MLS’s Rushed Expansion Dilemma

Major League Soccer (MLS) is being forced to expand larger and more quickly than it originally intended. As recent as 2014, MLS Commissioner Don Garber stated that the league would stick to 24 teams “for some time.” How is that declaration panning out? As of the 2019 season, MLS has reached the 24-team mark, and it is scheduled to blitz its way to 26 teams by the year 2020. To top things even further, MLS also announced in 2019 that it eventually plans to expand to 30 teams. The “end of MLS expansion” goalposts are constantly shifting and it is clear that there is no clear roadmap or limit. The location and timing of expansion is purely in reaction to rising competition from non-MLS entities in the USA soccer ecosystem.

Some see the MLS expansion rush as nothing more a money play. MLS is now commonly seen as a ponzi scheme that relies on new “investor” teams to buy in so that the existing apparatus can stay afloat and turn a profit. While money is certainly a factor, It appears that there is a chief underlying motive behind this expansion rush: MLS is desperate to protect and maintain its monopoly control over the entire American soccer ecosystem.

The U.S. sport owners that moonlight as shareholders of MLS are not necessarily focused on raking in profits from their MLS side hustle. Their MLS teams are just tiny portions of their overall portfolios of companies and U.S. sports franchises. Though the kingpins of MLS see the soccer itself as an afterthought, it is still advantageous for them to keep soccer limited within their control so that it does not threaten the popularity and profitability of their U.S. sport empire. MLS appears to be designed to keep soccer contained in the vacant, niche space below big U.S. sports like NFL or NBA. MLS does not want upstart soccer leagues and clubs to create a real club soccer competition with promotion/relegation that could steal the attention and dollars of U.S. consumers.

This reactionary MLS expansion craze is primarily driven by emerging competition from lower division USA soccer clubs and leagues. MLS deliberately leverages its monopoly over the USA soccer division 1 sanction to absorb (see Minnesota United FC and FC Cincinnati) or extinguish (see Atlanta United) the latest external threats from the lower divisions. Of course, the growth of lower division soccer clubs points all eyes to the elephant in the room: Why no promotion/relegation in USA soccer? The realization of USA soccer’s absurd closed-system policy is fueling an ever-increasing buzz for the promotion/relegation (#ProRelforUSA) movement, which in turn is adding to the overall heat MLS is feeling from the lower divisions.

The accessibility of global soccer in the USA market, thanks to the internet and TV, is bringing about an unprecedented awakening in the American soccer fan appetite. These fans also want to see the game in person and get behind their own local club like the rest of the world. The past decade alone has seen a remarkable amount of shake up and growth in the USA soccer landscape. New lower division U.S. clubs are now being founded by the dozens each year. There is quite a bit of instability still, but despite the toxic closed system that stifles the upward mobility of clubs, there is a large net positive growth quotient with each passing year. The hopeful scent of an open-system future is alive and well in the USA soccer ecosystem.

How will the MLS expansion story end?

Will MLS decide to follow U.S. sport precedent and set a stone-cold-lock limit for expansion at around 32 teams? If so, how will the 9,000+ US soccer clubs permanently left out of division 1 react? I estimate that many will quite upset that the Noah’s ark door of USA soccer division 1 expansion has been closed forever – particularly the larger clubs in larger cities. Will MLS try to expand to 50 to 100 teams in order to create an umbrella of MLS divisions that runs promotes and relegates within itself? If so, will its shareholders be upset over the prospect that some of them might face relegation to the “MLS basement” tiers?

In the meantime, we can be sure that MLS will continue to chase after the most trendy lower division clubs and fan markets. As of 2019, a division 2 (USL) club in New Mexico, USA is drawing 15,000+ fans per game. Even if a new USA soccer club popped up in Timbuktu-Nowhere, USA and drew 15,000+ fans, you can be sure that MLS would add it to their expansion list. The MLS expansion saga may wind up with the entire MLS monopoly over American soccer imploding as the calls for a fully open system crash against it. Hitting the reset button and reserving divisional sanctions for open leagues only may just be the best thing that can happen to USA soccer. As always, if this current U.S. Soccer Federation can’t represent all constituents in American soccer, then we will need a new USA soccer governing body that will.

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MLS is Embarrassing USA Soccer

Is American soccer really the best version of itself in 2019? How long will the people of America let the failing Major League Soccer closed system squat aimlessly on the USA soccer division 1 sanction? Surely, in a land with 24 million soccer players and an insane abundance of infrastructure and resources, American soccer can do better than the paltry TV ratings and embarrassing attendance numbers of the MLS/Soccer United Marketing cartel.

