that Puerto Rico may now have the type of team built where qualification is almost automatic each year what is to stop the Islanders from continuing to stockpile top players thus opening a bigger gap with the rest of the league.
One anonymous source from another USL club intimated to me last week that Islanders manager Colin Clarke was fed up with MLS because in Dallas when he suffered injuries he could not easily replace players and thus has vowed to have 2 ½ first team squads’ eventually in Puerto Rico.
Last week Minnesota Thunder President Manny Lagos (who was one of my favorite MLS players when he was with the Tampa Bay Mutiny) wrote an open letter to the fans of the Twin Cities discussing the quality of USL versus MLS. Here is a selection from that letter courtesy of Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer.
“One of the unique things about being a Minnesota resident is that we have an opportunity to see high-level professional soccer six months out of the year. Only 26 other communities (15 with MLS teams, 11 with USL-1 teams) in the country can say that. Our league continues to grow stronger on and off the field. While MLS certainly gets more media coverage than USL-1, the gap between the two leagues in terms of quality has virtually disappeared, evidenced by the fact that two teams in our league, the Montreal Impact and the Puerto Rico Islanders, have defeated the Mexican champions and the Honduran champions, respectively. In comparison, MLS sides have struggled in the competition.”
Basically this letter confirms my fears. The gap between teams like the Thunder and my local team Miami FC, and the Islanders/Impact are likely wider than the gap between the top teams in MLS and the bottom teams. Yet neither Minnesota nor Miami are necessarily bottom feeders in USL-1 this season. Both could make the playoffs, but unlike in MLS where the worst playoff qualifier, the Red Bulls went to the MLS Cup final last season, in USL-1 this type of run is unfathomable at this point in time.
Lagos is correct in stating that any gap that existed between MLS teams with Puerto Rico, Montreal and perhaps one or two USL-1 clubs has disappeared. But what has been left in its wake is a less competitive atmosphere around USL-1 and thus a less compelling product in some markets to get excited about unless the Islanders or Impact come to town. The gap between MLS teams and the Minnesota Thunder I am sad to say, Manny still exists, and the gap between your team and the two teams you reference is probably also as wide as the Gulf of Mexico.
The point is that Minnesota must ride off the coattails of the top teams to draw fans. I’ve done some of the same lobbying in south Florida to lure people to Miami FC matches the last two seasons. My pitch has been simple: “Puerto Rico is one of the best teams in the region and they play in USL-1.” All too often my pitch like that of those who like European football is “come and see the top teams. Manchester United is really good, so why don’t you watch Wigan?” The trickle down affect while sometimes effective is less reliable than MLS’ imposition of parity and stifling of super clubs development.
USL needs to develop a mechanism for revenue to flow from the top team in its first division down to the bottom teams. Since USL serves as an umbrella organization over leagues containing in excess of 100 clubs, often times the USL-1 clubs gets less assistance from the league than the smaller clubs.
Is a salary cap an answer? Perhaps, but a luxury tax where the top clubs have to pay the league a fine or tax on players signed over a league mandated limit may actually work better. For USL-1 to actually benefit from the surge in interest generated by CONCACAF, the league must make some fundamental changes to its structure to resemble MLS more without mimicking that league’s desire to completely impose parity and mediocrity.