a minor opportunity arrives with latest major league soccer club
The emerald city is in the process of losing a basketball franchise but gaining a soccer team… and a new Hollywood homer.
A few weeks ago, Drew Carey, part owner of the new yet-to-be-named soccer franchise, was in the broadcast booth at Seattle’s Qwest stadium during Monday Night Football on ESPN. For a couple of days in one American city professional soccer was part of the discussion.
But the discussion was short lived. MLS Cup quickly stole some attention. There was an expansion draft next. USL was at Soccerfest. And Thanksgiving threw in a bone. Or at least that’s what I thought (and would still like to believe).
I’ve been holding this story for 4 days shy of a month and while it is still relevant due to the fact that nobody has really broached the subject beyond a message board, I can’t help but feel deflated that I couldn’t get it out sooner, couldn’t meet a (self-imposed) deadline, and most importantly because it controlled the other two - I couldn’t get someone from MLS to answer my questions. Return an email, usually. Be polite, always. But answer a few uncontroversial questions, no luck.
It is frustrating, and there is really nothing to do but continue to ask the questions. It’s their right to not answer them, but I could not even get a “thank you, no comment.” Strangely, for a few weeks now - this is the first time I have really approached MLS with an interview request - I’ve traded a few e-mails in which I was told for a variety of respectful reasons that the answers could not yet be obtained. “Stay tuned” was the essence of the communication.
Fair enough. I waited patiently. Three Weeks. I certainly don’t want to upset anyone, but in regard to the journalism where do you draw the line? It’s not about ego or pride, I’d just like the story to be timely and original, both of which retreat from a news piece with every passing day.
But after reading this announcement from the US National Soccer Players editors about how they aren’t covering MLS as a regular beat anymore because of the lack of cooperation from MLS, I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad.
“The result,” of the poor cooperation the USNSP editors concluded, “is the kind of coverage where writers chase press release material and the majority of articles are responsive rather than the kind of profile or investigative work you read or see with the other sports.”
That was exactly what I was trying to avoid; that is exactly why I wanted to produce this website more than two years ago.
USNSP wrote that MLS called them a “minor outlet.” Then what is TIAS? If USNSP is considered “at the level of glorified fan sites and shouldn’t expect anything past the basic in terms of access and credentials,” I have to start wondering if I should continue to pursue inquisitive, forget investigative, MLS stories. I guess I also have to start wondering why three weeks after this letter from the editors, USNSP published a lengthy interview with MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis (while at the same time keeping the pointed letter on the top spot on their ‘exclusives’ page, above the Gazidis interview). As Bruce McGuire noted at du Nord, this seemed at the very least interesting timing.
So what was this story I was working on all about? Well, this admittedly, ridiculously minor outlet was looking into the possibility of the USL becoming a true, affiliated minor league to MLS. Given MLS expansion into a USL (Seattle) market, and what with the USL owner being one of the MLS owners and future GM, the subject was topical again for the first time since possibly as far back as MLS’ inception.
But without comment from each league, I have no story. Well, I have half a story…
(up front, I would like to thank USL Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Holt for promptly returning a message and speaking with me about this subject. For that matter, I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to speak to me or contribute to TIAS over the last two and a half years. Without them, the original reporting and analysis that I hope sets TIAS apart would not be possible. Take that away, and talk about minor outlet, there is no TIAS. I would also like to extend a hand to MLS. I feel obligated to try to give the whole picture to the TIAS audience no matter how small and thus feel responsible to explain why this particular story offers only one side of the situation. I am here and hope to be for a very long time; I don’t want to believe MLS has some even unspoken rule where certain outlets are cut out - though in a weird way I hope one day MLS will be popular enough that that may have to be the case; maybe that is where we are now. But I will continue to try to find the answers to the questions that find me because beyond TIAS that curiosity has pretty much driven my entire life. While TIAS is no doubt a minor outlet and likely forever will be, I would hope the consistency of intelligent work speaks louder at times than strictly how many people are listening. Like American soccer, my expectations should be tempered, and I believe that they are.)
let’s backtrack a bit:
Before his Monday Night television appearance, Hollywood’s man-about-soccer-town was at George and Dragon Pub (brilliant!) in the Seattle suburb of Fremont, where a couple hundred people (and one reporter clearly there only because Carey was) came out to witness his introduction into the ownership group that is bringing the 15th franchise in Major League Soccer come 2009.
Carey is financially a small part of an ownership group that includes Seattle Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer, Hollywood executive Joe Roth, and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, which already owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers.
The headlines feasted on the Hollywood angle, but soccer fans must have been intrigued as well, especially by two “demands” Carey reportedly made before getting on board. He wanted a team marching band, which would be the only one in professional American sports, and a power-sharing structure with fans. On MNF Carey explained it as: “for a fee - like $100 a year - you can be a member of our club and you get to vote every four years whether the (GM) keeps his job or not.” Other soccer clubs such as Barcelona have similar structures, but it would be a first for any U.S. sport. “No other fans in the United States will have the chance to do what Seattle soccer fans will be able to do,” Carey said at the bar earlier in the day. Hopefully a recruiting trip to the Battle of the Bands on January 26th in Atlanta is in Carey’s future.
The still incomplete details – after weeks of rumor and speculation, unconfirmed reports, anonymous but confirmed reports, a press conference at a bar, and Monday Night Football appearance – were signed sealed and delivered at the official press conference on November 13.
To some surprise, Commissioner Garber announced that the team will play permanently at the 69,000-seat Qwest Stadium (24,500 in its lower tier) which opened in 2002 as the home of the Seahawks and where the USL’s Sounders also play games. The surprise falls flat though once we learned they would play there rent-free. That eliminates the usual concern MLS has had in the past regarding non-soccer-specific stadiums and the financial burden that comes with them.
All the speakers, especially majority owner Roth, said all the right things in voicing their lofty goals and even bigger dreams. The term “world class” may have been used a few too many times.
LEFT ON THE TABLE
Though Seattle soccer fans have to be thrilled - season tickets sales are reportedly pushing 10,000 - a big question for some fans was what would happen to the Sounders - champions of the USL First Division two of the past three years including 2007 - after the new MLS team arrives in 2009?
We never got a straight answer from Sounders owner (and new MLS GM) Adrian Hanauer at the press conference, but he did allude to the fact that the MLS team will be unique - i.e. it will very likely not inherit the Sounders nickname. But no one during the press conference said “The Sounders will be around in 2009.”
Thankfully USL Executive Vice President and COO Tim Holt said it in a press release: “It is a bittersweet moment for our league with the positive news of the Sounders returning to defend their 2007 USL-1 Championship partially offset by the loss of Seattle as a USL professional league market in 2009.”
“Beyond continuing to have two of the nation’s most vibrant professional soccer franchises in Portland and Vancouver, we have undertaken the process of exploring all possibilities with respect to landing a USL-1 franchise in another Pacific Northwest market, including working with several members of the current USL-1 franchise ownership group for the relocation of the Sounders franchise rights,” said USL President and Founder Francisco Marcos.
The USL must be used to this by now, but not a single outlet picked up those quotes. One quote that was picked up was that there will be some unquantified agreement allowing the new MLS team to hold certain rights to Sounder players. That sounds a lot like a minor league situation, but not having those details worked out it’s hard to speculate what is going to happen. These are newly unchartered seas.
A CHANCE FOR CHANGE
This day was inevitable. MLS and USL come face to face after years of running up the mountain of American soccer side by side. Is it time to bring the leagues together? Could the USL become a true minor league?
You might want to argue this is the chance to instate relegation and promotion between the two leagues. The Sounders won the USL, and a case could be made they would compete well in MLS. No one would think the last place MLS team, Toronto, would dominate the USL. But as the saying that is quickly becoming a cliche in domestic soccer circles goes, relegation just isn’t happening stateside - even with a new single table format implemented by USL several weeks ago.
But that is the only option supporters of unification seem to throw out. Thomas Dunmore at Pitch Invasion asks how important USL is, mentions other sports that have minor league structures, and then goes directly into promotion/relegation without pursuing his previous point. His commenters take to the promotion bait and run with it as his final question asks, can USL be successful without it?
As Dunmore noted though, other sports have minor leagues without promotion. Why can’t soccer?
Seattle’s entry into MLS opens up for maybe the first time since the league’s inauguration the opportunity to unify professional American soccer. Why not make the USL a true minor league, fitting its integrated system under MLS who is working alone to build its own developmental structure? Essentially isn’t that what it is now, what it became the minute MLS came alive? To just name two examples, Brian Ching and Maykel Galindo both played for the Sounders before graduating to MLS. You could argue a full affiliation isn’t needed.
I reached Tim Holt after his return from Soccerfest to discuss this subject that should now be back on soccer media radars but isn’t. “We have a good working relationship with MLS,” he told me. “Though there is no formal affiliation. Has it been contemplated from time to time, yes, but as far as the USL 1st Division becoming a minor league of MLS, it’s not something in the vision of USL management or the specific franchise owners.”
Holt wanted to make sure it didn’t sound as if USL wanted to compete with MLS, rather USL’s goals are to offer an alternative model for professional soccer in major North American markets to MLS. Owner autonomy is one of the largest differences in the leagues, as is the pyramid system USL uses between its various levels similar to other American sports. MLS and its single-entity leanings are polar from USL, where owners are allowed more freedoms to build a successful team both with players and business practices. “We think it is an attractive model potentially for international clubs to invest in,” Holt said. “Due to that autonomy over players, they can control where players go into their team and then move those players back and forth.”
(side note: imagine the world’s best clubs dropping a development team into USL)
USL presently has a well defined vertically integrated club system comprised of 1st division, 2nd division, Premiere Development League, Super-20, and Super Y-league. MLS is years behind in this sort of integration, having overlooked their reserve teams for years and just launching a youth development system. Though the 1st division side California Victory were contracted in September and Virginia Beach before the 2007 season, next year USL will add two 2nd division teams and three PDL teams.
And they’d have no problem with a MLS owner purchasing a USL club. “We certainly would be very open to that,” Holt said. “It goes to the owner autonomy. We have no preclusions, but I can’t speak to what preclusions MLS may have on that. There are realistic ways in which that could be taken advantage of to the betterment of both situations.”
Though approached several times over the course of three weeks, MLS did not offer comment.
Owner autonomy further opens up the ability to sell players’ contracts. Sounder owner Adrian Hanauer could sell all his player’s contracts to the new MLS team, but it’s unclear what MLS thinks specifically on this subject. Holt maintained that this is more a question for MLS because of its single entity. MLS signs players and then allocates them to teams. “They have certain devices and mechanisms in place to deal with that,” Holt said. “Ours is pretty simple and straight forward. The club signs a player, they own his rights, and can either keep him or sell him.” This would be the case if the Sounders continue to operate in the league. The USL ownership group could release all their players, trade them, or sell them to MLS or any other league. According to Holt, if the Sounders franchise is not moved and disappears, all those players would become free agents.
While advantages may be real, it seems the likelihood of a minor-league affiliation happening are less so.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you we are proud of the fact that there is not a direct tangible relationship between the two entities,” Holt said. “I think in the best interest of the game there would be, but we have to be realistic and understand that there are individual business interests that are involved as well. Again, I think while we respect what they are doing from a business standpoint and growing-the-sport standpoint, what we’re doing is equally important for a hundred different markets around the country at all of our levels. We’re into our third decade of doing this which represents the significant longevity in the world of soccer in this country, and we’re excited about the growth of our league and what MLS is doing.”
That sure sounds like the unity dream may be as big a dream as promotion/relegation, but what if? What might it look like?
With few changes, each MLS team could affiliate with a USL club, hold rights for those players and share knowledge, coaches, and profits, something much deeper than the paper partnerships between MLS clubs and English Premier League teams.
You don’t have to change nicknames or ownership or jerseys. Location might need to be figured out as it will be in Seattle. USL teams would gain the developmental talent within the MLS system (reserves and youth players), and MLS gains the graduates of a new, more competitive developmental league. USL can keep its name while being folded into MLS sponsorship agreements and gaining some profit share that in the long run would help operate development clubs and programs. This of course requires MLS to become profitable, but the league seems confident they will. At that point the single entity structure could be eliminated, opening the doors for this kind of affiliation.
Keeping the leagues separate and independent furthers the fracturing of American soccer - arguably the biggest obstacle to developing talent in our geographic expanse. USSF and MLS have both made strides in the last two years to sew these loose fabrics together. Here is another opportunity to add to that quilt. Though much easier said than done, just drop MLS on top of USL’s vertically integrated club pyramid and find a way to make the money work.
For those cities like Seattle who have USL teams and will likely get MLS clubs (Atlanta comes to mind), there is the opportunity to expand professional soccer’s market by moving the USL club to smaller markets where they might have a better chance of not only garnering attendance, but where they can spread the word of professional soccer into those nooks and crannies of the American landscape that presently are overlooked and could maintain a minor league club (think single-A baseball). This is essentially the yet to be determined future of the Sounders.
Everything could be worked out without large-scale changes to the status quo. Take the Open Cup as a final example. It’s no mystery that it is hurting. I still like the idea I put forth back in April, when I imagined the Open Cup as an American soccer tour, testing open markets (MLS and/or USL wannabe cities) like San Diego and Philadelphia. The travelling carnival could be a weekend full of clinics and events, spreading the good word of soccer. With one giant pyramid structure encompassing every level of the game, answering the question ‘what is American soccer’ becomes easier.
“It is almost a situation of promotion isn’t it,” Holt noted toward the end of our conversation. “I hear a lot from fans about how great it would be to have a system of promotion and relegation implemented, but the biggest challenge and barrier is that both leagues are franchise-based operations, so there are some major hurdles there that go with that. But essentially - if those things start to happen and we don’t know if they will for sure - [Seattle] could be viewed as de facto promotion from USL to MLS. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We’re not going out of our way to position USL first division as inferior in any way in a specific market or as a league, but if through the success a team has in a market, and the success the ownership group has, and if they’re a part of a new MLS ownership group as Adrian is [in Seattle], it can be perceived that it turns into promotion.
“That is something we can be proud of: if USL becomes a pathway for those owners who want to get here (to USL) as a way toward a MLS franchise - if that is [the owner's] aspirations. It’s intriguing in the very least, potentially exciting, and definitely different. There are a lot of possibilities and we aren’t going to rule out any of them. We’re very open minded to all of them that will serve the game right and the investment of our owners properly.”
MLS, the ball is
in your court at your feet.