It is time to reevaluate America’s commitment to MLS as the capstone of its soccer ecosystem. For years, fans have been battered with the tired old “give it time” excuse, yet two and one half decades later USA is no closer to closing the gap with the world’s top soccer nations. The U.S. national team is no better off than it was in the mid-1990s, USA club teams have not won the CONCACAF Champions League for 20 years, and the “best” American players are still nobodies in the global marketplace.

MLS launched in 1996, and it has had nearly 25 years to stabilize and prove itself as the standard-bearer for the future of USA soccer. What are the results? MLS captures a smaller and smaller slice of the entire American soccer fan market with each passing year (this slice is down to 6% as of 2018). MLS national TV broadcast numbers, which happen to be the most accurate way to gauge product popularity, are embarrassingly low. Apart from a few outlier teams with peculiar, carnival-like crowds, MLS fan attendance is sparse. Even the small, tin-can, soccer-specific stadiums are being fitted with tarps to cover empty seats.

It is not a crime for MLS to be less popular than foreign club soccer options in 2019, but the crux of concern should be that the MLS popularity share in American soccer is trending downward. Even if MLS is “growing” when evaluated against versions of itself in previous years, that marginal growth is worth little when foreign club soccer competitions (Premier League, Bundesliga, Liga MX etc.) are growing at a faster rate. MLS might be growing a little inside of its own isolated bubble, but zoom out to the entire American soccer market pie, and MLS relevancy is shrinking. Is this really a course worth continuing on?

What is the next step in the evolution in American soccer? The fork in the road is clear: Continue down a path of “we’ve always done it this way” with a failing MLS closed system, or dream and plan for an American soccer that will one day be the best soccer nation in the world. It is up to the millions of people and thousands of clubs in American soccer to decide their future. The governing authorities must ultimately submit to public pressure, so each and every person must understand that their voice matters. If enough common constituents in USA soccer decide to speak up for change, either USSF, FIFA, or the U.S. government will be forced to open USA soccer for all with a system of promotion/relegation (#ProRelforUSA).

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The Antitrust Argument that Will Open USA Soccer

What would it take to defeat the Major League Soccer (MLS)/U.S. Soccer monopoly with an antitrust  lawsuit? It is important to remember that the USA soccer closed system has something that the isolated U.S. sport closed systems do not: a globally recognized divisional sanction that provides a clear pathway to individual club profit beyond internal league competition. Hinging an antitrust lawsuit on the lucrative nature of FIFA’s divisional sanction standard is the key to toppling the unjust MLS/U.S. Soccer monopoly.

There is a strong antitrust lawsuit case to be made against MLS/U.S. Soccer monopoly because a nation’s division 1 sanction is directly linked to profit via international club competitions. Qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup are the profit pathways in USA’s case. USA clubs directly benefit from participation in these competitions through shared TV and ticket revenue from the tournament itself. The other side of this same coin is that division 1 sanctions are seen as the standard indicator of club quality around the world, and that achieving this status indirectly leads clubs to profit through global prestige and notoriety. International shirt sales and TV rights for the D1 league are indirect profit examples in this case. 

When stake the antitrust argument on the factors of domestic competition only – as the case example of the Fraser vs. MLS did around the turn of the millennium – it is a much more difficult case to win. For example, isolated U.S. sports like American football or baseball can make a decent case that they are competing fairly because there are no extracurricular profits to be had outside of the confines of their own competition. Sure, teams and owners can make profits within a U.S. sports league, but the direct and indirect profits they generate are not assisted by the outside interference of a global governing body for their sport. Being in their U.S. sport league does not assure them of entry into any international competitions that provide externally generated profit opportunities as FIFA does for domestic soccer clubs around the world. These U.S. sports leagues could also make the case that anyone is free to start a competing league since there is no globally recognized D1 standard to adhere to in these isolated sports.

The winning legal case can be distilled down to this: Access to the USA soccer division 1 sanction allows clubs in the USA soccer ecosystem to attain profits through access to FIFA-sanctioned competition. Allowing one company or club to hold exclusive ownership of this D1 sanction is violation of U.S. antitrust law and principles. MLS should be given the choice to either align with an open-access, promotion/relegation USA system, or it should be forced to give up the U.S. Soccer Federation division 1 sanction an operate sanction-free like all of the other closed USA sports leagues.

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Busting Promotion/Relegation USA Soccer Myths

The case for opening USA soccer is airtight. Yes, there are challenges with transitioning to an open system, but none that truly constitute show-stopping sticking points. All that is required is a little bit of planning and determination from USA soccer’s governing body (currently USSF). Let’s set up and knock down a few of the most prevalent anti-open soccer myths.

“MLS would never agree to promotion/relegation.” 

The decision to open USA soccer is not up to MLS since the organization is only one constituent in American soccer. It is one single club that’s divided into franchise outlets that play against each other. It is ludicrous to let one constituent determine the freedom and opportunity of all other parties in the ecosystem. Would the English FA be dim enough to give Manchester United or Arsenal supreme policy power over the English football ecosystem? It is time to stop giving MLS unwarranted power.

