The Pointlessness of Sanctioning Drama

By Benjamin Massey · January 7th, 2017 · No comments

Matt Schlotzhauer/Indy Eleven

Calling the United Soccer League a “second division,” as the US Soccer Federation announced that they provisionally would[1], is only fair. It is also fair for the USSF to maintain the NASL’s second-division status now that it looks like they’ll probably be able to keep going for 2017. On the field, the NASL and USL seem relatively even: the NASL had an advantage over USL teams in last year’s US Open Cup but in 2015 the USL pulled off a 7-0 whitewash. The best-supported USL teams, Cincinnati and Sacramento, outdrew the best-supported team remaining in the NASL, Indy. USL still has more full-on-minor-league teams with 1,000-odd attendances even if you don’t count the MLS reserve squads, but added two good ones from NASL in Tampa and Ottawa.

Neither league meets all the USSF criteria for a second division; thus the “provisional” in their announcement. The USL has its weak-sister clubs, many of which allegedly only pay staff part-time and have no appetite for continent-wide travel. Indeed, this was a selling point for the Ottawa Fury jumping to the USL, and the main barrier to FC Edmonton ever doing the same. The NASL, of course, is a bit of a basket case. But they would have been far more of a basket case had the USSF denied them division-2 status: according to Dave Martinez at Empire of Soccer the reported sale of the New York Cosmos to Rocco Commisso hinged on the NASL being a formal second division[2]. Even the remaining seven teams would have had their exit fee discounted by at least 95% as a third division[3]. There would have been no stranger twist in this unpredictable story than the NASL surviving that.

In short, if the USSF wanted to be fairest to both leagues and ensure the strongest professional soccer environment possible, this is pretty much the obvious decision. The only alternatives would have been to flick a middle finger in USL’s face on poorly-rationalized historic grounds, give up the NASL as a going concern, or to do what they did in 2010 and force both leagues to play a combined second-division schedule, a “compromise” no party expressed even off-the-record interest in. The USL is excited, with enthusiastic press releases and a slightly-ironic “We Are UniteD2” campaign going league-wide. The NASL is less excited with what after all is for them the status quo, but they’re alive. (For now.)

So there are only two questions left. The first: what took the USSF so long? This sanctioning drama started in November and it’s obvious they weren’t planning on putting any horses out of their misery if they could help it. Were they waiting to make sure the NASL could reach the arbitrary number of eight teams (they played with seven in the spring of 2013)? Were they hoping one league would go “surprise, all our teams are suddenly owned by Russian oligarchs and we’re meeting all your standards tomorrow?” Were they just waffling uselessly until the potential Cosmos sale forced them to do something/anything? (Brooks Peck at Howler might endorse that theory[4].) They’re still promising details of what “provisional” means “in the coming weeks.” Whatever the explanation, it’s now of academic interest to the fan until the end of this season when we get to do the whole thing again.

The second question: why does it matter? Okay, the second paragraph of this very article said why, but on a more fundamental level why does it matter? Stop me if this is breaking news but, in Canada and the United States, there’s no such thing as a “soccer pyramid.” There is no promotion or relegation based on squad ability, or organizational quality, or anything beyond a team’s willingness to pay an entry fee and salaries. There have been div-2 NASL teams better than div-1 MLS teams, and div-3 USL teams better than div-2 NASL teams, and I bet there are USL PDL or NPSL teams that could give the Tulsa Roughnecks a run for their money. The business viability of the NASL depended on what number came after the word “division” in their Wikipedia article, and the USL obviously thought it was very important, but it has no inherent meaning. It’s all fake! It’s like basing your business on whether Chris Jericho won on Raw last week! None of it has anything to do with anything! The Orange County Blues are not suddenly a stronger franchise! If the decision had gone the other way, the Indy Eleven would not suddenly be a weaker one! It’s fiction! It’s not even a useful fiction! It’s just an arbitrary number decided by bureaucrats, the most useless concept with the very highest importance.

It’s even worse for us up in Canada. If the NASL had become a third division and shut down as a result we almost certainly would have lost FC Edmonton. 20% of our professional soccer scene up in smoke because Americans quibbled over digits. We would have suffered a serious blow for what amounts to no reason at all.

Eight years ago you could say that the American soccer pyramid, while fake, was nearly rational. There was Major League Soccer on the top, unquestionably comprising almost all of the best-supported and best-financed soccer clubs in the land. Then there was the USL First Division, which was the national second division, then the USL Second Division, which was the third. As the name implies the USL divisions were under the same umbrella, and while there still wasn’t promotion or relegation teams would move up or down depending on their finance and ambition. It wasn’t a working system but it was a coherent one.

Any thin veneer of logic this “pyramid” ever had vanished when the USL-NASL split was finalized in 2011. The USL never pretended to be anything but a second division in temporary exile, with much talk of “the top level of soccer below MLS.” The NASL long wanted to be a first division and justified this on the grounds we’ve just discussed: that the groupings were entirely arbitrary so why shouldn’t a given league be at a given level if it wanted to be? The USSF set increasing standards for a third, a second, and a first division with strict requirements for finance and stadium, then showered waivers every year like a ticker-tape parade because said strict requirements had only a loose relationship with reality. The ostensible rationale was to ensure stability at the sub-MLS level, but this winter’s drama is only the most vivid proof of how that goal has failed.

What is the point of this crap? How does it help the American soccer world, ignoring for the moment the Canadian one? The only thing the current American divisional structure does is encourage investors to act like it matters, and its influence seems entirely malign.

There’s only one solution to this sanctioning question. It’s not USL and NASL sorting out their differences, because that won’t happen and even if it did some second-division team would miss payroll or some third-division team would get a new owner and it would all be irrelevant the next season anyway. The real answer is to say “what the hell are we doing?” and abolish the whole distinction. Set standards for a professional league and let the competitors deal with each other as they will. The free market will decide. MLS is not the top level in the United States because it says “major league” in the name, it’s the top level because it has the best players and the highest calibre of marketing. If the NASL equals them it will not be because a federation said so, but because they invested the cash and did the work.

Let the teams decide which divisions are best, not centralized soccer overlords. Until promotion and relegation come to Canada and the United States, and let us pray every day that it does, that is the only arrangement that makes the slightest amount of sense.

(notes and comments…)

Edmonton, Last Survivor and First Rebirth?

By Benjamin Massey · December 1st, 2016 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

After six seasons, the North American Soccer League is looking desperate. Ottawa and Tampa Bay have joined USL, Major League Soccer’s reserve league[1]. Fort Lauderdale seems hopelessly doomed[2] and Oklahoma City is all-but-officially dead[3]. And now the most shocking news, that the New York Cosmos, the New York Cosmos, have started missing payroll[4] and may be leaving the NASL[5]; the front office is brazenly noncommittal[6]. What’s certain is that the NASL and USL are meeting, with the United States Soccer Federation in attendance, to try and save something[7]. Even if the NASL manages to stay afloat the USSF may declare it inferior to USL by fiat. The omens for the survival of an independent professional division are extremely bad.

The NASL still has strong teams, the expansion San Francisco Deltas are set to join in 2017, and the usual rumours swirl of game-changing new investment. This might no longer suffice against a MLS-USL axis that has never stopped praying for what all the reports imply: the NASL coming to pieces as the survivors beg for shelter until Don Garber and Alec Papadakis’s big umbrella. But even if today is the NASL’s last they got six years of independent, lovable soccer. That was probably four more than the average punter would have guessed at the beginning.

The clubs that broke from the USL First Division to form the NASL in 2010 included two strong organizations bolting for MLS almost immediately (Vancouver, Montreal), four teams perennially on the verge of collapse (Minnesota, Atlanta, Puerto Rico, Miami), two teams that actually folded before the league played its first game (St. Louis, Baltimore), another wanting for committed ownership (Carolina), and finally FC Tampa Bay, which just happened to be located in USL’s hometown and would later face a competitor, VSI Tampa Bay, in the rebranded USL Pro.

