As MLS, NASL and USL PRO Expand, the US Soccer Talent Pool Becomes More Diluted

USL PRO, the third-tier of American soccer, recently completed its Annual General Meeting in Clearwater, Florida. Like the leagues directly above it, USL PRO is in full-fledged expansion mode, adding new teams to its roster each season and now sporting an affiliation agreement with Major League Soccer (MLS) to play host to the reserve league. USL PRO will between now and 2015 add new teams in Colorado Springs, Sacramento, and incorporate several MLS reserve sides. USL PRO very well could add more teams by 2015 as interested investors around the country are talking to the league.

The second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) will expand in 2014 to Indianapolis and Ottawa, and in 2015 to Northern Virginia, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City and potentially to Los Angeles and Tulsa. Major League Soccer will add NYCFC, a joint-venture between the New York Yankees and Manchester City FC in 2015 while also “promoting” Orlando City SC from the third tier to the top flight.

The continued push for expansion in American soccer among the three professional leagues is diluting the talent base and arguably making the product less entertaining. This leads directly to the continued inability of MLS to improve its TV ratings among soccer aficionados although one school of thought holds that the more teams, the more interest and the more relevance thus pushing up TV ratings.

Consider that in 2009 North America sported 32 professional teams and by current projections in 2015 the region will sport well in excess of 50 (including MLS reserve sides playing in USL PRO. The MLS Reserve league was not functioning in 2009) and you have to wonder about where the players are going to come from?

MLS increased its foreign player limit to 8 per team as this most recent wave of expansion began in 2008. Still, it is not difficult to see how the youth structure in the United States and Canada, often designed to maximize profits and not speedy and efficient player development, is going to cope with the strain of needing to produce substantially more professional players than in past years.

The “soccer war” between second division NASL and third-division USL PRO has also fueled the expansion stakes with both leagues rushing to markets and in some cases competing with one another in smallish areas. Long-term it will be precarious if the leagues continue competing against each other in the same general market. Without television money and a strong supporters base or base of local players, some of these ventures could be ill-fated and untenable within a few seasons.

Observers I speak to note that the quality of play in the lower divisions (but importantly not in MLS) has weakened over the past few seasons. This is probably directly due to MLS expansion. Not long ago, second division teams could occasionally compete at the same level as MLS clubs in continental competitions and the domestic US Open Cup. However, those days seem to have gone by the wayside as the top second and third division players of the era from 2006 to 2010 now have mostly been integrated in MLS. The poaching of top clubs from the lower divisions to MLS such as Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal has also diluted the talent base from the lower leagues.

Ultimately in a business that needs cash to operate and doesn’t receive lots of sponsorship or TV dollars, expansion is critical. But lower-division leagues need to be careful about the outside image they project in terms of stability and consistency. Major League Soccer needs to be concerned that with constant expansion without a deepening of the North American talent base that they will be essentially a glorified second division in many locales.

US Soccer perhaps needs to be more vigilant about making sure the infrastructure from a player standpoint exists before more professional clubs are formed.

I don’t have an answer or remedy for this situation, and maybe the status quo is fine. But it is a question that is often the point of discussion between soccer fans and those who work in the game in the US and Canada. It is certainly worthy of a larger discussion.

22 thoughts on “As MLS, NASL and USL PRO Expand, the US Soccer Talent Pool Becomes More Diluted”

  1. Not sure I agree with this argument. It doesn’t seem that Minor League Baseball (AAA-level, AA-level, A-level) has hurt the MLB any.

    Not every town or city will get an MLS team. Having a NASL or USL team in those places only grows the games. And having more opportunities for home-grown players to play for organized professional and semi-professional teams should in theory increase the quality of players that rise to the top.

    1. Fair points…but my fear is that our youth setup isn’t producing enough quality players to fill all these clubs. In time it will, but professional expansion is moving much faster than the development of players.

      1. Reyna is only three years into a significant recalibration of USSF long term player development. It’ll take time, but should yield better players.

        Any expansion shallows the pool for a chunk of time, but populations usually recover.

        Personally, I’m more nervous about club survival than quality of players / play.


      2. Professional expansion HAS to move faster than youth development. Its the money, the structure and the allure of professional sports that will drive youths through programs that will develop them into high quality players, not the other way around. We need teams with money to spend on developing players, not hordes of players desperate for a team. It just won’t work that way.

