American Soccer Has an MLS Problem

It is time to STOP blaming USA soccer struggles and failure on USA soccer fans or the sport of soccer itself.

The typical, tired lines are spouted and recycled over and over:

  • “USA doesn’t have enough soccer fans”
  • “USA doesn’t have a strong soccer culture”
  • “Soccer is new in America”

Understand that soccer is already HUGE in the USA. Why?

  • 24 million total soccer players (2006 FIFA census)
  • #1 wealth and infrastructure among world nations
  • Packed stadiums for foreign club and national team matches
  • High U.S. TV ratings for foreign club and international matches
  • Soccer (amateur and pro) has existed for over a century

USA has all of the ingredients of a world-class soccer nation, but it is simply not utilizing them correctly. USA’s domestic club competition is very unpopular, and its club and national team player pool is mediocre at best.

Chief blame for USA soccer mediocrity must rest on the occupant and key holder of USA’s club soccer ecosystem: Major League Soccer (MLS). 

We must understand that MLS is structured as one single club (or company), and the U.S. Soccer governing federation has given it exclusive and unassailable control of the USA soccer division 1 sanction. This is the equivalent to the English Football Association handing exclusive control of its division 1 sanction to one single club like Manchester United. Sounds ludicrous, right? This is the reality in the current U.S. Soccer ecosystem.

One single club sits in USA soccer division 1 while millions of people and thousands of clubs outside of division 1 are starved of opportunity. MLS might absorb a few groups if they fit its business model and pay a $200+ million franchise fee.

The best measuring stick for MLS success or failure are its TV ratings. How does MLS stack up?

That’s right: MLS is grabbing a tiny slice of the total USA soccer market, and that slice is shrinking!

MLS did capture a larger USA soccer market share in its early (Mid-1990s) years, but ever since America has been exposed to authentic, global soccer on a wide scale thanks to the proliferation of mobile and TV technology, MLS market-share has consistently decreased.

Closed-system soccer is NOT authentic soccer and the smart American soccer public knows this (see TV ratings above). Real club soccer is about inclusion and opportunity. All communities and clubs deserve a fair chance to earn a place in the pinnacle of USA soccer based on sporting merit. The current MLS-centric model attempts to shove global soccer into a U.S. franchise sport box.

Why does America continue to give the failing MLS model a monopoly over American soccer?

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How Sir Alex Ferguson Would Fix USA Soccer

Rumors of ending promotion/relegation or the creation continent-wide super leagues tend to pop up on periphery of the soccer world every now and then – particularly in these modern days of globalized, high-revenue soccer industry.

In 2011, speculation about closing the Premier League (England’s division 1) prompted a strong rebuttal from the legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson in this Telegraph article. When viewing from the American soccer closed system perspective, Ferguson’s words provide an accurate diagnosis for USA soccer’s unpopularity and instability problems:

“If you look at the Championship (division 2) at the moment, we have at least eight teams with tradition and history,” Ferguson said. “What do you say to those eight teams? That they can never play in the premier division? I think that would be absolute suicide for the rest of league and particularly the teams in the Championship.

You might as well lock the doors. The only place you can make money and realise your ambitions is in the Premier League (division 1) and you can’t take that away from clubs.”

American soccer is a real-life example of the “suicidal” closed-system conditions that Ferguson warns against. Hundreds of USA soccer clubs have little hope beyond merely staying afloat in their current minor league state. Where is the motivation to innovate and build as a club with no chance of increased revenue and status? Where is the motivation for fans to rally behind a lower division club that is not allowed to aspire to higher levels? Where is the motivation for sponsors or television networks to invest in a product that is not allowed to grow itself in to relevancy?

Today, there are still hundreds of lower-division USA soccer clubs – backed by great fans, coaches, players, and administrators – that do a great job of staying afloat despite America’s toxic, closed-system conditions. It is important to understand that this current lower division landscape is a testimony of what could be under free and open conditions. The struggles that come with captivity must be blamed on the captors (The U.S. Soccer governing federation and its exclusionary, closed-system policy), and not the captives (lower division clubs).

