Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Brews and Views Essay Series: Why American Soccer?

We continue our new series on the Free Beer Movement. It's called "Brews and Views" and we pose a question or topic to various prominent soccer persons and, well, they give us their view on it.

We've got loads of get people that have already responded to our call for essay submissions and each week we'll feature a unique perspective on the current topic/question at hand. Kicking it off (pun intended) we're asking our respondents the question, "Why American soccer?".

As inhabitants of the U.S. of A we've got loads of soccer viewing options and limited amount of time. We want our panel of essayists to make their case as to why the American version of the world's game is the one we should all invest in.

Regularly readers know where we stand on this issue. Buy American. It's ours. Build and shape it so it ranks as one of the premier leagues in the world.

The series will include such diverse voices as former U.S. Men's National Team player Alexi Lalas, The Shin Guardian, MatchFit USA's Jason Davis, Church of Soccer, Nutmeg Radio, FutFanatico, MLS Insider, and many, many more.

Interested in submitting your own answer to the question, "Why American soccer?", then send us an email with your response. Please keep your submission to under 1000 words (that's like 2.5 pages typed!) and include a picture that you feel goes well with your response. Send it to freebeermovement(at)gmail(dot)com.


"Why American Soccer for Chuck and I"

By Ted Westervelt / SoccerReform.Us

It’s almost embarrassingly American in scope and scale.  It’s an epic packed with gritty underdog performances, spectacular superclub failures, mind-boggling international upsets and it even features a few world record-setters.   It’s marked by spectacular club highs and bottomless league lows.  It’s a tragedy that our passion for the game and our great soccer legacy remains largely untapped, uncelebrated, and unrecognized.  It would be a comedy if we sacrificed that narrative for the financial needs of a few.

Like every sport, and every footballing nation, the story of our game - and Why American Soccer for Chuck and I, is rooted in old nationalist agendas, powerful passions and brash characters.  It’s also chocked full corny clichĂ©s and examples of our incredible stubbornness, remarkable resilience and dramatic passion for the game.   I wish we showcased a few more of them, and shrouded a few less.

Here’s one.

May 6, 1916 - Pawtucket, Rhode Island:

Coats Field stands filled to the gills for the third annual National Challenge Cup Final - a competition known today as the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
The Fall River Rovers are in a pickle in the 89th minute.  Any Red Sox fan would recognize the anger building the partisan New England sports crowd.  Their team was in the process of getting robbed.    Bethlehem Steel, FC - the first great behemoth of US club soccer - had converted a dubious penalty nine minutes before to make it 1-0.   Since then, Charles Schwab’s Pennsylvania Steelmen, stacked with highly paid British talent, weathered wave after wave of underdog yankee pressure from the hotheaded Rovers - American born to a man.  On top of that, Pawtucket is barely twenty miles from Fall River, making it a virtual hometown crowd.  The referee looks down at his watch just as an attacking Rovers player is sawn down in the box…. And there is no whistle.

10,000 pour onto the field - some of them literally from the rafters.   The final whistle blows - in the midst of a full-blown riot.

That’s Why American Soccer for me.  It’s coffee with three sugars in a seedy diner, not lukewarm tea with curdled cream at your auntie’s.   No, it’s not New England hooliganism, or lax building codes, but it is scrappy underdogs fighting against all odds, not two teams limited in quality to produce a close match.   It’s a team of American club stars from teams like the Providence Clamdiggers and the New Bedford Whalers taking us to the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930 - without giving up a goal.   It’s guys from teams sponsored by local laundries and car dealers in St. Louis and recent immigrants from NYC that stung the great English two World Cups later.   It’s a mullet headed mob of Cosmos fans that that led us back to the competition again forty years later.  It’s the lowly LA Blues taking a one-goal lead on David Beckham’s LA Galaxy in the 2011 installment of the competition, and the look on Bruce Arena’s face when they did it.  It’s the bloody mug of a lanky forward from Schaumburg, Illinois.   His left eye swollen entirely shut, he’s pouring everything onto the field in match between two teams limited by nationality, but not a salary cap.

We are separated from the star spangled events in Pawtucket - and 
Why American Soccer for me - by time, space, and philosophy.   In 1916 our first bona fide top-flight league, the ASL, was still eight years away.   Two years after FIFA sanctioned US Soccer, owners like Charles Schwab top were not limited to a certain caliber of club, or painted into a caste system of leagues. Leagues were simply amalgamations of teams - much like their European cousins. Teams moved freely in and out of them based on the quality of their play, support from fans, and the resources of their owners.   There is no evidence that our federation had official conversations on codifying this status quo with an official system of promotion and relegation.  Neither did they discuss any possibility of leagues owning and limiting the quality of independent clubs for competitive balance and a hedge against owner financial risk, like MLS does today.

