Man, I’m gonna miss the National Premier Soccer League season when it ends.
Thanks to Greenville FC giving me a local team to root for in their inaugural NPSL season, I shifted much of my domestic focus to “grassroots” football this year, relegating Major League Soccer to the backburner.
With the North American Soccer League in legal limbo, the NPSL provided the New York Cosmos reserves a home, and I’ve enjoyed following their (to date) unbeaten campaign.
As a Cosmos guy from back in the original NASL days, I’ll support them any time, in any league.
I also became reacquainted with Atlanta Silverbacks FC, who had a terrific season and claimed the Southeast Conference championship of the South Region.
And after immersing myself in all things NPSL this summer, watching as many live streams as I could, I believe now more than ever that an open system that springs from lower division soccer is the key to a stronger foundation for the sport’s American future.
Once an innocent bystander in the promotion/relegation movement, I now count myself as a true believer. The big question is whether or not the United States Soccer Federation would ever allow it. And if not, how would it be feasible?
The United Premier Soccer League, a full-season adult amateur league, started experimenting with pro/rel last season. And there have been rumblings that maybe the NPSL can ultimately let it take root domestically.
The National Independent Soccer Association is a proposed open system that plans to start with third and fourth division clubs, possibly in 2019.
So why is an open system a big deal? Why should I or any other American soccer fan have an issue with MLS and the way “top tier” soccer does business here? Yes, it’s a closed system, but that’s the way pro leagues function in the United States.
No one expects the Huntsville Rockets of the Gridiron Development Football League to be “promoted” to the NFL, just as the Brooklyn Cyclones of the New York-Penn League will never be in the National League of Major League Baseball and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA G League won’t have the chance to trade up to the Association.
There are a fixed number of franchises in each league, and the only way for a “new” city to become a part of it is through relocation or expansion.
That’s how MLS rolls, even though it differs from many of the other leagues in that it does business as a single entity structure.
I just think soccer is a different animal, and don’t really like seeing it altered to fit U.S. pro sports norms. The Beautiful Game is also the simplest game, and that’s why it’s played throughout the world by people of all shapes, sizes and stations in life.
And in many towns and villages, it’s the very soul of communities that groom future stars from its neighborhoods.
The best part, though, is that it’s designed so that you can take it as far as it’ll go.
Winning trophies doesn’t just mean standing atop your league, it can ultimately mean stepping up to another league.
Play winning soccer, and you get promoted.
Play losing soccer, you get relegated.
It’s not what you pay that determines your place in the pyramid, but how you play. And that structure brings in more players with more incentive to play on and play up.
However, MLS thinks its model is just fine. And for years, I thought it was just fine, too.
If you live in a city with a franchise, it’s easier to share that sentiment. Supporters of Atlanta United FC don’t seem to have a problem with it, averaging 52,409 fans per match this season.
In the interest of full disclosure, last Sunday I was among the 72,243 people who watched Atlanta and Seattle play to a 1-1 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the vast majority of those in attendance had a great time. And I get the feeling promotion/relegation isn’t something many of them even think about since it has never been part of their reality.
Regardless, with the United Soccer League starting its D3 circuit in 2019 – and leagues such as NPSL representing the Fourth Division – MLS sits atop a closed pyramid that promotes players, not teams. It’ll look more and more like the kind of farm system used in professional baseball in the coming years.
And MLS has the full support and blessing of the United States Soccer Federation, which is clearly biased toward MLS at the expense of all other challengers.
Ideally, soccer governing bodies (under the umbrella of FIFA) oversee the sport with a more inclusive eye. It’s that body that actually implements pro/rel.
The USSF is snugly in bed with MLS, whose investor-operators also own Soccer United Marketing (the marketing arm of both MLS and the USSF). All are in the business of making money for stakeholders, and the way to get the most bang for their bucks is to mold one league above all others into something akin to a soccer version of the NFL.
So when someone buys into MLS, there is no risk that a bad season will bring demotion, just as the Brooklyn Nets don’t ever have to worry about spending a season in the G League because they stunk it up in the NBA.
If you have no other point of reference than the American sports model, you’ll likely shrug at the torch and pitchfork crowd coming at MLS and demanding change. And if you think American soccer should do business like American football, American baseball, American basketball, etc., you’re getting what you want.
Still, I’m hopeful a pro/rel system can happen outside of MLS (and outside of the USSF) sooner than later, and give grassroots soccer a place to grow up and grow out.
Just as the NFL once had the American Football League to deal with and the NBA received competition from the American Basketball Association, a renegade soccer federation in the U.S. would be welcomed by people like me.
In the meantime, I’ve got four NPSL playoff games to follow tonight: Orange County FC vs. FCM Portland, Miami FC 2 vs. Little Rock Rangers, AFC Ann Arbor vs. Duluth FC, and FC Motown vs. New York Cosmos B.
And if you haven’t given lower division soccer a serious look, you’re seriously missing out.