      3. I 100 percent disagree with you on this. The MLB hasn’t suffer with their growth of baseball with it’s AAA, AA and A. In truth it helps with the growth of American Soccer and we’re seeing evidence with the demand of an expansion soccer team whether it’s Major League Soccer the NASL or USL Pro. Heck with the city own story soccer history, St.Louis is more deserving a soccer team than cities like Oklahoma City, Jacksonville or Miami.

  2. The youth setup is strained to produce enough quality players to fill out all of these teams. With good ownership groups, these leagues should be able to support the parent club while developing younger talent to a higher level. I think the talent pool will take a hit early on, which it clearly already has, but will help it long term. The key to all of this growth is quality ownership groups. If they are willing to invest, be patient, and develop an organization that produces talent, then the clubs can be successful long term.

    I don’t think the dilution of American talent has anything to do with the low tv ratings. I think MLS is competing for television eyes with the big leagues around the world and is losing. That won’t change anytime soon. Develop a league that people will want to watch and they will which will produce more revenue for the league.

    1. Have to agree that tv numbers are not related to the talent level of American players or MLS players. However tv numbers will increase if the MLS is able to field teams with better talent from other countries while retaining our own players.

      In America high schools and colleges are putting out enough talent to stock the lower divisions. That is not the problem. Also MLS and the lower divisions can draw talent from the entire region quite easily. From what I observe from my home town Chicago Fire and a few other MLS teams the league seems ready turn up the notch a bit on the talent level.

  3. I think its easier to fill teams with players than to create interest in a new side. Lots of USL and NASL teams use foreign players to fill their rosters; not everyone can be American.

  4. Naturalize (in MLS terms) Canadians. If they have teams, their players should not be considered imports. That’s not a massive help, but it does ease some roster headaches.


  5. I disagree with the premise of this article. To your point about the league being “Less entertaining” – basically everyone who watches agrees this season was the most entertaining MLS season ever.

    On diluting talent, don’t lower leagues essentially exist to improve top league and national team? Having more options for players helps develop talent that otherwise might not be discovered.

    MLS quality is improving, and I think that the growth of lower leagues will only help MLS and US Soccer grow and develop in the future.

    1. NASL has stated publicly that they do NOT exist to develop players for MLS so while your theory may be logical it is not in sync with the reality of the existence of lower leagues.

      As for this being the most entertaining MLS season ever, it was the most entertaining playoffs of recent years not the most entertaining season ever or even the most entertaining playoffs ever.

      1. NASL can publicly state whatever they want, but what you get is what you are. If players and clubs leave for higher leagues, they are part of the feeder system.

  6. I think I generally agree with you Kartik, especially in the short term. What you’d like to see is that the game continues to grow in popularity, and stability (especially in D2 and D3) and that over the long haul teams will be better off financially and able to properly spend on the youth develoment level they way they need to.

    As an aside, would love to hear more about what you know of the goings on in Tulsa and LA regarding NASL expansion.

  7. Sure, the domestic talent pool will take a hit in the short term, but over time it should become deeper and stronger. With all of the MLS teams and many of the NASL & USL teams starting academies, the long term investment will payoff. Plus, like somebody above said, the lower divisions should be viewed as a development opportunity for players, whether they are affiliated with MLS sides or not. Even in the top Euro leagues, a good number of players spend time in the lower levels before moving up to the EPL, Serie A, etc on a full time basis.
    Not to mention that soccer has the deepest and largest talent pool of every professional sport in the US. Players can be found literally anywhere on the planet. Lower divisions can bolster their ranks with more foreign players. MLS can review and increase their foreign player rules (do DPs count as foreign players?). MLS can remove the foreign distinction from Canadians – especially for the Canadian teams. Even special rules for CONCACAF players can be enacted, considering MLS is one of the top two leagues for the federation.
    Flooding the league with foreign players will not solve the domestic pool issues you bring up. But combined with investments in academies, they could strengthen development over the long term. Competition fosters growth.

  8. I think this is a very accurate article. I also think that this dilution is a bigger problem for MLS and for the lower leagues.

    You can to consider who the “marginal player” is. This is the best player who is not good enough to play professionally. Say this is player #1000 in the U.S. There is a very nominal difference in quality between player #1000 and player #1001. The gap between player #100 and #101 is bigger than the gap between #500 and #501 which is bigger than the gap between #1000 and #1001.

    Since the lower leagues are mostly employing the lower quality players, it doesn’t dramatically reduce the quality on the field for USL Pro to add players #1000 – #1020 to their league. From an observer’s standpoint, you probably wouldn’t even notice.

    But, it is a bigger deal when MLS adds players #300 – #320 because those players are more dramatically worse than the players just in front of them.

