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Canadian Newspaper Says USL For Sale

2009 August 19
by Brian Quarstad

uslIn an article posted on Monday, the Metro News out of Toronto, Canada said the USL is being sold by Nike who currently owns the league. Ben Rycroft broke the story on Monday after he was able to get Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi to confirm the story. Lenarduzzi is the second Canadian USL owner to talk about the sale of the USL. Joey Saputo, who owns the Montreal Impact, spoke last week about the league’s sale. Interestingly, the two owners who have leaked the story, which has been under tight wraps for nearly a year now, are both Canadian owners who will be moving into MLS or hope to move into MLS in the next few years.

In the story Lenarduzzi said, “The USL owners have been in the loop the whole way since Nike put the league up for sale. There are a couple groups that are interested.”

The story says that MLS has shown interest in the purchase of USL but they are not the forerunner.

Rycroft writes: Two USL sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed MLS’s interest, but both said that it was looking less likely now, as MLS was not interested in the type of numbers Nike had asked for. 

Their feeling was unless something dramatic happens, the third group, comprised of private investors, will be announced in the week ahead as the new owners of the USL.

Rycroft makes the jump that an MLS-owned USL would mean promotion and relegation.

IMS believes a sale to MLS at this point and time would be dangerous for the good of soccer in this country.  MLS would have no interest in promotion and relegation, contrary to Rycroft’s delusions. Although I too would love to see a system of teams moving up and down leagues as is used all over the world, Major League Soccer has set itself up in a manner to make sure that won’t happen for a long time. If soccer supporters in the US are disappointed about this they only have MLS to blame. MLS requires $40 million to start a franchise. Why would you spend 40 million dollars at the risk of dropping down a league after the first season? It’s not going to happen with the current league structure as it sits.

Another issue is infrastructure. It’s what we don’t have and what we will need to make this happen. Although there are more and more soccer specific stadiums in the US, it will take years to get enough stadiums built and good teams established throughout the country.

As my friend Kartik Krishnaiyer pointed out on Major League Soccer Talk yesterday, there seems to be an ample supply of supposed soccer supporters in this country that hate USL and think it should go away. Krishnaiyer makes some very good points concerning those comments and I will add to them.

Around the world, the majority of leagues and teams are not super leagues like the EPL, or La Liga. They are small lower divisions. They are everywhere in the world, many with stadiums that hold anywhere from 10,000 to 1,000, sometimes smaller. Although some supporters may have a “big team” they support, they also support their local team. This is the infrastructure of football world wide. Why is it not OK with many MLS lovers to have alternative teams and leagues? It’s how soccer players are developed in a country.

Does anyone really think Manchester United supporters from England think it’s stupid to have 65 pro and amateur teams in the Manchester area alone? I very much doubt it because they understand the structure of football world-wide. The more players playing the game, the more chance one of them will rise up to be the next England superstar. So let’s stop with the “there should only be one league” business already. It’s a tired argument that doesn’t even hold up in any other US sport let alone soccer world-wide.  Even Don Garber, commissioner of MLS, has stated that a strong minor league soccer program is important in this country. Yet MLS and Garber don’t seem to be interested enough in it to invest the money that is necessary.

How many teams has MLS established throughout North America? 15 with 18 hoped for in the near future.

How many USL teams have been established throughout North America? 11 USL-1, 9 USL-2, 69 PDL teams, 97 Super Y and Super-20 teams. That’s a grand total of 186, not including the W-league. That is 171 more teams than MLS.

Let’s forget the Super-20 and Super Y teams for now. Just counting the USL-1 and 2 and PDL that’s 89 teams that are settling in nicely to the US Landscape and starting to establish themselves. Some of those teams, like the Minnesota Thunder, have been around longer than any MLS team.  Several PDL teams average between 1,500 to 2,00o fans per game. That is infrastructure and this is what will someday allow promotion and relegation.

Also, let’s address the USL’s Premier Development League (PDL) for a moment and make sure everyone understands its popularity and success. As its name indicates, it is a developmental league. In most cases these are unpaid players who don’t want to throw away their NCAA eligibility. That’s why the PDL was started — to give collegiate players a high level place to play during their summers.  63% of all MLS draft picks last year had spent some time in PDL. My recommendation to young promising college players here in Minnesota is, if you want to get noticed by an MLS team, it’s almost imperative to play PDL during the summer. It gives you credibility and gets you noticed.

I don’t know what the potential new owners of USL exactly have in mind for the league, but I believe a league that would be competitive with MLS is not a bad thing for soccer in America. In fact it’s a healthy thing that will get MLS from dominating a landscape that needs the infrastructure of USL, top to bottom. With MLS seeming to show very little interest in developing young talent in the US, let’s hope that USL stays as intact as possible and only gets better and stronger, for the good of soccer in the US.

18 Responses
  1. August 19, 2009

    I’d love to see promotion & relegation, too (it’s like reality TV’s great-grandfather!), but agree that we’re a very long way off from that becoming a reality. And perhaps if USL continues to grow & stabilize alongside MLS, someday we’ll be at the point where there are 2 (or more) solid divisions, with established owners, soccer-specific stadiums everywhere, and mostly black ink. Then maybe talk of pro/rel would be more than sheer fantasy.

    I also agree that MLS probably isn’t the best owner for USL. They’re still focused on team expansion and their own solidification (e.g., stadium building), and will be for years down the road.

    But at the same time, I get nervous when we talk about MLS and USL being “competitive” leagues. On some levels that doesn’t even make sense: the USL divisions below USL-1 (PDL et al) have literally no competition from MLS at all.

    But as far as MLS vs USL-1 “competition”, I assert that such a thing boils down to unproductive attitude & sniping on both sides. Derision from MLS execs, players & fans of USL-1 as a bush league, and silly “we’re giant killers!” bluster from USL-1 folks every time their teams upset an MLS side.

    I’m happy, for example, with the relationships the Austin Aztex have been forging with MLS teams. They’ve had players on loan from RSL, Galaxy, Dynamo, etc. Pre-season friendlies, also, with Columbus, New England & Houston. Those all benefit *both* sides in numerous ways. Bench players get more time on the field and more exposure to other coaches & styles. Teams get exposure to more fans in nearby (and far away) markets. Not to mention the intangible boost to the American sport.

    But all of that is harder to come by when there are angry, ignorant or offensive attitudes on both sides.

  2. Aaron Frederickson permalink
    August 19, 2009

    I think soccer will really take off with promotion/relegation. (Maybe things would be more interesting in other sports if we have promotion/relegation.)

  3. Pat permalink
    August 19, 2009

    I think I’m on board with Chris. My only quibble is the competition aspect. You talk about the importance of minor leagues in part of the article, and then talk about competition in the other. Those are different animals. I’m a big believer in the USL for the development aspect, but I’m not a big believer in USL-1 vying to be the top division along with MLS. Two leages competing has never effectively worked in the US.

    But again, to be clear, I agree with your basic premise. I think there is an arrogance on the part of MLS and its supporters, and that attitude could severely damage development of players in this country if MLS took over.

  4. August 19, 2009

    Good post Chris. I agree in that I don’t know about them being competitive as in two top leagues. First it’s just not so, second they won’t win the marketing battle unless they can bring something else to the table that will entice fans.

    The thing that’s good about Austin is you have two MLS teams close and there is some rivalry there already, although it’s amazing to me the lack of rivalry between Dallas and Houston.

    Aaron, I’ve said that for a long time. If the NBA had promotion relegation can you imagine how exciting the end of the season would be, rather than how absolutely dreadful it is now.

    When I tell my non-soccer friends about promotion and relegation their eyes light up and they get very interested even though they aren’t interested in soccer. They are also interested in league cup and super leagues like Champions League.

  5. Super Rookie permalink
    August 19, 2009

    I also think that there is some severe sniping coming out of the USL office in Tampa. Seems like they want to continue to promote themselves as an alternative to MLS. This leads to MLS seeing them as competition. Both sides won’t play in the same sandbox if this keeps up.

  6. August 19, 2009

    Actually SR, I don’t think there has been hardly any sniping at all coming out of the league office. If there’s sniping it’s been by the league owners association or whatever they call themselves. They feel USL has not been vocal enough in expressing displeasure with MLS taking away their markets.

    They also feel that USL doesn’t do enough to promote the League. If you look for the quotes that have been coming from Tim Holt he has said, do we want to really compete with MLS or should we be looking at the second tier markets? In an interview last spring he said it was those second tier markets that USL is interested in.

    So I think part of what is going on is the USL-1 league owners association have a different view and direction than the officials of USL, meaning Marcos and Holt.

  7. Jeff Wolter permalink
    August 19, 2009

    “the USL-1 league owners association have a different view and direction than the officials of USL”

    Which is why it will make sense for them to buy the league and run it themselves.

  8. nathan3e permalink
    August 19, 2009

    This country will never have promotion/relegation. People need to let it go.

  9. Aaron Frederickson permalink
    August 19, 2009

    Brian, promotion/relegation in baseball woud be bad for MN. For example, the Twins were the worst in baseball in 1986, and won the world serise in 1987. I do think it would encourage teams to play to “stay in the league” as oppossed to “losing games to get the top draft pick”–i.e., the MN Timberwolves. Anything to further soccer would be great for the sport!

    This is a great topic to discuss over a beer!

  10. August 19, 2009

    I too read this article and was intrigued about this. I personally have asked the question for a long time why MLS and USL aren’t more in line with one another. Too me I have to disagree with you BQ in that I think MLS buying USL would be a good thing. I have many reasons why I think that way and I will try to explain them all.

    First, its no secret that MLS has done a great job of getting itself into the average sports fan’s vocab and awareness much better than USL has done. Your average sports fan most likely knows at least what MLS is, but probably has never heard of USL. If MLS were to buy USL and then perhaps re-brand it as MLS 2 or MLS Championship or whatever, it perhaps would attract more fans. Think about how hard it is to explain to even your average soccer fan, the difference between all of the acronyms of MLS, USL, PDL, WPS, W-League, etc. Lets not even get started on how many different youth entities there are (US Club Soccer, US Youth Socccer, AYSO, etc.) To me its way too complicated and there are too many entities working against one another instead of in conjunction with one another.

    For this sport to truly grow and take off, all aspects of soccer in this country (youth, adult, pro, amateur, etc.) need to work together and all be alined under one name/brand within USSF for us to take off. Working in MLS for D.C. United I really get that sense that on the business side of things, MLS and USL don’t work together at all. There are no best practices sharing, lead generation through sponsors in important markets and support of one another that I think is key for this sport to grow. For example, look at what major companies are headquartered in the Twin Cities. Sure Best Buy is involved with MLS, but what about Target or 3M or other companies that are national brands that do nothing with MLS. I know that Thunder have some inroads and relationships there and perhaps using those connections not just to benefit the Thunder, but American Soccer as a whole would be key towards getting some larger companies on board with supporting soccer in this country. I know I personally would love to chat with other sales reps from existing USL clubs like Portland, Montreal, Charleston, etc. to hear how they have managed to draw good numbers of fans and plant their brand firmly in their market.

    Also there are no other countries (that I know of) that have totally separate professional leagues that are not in conjunction with one another. Sure we don’t have to have relegation/promotion because we are not anywhere near stable enough for that, but we at least all need to work together towards a common goal.

    I think USL could benefit from MLS quite a bit as well as MLS obviously has a successful recipe proven and made many important connections that could potentially help a lot of USL clubs and markets in terms of securing tv deals locally (or even potentially showing some clubs nationally), also working with local jurisdictions to continue the most important work in this country, that of building more soccer specific stadiums.

    Either way this is an interesting article that was posted and I truly hope that MLS seriously considers it. Even if it doesn’t end up happening that they buy them, that is fine. But I think this could be a HUGE springboard for this sport and could really help to continue moving the needle and making this sport gain and bigger and bigger footprint in this country.

  11. Spencer permalink
    August 22, 2009

    “MLS seeming to show very little interest in developing young talent” Come on now BQ, how do you justify that statement? The league is set up with the young American player in mind and the success of alums in Europe suggests that something is working.

  12. August 23, 2009

    Spencer, the league loves to pull in cheap young American talent and that’s fantastic. Name me a program where the league is developing talent. Just one is all I’m asking for. I can give you 3 in USL that includes 175 teams. Until MLS starts putting their money where their mouth is I don’t think you have an argument here. Dropping the number of players on a team? Dropping the reserve league? Rumors of MLS teams pressuring their teams that have teams playing in the PDL just because it’s USL and they don’t want any sort of affiliation. Come on Spencer, explain that one.

  13. Spencer permalink
    August 24, 2009

    We’d all love to see deeper and deeper rosters, reserve teams, youth teams, etc. But if MLS is like almost every other American business the projected revenues picture they’ve been looking at is not pretty and some fat had to be cut from somewhere. Of course more and more teams have and continue to be added to the league so the overall number of jobs for American players continue to increase.

    Off the top of my head; Houston, New York, and Chivas all have legit academies. However due to the extent the various youth clubs, Bradenton residency, and collegiate game are already embedded I don’t see MLS clubs running English style intensive academies as part of the picture.

    As far as producing players is concerned MLS has continually sent young Americans to Europe and the national team. USL occasionally will spring a player on to an MLS roster who dosen’t bounce back but thats about the extent of it.

    Could MLS do more? Of course. But to say MLS has no interest in developing young talent is off base.

  14. Jeff Wolter permalink
    August 24, 2009

    No it’s not off base, it’s correct. You’re assuming their involved in some type of development, that would make sense.

    MLS is an entertainment League, and a good one, but they spend no money directly on player development.

    They barley spend money on the players they currently have on their teams (other than the Euro/Mexican/South American superstars who are seen as a marketing expense), that’s why all young American players leave as soon as they get another offer. That’s not development it just simply how the cheapskate MLS owners do it. Our best National team players are developing in Europe like the rest of the world’s NT players.

    If development of young American players was important to them they would not have dropped the reserve league. The reality is they just weren’t very good at selecting and developing the players they had there, so it became unimportant to them.

  15. thomas permalink
    August 24, 2009

    Several points from someone who follows North American soccer from Europe.

    MLS does develop youth players, and has set up its’ academy system using the relationship with the Bundesliga to learn from their experience. The change in player registration regulations are helping encourage clubs to develop players as it means they will have greater ownership rights and control over players they develop compared to those they acquire through trades. Watch out for these incentives to be increased towards the end of this year (along with other changes perhaps including a second DP slot for a national player).

    Promotion and relegation is an inevitability as the soccer economy continues to grow. When the market shows it can support and sustain 30-40 professional teams to an international standard (ie 40+ matches per season) the pressure to integrate will force the issue. Japan’s J-League is a model example.

    The development of the Concacaf Champions League is instrumental in this process as club directors understand higher levels of success can only be attained by strategic thinking and long-term planning. It is gradually becoming recognized that ‘next season is the post-season’ as qualification for these more prestigous competitions carry with them the similar benefits associated with promotion, while the failure to qualify is akin to relegation. This is changing the mindset of owners as each individual club is beginning to define their own measure of success accordingly.

    This will drive the next phase of growth in the game as different clubs increasingly take different approaches to maximise their particular local strengths and develop increasing specialisation and identity. Many clubs already understand there are different components to building a winning mentality which in turn creates different styles of play to keep the on-field product interesting. A more competitive league only enhances these differences as a more diverse range of teams offer different solutions to the perennial question of how to score that all-important goal.

    Similarly the concept of ‘market ownership’ has begun to be challenged as executives begin to understand rivalries create a competitive atmosphere of their own which helps the league thrive. Traveling fans have demonstrated the compounding economic effects they produce, and ease of travel has now given serious consideration – emerging Californian rivalries showed how this can be transferred to Texas, while Philadephia Union will obviously stir up neighbouring DC United and NYRB, and the soon-to-be reignited Pacific NW rivalry between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver was given a preview in the US Open Cup earlier this year.

    There are lots of issues that need to be ironed out before league integration becomes a reality however, such as national affiliation (eg how long before Fifa enforces strict national association sanctioning of domestic leagues as it does elsewhere and therefore how long will Concacaf allow Canadian and Caribbean teams to compete in MLS?) and calendar issues (eg will a championship playoff continue to decide the overall winner?) and other professional issues (eg player salaries). But it is also important to remember that these are ongoing debates even in places where the history is more ingrained, and political considerations always play their part, so the precise direction will ultimately be decided by the people who sing the loudest and most tunefully in the stadiums.

    The twin opposing tendencies of breadth and depth are gradually aligning as national integration follows international integration and continues to drive international success, so expect moves to happen within a 5-10 years frame and promotion/relegation to be a fact of life by the time the US next hosts the Fifa World Cup.

    Irrespective of an MLS/USL tie-up the continuing development of the sport in the USA needs to demonstrate that investment in clubs and facilities is valued, so locally successful organisations in smaller communities such as those in Des Moines, Fresno, Laredo and El Paso should not be discouraged from competing to the full extent of their capabilities.

  16. August 24, 2009

    Thanks Thomas, great stuff. The discussion is a good one and an important one.

  17. August 28, 2009

    We need “rebaixamento”, relegation, like the rest of the world. These 2 need to work together. Stupid that they don’t.
    And may I add, fuck the $40 million MLS start-up.

  18. August 28, 2009

    You may add that if you wish. It is a lot of money isn’t it? Of course part of that money is the cost to be part of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) which is the bread and butter of MLS. That’s one of the reasons MLS is not crazy about adding more Canadian teams. They don’t have any of the rights in Canada that they do in the US.

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