MLS can’t be the only home for soccer’s American boom

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On Saturday, largely ignored by the national media, another new American soccer club will be born. And once again, it looks like being another success story. Jacksonville Armada will open their NASL campaign and they hope to beat the league’s regular season attendance record of 14,593.

It is another sign that North American club soccer is booming – and it’s not all about Major League Soccer. While MLS continues to break towards the American sporting mainstream in communities across the United States, lower division clubs are putting down roots in a way that has never been seen before.

Jacksonville hasn’t featured on the frequent lists of cities likely to be included in the next round of MLS expansion talks. But if attendance and interest is as high as the Armada expect in their debut season, you can be sure that there will be some wondering if Jacksonville aren’t going to be the next Orlando or Minnesota. Then again, the same could be said of Sacramento Republic in the third tier USL, or the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions.

It is hard, at the moment, to think of a city in the U.S. that wouldn’t embrace a new soccer club – if that club does all the necessary marketing and community work to establish their presence and credibility. With a soccer specific stadium built in the right part of town, MLS could set-up shop in almost any city in the nation and find a population ready to embrace it.

But there are only so many cities MLS can accept. The league may well expand past 24 clubs, to 28 or even 32, but that would still leave significant, large cities in North America without a top flight professional soccer club. That’s why MLS can never be the be-all and end-all of American club soccer.

Think about this list of non-MLS cities: Phoenix, Austin, Detroit, Cleveland, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Birmingham, Nashville, Charlotte, St.Louis, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Tampa, Cincinnati. You could add others of course and there is no reason why smaller communities across the country couldn’t embrace a team.

The same can be said for all of North America’s major leagues of course but there is a crucial difference – when it comes to American football and basketball, those large cities without an NFL or NBA team will have a college team to satisfy the demand for big-time local games in the sport. College soccer, though, is never going to fill the gap.

In the rest of the world, it is completely normal, of course, for towns and cities of all sizes to have professional soccer teams playing at varying levels in their country’s pyramid. Most have long histories and deep roots that took hold when the game was establishing itself. North America is finally undergoing that process, a century later than Europe but it faces some key decisions in the coming years.

Because MLS is a closed league, open only to clubs who can pay the large entrance fee and win the backing of the league office and the owners of the existing MLS clubs, the dream of rising through the divisions isn’t open to the smaller communities in the United States. That is a pity but a reality nonetheless.

That doesn’t mean that those clubs can’t survive or even prosper – English football has scores of professional clubs who are vibrant presences within their community despite never having a realistic shot at reaching the Premier League – but it does mean that U.S. Soccer, if it wants to help the game spread at all levels, needs to think hard about how to harness the enthusiasm that is seeing clubs being set up at all levels.

The U.S. Open Cup is the perfect way to channel the energy of lower level soccer into a competition that gives them the chance to face the likes of L.A. Galaxy and New York City FC. How can it not be good for the game to give fans in Jacksonville or Louisville a chance to see their local team up against the likes of Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane or Frank Lampard and David Villa?

Yet the tournament is treated like the unwanted stepchild of American soccer. Despite offering its own rich history, which touches upon every era in the ups and downs of the game in this country, the competition is barely televised, hardly marketed and not taken seriously by MLS clubs. This is an area where U.S Soccer could take the lead and really energize the competition. With promotion and relegation unlikely to be on the agenda for many years (if ever), the Cup offers the chance to open the game up – to allow the small clubs to dream of their day of glory.

The Cup is a huge missed opportunity but U.S. Soccer also needs to wary of the dangers inherent in the ad-hoc layers of leagues that it has allowed to develop. There is a risk of ‘turf wars’ between USL and NASL that will only harm the game. It is one thing for the two leagues to compete for potential investors looking to set up clubs – another thing altogether if the leagues place new clubs in existing markets and risk destroying whatever has been built. So far there have only been skirmishes but it is a danger that US Soccer needs to be alert to.

SEE ALSO: Watch or listen to the interview with NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson on Soccer Morning.

USL’s bid to be designated a ‘Division Two’ league would, if successful, create the ludicrous situation of American soccer having two competing second divisions, neither of which would offer promotion to the first division or relegation to a (non-existent) third division. It is hardly likely to discourage the potential turf wars.

US Soccer needs to have a serious think about how it wants to see professional club soccer structured. The games has moved to a level where a laissez faire attitude of simply being glad that leagues exist is no longer adequate. MLS, NASL and USL are all going to follow their own interests but there is no guarantee that those interests are always going to coincide with what makes the most sense for a growing sport. The history of American soccer offers plenty of examples where selfish feuds have undone years of progress.

SEE ALSO: Watch or listen to an interview with USL Commissioner Jake Edwards on Soccer Morning.

There is so much talk about ‘player development’ in American soccer but the lower divisions offer one of the best ways for players to emerge and grow as professionals. If America truly is becoming, as Don Garber has suggested, a ‘Soccer Nation’ then it needs to make sure it has a national structure that can capitalize on growth and not fall apart under the strain of it.

Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.

 

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15 Comments

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