Sure, the NASL had the Cosmos, but we forget how incredibly fly-by-night they once were. Grandiose announcements, huge renderings of new stadiums, merchandising galore, Éric Cantona-helmed friendlies against Manchester United[8], promises of world-class this and EPL-level that… and an underfinanced and ultimately bankrupt youth academy[9], constant changes among important personnel, with no hint this could be a serious soccer organization until, under new ownership, they hit the field in fall 2013 and kicked everybody’s ass.

As for the other early expansion team, FC Edmonton, nobody thought they had a prayer. I didn’t. And yet as the league founders the Eddies have been its most determined defender. Who could have guessed that Ottawa and Tampa would defect, New York would throw down its arms, Minnesota would long have fled for higher ground, and Tom Fath would hold the last ditch? That FC Edmonton, playing in its unsuitable community stadium with an owner who is openly not a soccer guy and a dodgy on-field record, would outlive its league? They’re hiring sales people, right now! A new fan shop seems set to open! If the NASL goes down it won’t be because Edmonton lost faith: the Eddies die hard.

Poor Edmonton. Their loyalty is unlikely to be rewarded. The NASL’s surviving American clubs will wince at replacing the Cosmos with MLS reserve teams but, barring intransigence to a self-destructive degree, will survive. USL would be mad, absolutely mad, to put roadblocks before organizations of Jacksonville and Indy’s quality. Even Miami and Puerto Rico look good compared to some, and are in markets where USL has an historic interest.

USL admitted an Edmonton team once, the Aviators in 2004. That organization couldn’t hold a candle to FC Edmonton’s and went about as wrong as an expansion team can go. At the time there were independent first teams in Calgary, Minnesota, Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle. All are now gone, or reduced to reserve status and eager to pinch pennies. Today’s USL is a crescent, from the Cascadian reserve teams, through good numbers in California and south of the Mason-Dixon, back up to their traditional powerhouses on the eastern seaboard. You could hardly customize a 31-team geography where Edmonton would look more out-of-place. Ottawa can take the bus to a dozen away games; Edmonton would have no hope of a regional rival and no bus trips from anyone but the Whitecaps and Sounders Reserves.

Why would USL want Edmonton? Their attendance and sponsorship power hardly make them “must-haves.” Their travel problems are legendary even by the higher standard of the NASL. Would they be the price for a USL-NASL merger; would Indy go to the wall to save Edmonton? Nice as it is to imagine that would be taking loyalty, literally, a very great distance. Besides, if Tom Fath’s considerable investment in the NASL evaporates and he faces the reduced crowds of reserve soccer, will he even want to go on? Five long weeks ago, when from the outside the NASL looked acceptably stable, Tom Fath told Steven Sandor there was “zero chance” of Edmonton joining USL[10].

Ah, my Canadian friend, you’re thinking of another option. Well, yes, FC Edmonton has been asked about joining the potential Canadian Premier League. They have been asked many times by many people, to the point that they are reportedly exasperated by the very question. Outsiders occasionally assume Edmonton will join because “well NASL it’s natural,” but while they haven’t been loud about it there’s no doubt FC Edmonton isn’t interested[11].

But what if the NASL folds, and USL is uninterested or impractical? Would CanPL be better than nothing? Of course right now CanPL more-or-less is nothing: no teams, no schedule, no players, one employee. But surely even faint hope is better than certain extinction.

That’s what you or I would say, but it’s not our money. The Faths poured time and treasure into the NASL with limited returns beyond a warm feeling in their bellies. Will they have the heart to try again, back awfully close to square one?

It would be glorious if they did. If you are an Albertan, you spend money on the Eddies, and you enjoy the almost-intimate access which at this level of professional soccer comes so easily for even the most ordinary fan, I hope you agree and will make it known. The Eddies are a rare, precious thing and deserve to live forever, in this league or another.

If the Faths do give up, though, they will leave deserving of our gratitude and respect. (This makes them unique among Edmonton professional soccer magnates.) They will also leave the City of Champions open for another CanPL team to take the reins in good conscience. Edmonton may yet be represented in the greatest Canadian soccer experiment of our generation, as it certainly deserves to be. And so, dementedly, the fall of the NASL could pay off for us.

For many, even when compared to a Canadian Premier League the NASL is a good thing. It has liberty. Its clubs, though part of an American-dominated whole, are not the centrally-run branch plants of MLS franchises. If the CanPL existed and played games, it would be easy to choose… but it didn’t, and the NASL did. You wouldn’t be human if this didn’t affect your calculations, if you preferred solid reality to beautiful dreams. Could Edmonton, for example, be blamed for staying loyal to an NASL that let them serve Canadian soccer with total freedom, as surely as they could in the CanPL?

If you have room in your Canadian heart for more than MLS’s American drama, if you cheer for Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps or the Montreal Impact because that’s your hometown team but you know the country could and should have better, then there is a sweetness to this bitter fruit. The last continental institutional loyalty that could be defended, the last sublimation of Canadian identity maybe justified on higher grounds, is dying. We are being freed from the indignity of willing national submission. If the NASL ends then it will be Garber’s way or the highway, and that makes the road to independence look very clear.

(notes and comments…)

Independent vs. Reserve Team Attendances Part II: USL 2015

By Benjamin Massey · September 28th, 2015 · No comments

2015 was a success at the gate for the re-re-re-rebranded United Soccer League. Despite adding ten teams from 2014 while losing Orlando City to MLS, per-game attendance actually rose from 3,114 to 3,339. Sacramento remained incredibly well-supported, Rochester continued to do well, and new boys Louisville approached 7,000 fans per game. In a league that’s struggled with franchise stability, many new clubs posted numbers to be proud of. If the real numbers are as good as the attendances look, there’ll be a party down at the league office.

The pity is that, for the casual soccer fan, the big story was not how well USL’s done in its independent markets, or towns brand new to professional soccer turning out in their thousands. No, the story was how USL has eight MLS reserve teams in it.

Reserve teams are not intended to be financially self-sufficient. They lose money but keep veterans match-fit and develop youngsters. Putting these teams in USL, from MLS’s perspective, increases costs but gives them a product that might make some of it back. This is fine. It also expands USL’s reach and talent base, from the league’s perspective, for free. This is also fine. (It’s certainly better than a system of half-farm half-independent bastard teams, as remains sadly common in USL.) Do not mistake what I’m about to say for an attack on the concept of putting reserve teams into the main league pyramid.

However, there was a perception among some fans that the MLS reserve teams joining USL would be a masterstroke in the North American soccer business. Buoyed by Soccer United Marketing the MLS reserve teams would be well-attended and financially successful. Moreover, they would act as a major boost to the independent USL teams, all helping SUM and USL to crush their rival, the North American Soccer League. That, far from being a pragmatic way for MLS to permanently establish a reserve structure, MLS reserve teams in USL would Change Everything.

On the field, while most of the MLS reserve teams were competitive, none blew the doors off. Half the teams in USL make the playoffs. Only two three of the eight MLS reserve teams will see the postseason, and none of the other six five were very close. Four of the five bottom-ranked teams in USL this season were MLS reserve teams. It turns out keeping a team of professionals together full-time will result in a stronger eleven than a crew of kids plus marginal pros rotated in and out of the lineup as needed. Who knew? There’s nothing there to change the world, though it might be a bit better for player development. Many a player who could be a key USL reserve, like Akira Fitzgerald, Josh Ford, or Dane Richards, still goes on loan to the NASL. Not much has changed there.

So how did the MLS reserve teams do attendance-wise? Last year I said that “fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.” The 2015 USL season bears this out.

Here is the table I made comparing the attendance of reserve and non-reserve in the same division last year, updated to include the 2015 USL[1].

Note: I am missing attendance data for three games (Toronto v. Pittsburgh August 8, Los Angeles v. Arizona August 9, and Harrisburg v. Saint Louis September 6).These games are not included in any averages. I also have one Seattle game (July 24 v. Portland) from a different source. However, if you’re attempting to reproduce these numbers yourself, the missing games break the USL website’s team stats page, and as a result USLSoccer.com shows unreliable figures for the total and average home attendance for Harrisburg, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto. Therefore my data, which are compiled game-by-game, will differ from data compiled team-by-team.

Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012-13 Liga Adelante Spain 2 6724 2 6998 3990 3008 75.39%
2013-14 Liga Adelante Spain 2 7879 2 8328 3395 4932 145.26%
2012-13 3. Liga Germany 3 6162 2 6616 2077 4539 218.52%
2013-14 3. Liga Germany 3 6071 2 6556 1707 4849 284.15%
2012-13 Regionalliga Germany 4 1022 27 1288 390 898 230.62%
2013-14 Regionalliga Germany 4 1139 25 1380 524 856 163.36%
2014 USL Pro USA 3 3114 1 3308 597 2711 454.03%
2015 USL USA 3 3339 8 4135 1747 2388 136.70%
2012 USL PDL USA 4 488 5 455 1026 -571 -55.63%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 588 7 578 686 -109 -15.81%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 590 9 606 482 124 25.83%
Averages 2603 2856 875 1980 226.28%

USL keeps up the trend we see world-wide. Fans care far less about reserve teams than they do about an independent team at the same level. By world standards, MLS reserve teams in USL do by no means badly, but the variances can be wild.

Take Real Salt Lake, the best-attended MLS reserve team. Playing at Rio Tinto Stadium, the RSL reserves managed 4,698 fans per game, sixth in the USL and good by any measurement. But that included two games over 11,000: July 11 versus Austin, and August 28 versus Seattle (13,979; the best-attended game in USL all season). It also included 1,001 to see the Los Angeles Galaxy reserves on April 25, 2,192 to see Colorado Springs on August 26, and 2,230 to see Oklahoma City on September 2. Four of their fourteen home games were above that 4,698 average, but two of them were so far above it shot Salt Lake right up the table. A fan is a fan, they all count, but the Salt Lake reserves were weird and it’s beyond me to guess whether the high numbers or the low ones better reflect their long-term potential.

The only other reserve team in the top half of the USL attendance charts was Portland, in twelfth. Their numbers were consistent: as I’ve always said, Portland is mental. Of the eight worst-supported teams in USL this past season, six were MLS reserve sides. That fits in very well with the international norm.

Of the Canadian teams, Vancouver averaged 1,682 fans per game, playing mostly in the sun at a heavily-marketed, entertainment-filled, dedicated stadium at the University of British Columbia. Toronto started the season at BMO Field but moved to a training centre mid-season while Montreal bounced between Saputo Stadium, the nearby turf field, and (once) Olympic Stadium: both were generally less interested in promoting their teams. Their reported attendance was effectively nobody. Vancouver and Toronto charged for games; Montreal was free.

No doubt fans will be saying “I would have gone to the reserve games but [excuse].” Everyone has an excuse. Some of the games were mid-week or at weird times? Welcome to USL, sunshine; you’re not special. The TFC training centre in Vaughan is hard to get to? Tell that to the good people of St. Louis, whose stadium is two and a half hours by transit from downtown. To put it bluntly, if you cared you’d go. There’s nothing wrong with not caring about your reserve team. Very few fans anywhere in the world do.

Probably more worrying is that attendance declined over the course of the season. Montreal and Toronto are hard to judge. But in Vancouver, after a decent start, attendance fast faded. After their first two games of the season the only Whitecaps Reserve games to break 2,000 were June 14 versus Los Angeles (date of the frankly brilliant “Bark at the Bird” promotion) and July 15 versus Colorado Springs. The marketers will need to work hard to build on these numbers in 2016.

reserveattendancecanada

There’s another angle to consider. Do MLS reserve teams bring in more support for the independent USL clubs? Do fans in Charleston or Austin rush to the box office to see the Toronto or Los Angeles reserves? You cannot answer this question definitively, because the sample size is small and the unbalanced USL schedule means some teams see different sets of reserve squads, and get more or fewer games. But here are the figures from 2015.

Attendance for Independent USL Clubs Hosting MLS Reserves
Team Games v. MLS Reserve Attendance Reserve Attend/G Non-Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
Arizona 6 20380 3397 2895 955 33.00%
Austin 5 17943 3589 3025 563 18.62%
Charleston 3 14362 4787 3886 901 23.18%
Charlotte 3 5382 1794 1802 -8 -0.45%
Colorado Springs 7 20262 2895 2551 343 13.46%
Harrisburg 4 12147 3037 2392 645 26.97%
Louisville 3 20380 6793 6757 36 0.54%
Oklahoma City 5 21439 4288 4828 -541 -11.20%
Orange County 7 10714 1531 1266 265 20.94%
Pittsburgh 3 8193 2731 2602 129 4.95%
Richmond 3 9696 3232 3887 -655 -16.85%
Rochester 6 30385 5064 5949 -885 -14.87%
Sacramento 8 90064 11258 11409 -151 -1.32%
Saint Louis 3 14585 4862 4891 -30 -0.60%
Tulsa 5 23608 4722 4710 11 0.24%
Wilmington 4 12965 3241 2847 394 13.86%
League-Wide Total 476 11.92%

Across USL, teams drew 11.92% more fans when an MLS reserve team was in town than when an independent club was. That’s more than a rounding error but isn’t a significant margin, and is hard to separate from the game-to-game inconsistency that’s endemic across the lower divisions. Possibly more fans bought season tickets for the sake of MLS reserve teams, but why woulde that level of interest hardly be reflected in single-game sales? Moreover, the teams best-supported in general seemed least interested in MLS reserve teams, and it doesn’t take much of a change in Orange County or Harrisburg to look significant.

None of this takes away from what’s been a good 2015 for the United Soccer League. In fact, 2015’s been a great year for lower-division professional soccer all over Canada and the United States. But the credit doesn’t go to reserve teams.

EDIT, September 29: this article originally claimed two MLS reserve clubs made the USL post-season rather than three.

(notes and comments…)

The Pro/Rel Fantasy

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2015 · No comments

North American Soccer League

North American Soccer League

As you probably know, North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson recently told The Telegraph‘s Bob Williams that he will “take action” on bringing promotion and relegation to North American soccer[1].

Obviously a serious fan will wish Peterson all the best, but talk is cheap and pro/rel chatter goes at a discount. The only thing in the soccer universe less likely than the NASL getting USL onboard for a promotion/relegation scheme is the NASL getting MLS onboard. Peterson talks about a partnership with the American National Premier Soccer League but even for the Yanks that’s hardly a national pyramid while Canadians and Puerto Ricans would be, as Steven Sandor pointed out, up the proverbial creek. Itself a long shot, such a setup might be better than nothing but, for Canadian fans, not much.

Obviously promotion and relegation would be terrific in North America, as it has been everywhere else in the world. The North American sports palate is not as coarse and unrefined as Don Garber would have you believe. Take it from me, who cheers for many a last-place team: if I could honestly urge my lads to win at the end of the season rather than lose for the sake of a draft pick I’d be overjoyed, even if relegation was the price of failure. Leagues with business models based off collecting franchise fees will be have to find another way but that’s a feature, not a bug. Likewise with anti-labour concepts like discovery lists, allocation orders, and SuperDrafts which a real pyramid would make untenable.

The discussion, however, is academic so long as professional team owners are more interested in prestige and soccer-like sports entertainment than building a system that might hurt individuals even if it’s a collective boon. Which is why you don’t see much pro/rel ranting on this website: clearly pro/rel can’t be beat, but equally clearly it would require a shift in the North American soccer landscape of such scale that any forecast is essentially a personal fantasy.

Hell with it, let’s fantasize. Tomorrow morning Don Garber, Bill Peterson, Victor Montagliani, Sunil Gulati, and USL president Jake Edwards walk into my apartment. “Ben,” they say, “we’ve read your blog, we really like it (especially the blasphemous Photoshops), and we have therefore appointed you generalissimo of North American soccer. Your mandate is to implement promotion and relegation in Canada and the United States. The catch is that you don’t really have any new money and if you stomp all over the owners they’ll launch a coup, establish an Emergency Government of National Security, and hang you from a lamppost. What’s your plan?”

Major League Soccer need not give up its primacy. With promotion and relegation giving any club a route to the top, a professional domestic division developing domestic players, and the roster rules of a North American pyramid with three soccer nations (Canada, the United States, and Puerto Rico) as equal partners, most objections to our all-consuming top division disappear. Successful teams will thrive, the unsuccessful will fail, and if a Canadian team decides to focus entirely on foreign players, that team a couple divisions down nurturing local talent will have every chance to eat their lunch. Many MLS rules, like a salary cap and designated player slots, might remain in place all the way down the pyramid: what we’d lose would be favouritism between domestic players in different countries and the shady deals, weighted lotteries, and suspicious bursts of undocumented cash that make MLS such a joke.

The much-discussed Canadian second division is essential without promotion and relegation and would be essential with it. Hopefully the prospect of promotion would attract NASL loyalists FC Edmonton; in a pro/rel universe we couldn’t really hook them onto the American ladder forever. If not I guess we’re selling the nice china and pawning our guitars until we can buy the Faths out. As for the Puerto Ricans, the existing Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico is a good starting point for a third division. Their league structure is a hot mess right now, with traditional powerhouses Bayamón F.C. having to join the mainland NPSL, and as an ignorant outsider it seems unlikely that they’ll have a league at second division standard in the near future.

Amateur and youth levels, such as USL PDL, are left out. They don’t belong in the discussion of an open-age professional structure, even if some teams are plenty talented enough to compete at a third-division standard. Their role is an independent one, though doubtless some teams more interested in entertaining the community than developing college players will move over.

Canada United States Puerto Rico
Division 1 Major League Soccer
24 teams
Division 2 Canadian Premier League
8+ teams
North American Soccer League
10 teams
Division 3
Top reserve level
regional third divisions
(PLSQ, L1O, etc.)
United Soccer League
18 teams (plus reserves)
Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico
12 teams
Division 4+ local premier leagues National Premier Soccer League
65 teams
local soccer?

A thorny practical problem is how to determine who gets relegated. (This is where I’m glad I’m generalissimo.) Your standard three-up-three-down rule would be poorly received by MLS owners who’d paid huge expansion fees, and competitively unfair given the sometimes dramatic gaps in quality between different levels. Then there’s how to deal with three soccer nations under one roof.

I would put the three last-place MLS teams into an annual playoff with the top two NASL teams and the Canadian champion and have them play off, home and away. The last-place MLS team and the three second-division teams play one round. The winners face the second-last and third-last MLS teams. The winners of that play next season in MLS; the losers get a last chance third-place game. The big-money MLS teams would have every chance to keep their place, and if they took the drop in spite of everything it would be their own damned fault. If the NASL/Canadian teams are completely uncompetitive they’ll get wiped out in the playoff and, hopefully, come back stronger next year. It’s a conservative format which favours the existing powerhouses, but that’s okay if it gives everyone an honest chance.

This would happen without prejudice to nationality. If a Canadian league team wins promotion and it’s all American teams in the relegation pot, there’s one more Canadian team in MLS that year. The reverse applies when Toronto FC inevitably comes unglued and gets themselves sent to the U-Sector outdoor league. The numbers favour the Americans (remember, the NASL gets two entrants to the promotion playoffs to Canada’s one), which is probably only fair. Combined with their competitive advantage Americans need not fear a Canadian takeover of their national league, but if a Canadian team punches above their weight like this year’s Ottawa Fury then they can be justly rewarded.

The principle applies further down the pyramid. The USL and Puerto Rican champions play the bottom NASL teams: USL is far stronger than the Puerto Rican league but the playoff will shake out most pretenders. In Canada, let our regional semi-pro champions battle to send somebody to a promotion playoff against the basement-dwellers of the national league. Clubs would need the right to decline promotion for financial or other reasons, and reserve teams should probably not rise higher than the third division. It would also be important that Canada has a semi-pro league for every region, lest FC Edmonton be relegated to League1 Ontario, but that’s something that has to happen anyway.

Theoretically this could lead to regional leagues running short of teams: if League1 Ontario has a good run and half their teams get promoted, that would be inconvenient for the smaller number brought up to replace them. There would therefore have to be provision for extra promotion to keep leagues viable. Indeed, as the strength of the second and third divisions grow, both Canadians and Americans would doubtless want to bring additional teams to a higher level rather than stick with the relatively small NASL and Canadian league numbers forever.

At the bottom we integrate the various men’s amateur leagues that are currently thriving across Canada and the United States. Why shouldn’t Sunday players in the smallest communities have the chance to enter the semi-professional ranks if they’re willing and able? No doubt most of these teams would be incapable of winning promotion and be obliged to decline it if they ever could; the point is to give the exceptions a chance and allow grassroots teams, maybe even supporter-owned ones, to rise in stature and support until they’re on the biggest stage.

MLS teams would play more must-win games than ever before, bringing in fans and television viewers. A community in the driver’s seat for promotion would be captivated rather than trying to remember what the NASL regular season championship is called*. More teams at more levels would have more ways to draw more fans than in any other format, and when an underserved community could support a professional club they could make it on their merits rather than wait for a patron to pay an expansion fee. This all sounds brilliant, until you’re New York City FC, you just paid MLS a $100 million expansion fee, and there’s a real chance you’re swapping places with the Cosmos next year.

Indeed, the selfishness of empire-building ownership and league front offices is why our soccer pyramid is stuck in imagination. You’d have to be a much better politician than I to make it real.

(more…)

That USL Pro Rebrand, in Excessive Depth

By Benjamin Massey · February 10th, 2015 · No comments

United Soccer Leagues

United Soccer Leagues

Earlier today the United Soccer Leagues announced a rebrand. A new league logo, with versions for each team straight out of the Major League Soccer Guide to Hipster Trendiness. (Still miles better than its MLS equivalent.)

USL Pro has dropped the “Pro”, which a cynic would say reflects the part-timer MLS reserve players and an optimist would say is rationalization: with USL operating one professional league “United Soccer League” makes sense as a name even if it’s hokum as a concept. In my books it’s an improvement over USL Pro, but anyway there’s no need to get too attached.

Welcome to a new dawn in North American soccer“, USL said. For once that is more than purple prose, because USL rebrands pretty much every morning.

Let’s take the Rochester Rhinos, a club of remarkable pedigree, established 1996. The Rhinos have never deliberately moved leagues: while peers and rivals bounce up to MLS or down to the semi-pro levels, Rochester’s been happy with their position*. So one would expect their history to show a reasonable level of stability.

Seasons League
1996 A-League team formed
1997–1998 USISL A-League A-League merged with USISL
1999–2004 USL A-League USISL rebranded to USL
2005–2009 USL First Division USL rebranded its leagues to the First and Second Divisions
2010 USSF D2 Pro League USL/NASL split; temporary league
2011–2014 USL Pro USL merged and rebranded First and Second Divisions
2015– USL USL rebranded USL Pro

The Rhinos have played in seven different leagues, five of which were run by the USL or its predecessor the USISL. These guys change names more often than MLS changes reserve leagues.

According to reports USL is also trying to regain second division status in the United States, which they held from 1997 to 2009. NASL kingpins Traffic Sports is one of the Canadian Soccer Association’s better friends. and the NASL is our country’s best hope for professional men’s soccer, so maybe we should cheer for USL to fail. However, the distinction between American second and third divisions is meaningless. There is no promotion/relegation and, as long as MLS refuses to spend on roster depth and half of USL’s players are MLS reservists, USL will never equal the NASL on the field. The pitch to potential owners won’t change: USL can offer tightness with MLS, NASL can offer independence, stability, and the prospect of an MLS expansion anyway. I find I want USL to succeed in its bid because the Americans having two second divisions in 2015 would be hilarious.

(notes and comments…)

Comparing Independent and Reserve Attendances in Lower Divisions

By Benjamin Massey · December 2nd, 2014 · 1 comment

As you know the third division of American soccer, USL Pro, has become an affiliate league to Major League Soccer. While most teams remain independent, starting in 2014 USL Pro began admitting MLS reserve teams, and this system will massively expand for 2015 with several reserve teams in Canada and the United States.

