By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 25, 2020) US Soccer Players - In 2017 the United Soccer League announced the creation of their second division. The league would occupy the third tier of the US pyramid, eventually taking the name USL League One. It seemed like a promising development for the system as a whole.
With what we now know as the USL Championship in the second tier mushrooming to well over 30 member clubs and counting, it was logical to create a less expensive alternative that still offered fully professional soccer, especially in smaller markets. Promotion-relegation between them, it was hinted, might someday make sense, too.
A few weeks later, the National Independent Soccer Association emerged. An alternative to the franchise model of USL and its partner MLS, it focused on the "I" in NISA and was originally conceived as a lower division to the NASL. Soon enough, it took that league's role as "open system" flagship, as NASL drifted into suspended animation amid huge financial losses and ongoing antitrust litigation against US Soccer and MLS.
An optimist might see signs of growth and diversity, with more platforms and opportunities for new and old clubs alike. A more cynical point of view could note the extension of the long-running ideological conflicts proverbially known as "Soccer Wars," which have often revolved around competition and antagonism, even at the expense of the game as a whole.
Regardless which side of that divide you fall on, sustainability has been and remains a pivotal imperative in the lower divisions. As if it wasn't hard enough already, COVID-19 has effectively robbed clubs of gameday revenue, far and away the lion's share of income for most. Limited prospects for profit can make for tight budgets.
On an enormous continent still pockmarked with sparsely-populated expanses of territory, few costs can escalate faster than travel expenses. In 2018 SocTakes.com polled eight lower-division executives who estimated that the areas of "stadium costs, travel budgets and workers compensation" ranged from 20-40% of a typical club's expenditures.
"Our regional model is to build rivalries and reduce costs and by putting a large front office and a large team on a plane it gets very expensive, very quickly," USL League One senior vice-president Steven Short told The Telegraph back in June 2017. "We are trying to limit expenses as much as possible for teams and travel costs are a massive line item for any pro sports team. "We will try to keep teams to a bus-type transport where you can travel the night before and then travel home instead of flying 20 players and staff hundreds or thousands of miles that will cost thousands and thousands of dollars."
Three years later, it seems safe to say they're well short of that goal. The league stands at 12 member clubs, though only 11 are competing this season due to the closed Canadian border that has sidelined Toronto FC II. The mix of MLS second teams and standalone clubs like Forward Madison and Union Omaha is scattered across three time zones from Arizona to Florida to Massachusetts.
Last year the Beautiful Game Network calculated that the league's eight founding members totaled upwards of 227,000 travel miles in their debut season, even with an unbalanced schedule. Remote FC Tucson accounted for nearly 20% of that, jetting some 43,500 miles, more than all but five MLS teams and some 10 times what an English Premier League team might journey in a season.
Meanwhile, NISA has fallen into a comparable situation as it works through a launch process in the midst of a pandemic. It aims to be an umbrella for independent clubs of all sizes and levels, so it's created the NISA Independent Cup, a cup competition featuring NISA clubs and their smaller pro/am counterparts in regional leagues. That sort of long-range network building appears a laudable step toward a more regionalized map. It can only do so much about the current reality for the eight teams in NISA proper who range from coast-to-coast.
The New York Cosmos recently prompted some online chatter by electing for a two-day bus ride to play Chattanooga FC instead of a flight, citing a desire to mitigate coronavirus exposure risks. The bigger question is why that 850-mile trip is one of the shorter trips for a third-tier club, alongside potential jaunts to Detroit, Oakland, and Los Angeles. They drove past two USL League One teams on their way down.
It's an unwarranted throwback to the perpetually underpopulated second incarnation of NASL. Teams burned incredible amounts of money jetting as far afield as Edmonton and Puerto Rico on a regular basis. Oklahoma City, of all places, became a head-to-head battleground with USL. It also makes for an unfortunate link to one of American youth soccer's deepest concerns. The "travel" culture that escalates costs and time commitments in pursuit of "elite" opponents and showcases elsewhere now applies at pro level.
The free-market norm in the United States is to classify all this as a case of competing business models rather than a competitive or developmental issue. The governing body of the federation has shown little inclination to wade in, aside from sanctioning standards that mandate geographic scope and owners of a certain wealth. That has only fueled further resentment among the independents and dissidents who see the establishment stacking the deck beyond USL's head start.
So once again differing visions are faced off in a zero-sum game, even competing head to head for both members and markets. Uniting in pursuit of a more coherent footprint or economies of scale appears inconceivable to the rivals. NISA and USL each believe their philosophy is superior, and compromise looks unlikely.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
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- Training compensation and solidarity payments once again at issue
- Making sense of the San Jose Earthquakes
- NYCFC plays on without home field advantage
Logo courtesy of USL League One