Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Solutions to a Soccer Problem in North America

The beginning of Autumn marks the end of another year in the top three divisions of soccer in North America and ushers in the playoffs. But instead of being the best time of year, the postseason is more of a meandering epilogue to a novel that has an unsure grasp of an underdeveloped regular season.

Fall is also a reminder of soccer's place in the pecking order of domestic sports because it tries to be other sports. It's a fundamental issue of league competition. In particular - meaningful games.

How to fix that right now without blowing it up? I'll get to the long answer here in a minute, but the short answer is to create a competition that involves the top three levels of pro soccer immediately and without impacting investments or league rules. The idea also lays the foundation for linking the pyramid down the road (sooner, rather than later).

It's simple and builds upon events already happening. Take the top teams from each division (MLS, NASL and USL) and have them fight it out in a tournament. Not only will this expand upon the growing interest in the US Open Cup, but it will also help grow the sport across the country.

The great thing about this is that there are a number of ways to do it:

3. Hold it in January and February (warm cities)  
Among the many positives of having a huge, rich country is the varying climates. Preseason Cup tournaments are getting pretty big in recent years and outside of getting teams ready for the season they grow interest in the sport. I saw first hand how Orlando's Disney Cup helped grow interest in the sport in the city before they jumped to MLS. 
2. Hold it after the season ends
All three divisions of pro soccer in North America end in Autumn. Hold this competition in place of the current league playoffs. It would still include your best teams and would draw loads of interest from each league. I'd venture to say that USL and NASL interest would skyrocket in the first year. MLS would benefit because most of the teams their franchises would be playing would be in non-MLS cities. Everybody wins here. 
1. Spread it out over season   
Have it set up similarly to how Champions League is currently done. Qualification happens the previous season and games are played out over the course of the season. Each league could breathe a little and extend seasons without playoffs. It works even if they still want them because there isn't a whole lot going on for most teams during the year in MLS anyway. With rosters still at 28, you've also got reserve teams and affiliations of which to draw, not to mention academy sides. Playing the competition out over the season is my favorite because it gives fans something interesting to watch. It adds sweetener to the season, so to speak.

How many teams, single elimination, home and away legs, and so on. Lots of options. After messing around with things, I found that dropping teams into groups is the most exciting for me. It's also flexible in terms of holding it over a short time period in one city or having it play out over many months.

Here's what it would look like if you six from MLS and USL and 4 from the NASL based on current standings, separated by region.

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
A - EASTUSLEASTRochester Rhinos1
A - EASTMLSEASTNew York Red Bulls1
A - EASTNASLEASTFort Lauderdale Strikers2
A - EASTUSLEASTCharleston Battery3

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
B - EASTNASLEASTNew York Cosmos1
B - EASTUSLEASTLouisville City FC2
B - EASTMLSEASTColumbus Crew3

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
A - WESTUSLWESTOrange County Blues1
A - WESTNASLWESTMinnesota United2
A - WESTUSLWESTColorado Springs Switchbacks3

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
B - WESTUSLWESTOklahoma City Energy2
B - WESTMLSWESTVancouver Whitecaps FC3

If you held this over the course of a season you could really let it breathe. Home / Away and take winners from each group into a playoff (along with awarding CONCACAF Champions League qualification in there).

A short and intense option would be great fun as well. End of season would be a blast. Each team playing the other once  - 3 games in 8 days, for example (Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday) and then take the group winners into a playoff.

For me, this competition would do wonders for the overall sport in the US in both interest and dollars. It would also separate it from the rest of the sports market in the US in a cool and creative way that soccer fans and casual fans alike would understand. New cities, small teams, increased intensity around matches. It all works for me.


A question of how to link the soccer pyramid in the United States has been bouncing around in my head for years. The answer I come to is usually the implementation of promotion and relegation across all levels starting at the bottom (leagues like the USASA, USL-PDL, NPSL and even college) and working your way up the divisions (regionally set up).

It would take a good bit of time to get it organized and stable, which would be good because it would allow new investors in MLS, USL and NASL time to make back their money - we are talking 5-10 years (this is 'Merica, we can do it it five). Those not making it back in that time frame, probably won't ever do so.

Many challenges await a US Soccer Federation that tries to better organize the pyramid. Topping the list is Major League Soccer's stance on promotion and relegation. They do not want it under any circumstances. Beyond that, the hurdle is the fact that each league is its own entity with their own set of revenue sharing, distribution and league entry qualifications.

Best way to think of it is that there are really only three fully pro clubs in North America... MLS FC, NASL SC and USL City (or what have you). Looking at it that way opens doors to solutions that might be able to solve a number of competition problems in the US.


Regular Season as a long qualification for playoffs is shared among the other two pro soccer divisions in the US as well. Details might be different but the competition winner across MLS, NASL and USL is the playoff winner.

The reasoning behind holding a playoff to determine a champion centers around other US sports, who all have some sort of playoffs. If you are reading this, then you likely are familiar with how each league works and you also likely know that the playoffs (even in college you have "March Madness" type tournaments to determine winners) draw increased interest from the country over their regular seasons.

Generally, it works like this...

1. Final (Super Bowl, Final, World Series)
2. Playoffs
3. Regular Season
4. Preseason

For MLS it works differently. No need for a list because there are so many different things going on during a soccer calendar year that the rhythm can't be compared to other domestic sports. And that's a good thing! It's why people enjoy the sport.

MLS treats it like a disease, however. Something they need to remedy.

They WANT the order listed one to four above instead of embracing the uniqueness of the sport. With summer friendlies, international friendlies and qualification, summer tournaments, the US Open Cup and more. It's great! yet MLS can't get it straight and want to shoehorn a wonky MLS team only playoff on during mostly bad weather and a time of year where their target audience is tuning out - and, again, it's comprised of teams that have already faced each other two OR three times. It is redundant.

For MLS, playoffs across the country generally see decreased interest by any metric (attendance, TV, social media activation, etc). In the past, you could point to the MLS Cup final as an event where more people tuned in but even there, interest spikes only slightly over a hyped up regular season game on ESPN or Fox Sports.

Playoffs were born out of challenges with geography when travel was more difficult. Teams, to this day, still play regionally most of the time to help negate cost and keep the interest of team performing badly - in that it's easier to swallow being only few spots out of 1st place in a division vs. being 15th (or whatever) out of 30 teams. Intellectually, this reasoning seems silly but there isn't a whole of critical thinking going on these days (why - a topic for another day).

All that leads to why we still see up to six divisions in a league. Things may be changing however, NBA and MLB have recently talked about whittling it down to just 2 conferences. Whether or not that happens is still to be determined but, it does feel as if it will happen sooner rather than later.

Heck, the NBA is already talking about having a cup competition.


The United States Soccer federation has to figure out a meaningful way to get the pyramid working together. Not having it linked together alienates 99% of the people that participate in the most played sport in the United States. It's the people's game. It reaches all levels of society and should not be locked up by a handful of investors.

No single system is perfect, but I believe that doing everything you can in order to get each team talking is critically important for this country. Even small steps are important.

Having an inclusionary tournament builds on what the US Open Cup does so wonderfully. It will increase interest in the sport as well as investment, which, in turn, increases revenue that can be put back into the game.

No comments: