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.

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