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USSF Election Fallout: False Expectations and How We Forgot How Far We’ve Come

With the election over, let’s pragmatically look at the state of soccer in the United States.

Serbia v United States Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

All right everyone, let’s take a collective breath. Feel better? Probably not. But I promise I’m going to do my best to calm everyone down. I get it, according to Twitter the “establishment” won. Carlos Cordeiro, former Vice President of U.S. Soccer, was elected by the voting councils with nearly 70% of the vote.

I can hear the cries of the many — or read the tweets — that “nothing will change” along with a myriad of mudslinging, uninformed, baseless claims that aren't anywhere near productive to the conversation. I myself have been in at least 10 different threads of debates with fans about the state of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), MLS, grassroots, and the overall landscape of soccer here.

I’m not going to bury the lede here. Soccer isn't doing poorly in this country. We aren't in some catastrophic state, the sky isn't burning, and we’re certainly not this gif:

Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Timbers and one of my favorite people on social media had a great take:

And if you want the take of someone I’ll guess you supported for the election — assuming you’re pro-revolution — Eric Wynalda had some great, inspirational statements in his election address (marked 2:32:30).

“This is NOT a revolution, this is an evolution.” Wynalda said in his address.

So forgive me for this exceptionally long article. Maybe it’s because I'm sick of trying to explain in 140 characters what I mean, but I believe this will help some come to grips with where we’ve been, where we are, and that, most importantly, there’s a future of change to come. Just as Wynalda mentions above, the sky isn't falling. It’s just changing.

I’m going to start off with something I hate to do, and that’s qualify myself. However I think it’s very important you understand where I’m coming from and what I’ve done to understand my analysis. I’m not just a writer. In fact, that’s the least of what I am. In soccer terminology, I would like to consider myself a builder. Someone who is finding their way to impact the game and make it better for the generations after us. I’m in contract work for PUMA involved with grassroots programming and European academy U.S. partnerships. I’ve done work for Soccer United Marketing (SUM) on Copa America Centenario and the Gold Cup.

I’ve been a coach for over 10 years in high school and club soccer. I've sat in countless conferences and conventions listening to much smarter people than me like Wynalda, Christopher Moore (U.S. Youth soccer CEO), Nelson Rodriguez (former senior vice president in multiple MLS and SUM roles), Lynn Berling-Manuel (United Soccer Coaches CEO), and so many more in an effort to understand the various levels and viewpoints. I've even been a referee for three very long years. I played soccer since I was 12 and in college. And writing is another outlet I hope to use to create change in this game. Don’t believe me? Feel free to check out my LinkedIn.

I have done studies on various international systems, including top-down analysis from professional to grassroots. I will bet money that I research as much as anyone can on the game. I’d say I spend anywhere around 100+ hours a week in soccer whether it be reading, watching, playing, or working. I’ve read the report on how the DFB remodeled its entire system (I’m happy to share the copy just DM me on twitter) and I plan to read the 109-page 2018 Book of Reports from USSF to gain a better understanding of what is happening. I was one of 83 people who watched the AGM live this past Saturday at 8 a.m. while most were either coaching, playing, watching soccer, or sleeping.

I’m not saying all this because I want to brag about how much I’ve done — very little in my opinion — or make you feel inadequate. I want you to understand that I don’t take this story lightly. That I come from a position of an informed person within the system who even struggles to understand it all sometimes. So I can imagine that if I don’t always have the full picture, then a fan is only going to have a small tip of the iceberg. The hot-button, sexy topics are everywhere because that’s what’s on social media (re: back to the Paulson tweet).

I know that was a lot, and there are actual points to come (stay with me please). I’m going to tackle this in a few different specific subsections to help focus my position. But in an effort to not turn you off yet, understand these premises I support so you don’t think I’m some corporate robot:

1. The best system is promotion/relegation.

2. I believe we need to foster more creativity in the game.

3. We need more focus on urban or pick-up play; specifically in lower socioeconomic areas.

4. We have to have a greater focus on minority participation and coaches.

We Have Come So Far Already, Don’t Forget That

I grew up playing in the mid-90s. For some of you, you probably came up even earlier than that. Here’s where we stood when I first started:

  • U.S. Youth Soccer was only 20 years old.
  • The Olympic Development Program was the only “elite” identification program.
  • U.S. Club and the USSF Development Academy didn't exist.
  • We had just hosted our World Cup and went to our second consecutive trip.
  • We had no professional league in either gender; NASL had been finished for nearly 10 years.
  • There were over two million youth soccer players in 1995 (according to USYS).

Not to ask a common-sense question here, but is that anywhere near where we are today? If I could point my personal top highlights:

Now, you’re going to try and poke holes here because it’s in people’s nature to get defensive and try to discredit pieces vs. the whole argument. You're going to distract by saying that participation rates are down. However, all team sports are down. Or you’re going to say the attendance numbers are fudged. News for you, all sports organizations in all leagues do this. “But we didn’t make the World Cup!” I get it, I’m not happy either. But other federations are in the same spot (more on this later).

There are a lot of problems in the system, not everything in the above was achieved in a manner that I would recommend it was done. But at its core, it’s huge growth in almost 30 years. If you can’t accept that, I’m sorry if we’re done here, but goodbye. Please don’t pretend that we’re not in the best place we’ve ever been. Don’t romanticize the good old days or the inevitable comparisons to other countries.

Recognize the growth that thousands of people have busted their asses for, from the CEOs, to the state association volunteers, to the 14-year-old who referees your son’s/daughter’s U-8 match. To say we haven't achieved great things is spitting in the face of all those people, many of whom are still involved, who helped get us to this point.

Agree or disagree with how we got here or where we are going ,but don’t ignore the immense growth we’ve made.

We’re In Our Infancy As a Soccer Nation

Continuing on from the above point to understand the growth we’ve made, you need to understand how long it takes to build everything and that there needs to be a realistic timeline of expectations.

We live in such a “now” world that patience is a lost art at this point. TV on our phones, Twitter updating by the second to beat organizations via leaks, and you can even have groceries delivered to your door. Saving time might be the greatest asset of any idea or organization at this point. The problem is we want to attribute this to everything. Ignoring the myriad of reasons something can’t be as instant as UberEats.

We see the 1999 Rams go from 4-12 to winning a Super Bowl or Leicester City come out of nowhere to win the English Premier League after being 14th at 5000-1 odds, and we wonder how the United States of America, “The Greatest Country in the World,” is not a soccer world leader by now. We lead in just about every major sport and it just doesn't make sense why this hasn't figured itself out yet. Something must be very, very wrong.

The NFL was created in 1920. It is often said that the NFL didn't reach its turning point until Commissioner Pete Rozelle began in 1960. It took him 29 years to turn league valuations from one million to 100 million. During that time, the NFL had very little competition in pro sports. It wasn't like there were already established multi-million dollar leagues they had to compete with. Keep that in mind when evaluating MLS’ growth.

To put all this in perspective, MLS is only 20 years old and the growth of team valuations has grown 80% since 2013 with the LA Galaxy leading the way with $285 million. In 1997, MLS owners bought in for $5 million. On the high end, that’s a 5700% increase. The NFL’s in 29 years was 10,000%. And that was in a market that was ripe for the taking, whereas MLS has to contend with a billion dollar franchise and three continents of soccer for entertainment dollars.

Or look at how long The Football Association has existed — since 1863. That’s 155 years! U.S. Soccer, even if we ignore the lack of emphasis on its part, wasn't founded for another 50 years. The Football League in England — what eventually became the Premier League when clubs factioned off in 1992 — started in 1888. The 22 clubs that formed the Premier League had a 104-year head start when they started their own league. And then another five before we even started MLS after every other professional league had failed in the U.S. We didn't even get our first professional league in the U.S. until 1967 for further comparison.

When you combine all of this, one should take a step back and understand we are so far behind the world in infrastructure and organization that we have to understand, not to be corny, “that Rome wasn't built in a day.” You can’t expect — no matter how much national pride you have or the culture we live in — that we can’t do in 30-ish years what others have been building for a century or more.