“Soccer is new in USA – we need to give it more time.”

False. Soccer has existed in America for over a century. Not just pick-up ball or amateur teams mind you, but also pro soccer and one of the oldest domestic cup competitions in the world. What’s the one common denominator behind USA soccer collapses and failure? The country has never tried a fully open, promotion/relegation ecosystem. A century ago, travel and communication difficulty were valid excuses for not implementing an open system, but there are no such barriers in 2018. Follow this Twitter feed for daily doses of American soccer history content.

“Open systems are unstable.”

Fully open systems are fail-proof.  Individual clubs fail drastically or even collapse in open systems, but the key statistic is that no *ecosystem* has collapsed in world soccer history. Individuals and clubs fail in a free market, but by definition, open systems replace any failing entity with the “next man” up via promotion. The new club formation rate far exceeds club collapse rate. There will never be a shortage of clubs.

“What about travel costs? Can lower-division clubs fly all over the country if they get promoted?”

There will be a 3-5 year preparation window before an open system commences. the “go-live date” can even be adjusted on the fly if needed. This window will provide clubs adequate time to prepare for life with consequences at the top and bottom. The most sensible procedure would be to not relegate from any division until 6-10 tiers are filled from the bottom via promotion and new clubs. It would also be smart to divide USA soccer into twin, east-west pyramids. The pyramid can then granulate into regional and state divisions as the ladder goes down.

Once promotion/relegation does start, teams will rise and fall incrementally – one division at a time. It is nonsense to panic over an 8th-division amateur “pub team” potentially being forced to travel throughout half the country under a 1st or 2nd-division club schedule. As teams work their way up the ladder, they only need to grow as needed for life in the next division up. If a team were to rise through six divisions, it would be a healthy, six-year growing process. As an extra precaution against club collapse, any club will be free to decline promotion to a higher division if they believe they cannot cope with the increased demands.

Here is a USA soccer open system plan that I fully endorse.

Shoot me some myths or questions in the comments below or at Twitter: @bwfast and I will turn this into a series.


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Is MLS the Trump of USA Soccer?

I have noticed that quite a few MLS apologists bash non left-wing characters and policies on the regular.

Are these apologists aware of where their support for “club MLS” is directed to?

It is quite the embarrassing conundrum.

MLS apologists bash USA President Donald Trump often, but the kicker is that they appear to be blissfully unaware that one of the chief shareholders of club MLS is famous Trump supporter Robert Kraft:

krafttrump.jpg

Another club MLS founding father, Phil Anschutz, is a noted supporter of “right-wing” anti-LGBTQ groups:

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/coachella-co-owner-fire-supporting-anti-lgbtq-groups-article-1.3791811

This is very odd since club MLS and its fans try so hard to market an “equality” stance when it comes to LGBTQ demographics in USA soccer and the nation as a whole.

What is with all of the uppity, progressive speak? The MLS club that these folks support directly contradicts with those values.

Is it any surprise that the parody account @MLS_Trump fits club MLS like a glove?

trumpkraft22

Discriminatory, closed-system USA soccer policy (no promotion/relegation) jives well with these non-progressive values that MLS apologists claim to hate.


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USA Soccer Excuses in the Face of Croatia and Iceland Success

Surpise! MLS/USA soccer closed-system apologists have once again scored a perfect 10 in the mental gymnastics narrative spin competition.

On one hand, these closed-system apologists have always held that USA does not have enough soccer culture, fans, players, or infrastructure to be successful. Lately, small soccer nations such as Iceland, Belgium, and Croatia have been popping up and proving that the “little guys” can make serious noise in global soccer despite population and resource limitations. Small nations are now eclipsing USA soccer success on the regular.

Amazingly, these closed-system apologists are now claiming that USA soccer’s abundance of resources is a handicap and not an advantage. To review USA soccer ingredients:

  • 330 million total population
  • 24 million soccer players (probably 50+ million soccer fans in general)
  • #1 wealth and infrastructure on the planet
  • $11 billion projected profit for 2026 World Cup hosting honors.

Closed-system apologists want you to forget all of that noise. Apparently, these small nations have an advantage over USA because it is easier for them to organize into a cohesive unit. You simply cannot make it up:

Since USA soccer closed-system apologists cannot hold the U.S. Soccer governing federation (USSF) or MLS (the ones who appear to be pulling the strings for USSF’s decisions) accountable, they predictably must resort to a new spin on one of the two erroneous USA soccer failure scapegoats: blaming soccer fans/culture or soccer players.