Schwab built arguably the greatest club in US history - and a soccer specific stadium to boot - to make his company and community proud.  By all accounts, his employees and Bethlehem residents were pretty psyched that he financed the best soccer club in the US - and arguably one of the better clubs in the world.   As evidenced in Pawtucket, there no doubt whatsoever that Schwab’s superclub stirred the passions of rival supporters.  If you recognize his name, chances are it’s not for his fiscal recklessness.

According to some reports, Steel games were often sparsely attended - but Bethlehem wasn’t Pittsburgh or Philly in size and scope.   Wily old Chuck must have gotten something out of building that first US superclub.   He certainly didn’t subscribe to slow, responsible growth.   I bet he figured his shrewd supporters wouldn’t take to a club limited for parity and competitive balance by an agreement he signed with Rockefeller, Carnegie and Astor.   I think he was probably right.

Some may point to the demise of Bethlehem Steel FC a decade and a half later as an example of Schwab’s financial folly and the unsustainable nature of unlimited soccer clubs.  To them I pose this caveat:  On the eve of the Great Depression, European federations were lining up behind the FA to open their leagues and implement promotion and relegation.   It was a brilliant move that ushered in a period of remarkable stability.  Leagues couldn’t financially collapse if clubs were true independent entities.   Eighty years later, that system has never allowed the financial irresponsibility of any one club to collapse an entire league.

In contrast, after the crash of ’29, top flight American club soccer suffered a financial implosion so complete, even Charles Schwab couldn’t escape.   It would be the first of many.  By themselves, corny cinderella stories of rag tag local teams fighting their guts out against behemoth superclubs like Bethlehem Steel couldn’t sustain the US club game.

In order to maintain the Why American Soccer narrative that Chuck and I appreciate - and a stable system of leagues - brave leadership from our federation was required.
We’re still waiting.

It pisses me off that Europeans figured out how to accommodate Why American Soccer for guys like us almost a century ago.  It’s kooky that US Soccer still hasn’t.  Thank goodness the US Open Cup remains alive.  God Bless the Pacific Northwest for caring about it, because today our federation and leagues hardly lift a finger to promote the legacy-laden competition.  They even scheduled a regular season MLS match on top of the Final this year - an incredible oversight considering the fact that an MLS executive runs US Soccer in his spare time.

Mad as I am that Europe beat us to Why American Soccer in the age of jazz, I’m not going to hold it against them.  It’s time to be forthright and magnanimous about this, give them full credit, and come in last in the race to promotion, relegation, and independent clubs.  That way our unlimited teams can battle theirs for first place on the pitch.

Chuck wouldn’t send his team into a match limited for competitive balance.   That wouldn’t be Why American Soccer for him, and it definitely isn’t for me.

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  1. RobertNov 9, 2011 05:30 AM
    No better way to discredit your own website and product then by giving this idiot a stage. Very disappointing.
  2. BabiecaNov 9, 2011 09:51 AM
    Today, as in 1916, there is nothing stopping a visionary from starting a team, buying or finding and training the best players, and becoming a new titan of American soccer, unfettered by salary caps, drafts, or allocation money; nothing but good sense.

    The independent club route was the only game in town for 80 years in this country and it wasn't able to generate enough interest to have a stable nation-wide league. MLS tried something different and despite the bumpy road has managed to do what hundreds upon hundreds of independent clubs could not.

    What MLS has not done, however, is form a monopoly on US soccer. There are about 200 USSF sanctioned independent men's teams in this country and nothing stopping more from forming.

    Want those teams to supplant MLS? All they have to do is play good enough soccer that people would rather watch them than watch MLS and pay high enough wages that players would rather play for them than for MLS. Simple right?
  3. elliottNov 9, 2011 03:41 PM
    The only thing worse than an ideologue is ad hominem attacks - save it for anonymous forums and other sites.

    I can relate to the angst of the author - I also want MLS to sign top talent and also be able to retain promising young Americans. As someone who has followed the league since its early years, it definitely had a Wal-mart feel and was a tough sell to non-die hards.

    Now, as the league has grown, it is more Target than Wal-mart, but still has a ways to go. Nevertheless, the best European business model is the stable yet talented Bundesliga, not the shiny lights of the cooked books and unsustainable premier league or La Liga. And MLS is not more than two decades away from that.
  4. TeddyNov 9, 2011 06:25 PM
    Elliott: ask Don Garber if there would be top flight soccer in the US without MLS. Then tell me he's not a creationist. That's why theories about MLS evolving towards promotion and relegation are pretty much bunk.

    Babieca: You can't join D1 in the US without paying Don Garber $100 million. That's called a sanctioned shakedown.

