By J Hutcherson (Jan 9, 2017) US Soccer Players - First off, there is something strange about a battle over league designations in minor league American soccer. What difference it makes to teams and clubs whether or not they're officially division one, two, or three isn't likely to keep a lot of people up at night. US Soccer did the smart thing by letting the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer League both call themselves division two. Neither of them meet US Soccer's standards, so both are operating on waivers. That should be enough to call those standards into question.
What US Soccer prevented with their inclusive choice was the potential collapse of the NASL. Why that hinged on whether or not the United States Soccer Federation considers them division two or three is a good question. That it influences investment in a league should raise additional concerns for all involved. So should the concept of divisions in a land of locked leagues.
It's a safe assumption that assigning divisions came from a set of best practices that will never fully apply here. Without promotion and relegation, league designations quickly become silly. It's certainly nothing new. What became the original NASL back in the late 60s didn't have official first division sanction. They went ahead anyway, merging after a season with the forgotten league that did.
More recently, what became Major League Soccer faced rival league bids. They went away when US Soccer chose MLS. It's easy to see why. US Soccer's choice is FIFA's de facto choice, saving a league from skirting outlaw status and stopping their players from participating internationally. That's a topflight problem that might not mean much of anything further down the divisions.
That's also the NASL's major issue. They've been open about a plan to eventually challenge for topflight status. They're also asking a question about why only one league gets it. With two second divisions in the US, it's a fair question. So is whether or not the NASL has any business asking it.
Right now, the NASL is a salvaged league that came very close to going away in 2017. They're pressing on with a minimal amount of teams and a challenge from the USL. America's newest official second division is reigniting the fight between clubs that launched the new version of the NASL for the 2010 season. Well, tried to.
US Soccer had to step in there as well, merging the two leagues for a single season while things settled down. The NASL played as its own league starting in 2011, radically changing their schedule in 2013. Other than their borrowed name and the individual histories of some of their clubs, this isn't a league that has had the time to build tradition.
Not that it's a different story for the USL. The league structure might be older than MLS, but they've gone through multiple transitions and rebrandings. Now, the majority of their clubs are MLS reserve teams. That creates an interesting scenario for the independent clubs, including the ones jumping from the NASL.
If all of this sounds like a lot to ask of the average American soccer fan, that's also in play. Insisting on club over league is fair enough. Still, if your club doesn't have a high enough level of opponent you're probably going to notice. So will the other fans considering whether or not to spend their time and money following that teams and its league. With only economic promotion and relegation possible, that's the situation for every minor league soccer team in America.
That's also not news. Supporting minor league soccer clubs means accepting how the sport works in the United States. There's no competitive way up or down for these teams. That's not necessarily an argument for adopting a structure where the divisions make competitive sense. Not a single MLS club existed under that league's single-entity system prior to 1996. All of the clubs that enter the league become part of that single entity, handing over the majority share to the league. Regardless of expansion fees and third-party valuations, that makes the definition of club different from most other parts of the world.
It's that difference that the sanctioning issues highlight. Given the peculiarities of professional club soccer here, it's hard to connect with what's standard practice anywhere else. Insisting on it for business reasons is one thing. For competitive reasons, it raises a lot of questions that don't have quick and satisfying answers.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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