By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 23, 2020) US Soccer Players - In theory, a Hall of Fame shouldn't be controversial. When the process and the selectors who participate in it gobble up more attention than the honorees themselves, it's a safe bet that something is not functioning as it should. That's the quandary the National Soccer Hall of Fame has found itself facing.
With the flow of new inductees slowing to a trickle in recent years and several deserving candidates left out, the process became a problem. It's safe to say that many onlookers have seen reasons for disappointment and concern. This week the Hall showed us that they've been listening.
On Thursday, the National Soccer Hall of Fame unveiled a sweeping and detailed overhaul of its induction methodology. It revamps the deliberation process and opens the door for a wider range of potential members. While the Hall didn't break the whole thing down and start over, it's a dramatic remodeling.
"Over the past several years, it was apparent the current election process was not allowing us to fully meet our mission of honoring those who have made significant contributions to the game in the United States," said executive director Djorn Buchholz in a press release. "Since the rebirth of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas, we started a thorough evaluation of the election procedures and discussed possible options with our Board of Directors."
The Player/Veteran/Builder categories remain, but with a much more specific structuring of time and attention to each one. "Builders" consideration will focus on one subgroup every four years, with referees, coaches, and the more general "contributors" getting a year of their own in addition to the entire category. That's intended to give those groups more exposure.
The "Player" category had become notoriously crowded and difficult, with even an icon like Abby Wambach earning only about 80% of the votes cast last year. Going forward there will be fewer candidates on each slate to avoid diluting the votes and a lower threshold for entry.
Perhaps most strikingly, a mechanism has been added to shift induction slots from the Builder and Veteran categories to the Player column when they go unused and a deserving player candidate has met the criteria. This should bump the annual NSHOF classes up to three or four members after some years of dwindling size. In practice, it should also reduce the uncomfortable sight of distinguished players waiting many years for recognition while executives gain entry before they've even retired.
Another prominent addition are the screening committees. In theory, that should find a balance between objective standards and subjective evaluations so that the final ballots are not cluttered and oversized. The idea is that thoughtfully curating the lists can set every candidate up for their best shot at making the Hall.
The changes are not an obvious slam dunk from the start. Reducing the number of Hall voters could prove problematic. Still, the depth and complexity of the process updates makes clear that Buchholz and his colleagues have invested serious thought into making the whole thing better. It's not a moment too soon. The stakes are higher than they may seem.
The National Soccer Hall of Fame is an outlier of sorts in North American soccer. In a sport perennially divided by differences of background, opinion, philosophy, and temperament, it can be difficult to find even the most basic common ground among the large and diverse population that plays and cares about the game here. The Hall stands as a beacon of unity. It's a single organization tasked with commemorating the best of the sport.
It doesn't matter when or where you played, under what acronym, or what level felt your contributions the most. If you achieved excellence and left a clear legacy, you get to join that hallowed institution, or at the very least get a fair shot to do so. That's the idea, anyway. The politics of the sport have made this all too rare in other contexts.
An unfair, inefficient selection process risks damaging the Hall's legitimacy, and eventually could prompt the rise of alternatives. MLS greats with ties to other countries and national teams have constituted some of the biggest Hall snubs. That's raised the question about the league someday launching its own Hall of Fame to honor them properly.
That may seem unlikely given that the National Soccer Hall of Fame's new location is is located at an MLS stadium and partially bankrolled by an MLS club. Yet the league's steady expansion into new domains like the youth space suggests that its leadership sees no inherent limits on its own power and reach. It would be a disastrous watering-down of prestige and relevance. It's not hard to envision others like the women's and youth communities responding in kind.
Considering how quickly soccer people are to take their ball and go somewhere else when we don't like what's happening, the NSHOF is a priceless nexus where we gather as one. The National Soccer Hall of Fame itself has shown that it cares deeply about this. Now let's hope the voters do the same.
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.
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Photo courtesy of US Soccer Communications