Friday, October 9, 2009

The USL Just Can't Seem To Get It Right

Last year in the USL-1 Championship, the Puerto Rico Islanders were the top team in the table, won their playoff series to advance to the championship game, represented the USL in the CONCACAF Champions League, and kept the travel and player movement straight. After winning their series, they’d bid to host the championship game in front of their rabid fan base, but instead, they were outbid by the Vancouver Whitecaps, who had also advanced in the other semis. While I like Swangard Stadium, it’s only a 6,000 seat stadium versus Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium’s near 20,000 seat capacity, and the Islanders play in an environment where soccer is as important as necessities. Vancouver ended up winning the game and the title, but the situation left a bad taste in many fan’s mouths.

So this year, the league instituted a two leg playoff, where each team that qualifies for the championship gets to host a match in their home stadium. It seemed like a fair way to ensure that each fanbase gets to celebrate their team’s accomplishments, and each team gets to enjoy the home pitch environment for at least one match. Because of the playoff structure, the matchups are determined quite late in the process, as in the 2009 season, Vancouver and Montreal only clinched their championship berths on October 4th, so it leaves a limited amount of time for fans to figure out travel schedules, much less address television and radio needs.

For this championship, Fox Soccer Channel is broadcasting both legs, which means that the game dates and times needed a bit of flexibility. Unlike PGE Park where the Timbers share the park with Portland State football, Swangard and Saputo Stadiums are single purpose, so you don’t have competition for dates with other sports playing there. It would be agreed that Vancouver would host the first leg the weekend of October 9th -11th, while Montreal would host the second leg the weekend of October 16th – 18th. However, Montreal and Vancouver both have rabid hockey and CFL football fans, and the weekend of Montreal’s match also have a Canadiens match and Alouettes football, so the Impact were trying to find a time that worked.
So far, they’ve indicated a Sunday match, then Saturday early afternoon, and Saturday night, and now apparently Saturday afternoon.

What this process does is ensure that television and other sports fans in the Montreal area are taken care of, but it totally hoses traveling fans. Vancouver fans are justifiably frustrated in trying to figure out travel plans to get to the game on time, juggling work and life commitments with the desire to see their team play. Granted, I have it rather easy, as my wife is as rabid of a Timbers fan as I am, so for us, it’s a matter of figuring out travel date logistics than whether we can actually go or not. I feel for these fans, who want nothing more to travel and see their squad in action, but up until late, you don’t know what date or time the match will occur. Apparently, the match is now on Saturday, October 17th at 2:30 PM local time, but apparently FSC had been advertising a different time up until most recently.

The USL was built from the remnants of the old A-League First Division, combined with other lower division teams, youth squads and women’s teams. Over the years, we’ve seen franchise movement, bankrupt franchises just before the season, questionable officiating, and most recently, an acquisition by another group. Currently, the offseason for the USL First Division is going to be interesting, as it’s rumored that some current USL-1 teams are thinking about forming their own league for the 2010 season. The USL has also been dealing with MLS taking some of the strongest USL markets, as Seattle left the USL in 2009, while Vancouver and Portland join MLS in 2011.

The USL has taken some rather interesting steps against certain franchises that are rumored to be considering the new affiliation, including removing them from their website,
sending letters about player rights and their contract status, and had talks to stabilize the situation between some teams. Some squads are upset with the current USL and the USL, which is trying to find its place in the soccer market place in terms of marketing, franchise makeup, and stability. The USL seemed to be on the right track just a few years ago, finding markets that were able to support soccer, while providing a quality product from higher to lower levels. MLS was also beginning to struggle mightily in the mid 2000’s, as the league struggled to find an identity, corporate support, and legitimacy amongst the top flight soccer leagues.

And now here we are in 2009, and MLS has really strengthened itself after contracting teams early in the 2000’s, struggling to find markets and owners, finding a niche in a fragmented television market, and drawing players from around the world to play MLS. MLS is extremely stable, as they’ve moved past the days where a couple of rich people owned most of the teams and subsidized the league to having their games on television each week, getting quality crowd sizes, and now expanding into new markets. The USL, on the other hand, has watched teams fold in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009, while one First Division team moves to MLS in 2009, and two more leave in 2011. The USL First Division will not have a team farther west than Minneapolis or Austin, Texas in their current configuration if nothing else changes, while their USL-2 division is only located in the eastern part of the United States.

Having two leagues try to find a place in the soccer market place has been interesting to watch, because while both leagues are trying to reach the same fans, they are doing it in very different ways. The USL has focused on a more grass roots movement, keeping to their strengths of having a strong developmental and women’s league, while MLS has gone after casual fans by focusing on television and corporate support. While both leagues have a good working relationship in terms of player contracts as many players move between the league teams, the league management teams have been adversarial towards each other.

The thing is that both leagues have strengths that actually could benefit each other if they combined their efforts. MLS has worked very well to get corporate support, soccer only stadiums for their teams, but also legitimize their teams by getting top international players to play in the MLS. It also helps that the US Men’s National Team has had recent success using players almost exclusively from MLS, thus giving the league more credibility amongst soccer fans. MLS isn’t on par with the top levels of soccer worldwide, but it’s getting close.

What the USL does very well is provide development opportunities for younger players by having a strong youth structure, and a well-devised developmental league. The USL PDL has 68 teams all over the United States and Canada in a well thought out geographic set up, and as such, young players can train and learn in a competitive environment. Teams like Vancouver have seen their success directly attributed to the success of their developmental teams, and MLS made the curious decision a few years ago to completely eliminate their reserve division, which really served as a developmental squad for younger players.

If you took the best of the MLS and USL in a combined effort, you could have a truly strong soccer environment, with the talented players having ample opportunities to progress to the highest levels of US Soccer without leaving the country. But as with situations like this, the USL and MLS prefer to remain independent, as MLS talks about creating a second division of their own, while the USL is working to try and strengthen its foothold in the West and Midwest of the United States. I can appreciate the efforts from both sides, but at this point, I’m wondering what each group is really trying to accomplish here.

If you really wanted to strengthen each league, it would behoove both sides to seek a partnership of some type, so that the ultimate goal of making the United States competitive in soccer on a world class level is achievable. The whole schism of the USL is partly being caused by the search for more money and control for the franchises, which is something that MLS seems to have figured out. There’s huge benefit to be seen here, but because this is such a good idea, it won’t happen anytime soon. What you are seeing now is exactly what happens when sports people with the best intentions listen to their pocketbooks and ego more than their soccer intuition.

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