Nobody runs their reserve team to make money, but many Major League Soccer front offices are marketing hard and hunting paying customers. Some, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps reserves, charge higher prices for tickets than the best reserve teams in the world. They’re making progress: how many times have we heard the reserve sides of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps been called “new professional teams!!!” by the excitable, rather than an expansion of what already existed?

This model isn’t new. Several countries run reserve teams in the same league pyramid as independent clubs: Spain and Germany are the most famous but we see it all over the world, from Norway to Japan. Indeed, even in North America professional youth teams have operated alongside the independent semi-pros and amateurs of USL PDL for several years. So what does this mean for fans? Is a reserve team in a real league worth as much as a real team in the same league?

Inspired by an old Tyler Dellow post on mc79hockey.com, now removed from the Internet[1], I set out to compare the attendances of independent and reserve clubs in the same league.

Unfortunately, reliable attendance information for many such leagues, toiling in the lower divisions of non-English-speaking countries, is not readily available. Trying to compile data, I wound up with a total of ten seasons covering leagues in Spain, Germany, and the United States since 2012[2].

The distinction between “reserve team” and “non-reserve team” in North America can be slightly arbitrary: I did my best, erring towards considering teams independent. For example, Chivas USA and New York City FC did and will not appear on my lists; nor do USL Pro or USL PDL affiliates which are more like parents/feeders than full farm clubs. In the great scheme of thing potentially controversial cases are heavily outnumbered by clearcut Bayern Munich II/Chicago Fire Premier types.

Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012-13 Liga Adelante Spain 2 6724 2 6998 3990 3008 75.39%
2013-14 Liga Adelante Spain 2 7879 2 8328 3395 4932 145.26%
2012-13 3. Liga Germany 3 6162 2 6616 2077 4539 218.52%
2013-14 3. Liga Germany 3 6071 2 6556 1707 4849 284.15%
2012-13 Regionalliga Germany 4 1022 27 1288 390 898 230.62%
2013-14 Regionalliga Germany 4 1139 25 1380 524 856 163.36%
2014 USL Pro USA 3 3114 1 3308 597 2711 454.03%
2012 USL PDL USA 4 488 5 455 1026 -571 -55.63%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 588 7 578 686 -109 -15.81%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 590 9 606 482 124 25.83%
Averages 2563 2981 794 2188 275.59%

It’s not even close. At the same level, independent clubs are massively more popular than reserve teams, even considering cheaper (or free) tickets for reserve football, and this sample including the reserve sides for some of the world’s biggest clubs.

Look at Spain. The two reserve teams in the Liga Adelante in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are as huge as you can get: Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla. This is first-rate soccer. The current Real Madrid Castilla team includes three full internationals and Barcelona B has four. Both also have a handful of players who we’ll see on the senior Spanish side someday. And the attendance? Barça B had a middling year in 2012-13 but, on average, both these world-class development sides drew crowds that would shame an NASL team. (Most La Liga reserve sides, including Real Madrid Castilla this season, play in the Segunda División B, a level down, where attendance numbers are not reliably available.)

The two reserve teams in the German 3. Liga, Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II, boast big senior sides. But attendance-wise they finish behind almost everybody. In 2012-13 Stuttgart and Dortmund were second-last and last, respectively, in attendance. In 2013-14 Borussia Dortmund II improved to fifth from bottom, but still well behind 14th-place SV Wehen Wiesbaden (who they?!) while VfB Stuttgart II brought up the rear.

The largest group of reserve teams for which I had attendance data was in the German Regionalliga, made up of five regions and over 90 teams. In 2012-13 only three reserve teams (FC Bayern München II, 1. FC Köln II, and TSV 1860 München II) finished above the median in Regionalliga attendance. 15 of the 25 worst-supported Regionalliga teams, and all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Not bad when only 27 reserve teams played in the division.

It’s the same story in 2013-14. Three Regionalliga reserve teams (TSV 1860 München II, FC Bayern München II, and Hertha BSC II) again finished above the median attendance. 14 of the 25 worst-supported teams, and again all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Some of these sides drew truly atrocious crowds. 2012-13 SC Freiburg II got 164 fans a night, which would have embarrassed USL PDL.

Over in the United States, one reserve team operated in USL Pro last year: the Los Angeles Galaxy II. They did not draw flies, despite offering season tickets free with the MLS package and independent seats starting at US$72[3].

North American fans will be inspired, however, by USL PDL. In 2012 and 2013 the PDL affiliate teams actually drew better than the independent ones, and in 2014 they were darn close. This bucks the trend in Spain and Germany, and might mean that North America’s different culture and greater familiarity with minor-league teams will bring more success.

But I will respond with three words: the Portland Timbers. When it comes to reserve team popularity Portland is an exception; Portland is always an exception.

In 2012, the Portland Timbers U-23s were the third-best supported team in USL PDL. In 2013 they were third again, and in 2014 they were actually second. Portland’s U-23s regularly beat USL Pro teams in the attendance race. This is a credit to Portland fans, but it also weighs unusually heavily in our table; it takes only a few well-attended games to drag up the average number when such a small proportion of the league is reserve teams.

To demonstrate Portland’s distorting effect, let’s remove the Portland Timbers U-23s and the best-supported independent team all three years, the Des Moines Menace, from the USL PDL list and see what happens.

USL PDL Attendances 2012-14 (without Des Moines and Portland)
Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012 USL PDL USA 4 393 4 400 243 157 64.36%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 505 6 526 262 264 100.67%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 503 8 546 167 380 227.99%

Take away those maniacs in Portland and USL PDL lines up a lot more with Europe. Well-supported Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders had a USL PDL team in 2013 and 2014 and have had below-average attendance. The Vancouver Whitecaps had a PDL team (and quite a successful one) for almost a decade, and their attendance is regularly in the basement.

Note as well that USL PDL attendances are not entirely reliable. Many teams, especially badly supported ones, do not report their attendance for all games. Orlando City U-23, who draw two- or single-digit crowds, reported only one game in 2013 and none at all in 2014. The Chicago Fire Premier/U-23 miss a couple games every year. Games not reported are not included in these tables, but would lower all average numbers and disproportionately hurt affiliated teams.

Obviously nothing in this post is related to player development: the most important job of a reserve team. But those looking to reserve teams to grow soccer in Canada and the United States should look elsewhere. Fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.

(notes and comments…)

Random Thoughts on WFC2, Not in Anything Like Full

By Benjamin Massey · November 26th, 2014 · 2 comments

Because I just put down my $50 season ticket deposit, and because I haven’t posted anything for two weeks, my random thoughts on how the Whitecaps Reserve team in USL Pro is shaping up off the field.

Boy, That Name Sure Is Stupid!

Is it ever! I like to think that there was a meeting to determine the name, and all the suits from the Whitecaps, MLS, and USL got together, and some unfortunate member of the Football Death Panel said “why don’t we call them ‘Vancouver Whitecaps FC Reserves’, because that’s what they are.” And everyone turned around and stared at him until his head exploded like in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So I’m just going to call them the Whitecaps Reserves. Could be worse. I got a press release which referred to “S2” in the subject line and thought for a second I was on Microsoft Excel’s mailing list.

(That said, be exasperated for the right reason. I’m not one of those “WFC-is-Watford-shurely” types. The Vancouver Whitecaps dropped the “Vancouver” for a time in the A-League days, after the 86ers got the rights to the name. The important part of the team’s identity is the “Whitecaps” part; there are loads of Vancouver soccer clubs.)

And the Ticket Prices? Whoo!

Actually it’s not too bad. In absolute terms, $149 at the top end plus taxes and fees for what figures to be at least 14 professional soccer games isn’t nasty at all; about $11 per game maximum. Supporters and season ticket holders will pay noticeably less. It’s significantly below the cost for a 2010 Whitecaps season ticket, which was a higher level but the nearest local comparison.

Actually, Hang On, Let’s Have the Playing Level Discussion Now

USL Pro is the linear successor of the USL First Division, where the Vancouver Whitecaps played through 2009. It is not, however, in my opinion as high a level.