    Then you consider how these teams are marketed. NASL and USL Pro are mostly depending on the live, in-stadium audience. Live soccer is wonderful and doesn’t depend THAT much on the quality on the field. Minor League baseball learned years ago that the players don’t matter as long as the fans have fun. Hence the bounce houses, craft beer stands, fireworks, etc. Live soccer isn’t really THAT different. People go to have a good time.

    MLS is very different because they are trying to be a TV league. On TV, it doesn’t matter if your league is fun to attend in person… needs to be objectively good on the field. MLS is already losing this battle (see the ratings), so continued expansion will make the on-field product worse and that makes it a less attractive TV property.

    The only way for MLS to counter this is to raise salaries enough so that they can lure more soccer players to the US.

    I’m sure the wise people at MLS are fully aware of this.

    I guess the point is that the leagues aren’t all playing the same game from a business standpoint, so expansion affects them differently.

    1. You could go this route, but you could also argue that the official #1000 is really only the 1000th willing to play for that level of wages. I have no doubt that there are much better players available than are pulling wages from all pro teams because the wages don’t afford an appropriate quality of life. There are a lot of guys who, if the offer was adequate, would vault into the top 500 just by offering his services.

      In a form of “trickle-up” economics, If there are more high-end salaries, that will loosen up better wages all the way down the line and perhaps lure players who wouldn’t otherwise consider soccer a realistic way to make a living.

      1. Yes….you are absolutely correct. There is a microeconomic principal at play too. As you increase the wages offered, you will increase the number of players willing to play. There are probably some American soccer players who opted for more lucrative employment in other fields versus continuing as a player. I wonder how much this really happens right now. I mean, kids in their early 20s have a hell of a time getting a job at all. Making $30K to play soccer is probably the best opportunity many of them have.

  9. I agree with the author about diluting the pool. MLS is a fair to poor product right now, and if it wasn’t for a few cities’ diehard fans and the landing of old stars like Henry and Beckham, would be in even more trouble.

    They should be contracting, not expanding right now. I would rather see a competitive, quality 10 club league than a 30 club league of drivel. MLS is choosing the latter and it’s showing. It’ll only get worse with Beckham’s Miami club coming in.

    If they could only get a promotion scheme going with NASL and ditch the playoffs…ya, I know, it’s a pipe dream.

  10. I disagree with the premise of this piece that there isn’t enough talent in the US.

    The talent is there. Having more clubs will only unearth the talent which previously might not have been found.

    1. If the talent is there, then why hasn’t the quality improved with the clubs that are already present? A lack of talent is exactly why aging European stars can come in like Keane and Cahill and improve their stats at age 33 and 34 respectively. Just think if they had better service what they could do! It’s like a rec league for them.

      I’m not anti-MLS, but I am not happy with the quality of play, and question why the prices keep rising for mediocre entertainment.

  11. I have to say, I have no idea what the real point of this article is. Saying that what you might call the average level of talent per team will decrease when there are more teams couldn’t be more obvious, so what is the article getting at? Also, it says that this expansion and the resulting talent dilution is “arguably making the product less entertaining” is strange, because if you say it’s only arguable that it’s less entertaining, that means that there’s also a strong argument that the result is not less entertaining. Then there’s the bold statement that this “leads directly to the continued inability of MLS to improve its TV ratings among soccer aficionados”, but no basis whatsoever is given for this bold statement, apparently the readers are just supposed to accept it as a fact, even though he previously said that it’s not even proven that the product is any less entertaining than before. The previous statement seems even more strange when later the article states that “Observers I speak to note that the quality of play in the lower divisions (but importantly not in MLS) has weakened over the past few seasons.” So we’re supposed to believe that expansion has directly led to MLS ratings not improving, even though the quality of play in MLS has not been negatively impacted? This whole article just seemed like a pointless, rambling collection of thoughts with little logic attached, which ends by saying the author doesn’t even know if there is a problem (a somewhat odd thing to say after stating outright that expansion has directly led to flat TV ratings) that he’s just asking a question. What about another question that wasn’t address: if there are more professional teams, creating more opportunities for players to develop, might that lead to a larger and better talent pool in the not too distant future? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

  12. I have said this since NASL was recreated that MLS should purchase both lower leagues turning the NASL into MLS2 and USL Pro into MLS3. Each league would have 24 teams with 2 conferences and 4 divisions.
    MLS and MLS2 could then have rel/pro and MLS3 would be the reserve league for MLS.
    MLS2 and MLS3 could each have one all Canadian division totalling 12 teams with another 4 in the MLS.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *