Here are links that are relevant to the episode:
- MLS Academies Need More, and Better, Competition
- The 1 Soccer Policy that Cripples the National Team all the way to 9 Year Olds
- Not Allowed in American Soccer – Leicester City FC
- On Enabling Change in the US Soccer Pyramid — Bottom-Up and Top-Down
Okay, let’s start by addressing the idea that more competition is a good thing.
One of the things that has made our country so great is enabling ideas to compete with one another in an open market. The American dream is built upon the foundation of opportunity.
Taken further, there are no monopoly entitlements granted so that one business presides over an entire market and dictates who can and cannot participate.
For example, the US government does not entitle Google monopoly power over the mass search engine market.
No. Google’s product must live and die on its own merits. And the consumer (aka, the market) dictates that, not the government.
This policy of not granting monopoly power to any one business is awesome!
It breeds competition between ideas and their execution. It spawns innovation and grants freedom and opportunity for all who wish to enter the ring – it is arguably the best mechanism we have for enabling the true ‘cream to rise to the top’.
Hell, it is what gives legitimate credence to the concept of the “cream rising to the top”.
In the global soccer arena, the standard mechanism by which this is achieved is an open competition between autonomous clubs who can be promoted or relegated through divisions based on merit.
For example, Leicester City FC, a club with a storied history, but a club that no one really knew or talked about until they shocked the world in 2016.
For more than a decade, Leicester had been battling in obscurity in the 2nd division. Then, they finally got their act together and won the division, thereby earning their promotion back to the top flight. And then they made history by overcoming 5000 to 1 odds and winning one of the most coveted prizes in global football – the Premier League trophy.
This type of story is prohibited in American soccer.
In American soccer, Leicester City would still be in the 2nd division, indefinitely caste there.
How are teams promoted here in America? By paying franchise fees. MLS certainly leads by example in this category. Their expansion procedures include a lengthy application process during which the prospective franchise owners must prove to a committee that their city is suited for professional soccer. This means having a stadium, having a supporters group, and many other things in place before a team is even created. LAFC and Inter Miami are great case studies.
So, why is it like this here in America? We are a country defined by our fighting spirit and unwillingness to be second-best. Yet when it comes to soccer, fans not only allow but fight to support the anti-competitive practice that keeps our football mediocre, to say the least.
The growth of MLS (the number of franchises) is frequently cited as a sign of strength and improvement. But we have to understand something. It’s that, given our set our circumstances, competition in the US isn’t a good gauge of where we’re at. International competition is, and will always be the barometer.
And on that front, we’re still well off the mark. The one and only beacon of light in American soccer continue to be the U.S. Women’s National Team.
But it’s the reasons for the domestic competition being so poor that are misunderstood. People either aren’t aware of or ignore the points that were just laid out.
One of the fundamental reasons that US Soccer is behind the rest of the world is that MLS and its academies don’t have the requisite week in, week out, competition in the United States like other countries have.
What we’re seeing now is the realization that MLS and their academies need better competition to improve, but the wrong solutions being implemented.
For example, MLS academies playing against youth clubs with no pro team (i.e. amateur clubs) do them no good. The entire development environment from proper training, to facilities, to incentives, make it incredibly difficult for the amateur sides to truly compete. And even if there are youth clubs that do win, and have good coaching, and do all the right things… at the end of the day, they’re still just youth clubs.
So, what’s the status quo solution?
If MLS academy teams are the strongest, then superficial logic drives one to conclude they should just be playing each other and not against academy teams from amateur clubs.
This line of thinking supports the exclusive mentality shared amongst the MLS ranks, from the front offices to the supporters in the stands, all the way down to the sidelines of the youth games on Saturday and Sundays.
But what’s the proper solution?
If we want MLS franchises to have more and better competition, we must enable others to compete with them.
* You want youth development on par with the rest of the world?
* You want our top-flight pro teams at the level with the best in the world?
* You want the National Team to consistently be a legit World Cup contender?
Well, we need a soccer pyramid – like the rest of the world – where the best can rise and the mediocre get punished.
How can this be achieved?
You open the soccer economy to all clubs.
For those of you who aren’t aware, that means opening the pyramid (aka promotion & relegation at the pro level).
You see, this is where so many get it wrong. A bottom-up approach doesn’t remove any of the barriers. It just encourages more people to run into the same barriers.
Dennis Crowley, founder of Stockade FC in Kingston, New York came to this realization just two-years after launching a fourth division amateur team.
Dennis has “written about how the US Soccer Pyramid, with its ‘closed’ leagues and lack of promotion and relegation, hinders investment in the very things the sport needs to thrive, such as player development, youth academies, and more fields and training facilities across all parts of the country.”
“Our thesis has been if you can build a strong foundation of clubs and leagues in the lower parts of the pyramid, you can start to make a change. And once you start to change the system at the bottom, you can start to push that change up to the top.
However, we’ve come to realize that there are also opportunities to try to change things from the top down.”
When you open the pyramid, there is more competition for MLS franchises.
They will no longer have a monopoly on their geographic player pool.
They will no longer be the only ones with an incentive to develop professionals.
Opening the pyramid provides a real business case for existing lower-division pro clubs to take player development seriously. To take investment seriously. To take the competition seriously.
Currently, most lower-division amateur teams don’t even have youth teams, let alone take it seriously.
Opening the pyramid also provides historically youth-only clubs a real business case for launching their own first teams. That, in turn, obviously stimulates them to take player development seriously. To invest. To compete.
It mobilizes investors & capital currently locked out of MLS to flow into lower division clubs would now have a strong incentive to develop and field far more serious youth sides.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is how top-performing ecosystems work.
It’s called an open economic market. Open markets create fierce competition.
Competition, which as we’ve described is currently weak in the United States soccer landscape, from top to bottom.
No amount of youth leagues, or mergers between youth clubs, or any other grassroots level solutions will ever be able to match what a true open market can do for our country.
So, if we want to give the MLS and its academies fierce local and regional competition, and in turn become legit competitors on the international stage, this is the solution.
If we don’t, that’s fine, just start understanding our country’s development potential will not be realized.
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