Looking at the USL Through US Soccer Glasses

I’ve read through a number of articles, blogs and responses to them (both the inane and quite good) about the looming sale of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and what impact that would have on MLS.   Most sources claimed that MLS has also put a bid in for USL, though one generally agreed to be much lower than what is required.  However, MLS officials themselves were quoted as saying they decided not to bid at all.

For those clueless a bout the USL, it is a collection of related leagues generally seen as lower divisions of US (Men’s and Women’s) professional soccer in North America (north of Mexico, anyway.)  There is no direct linkage (managerial or otherwise) with Major League Soccer, though it is generally agreed that MLS is the “first division” of soccer in the United States (and Canada, for all intents and purposes.)   There are also developmental leagues and the W-League, the second divison on Women’s soccer n the US, as part of USL.

Nike owns the USL (acquired with Umbro, who was league owner) and has decided that running a sports league is not in the interest of a sporting goods and sneaker company.   (Some NY/NJ fans are more worried about beverage companies owning teams, but that’s a different story.)

Now a series of mystery bidders are in the mix to purchase the league.  Most people agree that the majority of USL teams are not profitable.   The most profitable are joining MLS already (Seattle has joined, Vancouver and Portland will join soon) and while I cannot prove the rest are unprofitable, it seems like a safe bet.   Makes for an odd investment…

What I find most intriguing about this whole discussion is the relationship – or lack thereof – between the leagues, the role of US Soccer here, and the potential for USL to “go rogue” and compete with MLS for first-tier attention/status.

While I’m trying to educate myself further on this, here are a few ideas that I find self-evident, at least until I learn enough to disprove any of them.

  • The US needs a structure greater than MLS to get to smaller tier markets, help evangelize the game and  spread player development out in a professional (or semi-professional) manner.  (College soccer is NOT the answer without major changes to NCAA rules.)
  • Having a new owner of the USL try to challenge MLS for “First Division” status in the USA would be at best a nuisance and a failure and at worst disastrous to any momentum MLS is developing.
  • People need to stop talking about promotion and relegation in the US at the highest divisions.  (I love promotion/relegation, elsewhere.)   We have neither the markets, the distributed infrastructure, the marketing investments, etc. to even consider this.  I’m not of the mind we ever will, sadly.

Many USL fans were disgusted by the prospect of MLS owning the USL.    I was not in that club, though I suspected it was not an option based on a business decision.   (And to be fair, I enter with an MLS-bias.)   There were risks, but having a single umbrella under which there would me maximum return on decisions, investments, sponsorhips and bargaining power seemed intriguing to me.

Some were disgusted by the idea that USL’s First Division would become MLS-2 (so to speak), and a turn into a “bunch of farm teams” for MLS.   I see the concern, but don’t really share it.   If local teams were established and helped promote the brands of MLS clubs, might that not be a bad thing?   Fans don’t seem to reject as illegitimate the Providence Bruins or Pawtucket Red Sox around New England . . .

Here’s a thought for you . . .  Presuming that the league is not a money maker.  (Safe bet.)   Presuming that it is required to have these divisions survive for soccer to thrive.  (I submit it is.)   Presuming we don’t want a battle for the “real” First Division in the US.  (We shouldn’t.)

Who then would want to run a league with the primary purpose being an investment in the development of the game, rather than a likely-to-be-profitable enterprise?

US Soccer.

Yeah, there are some issues . . . (like a small smattering of non-US teams, probably some potential conflicts of interest I’m sure) . . . but it would make for an interesting model.

(Kudos to the many blogs, writers and commenters that educated, angered, amused and confused the heck out of me on this topic.  The 24th MinuteGoal.comInside Minnesota Soccer.  Major League Soccer Talk.   New York Times.)

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One thought on “Looking at the USL Through US Soccer Glasses

  1. I don’t know too much about this subject but to have two leagues competing for “First Division” in the US, wouldn’t do much good. We have a hard enough time trying to get people out to MLS games, how do you expect the country (especially those not supportive of soccer) to react when we try to use two leagues. Instead of trying to compete with the major sports (American Football, Baseball, Basketball..) they’d be competing with each other, with nothing to gain.

    Not sure how many teams there are in the USL, but I think it would be a good idea to merge it into the MLS, as is already happening. Fans are still going to support their team whichever league they are in, and as long as the quality of players doesn’t decrease or get thin, everything will be alright.

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