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Our City: Facing More Questions than Solutions, American Soccer Needs Bold New Leaders

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While U.S. Soccer and MLS have been toasting their own successes, they’ve lost the bold, innovative edge that helped the sport gain a foothold in America in the first place.

MLS: MLS Press Conference Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

I used to work at a natural foods cooperative. It was one of those places that sells granola in bulk and always has a faint scent of patchouli. While I may have never gotten used to that smell, I did learn a thing or two about innovative thinking when it came to doing business. The co-op, located near Chapel Hill, NC, was massively successful as both a business and an element of the community.

Why am I bringing this up in a soccer article, you might wonder? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as supporters can openly discuss how to improve U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer. After last week’s column, which suggested MLS teams could benefit from playing a few more games each year as we look to develop both young players and fan bases, it had been my plan to present some creative ideas. The sort of outlandish ideas we were encouraged to come up with at the co-op. Coming up with out-of-the-box, crazy ideas helped us come to eventually more realistic and effective ideas.

I spent the good part of this week pondering some of those crazy ideas to throw into this article, as I consider this space, to be a place to loft impossible ideas from hoping to spark conversations.

The other dominant thought in my head this week is just how rigid and unimaginative U.S. Soccer and MLS feels sometimes. Soccer, during my lifetime and yours, has been an insurgent sport. A subculture existing from the bright lights of the American sports landscape. Soccer was the alternative band you knew about before MTV found them, that hole in the wall restaurant you and your friends discovered before the millennial food bloggers. The conclusion I came to after a week of thinking is that the worst thing that could have happened to U.S. Soccer and MLS was they believed their own minor successes meant they didn’t have to innovate anymore.

Of course, American soccer’s innovations haven’t always been good. Examples include shootouts to solve a tie, uniforms with fringe, and a host of atypical team monikers. Still, American intelligentsia has, of late, been successful at presenting a game that both Americans and soccer purists can both appreciate. Grassroots supporters groups, the development of integrated youth programs, and traditional naming systems all have made American soccer unique and recognizable in a crowded sports marketplace.

Success is, of course, the proverbial double-edged sword, especially when you proselytize to the point you believe your own divinity. U.S. Soccer and MLS have been successful enough that they’ve forgotten they have to look to be innovative as well.

With cities eager to join MLS and soccer expanding across the country within a diverse set of communities, with the U.S. National Team continually lagging behind countries the size of some of our smallest states, we need creative ideas to navigate our next decade. The kind of leadership that can listen to crazy ideas from those of us who love soccer, and navigate the possibilities. That includes figuring out a way to add some idea of promotion and relegation system, ending pay-for-play, and continuing to find ways for our players to get into more competitive games.

All levels of American soccer, from the national team to MLS and USL, need to find a way to become less of a bureaucracy and more of a supporters collective. We need the voice of American soccer to be the same as the one chanting in the stands.

I’m thankful for the work that both Sunil Gulati and Don Garber have done to increase the profile of American soccer, but it has to be time for new guidance and new ideas —leadership that is ready to listen to some crazy ideas that might just have some of the answers American soccer needs.