American soccer has long hoped for a stable and popular domestic soccer product like the rest of the free soccer world. It is a nation that has all of the tools, determination, and effort to become a massive soccer nation, but it is simply shooting itself in the foot with its own poisonous governing policy.

American soccer would be well advised to start listening to the global soccer experts when it comes to its decision on an open system. Most agree with Sir Alex Ferguson on this one: inclusion and opportunity are part of the essence of global soccer. USA soccer has ambled in the dark ages of the global game for far too long. Aligning with the open system format that has seen wild success throughout 99% of the free soccer world would be a massive step forward.

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What Causes USA Soccer’s Pay-to-Play Problem?

USA soccer has a massive “pay-to-play” or “rich sport” problem. Thousands upon thousands of eager and talented young soccer players are priced out of, cannot find, or are never scouted for high-quality playing and training opportunities.

But get this:

Pay-to-play itself does not need to be touched. It is NOT a bogeyman that needs to be destroyed.

“Wait, What?!”

There is an important distinction to remember in the effort to solve this problem:

It’s not about destroying the “pay-to-play” system itself, it’s about INCENTIVIZING the creation of a separate, free-to-play pipeline that is normally seen in other soccer nations around the world.

“Paying for soccer” has to exist at some level of any nation’s soccer ecosystem. Resources, infrastructure, and services cost money. Markets do not function on charity alone. The key difference is WHO is paying for the soccer opportunities.

In normal soccer nations around the world (98% of the free world), TWO youth player opportunity pipelines exist:

1) A free-to-play training and scouting pipeline established by professional soccer clubs striving for competition achievements and financial profit.

2) A pay-to-play pipeline where participants exchange money for organized soccer activity.

What on the surface looks like a “pay-to-play” or “rich sport” root problem is really just a symptom of one single bad governing policy: a closed USA soccer market.

In an open USA soccer market (read: promotion/relegation and an open division 1), America’s thousands of soccer clubs would have incentive to build and invest in free-to-play academies and scouting networks. This chance of a return on investment could come from the financial reward of winning promotion to a higher division (increases in merchandise sales, TV deal shares, attendance etc.), or the sale of “homegrown”, senior-level players to other clubs for financial profit (spend fifty-thousand dollars on a player “X’s” development from age 11-17, then sell him on at age 18 to another club for a fee of ten million dollars).

Imagine if 500 open system USA soccer clubs fielded academies with a rough average of 60 player slots each. This would result in 30,000 free-to-play, high-level player development opportunities (not to mention many job opportunities for coaches, scouts, and administrators). USA has an estimated 9,000 soccer clubs through the youth and pro levels under the current closed system, so the above projection is ultra conservative. There is potential for hundreds of thousands of club player and staff opportunities.

The pay-to-play soccer pipeline would simply fill the remaining vacuum in the ecosystem. There will still be a massive swath of players seeking a soccer recreational experience or a fallback competitive outlet just below the pro academy cut line. Americans have a huge appetite for youth sports entertainment and plenty of disposable income. Pay-to-play soccer is not going anywhere. It is very healthy for American soccer in this scenario.

American soccer has been forced to rely solely on its pay-to-play pipeline for the development of professional and national team players.

The lack of a free-to-play academy and scouting pipeline means that a multitude of players are never discovered or properly developed. Players in good economic or geographic situations have a leg up on the rest. Open systems serve just consequences for both success and failure. Closed systems simply cannot filter talent as efficiently as open systems. Basing promotion and relegation on the arbitrary decisions of coaches and scouts carries far greater potential for human error than the normal procedure of letting matches on the field serve as main driver of promotion and relegation.

The fact that USA – despite a crippling closed market policy – is able to salvage some success at the senior level is a testimony to its raw soccer potential. In a 2006 global soccer census, FIFA estimated that USA soccer had over 24 MILLION soccer players. That’s one soccer player for every 14 people you meet in its population of 325+ million. Even if that player estimate is off by multiple millions, it is still a number that matches the general population totals of many great soccer nations. Leave pay-to-play alone and give soccer clubs the opportunity to build the free-to-play opportunities that American soccer desperately needs.

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