To the facts I referenced in the previous section, we are gaining in American popularity, club valuations, money and many other areas in such a short time already. But we need to take a realistic look at our expectations and understand that if we’re going to become a world power, it’s going to take a lot of time. And don’t forget, it’s not like these countries have stopped improving. The gap may get smaller and smaller but they're all searching for improvement as well.

Promotion / Relegation is Something We Can’t Sustain Right Now

OK, I know this is going to be met with vitriol. Please remember my above premise. I want pro/rel. We need pro/rel. But it’s not the time for it. Read this Forbes article on MLS operating income. It’s a must. They account for all MLS and SUM shared revenue plus individual club revenues to come out with their operating income.

Over half the league is losing money. Now, you’ll say most sports teams lose money. That’s very true. But with the single entity structure, SUM/MLS has taken some of the financial risk to control losses from owners that aren't all billionaires. In fact, there are only six. The NFL boasts 18. And their franchises are worth five times more, and they're profiting in the hundreds of millions.

Now what does that mean? The owners don’t have the financial capabilities to run in an open market and you’ll start getting the NASL /USL turnover. It’s not a secret the financial solvency of the ownership groups means a lot to the MLS. It’s why Arthur Blank and Atlanta are their darlings. Billionaire owners mean money injection into resources. It’s why they brought in the Manchester City ownership. It wants stable, spending franchises.

Now look at the USL, our current D2 league. It talks about having a combined net worth of over $4 billion. It talks about a league expansion fee of over $3 million (note Nashville FC just joined at $4 million). Forbes is reporting the valuations of USL clubs are as high as $21 million. Admittedly, I’ve scoured the internet and cannot find operating income for USL clubs. But if USL clubs were so strong and doing so well, they wouldn't have lost 15 clubs in five years.

There are various reasons for these losses, but the important piece is that MLS saw the hits it has taken with losses of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, Chivas USA, and potentially now the Columbus Crew. They understand a shifting team model does nothing for the brand.

On the low end, MLS teams are valued above 10 times the value and have expansion fees at five times the value of USL clubs. They're spending a year what USL clubs are currently valued at. Again, at the low end.

Looking at all this, it is very clear that there are MLS clubs that wouldn’t survive and USL clubs that couldn’t spend at the level needed. And no shared revenue is going to compensate. It’s not strong enough.

There will be a time. Hopefully within the next 10-15 years. But it’s not feasible right now. The best trial period might be candidate Mike Winograd’s take on a unique trial of pro/rel, one I hope MLS takes seriously.

Change Is On The Way

So here’s the good news, change is coming. Carlos Cordeiro was not the favorite of Sunil Gulati nor MLS. He was only the vice president so don’t confuse a board member position with president, they have very different abilities.

There’s a reason the Athlete’s Council voted for him as a bloc. You need a business sense with an openness to the “soccer-people” mentality.

The first step is the introduction of the two soccer GM roles in U.S. Soccer (one for each gender). This is a big first step that Gulati didn't want. This shows an openness to have collaboration on the soccer side and not being an authoritarian, sitting up high from 30,000 feet mandating.

There’s an open vice president role now too, along with open spots for a board member and an independent director spot. These people will be important to how the change will happen along with Cordeiro and I’ll haves my eyes glued to see who runs (fingers crossed for Winograd since he hasn't ruled it out).

Look it’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve come a long way and, as Wynalda said, we just need to evolve. But everyone has to have some patience and some perspective before lashing out at hot button topics. There was so much more we could have talked about and I look forward to the debates. I believe there is a lot of change on the way and it’s needed. But stop with the sky is falling, the system is broken talk. If it wasn't for one game we’re probably not even having this conversation.

If you’re really upset, Get involved! Learn the business, inform yourself. Join a club, a state association, volunteer, whatever gets you into the game and more informed. I promise you’ll see it’s not as easy as Twitter makes it out to be. And you’ll see it’s not all that bad.

There’s so much good out there and we just need time to keep growing. Give people the time. We’ve come so far, in so little time. Once you accept that and have taken a deep breath, you’ll find we can all focus on how to improve. Instead of detracting from the whole situation.

*(PSA - all these views are my own and are not reflective for any organization I've worked for or done work with)