In 2011, when USL Pro was formed, it combined the few remaining clubs of the USL First Division with the USL Second Division. This immediately weakened the talent and financial wherewithal of the league. Many USL-1 clubs which hadn’t joined the NASL were teams that didn’t have the ability or inclination to meet the USSF’s high requirements for second division soccer. Since then USL Pro has lost its best side off and on the field, Orlando City SC (née the Austin Aztex). Only one club from the 2010 USSF D2 Pro League, the last “unified” second division season, survives in USL Pro: the Rochester Rhinos, once a powerhouse but not what they used to be. The Charleston Battery, who played in the USL-1 until 2009 and USL-2 in 2010, nearly count. The rest are long-termers from USL-2 (Wilmington, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg), old USL PDL sides (Dayton), or post-2010 expansion teams (everyone else).

The attrition for USL Pro, as in the A-League, has been bad: in four seasons eight teams have folded*, four of which were from the ill-fated Caribbean division. Compare this to one NASL team folding in the same timespan (the Puerto Rico Islanders), with the Atlanta Silverbacks potentially following this year. Attendances are iffy: Sacramento has been brilliant, Orlando City and perennials Rochester have been good enough, and four clubs drew under 1,000 last season[1].

Rather second-rate players like Matt Delicâte and Chandler Hoffman dominate USL Pro. Dom Dwyer famously decided the 2013 championship almost single-handed while swinging by Orlando City’s training ground on odd weekends. This kind of thing is less common in the North American Soccer League and was less common in the USL First Division. Remember that when MLS entered a Project-40 team to the A-League from 1998 to 2000 featuring what we’d today call Generation Adidas players plus some league-wide reserves, they were generally mediocre.

This isn’t to say that USL Pro is a bad league: it’s good, fully professional soccer, and as I’ve said I’m going to pay money to watch it. If you prefer a fun product to marketing you will be entertained. The games I’ve seen on YouTube have been lively and fun. But it’s diluted a lot since the salad days of the USL First Division.

That Was Fun, Let’s Talk Ticket Prices Again

Consider what reserve teams in competitive leagues charge throughout the world. At the top end of world soccer Barcelona “B” tickets start at €5 (CDN$7.04), with steep increases for better seats or coveted matches, but club members and children get in free[2]. General admission for FC Bayern II starts at €5, with discounts available[3]. Clubs nearer the Whitecaps’ actual level, like those in the 2. Bundesliga or Liga Adelante, typically don’t charge for reserve fixtures at all.

So yes, by world standards the Whitecaps demand top dollar to watch their reserves. However, as we know, ticket prices are not determined by the quality of soccer. There’s a lot less competition for the soccer buck in Vancouver: the Whitecaps, the Whitecaps Reserves, and then down to VMSL or taking a ferry to Victoria. There aren’t even W-League or USL PDL Whitecaps teams anymore. And try as I might, I just can’t get worked up over at most $11 a match. I can’t. Sorry, outrage enthusiasts. I’m paying it and I’m fine with that.

Is Anyone Going to Watch This Other Than Lunatics Like You, Though?

If I’ve learned anything over the past four years it’s never underestimate the marketing power of Major League Soccer. The Whitecaps are portraying these games not so much as a new experience than an old one. They’re soliciting fan input, as their Facebook page cheekily says, on everything “from beer to bouncy castles.”[4] Their website promises that “the fan experience will have a strong family and community feel, and will be similar to the atmosphere we created at Swangard in our pre-MLS days.”[5] Between that and mandatory Canadian content, it’s like they read my website and said “God knows why but we’re trying to make this guy happy.” And there are a few guys like me in Vancouver.

But the amount of money they ask is more than many families can “throw away”, especially during a hot season for soccer in Vancouver: remember that the Women’s World Cup is coming to town. Moreover, around the world, reserve clubs tend to draw far lower attendances than independent clubs at the same level.

This past season in the German 3. Liga, out of twenty teams the two reserve clubs (Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II) were 16th and 20th in attendance respectively[6]. The same trend prevails through the Regionalligas, with a couple reserve clubs among the attendance leaders but the vast majority anchoring the bottom. Of 22 clubs in the 2013-14 Liga Adelante, Barcelona B was 17th and Real Madrid Castilla was 21st[7]. And last year, when the Los Angeles Galaxy ran the first full reserve team in USL Pro, they drew 597 fans per game, second-last in the league[8].

Hell, look at North American minor sports. The Toronto Marlies are the top farm team of the world’s biggest hockey team in the world’s most important hockey market. Since the most recent NHL lockout their average attendance has significantly improved and the quality of play in the American Hockey League is respected internationally. Their average attendance has never exceeded 7,000 fans per game[9], which is below several independent youth hockey teams in the Canadian Hockey League. If the Marlies were an NASL team, their numbers would be fairly average. Farm teams, even in the best possible situations, simply tend not to be big draws.

I suspect that the attendance at Whitecaps Reserves games will be fairly modest, particularly given the inconvenient-to-some location. But I wouldn’t bet against the occasional 3,500-strong crowd, because if any organization can pull it off, it’s Major League Soccer.

UBC, Eh?

Probably. I don’t mind the team playing at UBC; I live in Richmond and it’s a nice place to visit (though Thunderbird Stadium is, soccerwise, a shithole). But a lot of people who have to cross bridges do. It’s mildly inconvenient to reach by transit, unless you want to sniff a hippie’s farts on the 99 B-Line. The parking situation is better than it used to be but still not great, and it’s a fair stroll from Surrey or Maple Ridge (at least by Lower Mainland standards; where I come from people call Los Angeles “almost driving distance”[10]). New Westminster would have been much more central.

However, at UBC you’re reasonably convenient to centres of population, plus the Kitsilano hipsters who are just the people who go nuts for this kind of thing. As a taxpayer, I am pleased that (unlike proposals in New Westminster and Surrey) this team won’t require residents to subsidize the Whitecaps’ business model any further than we already do.

That said, USL PDL matches at UBC were very sparsely attended, me and a couple dozen others even on sunny days against Victoria or Seattle. And those were free. Of course the USL Pro team will have a lot more marketing on their side, but we’ll see.

An Irrelevant Digression About the Juan de Fuca Plate

Since the Whitecaps are terminating their USL PDL team, the Juan de Fuca Plate seems to go into abeyance. When we started the Plate in 2012 there were three USL PDL teams in British Columbia; now only the Victoria Highlanders remain. As a donor to, webmaster of, and enthusiast for the Plate, this galls me.

The Whitecaps have actually been really solid promoters of the Juan de Fuca Plate. They’ve mentioned it in their web previews, posted it on their Twitter and Facebook, made announcements over the deafening loudspeakers at Thunderbird Stadium. Last year saw the possibility of the Plate being tied: the Whitecaps and Highlanders agreed to go to a penalty shootout if that happened, which is going above and beyond for a fan trophy they didn’t ask for and had no personal stake in. It would be a pity to lose this.

So why couldn’t the Highlanders and the Whitecaps Reserves play a two game, home-and-home series to decide the winner of the 2015 Juan de Fuca Plate? Oh, I know there are a million reasons: both teams share their stadiums, league matches must take priority, in Victoria’s case their players are only available in the summer meaning fewer opportunities to squeeze in two more games, and bluntly it’s a fair bit of effort to thrill a small number of die-hards.

But from the Whitecaps’ perspective it’s another couple good games for the Reserves against a different sort of opposition than usual. The Highlanders get a marquee home game in a season that’s going to lack exciting opponents. Both teams get something a little special to market; in Vancouver’s case they might like that additional perk for USL Pro fans. The Whitecaps Reserves will certainly be stronger than the Whitecaps U-23s were, but not so much stronger that a fixture would be a waste of time. USL Pro schedules include US Open Cup fixtures but that won’t be a problem for the Whitecaps Reserves, who are expected not to compete in the Voyageurs Cup: that’s a couple open dates right there.

I hope the supporter groups from both cities bring this up to their teams. It’s difficult but not impossible, it has benefits as well as costs, and wouldn’t it be nice?

