Saturday, February 23, 2008

Just what is the USL's future anyway, not to mention soccer in the US?

In the wake of the Austin Aztex' announcement that Everton Hall of Famer Adrian Heath (see the Soccernet story here) is going to be the team's new head coach, I got to wondering about the future of the United Soccer Leagues and it's ultimate relationship to MLS. The future I see is a bright one, not just for the USL, but also, ultimately for MLS and teams, or at least those who choose to exploit it, around the world.

In the Soccernet story Heath is quoted thusly:

"I am overjoyed at the opportunity to Coach the Austin Aztex. I have had several offers recently to coach in the English League but the chance to build something from scratch with Phil was just too tempting to turndown. I have followed U.S. Soccer closely over the past few years and believe the game here is about to take-off and I want to be a part of that."

Like Heath, I too believe that soccer in the US is about to take off (indeed, I think, to continue the NASA parlance, the spaceship has cleared the tower already). I also believe that MLS, despite its completely wrongheaded labor policies, will take its place among the top four major sports loops in North America (Some may say five, but in all honesty, I don't see the declined NHL reversing its fortunes anytime soon, if ever.) However, I have to wonder, if Heath truly believes or completely understands how the USL will be a major part of this developing situation and, if so, what role the league, and its various levels, will have.

It's easy to understand Heath's enthusiasm, and it's also easy to understand his possible misperception of the American situation. Without promotion/relegation (for Playtherapy's excellent posts on this "forbidden" subject, visit here and here.), the question of USL's eventual role is particularly apt. In Heath's world, of course, circuits exist in a ladder to be ascended and descended in a merit basis annually. Here, though, this is not true, and in all likelihood, for better or worse, never will it be.

The Austin Aztex present a particularly interesting case, and for the purposes of this discussion, a fabulous lab in which to pursue this issue. The team, which will field a U-23 side only this season in the USL's Premier Development League (along with the Houston Leones, of course) doesn't begin full play until 2009, but is owned by Phil Rawlins, who is also an owner and director of Stoke City FC an English League Championship side. The Potters are in terrific position in their promotion campaign to the Premiership for 2008-09, which will definitely affect the Aztex and present a situation unique (to my knowledge) in American soccer.

Check out this note from the Stoke City Web site on their arrangement:

The Austin Aztex will have an official affiliation with Stoke City which will begin immediately. The affiliation will include the English club holding their summer training camp in Austin, scouting for talent both locally and across the US, exchanging players with the Aztex and sharing best practices between the two clubs.

This situation brings up a series of questions. The fact of the matter is that USL will remain, for reasons too numerous to detail, a minor soccer league in the United States. MLS is, and will be, the top flight. And yet, the USL's Aztex will be the only US side to have a direct pipeline to the English Premiership, the so-called best league in the world.

(Similarly, USL-2 side Crystal Palace Baltimore has relationship with League Championship side Crystal Palace FC, not currently in position to go to the Premiership, but the situation bears noting in this discussion.)

What then is the USL? Minor leagues are by their nature developmental leagues, filled with players looking for the opportunities to develop their skills at the next level up, or those playing out their careers because they can't quite hang it all up just yet. USL definitely fits this bill, but for whom is the talent being developed?

Should an MLS team establish a similar relationship with a USL club? The league has talked about expanding into, among other cities, San Antonio. It does not tax the imagination unduly to posit a situation where a proposed San Antonio USL club (the Alamo?) has a relationship to, say, the Houston Dynamo exactly the same as Austin/Stoke City. The benefits of a "Dynamo/Alamo" alliance would be enormous, of course, but what about USL? In American baseball, Branch Rickey established the first true farm system as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s Quick local history: The Houston Buffs were the last stop before the bigs. Pepper Martin, Dizzy Dean and Country Slaughter, among others, were all Buffs before joining the Redbirds. (Interestingly, the Buff Stadium site is now occupied by a Finger Furniture Store, directly across I-45 from the University of Houston and Robertson Stadium, Dynamo's current home.) The Austin/Stoke City relationship seems to be similar. Players will play at Austin until needed by Stoke City, or at least, until needed by Stoke City's reserve squad. But does this fit in with USL's vision? What is the USL's vision?