You see, oh unenlightened ones, USA’s soccer landscape is so massive and diverse that it is hard to organize all of you good folks into a system of development that will produce top level USA soccer players for clubs and the national team. Leave it to the MLS closed-system to tackle this massive this challenge! Woe is USA for being so blessed with an abundance of soccer resources!

Why is the USA soccer national team player pool no better than the pre-MLS era in the mid-1990s? Why is MLS capturing a 6% (and shrinking) slice of the total USA soccer market?

With Croatia’s wild success in the 2018 World Cup, the credit must go to the Croatian soccer federation’s implementation of an open market (promotion/relegation) which enables excellent practitioners and organizations (clubs, fans, coaches, players, administrators) to rise to the top levels of the Croatian soccer ecosystem. Small, open-system nations are putting on a brilliant exhibition in the maximization of limited resources and potential.

Is USA soccer too rich or too poor? The conditions never seem to be right for MLS and USA soccer closed-system apologists. USA soccer must make the choice to align its soccer with American values of equality and opportunity for all. An open USA soccer market will incentivize hard work and excellence from players, coaches, administrators, and fans. USA is a world-class soccer nation, but it has to open its domestic ecosystem to all in order to produce a world-class domestic club soccer competition and national team.


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Why Did USA Miss the World Cup?

USA could have very easily made the 2018 World Cup (it was just one goal or a few bounces away from doing so). The problems highlighted here would exist whether the USA made or missed this World Cup. The the full context surrounding this USA soccer disaster must be examined. A somewhat one-off event of failing in a few CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches means as much in the grand scheme of things as an improbable run to the quarterfinals of a single World Cup.

However, one-off events can serve as wake up calls for those unaware of big-picture American soccer issues. This is why many people were just fine with USA missing this latest World Cup. While USA soccer’s failure to qualify is a painful experience in the short term, it can serve as a great long-term learning and re-thinking opportunity for the long-term future of American soccer.

A disaster of this magnitude shook USA soccer to the core, so it is only right for the program to examine its very foundations in order eradicate the root cause of failure. There are surface-level observations which predictably catch the attention of the masses first:

  • USA soccer is a “rich” sport – The best training and playing opportunities for youngsters cost a lot of money (pay-to-play).
  • There is not a big enough soccer culture in USA – Other U.S. sports are overshadowing soccer, not enough kids are playing pick-up soccer, and not enough are following MLS (D1).

One must understand the “whys” behind what is seen on the surface.

These perceived “problems” are just symptoms or byproducts of one root U.S. Soccer governing federation policy: a closed system which excludes and kills incentive for most constituents in the USA soccer ecosystem (more on this topic here).

There’s always a chance of failure even if a system is set up correctly. Global soccer powerhouses like Holland or Italy also missed the 2018 World Cup. But remember, in the larger context, these nations will be contenders to win the entire tournament most World Cup cycles. While systems do not directly determine results, they do have a massive influence. Look at USA soccer’s big-picture record on the international stage:

USA’s World Cup record since 1930: six wins (one every 14 years).

Yikes!

The 2018 U.S. national team is very similar to the team in the 1990s: good enough to qualify for a World Cup but not a serious contender. At the turn of the century, many people believed that USA would grow into a World Cup contender by around 2010. Where is the progress? The competition USA is trying to catch is only increasing the gap, and nations behind are catching up. It is clear that the current system is not a sustainable trajectory.

A national team player pool relies on the production and development success of its domestic clubs. National team programs are not responsible for developing players. Observe how heavily the U.S. national team has relied on exclusively or partially foreign-developed players. Despite its 330 million population, USA resorts to scouring the globe to recruit dual-citizens such as Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. Key players such as Christian Pulisic leave U.S. programs in their teen years and spend their most important development years in foreign, open ecosystems. The quality produced from USA’s main, domestic player development pipeline is quite lacking.

The USA has 24 million soccer players (FIFA census in 2006). There are so many players in the hat yet so few top-level talents are produced in the end. What if America’s 9,000+ soccer clubs had the opportunity to win promotion to USA soccer division 1? Currently, one single club, Major League Soccer (MLS), has a protected monopoly on the USA first division. An anti-competitive market is awful for investment and innovation. Opening the USA soccer market means that these 9,000+ clubs have incentive to pour money into their infrastructure, sign players and coaches, form scouting networks, and build and sustain free-to-play training academies. The hope of winning promotion is critical to the existence of any lower division soccer club.

With its massive population, the USA by default ends up with a few handfuls of players that are good enough to cut it in top first-division clubs around the world. The mild success of the U.S. national team pool today happens despite a toxic domestic club soccer system. Without many clubs producing top-level talent, the U.S. talent pool will continue to be mired in mediocrity. Adopting an open-market soccer ecosystem is not a wild conspiracy theory. All you have to do is observe the other 99% of the soccer world today. It is time for USA to run its soccer the normal way.


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