(notes and comments…)

Dissecting the Whitecaps’ New Westminster Failure

By Benjamin Massey · September 17th, 2014 · No comments

In 2006 the Vancouver Whitecaps tried to build a new soccer-specific stadium on the Vancouver waterfront. The Waterfront Stadium would have displaced no residents or businesses. It would have been in the very heart of Vancouver’s transit network and surrounded by a traffic and parking infrastructure that services hundreds of thousands of downtown commuters every weekday. And it would have been entirely privately funded by Greg Kerfoot, one of Vancouver’s most-respected businessmen. The Whitecaps launched a campaign over several years to try and get this stadium, the potential crown jewel of Canadian soccer, built. They failed utterly, scotched by NIMBYism, politics, the opposition of the Vancouver Port Authority, and the province of British Columbia’s none-too-hidden aim of tenant involved in the billion-dollar BC Place renovation. When they joined Major League Soccer the Whitecaps made vague noises about going forward, but today the Waterfront Stadium isn’t even mentioned on their website and they seem, reasonably enough, unwilling to keep forcing a $60 million gift onto an unwilling city.

There are a lot of lessons the Whitecaps could have taken, like “Vancouver is horrible” and “an awful lot of politicians in the Lower Mainland need to be punched very hard in the face.” But when they approached the City of New Westminster to get a USL Pro team in the Royal City for 2015, they didn’t apply any.

According to the Whitecaps the “opportunity” for a USL Pro team in New Westminster arose four months ago[1]; the first the public heard about it in July when the Whitecaps and the city made an announcement[2]. Since that time there have been two public consultations, council meetings, attempts to harness community support, and a general storming campaign leading up to a council meeting earlier this week where New Westminster council rejected the plan.

And look at what we didn’t get. For months we had no idea of public costs, essentially taking advocates’ word that the public wouldn’t lose out. The City of New Westminster’s web site on the project had next-to-nothing on financing[3]. We didn’t see a rendering of a renovated Queen’s Park Stadium until late in the day*, and professional soccer teams in 2014 do renderings of a new stadium when they go to the bathroom. FC Edmonton commissioned several previews of a new stadium which wasn’t even seriously planned just to show what was possible[4]. The Whitecaps wanted support for an awfully indeterminate amount of money and a real community sacrifice without a vision of what New Westminster taxpayers might get for it.

The matter came formally before New Westminster city council on September 15, almost literally the last minute for a team meant to start play in 2015. The Committee of the Whole got an information package, summarized by Director of Parks, Culture, and Recreation Dean Gibson[5]. This summary seemed to have its tongue somewhere in its cheek; saying that most of the public responses had been supportive “given the limited information that has been available”; but the community was complaining about being ill-informed. Even some councillors, like Jaimie McEvoy, seemed to agree. Small wonder.

That committee heard that there wasn’t enough parking to meet projected demand, there would be a reduction in public availability during peak seasons, the baseball community would need renovated facilities, and the stadium renovation would contradict a community plan that envisaged reducing Queen’s Park Stadium’s capacity. We also, finally, heard a cost: an estimate of $11.4 million, of which $3 million had already been budgeted. $3.9 million would be “repaid” by the Whitecaps with a lease over twenty years, and $4.5 million would presumably be an out-and-out subsidy from the City to an MLS reserve team, all from a city of 66,000 people with, according to councillor Jonathan Cote, no up-front contribution from the Whitecaps whatsoever.

There were easy community concerns, all foreseeable, all soluble given time. But there was no time. Meanwhile, otherwise-supportive council members saw costs already higher than anticipated before a shovel had gone in the ground. And so the Committee of the Whole killed the proposal stone dead. At the full council meeting Mayor Wayne Wright said “it wasn’t possible for us to get this business done in a timely manner with the people of New Westminster because there were too many questions.” He got a lot of applause for that one. Wright even apologized to the audience for bringing the matter up without sufficient consultation.

Look, obviously there were NIMBYs, but there were also real concerns. Baseball being kicked out of Queen’s Park? Baseball’s a sport too, of course they’re worried about losing a good site. People moaning about parking? I know we’re all good transit-loving urbanists but the local situation isn’t brilliant; Columbia Skytrain station is a kilometer and a half away on a pretty solid hillside. If I was on my own I’d walk; taking my grandparents we’d want to drive. These are questions worth arguing out and answering, and the opportunity barely came up.

The Whitecaps can’t do much about Major League Soccer not running a reserve league or the 2015 USL Pro season coming up fast. Clearly everybody involved knew the Whitecaps were negotiating in good faith, with the enthusiastic support and leadership of a New Westminster resident. But the resulting proposal was, from a public perspective, borderline unsupportable and without any time to work a compromise. I was in favour of the USL Pro team, apart from the public funding, and even I was becoming a skeptic by the time the trigger was pulled. There was just nothing, nothing except a seven-digit price tag and a massive hurry.

I mean, with the deepest respect to people who are better businessmen then I, what the hell did you think was going to happen?

(notes and comments…)

Hooray for the CSA and the USL Pro Domestic Quota

By Benjamin Massey · September 6th, 2014 · 7 comments

Earlier this week on The 24th Minute Duane Rollins reported that the Canadian Soccer Association has set high domestic player quotas for the three reserve teams that Canada’s Major League Soccer franchises are entering into USL Pro. Half of the active team roster, as well as six of eleven starters, will have to be players eligible for the Canadian national team[1].

With the ostensible reason for these USL Pro teams being the young Canadian talent our MLS franchises have failed to integrate into the first team, you’d expect the MLS sides to accept this without a complaint. And, so far, they pretty much have. (Score one for the bright side of life!) Vancouver is still pushing the New Westminster scheme hard, the Montreal Impact just announced their own USL Pro team[2], and Toronto FC seems to be moving forward with their plans[3]. Obviously the franchises knew this was coming. It’s enough to almost make you believe the life of a Canadian soccer fan isn’t uniformly terrible.

Naturally some fans of MLS organizations aren’t as calm as the organizations themselves. The comments of Rollins’ post are filled with the usual. I look at my Twitter feed and this is being framed in “club versus country” terms like every other discussion that combines the words “Canadian” and “soccer”. It’s gotten a shade repetitive, and long ago became the sort of argument that ceased to persuade anyone ever.

How often have you heard the club-first people scoff “well, why doesn’t the Canadian Soccer Association do something to make the men’s national team relevant, anyway?” with the “pssh” and the “pfft” of the supporter dismissing Canada in favour of the accomplished winners that are our MLS teams. Well, the Canadian Soccer Association has done something! “Okay,” they’ve said “you guys want to put yet more teams in yet another American league and you’re saying you’re going to develop Canadian talent, then we’re going to hold you to that.”

When the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact joined Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, the CSA made a mistake that’s set Canadian soccer back years: it trusted the MLS group. The Whitecaps had given Canadian players over 10,000 minutes every season in the USL First Division, Montreal was behind but still not bad, and Toronto FC was making all the right noises. Bob Lenarduzzi wanted no quota at all, saying the Whitecaps should produce enough quality players to make one irrelevant[4], so the CSA compromised with an extremely low requirement for three domestic players, including Canadian citizens ineligible for our national team.

As a result the number of Canadians playing professional soccer in their home country has declined precipitously[5]. Whatever the intentions of Toronto FC or Vancouver or Montreal, in the real world they’ve found it easier to draft American NCAA players and sign imports for a season and a half rather than buck the MLS model and build around Canadian talent. With young players not able to get anywhere in Canada, and potentially talented veterans leaving the professional game in despair so they can raise families and play for Edmonton Scottish, the Canadian men’s national team has never been worse.

We know that hopes and aspirations aren’t good enough when you’re dealing with MLS, so the CSA is forcing them to do the right thing. It’s a pity that it’s necessary, but we’ve seen that it is. Clearly the people with the money, the Vancouverites and Montrealers and Torontonians, don’t think this is a deal-breaker (I mean, half these reserve teams can still be foreign; that’s more than enough for all your NCAA scrubs). And the fans who don’t care about developing Canadian players will whine, but let them: these are literally the last people on Earth the Canadian Soccer Association should answer to.