Whatever that vision, it is easy, and not just a little bit exciting, to see a future where the MLS' budding reserve sides, and reserve circuit, are rendered obsolete by a relationship with USL squads that turns the lower division's leagues into an MLS feeder or farm circuit. An MLS team could place reserves on their USL squad, where they could play full, somewhat meaningful seasons. The senior clubs could then call up whomever was needed whenever they're needed, send down whomever needs to go down, etc. The mechanics of this are well-established in Major League Baseball by now, so there would be no need to reinvent the wheel here. What is needed is a vision of player development at multiple professional levels that fits American geographic realities and business models, in essence, a professional farm system.

The reality is that promotion/relegation of teams is not going to happen in the United States, not now, not ever. But promotion/relegation of individual players, now there's a reality we can all get behind, regardless of our feelings on the other issue. What's more, if the Aztex/Stoke City and CP/Baltimore situations are copied, then it will put MLS into business competition with the best sides in the world, while never once straying from US shores. And furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, MLS' developmental players will be in competition on the field with up-and-comers from and heading to overseas teams. It is easy to see ho this situation is a winner for MLS, USL and the American soccer player.

So a USL future as farm system to the world? Now that would be a storyline worth following for decades to come.


Oscar M. said...

During the first few years, MLS had a formal agreement with the (then) A-League, where each team had a couple of A League sides associated with it. Players would be promoted up and down all the time.

For DC United, I believe it was the Richmond Kickers. I think Brian Caroll spent one season effectively with them and came back a decent player. David Stokes, on the other hand, didn't take kindly to being sent down to play in the minors.

I'm not sure why the relationship ended, it seemed a win-win situation all around.

Martek said...

Oscar, I had no idea about that. It would be interesting to see what the MLS Players Association has to say about the potential of this arrangement. Overall, I think it would provide jobs for developing and lower rung MLS players at possibly better rates of pay than what they're getting now. Maybe the Players Association should expand to include USL guys as well. I actually have no idea what, if any, collective representation USL players have right now, but it would seem that both sets of players would be extremely well served by turning professional soccer in the US into an overall closed shop.

Whenever businesses don't take win-win propositions, you have to wonder what else is going on. In this case, it seems too obvious, so I wonder what it is, pride, short-sidedness, control issues, some long term vision I'm not seeing? Hmmmm.

playtherapy said...

It might be helpful to look at the history of each league and the interests of each guiding administration. I need to do some homework on this, but I recall clashing factions from professional and amateur soccer within the USSF duing the late 90's, especially during its elections. Each group had different aims and needs for determining the future. I'm unsure whether a common ground was ever found, which of course translates into a chaotic map for the future of American Soccer at all levels.

I am very curious what happened to the MLS Players Association (MLSPA), and what its future plans are, especially regarding the disparity in salaries at the lower end. This association wisely compromised during the League's infancy, a move that may have saved the league (do not bite the hand zat feeds ya). With the league expanding, the arguments for the MLSPA again "holding back" aren't as compelling.

After reading Ives article about not panicking about the European exodus of MLS quality, I have to disagree- much of the talent coming to the US is foreign. Of the American players coming here, how many are past their prime or have had lukewarm careers on the Continent? The MLS is aflush with Euro failures- the best and brightest leave. I find this problmatic, especially if the best and brightest leave but then get significant pine time (few playing minutes) abroad.

TV $$$ seems the best answer. As I've said in many other venues, courting immigrant populations and/or their children, especially spanish speaking- then trying once gain with a big Spanish TV contract seems a wiser course than going the ESPN route- a network that sometimes pooh poohs soccer as much as it promotes.

More on this later. Excellent post, Martek. Nutmegged and Center Holds It are among the few sites seriously considering the big picture- not just transfer rumors. Well done.