    Someday, when the President of US Soccer is not paid to be Bob Kraft's chamber maid, we'll get real leadership on this issue. Until then, you guys keep waiting for blue green algae to morph into bigfoot.
  5. BabiecaNov 9, 2011 08:46 PM
    Sorry Teddy, division 1 status actually means very little. You might have to deal with access to just one CCL spot for a few years, but put out a better product than MLS and you're the new defacto D1. MLS will whither away if people prefer to watch your soccer instead. It's a simple free market solution.

    And fortunately for you, you don't need anywhere close to 100 million dollars to start a USSF sanctioned team. You can affiliate a PDL-Pro team for .075% of that fee (an independent NPSL team would cost even less, but you would have to deal with a salary cap,and we know how you feel about that). You'll have to come up with some money to pay players too and coaches, office staff, trainers, game day staff, etc. Then there's travel, uniforms and equipment, renting or building a stadium, etc. You'll also probably want to talk some other teams into doing the same thing. Otherwise people will get bored of watching your superstars beat up on college kids on their summer break.

    You've got a vision. The path is clear. Instead of complaining that Kraft, Hunt, AEG, and the rest of the MLS cartel don't want to spend their money the way you would like them to, step out from behind your computer and show us that your way works better. Like Gandhi said, be the change you wish to see in the world.

    If you're in my town I promise I'll come out to one of your games and bring a friend. If it's any good I'm sure I'll come back.
  6. NordmannNov 9, 2011 10:09 PM
    Babieca - that ideal world you're talking about sounds nice and if every team (MLS, NASL, PDL, etc.) all competed (business wise) as individual teams, I think you might have a convincing argument. You are right to point out that the success of each team is a critical factor; if you're putting a crappy product on the field no one is going to watch it. This, however, is only one side of the coin and it assumes that nothing else is there to help you on your way. That's simply not the case. Both the league and perhaps more importantly US Soccer also play a role in your success. Whether this is access to CCL, the competition you regularly play, TV broadcasts, media coverage, etc. Will the LA Blues every really compete with the Galaxy if they regularly play the LA Legends rather than the sounders, fire, etc. The realistic answer is no, even if they win their division for the next 5 years and in stunning fashion. Even if they pay for the players to win the Open cup, the next week their back to playing the Legends again and ticket sales for that match just won't quite cut it.

    Similarly, just think about how much NASL had to do to get sanctioning and whether those teams would have really survived without a league to promote/support them (half the saga with the USL/NASL split was about the role of the league in helping to support/market the teams). The bottom line is that if your league structure restricts access to the top tier and/or provides more support to this tier than others, this will have significant effects for anyone else.

    While I think we're a ways from pro/rel, I think it has to come eventually. I'm not quite sure what reason MLS ever has to do it and I agree that I don't see this as a natural evolution for MLS. That said, I think that without a viable set of lower divisions, the American game will suffer as a whole. It's no secret that our lower divisions are struggling to stay alive as it is. Keeping this in mind, compare our top 3 leagues (currently at a total 36 teams) to Germany's (currently at a total of 56 teams). The viability of 56 teams has to be important for the development of German soccer as a whole. If the US is limited to viable pro teams in MLS only, our game will always suffer. At some point, there has to be a stronger reason to invest in a d2 or d3 team and promotion, I think, will be that reason.
  7. GazzaNov 10, 2011 11:00 AM
    Nordmann - the ideal world that Babieca was talking about existed before 1996 for a decade and before the original NASL. We had totally independent clubs and leagues for most of our history - we had promotion and relegation available even before 1916 for anyone or group to create a league structure that (to use your words) does not ``....restrict access to the top tier and provides more support to this tier than others....``. Problem is the likes of you and Teddy don`t have the money or smarts or belief in your own theory to back up the notion of `MLS limiting the viability of lower teams and our game will only suffer`. That`s akin to saying the popularity of the NFL in the Superbowl Era has hurt the game of football in America. It just isn`t true.
  8. NordmannNov 10, 2011 03:29 PM
    Gazza - I suppose mild sarcasm never really comes across on the internet. In any case, I think your points about the "ideal" world only proves my point; the league plays a huge and important role. A "free market solution" thus doesn't apply as this is not a free market, unless you're talking about leagues rather than individual teams (but even then, US soccer is not going to sanction 2 division one leagues).

    Also, I didn't make any point about popularity (which is important only to an extent). The current structure of the NFL has worked very well and thus far I suppose it is working fine for MLS. The question is whether or not it contributes to a higher level of play, especially compared to the rest of the world. For the NFL, this isn't an issue and unless every other country in the world starts playing American football with pro leagues at least 3 tiers deep, I doubt it ever will be. For MLS and US soccer, however, I think this is simply a different story.

    But you are right about at least one thing... I don't have the money :-)

"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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