(notes and comments…)

Whitecaps II to USL Pro (or: Hey, This is Going Well!)

By Benjamin Massey · July 8th, 2014 · 1 comment

Negativity is a narcotic, but glad tidings from the Vancouver Whitecaps have me kicking the habit. There is a bounce in my step, a twinkle in my eye, a bit of colour in my cheeks. Finally, something is good, for the biggest news in world soccer today is that the Vancouver Whitecaps are forming a USL Pro affiliate in New Westminster, to play out of venerable Queen’s Park Stadium[1].

Devotees of my ramblings will know I have never liked United Soccer Leagues obviating their decades-old independence to operate as a feeder league for MLS, representing the homogenization, dishonestly, anti-supporterism, and anti-Canadianism I despise in North American soccer. Based on the poor support for farm teams around the world[2] I thought it would be a disaster at the box office and the Los Angeles Galaxy II are proving me right with every game in the empty StubHub Center[3]. When you see someone considering starting a professional soccer team in Canada, prefer NASL to USL.

But there are no independent Canadian teams in USL Pro, so let the Americans worry about their own pocketbooks. An affiliate in this league is the best practical option for the Whitecaps. It would be a surprise if attendance broke 1,000 but what matter? Presumably the Whitecaps know what they’re in for financially; attendances and the Whitecaps’ own sorry crowds for PDL are public information. (One hopes the two USL Pro-specific partners in the team, Ian Gillespie and Gary Pooni, are also well-informed.) So if Vancouver, or Toronto FC or the Montreal Impact, want to take advantage of United Soccer Leagues then be my guest! Pick the bones clean, Canada; it’s high time we got something for ourselves out of this relationship.

The presence of elite sport is a fillip to New Westminster, with no serious outdoor sports and not even junior “A” hockey (though the local lacrosse scene is strong). Queen’s Park Stadium is a characterful but old and dreary facility and the upgrades planned to bring it up to professional standards are desperately needed, provided the Whitecaps are paying: the public shouldn’t be subsidizing professional sport, and the fact that nobody has mentioned the funding source for the refurbishment in this press release raises worries. I also hope, for reasons a couple paragraphs above, this Whitecaps affiliate is not preempting an independent team. And while a regional rival might provide a lever to help the Victoria Highlanders finally go professional, as a part-time Highlanders fan I always hoped to see them in the NASL. (Some full-time Highlanders fans disagree; for them this should be a day of unqualified fist-pumps and lunchtime beers.)

Some wonder why this team won’t be in the interior, perhaps the Okanagan, where a large population starved of summer sport and too distant to regularly attend Whitecaps games might be go nuts for USL Pro. But, setting aside commercial considerations, having their USL Pro team close to home means Whitecaps players can work with the first team at UBC in the morning and be at Queen’s Park for a game in the evening. The further afield you get, the more independent the market but the more difficult soccer integration becomes.

Having wasted a few hundred words, such navel-gazing soccer structure bloviations are irrelevant to your average Whitecaps supporter, who care about what’s on the field rather than behind it. This new affiliation represents, in the current climate, the best chance for the Whitecaps to get Canadians into professional soccer. USL Pro is a decent enough level and will provide a good test for young Whitecaps. No doubt the core of the roster will be MLS depth, the usual combination of NCAA-trained American scrubs, journeyman bench talent, and trialists we remember from the MLS Reserve League, but your Bryce Aldersons and Sam Adekugbes can count on big minutes. As we saw even in the Reserve League, the number of players required will ensure playing time for Canadians (and Chileans) from the Whitecaps Residency. I remind you that USL still uses the “five from seven” substitution system, so there are more chances for players off the bench than other leagues. Those bench players will be predominantly Canadian.

In fact it’s possible that a 2015 Whitecaps II team would record more Canadian minutes in a single season than the senior Whitecaps have recorded in their entire MLS history[4], at a level that isn’t senior national team stuff but will draw exposure and could point the way to better things. That’s nothing to scoff at, and that’s the reason I’m grinning now.

Many assume this spells the end to the Whitecaps’ long-time partnership with USL PDL. The Whitecaps have made no announcement either way, but USL Pro and USL PDL are not “either or” propositions, and maintaining a presence in USL PDL would fill gaps that might otherwise open even with the arrival of USL Pro.

Most obviously, not every promising U-20 player will be ready for USL Pro. It is a lower level than the NASL, and the example of Jordan Hamilton in Wilmington shows teenage Canadians can succeed there, but it is indisputably a professional league with quality veterans like Matt Delicate, Allan Russell, and Samuel Ochoa making mincemeat of the unprepared.

The Whitecaps will know this, based on the mixed experiences with affiliates Charleston: Omar Salgado played well while he was there, Andre Lewis has settled in nicely, and Mamadou Diouf has enjoyed a depth role, but Marlon Ramirez and Emmanuel Adjetey were or are out of their depth and quality young centre back Jackson Farmer was just too young to get minutes. Last year Ben Fisk and Bryce Alderson played decently when healthy but struggled for minutes late in the year, to the detriment of their development. Charleston is near the bottom of the table, so we’re not talking about a formidable lineup. Even talented young players sometimes just aren’t seasoned enough for that sort of soccer, and throwing a player in out of his depth is no solution to anything. USL PDL still has a role as a valuable transitional step for those trying to graduate from dominating the USSDA U-18s to making a contribution against men.

Secondly, now that the MLS reserves will be in New Westminster, a Whitecaps PDL team could help the team keep tabs on NCAA players who have come through their system. The Whitecaps would be a richer organization if Residency graduates such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, Brody Huitema, and Alex Rowley had remained involved over the summers, turning out with the Whitecaps U-23s and perhaps staking a claim to a senior contract after their school days.As long as the Whitecaps had professionals playing PDL NCAA rules made this impossible. With these professionals out of the way the PDL team can return to its original youth development role, and that opens the door for participation from the NCAA ranks.

Thirdly, and more aspirationally, bringing in CIS players as the Whitecaps have over the past few years, as well as new NCAA faces, could pay for all parties. Ex-Whitecaps U-23 captain Gagandeep Dosanjh seemed to be carving out a decent NASL career at Edmonton until injuries intervened, Reynold Stewart got a good look at the NASL combine, and I still hope to see players like Niall Cousens, Brett Levis, and increasingly Cody Cook get an opportunity. Over in Victoria Carlo Basso is having another decent PDL season, but because he attends Simon Fraser University the Whitecaps could never have given him a look. This wouldn’t just be good for FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury, the main beneficiaries today of Canadian college talent, but potentially the Whitecaps, who now have a USL Pro team they’ll want stocked and who, hopefully, will be able to give players developed there first team places.

In the grand scheme of things a reserve team is small beer. Remember that the Whitecaps entered a team at this level for their first three MLS seasons and it didn’t matter. Three Canadians other than those affiliated to MLS teams are in USL Pro this season and the average fan could not name one, while Canadian graduates of USL Pro include almost nobody you’d be interested in. What counts is not getting Canadian players into USL Pro; what matters is getting them beyond.

Until the Whitecaps prove they have both the ability and the will to graduate Canadians to some quality league rather than burying them at intermediate levels this is an opportunity for New Westminsterites to see cheap soccer rather than meaningful change. Cynicism, alas, has its place: we’ve seen the Whitecaps take measures that should theoretically be good then fail us (investing heavily in a Residency program then favouring foreign players in the first team, or showing no commitment to ensuring Canadians play for Canada). British Columbian representation, as well, is a serious, separate concern for many fans, with the Whitecaps exerting a dominance over the provincial soccer community this new team will only increase. The Whitecaps are on a cash basis with domestically-oriented supporters: we’ve been burned too often to extend them credit.

But this omen is auspicious. The team is spending time and money on a change to their organization that should benefit Canadian talent. It won’t matter a whit if further measures aren’t taken, but that’s no reason to scoff at this hopefully meaningful move.

(notes and comments…)