On Saturday in Atlanta, the second division North American Soccer League will crown a champion for the 2013 season. The Atlanta Silverbacks will play host to the New York Cosmos who, despite not playing a full season, are eligible for the championship. The winner will be crowned champion but will not win promotion to Major League Soccer, the top flight league in the United States and Canada. The champion won’t get a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League or any other international competition.
On the surface, this smacks of being highly unfair as a highly subjective, largely economic standard has been used to differentiate Division 1 from Divisions 2 and 3 in North America.
For years, I believed this standard was not only subjective but wrong. But once you work in the business, you realize why the structure is the way it is. While many of us would like to see changes made in the current environment, they are not possible in the near future.
Those who are connected with the beautiful game abroad want to badly see promotion and relegation in the United States. From a competitive sporting standpoint, it is the appropriate way to go. I count myself among this group. However for the model to work in the US, changes must be made to the domestic professional leagues. In other words, PRO/REL cannot work under the existing league setup. Here’s why:
1. Divisions 2 and 3 remain unstable and lack the infrastructure and professionalism to maintain first division standards
I worked at the NASL for three and a half years. When I began working there, I believed Major League Soccer (MLS) was a monopoly that was quite possibly violating anti-trust laws backed by the US Soccer Federation. I believed at the time a league like NASL could challenge MLS and blow them out of the water. By the time I left earlier this year, I believed Major League Soccer was largely a well-run league whose standards of professionalism and presentation exceed most football leagues on the planet. I also came to believe lower-division soccer needs to be overhauled and upgraded in the ways we talked about at the NASL but now seem to be ignoring.
What changed my thinking? Dealing with the wild west of lower division North American soccer where a lack of ownership stability, consistent standards and league structure inhibit the development of the game. The staffing of the leagues and the constantly changing formats and structure do not help either. USLPRO, the Division 3 in the country, has just once in the past decade gotten through an offseason without a team folding. The NASL, which manages Division 2, has trimmed its league staff and league budget since 2011 while Traffic Sports, which owns three teams in the league, has done the same as revenue projections have not been met. Sponsorship sales are difficult at the team and league level in both Division 2 and Division 3. Most lower-division teams could not possibly cope at the Major League level with the infrastructure they have. And attempting to compete for a single season if quickly relegated could contribute to bankrupting the ownership groups.