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Rethinking Division-2 Pro Soccer in North America – Part 1

2010 July 13
by Brian Quarstad

This is the first of a 4-part article looking at the future of Division-2 soccer in North America.

This past January saw US Soccer make a decision to run its division two pro soccer league themselves – but only for one season. Sunil Gulati made the announcement in a press conference that seemed to draw a record number of journalists for business concerning US Soccer’s second division. At the time, everyone seemed to be writing about the riff between the Team Owners Association’s North American Soccer League (NASL) and the long standing United Soccer Leagues (USL). Simon Evans of Reuters News Service posted a Twitter message that said, “Suddenly everyone loves 2nd Division soccer.” Evans was referring to the sudden interest from the American soccer public after the NASL and the USL had been dueling for control of the league. While Evans was being sarcastically humorous, he was also insightful.

The league controversy is gone for now with the 2010 season into its fourth month of play. Also gone are the many North American soccer fans who followed the saga last winter. But the importance of Division-2 pro soccer has not diminished. While many soccer fans may again be focusing on MLS or the upcoming European seasons, D-2 soccer is just as important if not more so than ever. It’s a critical piece of the soccer landscape in North America. While soccer purists will hardly watch MLS let alone a St. Louis – Minnesota Division-2 match, it’s vitally important to give players who are not in MLS a high level league in order to develop and grow their skills. Over 300 players are involved with and make a partial or full time living off of Division-2 pro soccer in North America and the Caribbean.

While US Soccer has taken this year to get better control of the teams involved with D-2 they are also looking at ways to better serve the league in the future. However, two teams have already had major stutters this season. Crystal Palace Baltimore’s co-coach and owner Pete Medd stepped down from his coaching position in mid-April to concentrate his efforts on off-the-field business. Medd was said to have been looking for cash for the money-strapped team who already found themselves in trouble as the season began. Medd was able to free up family money to temporarily alleviate the problem but sources have told IMS the club is still struggling.

At the same time Jeff Cooper’s AC St. Louis was said to have been in trouble. The organization eventually folded their WPS team, St. Louis Athletica and refocused their efforts on the men’s D-2 pro team. US Soccer used some of the team’s bonding money, money that each team must submit before the beginning of the season, to make several payrolls. It was revealed later that the Vaid brothers from London who Cooper had secured as primary investors in the club had not been making payments, causing the team’s financial hardship. Eventually Cooper was able to free the team from the Vaids. This has allowed him to free up personal money which he has now invested in the team to guarantee them safe passage at least to the end of the season.

Last year saw two teams fold after spending the 2009 season in the US second division of soccer. The Cleveland City Stars folded at the end of a 1-year experiment that saw them move from USL-2 (third division) to USL-1, (second division) that ended badly. The Minnesota Thunder, a team with a 20-year history and one of the longest running soccer teams in North America, also folded at the end of 2009 due to financial issues.

A look at the record of Division-2 pro soccer in North America shows thirty-nine teams have come and gone in the last 15 years. With the 12 current teams in the USSF D2 Pro League and adding a 13th team, the Seattle Sounders who where successful in the league before moving to MLS, the numbers total 52 teams that have played Division-2 pro soccer in North America since 1995. While all minor league sports have fairly large numbers of teams that come and go, that puts Division 2 soccer in North American at a 75% fail rate. A number that would be unacceptable in any sport or franchise system.

With teams coming and going at an alarming rate it’s no wonder scores of soccer fans throughout the US, Canada and the Caribbean see the league as amateurish. US Soccer has certainly seen these issues as well. Sunil Gulati has said this year would be a season where the Federation looks at the vetting process and would develop new standards to govern Division 2 league applicants to ensure the long term viability and sustainability of the leagues and teams.

“Yes, we’ve got some very specific targets in our regulations and we intend to put in more of those,” said Gulati in a January press conference. “Whether they apply to financial stability, what staffing levels look like, etc. To give you an example, our regulations have minimum standards on size of stadiums, a full-time operation for P.R. Director and CEO and so on and so forth. We think we need to put some more meat behind those in order to make sure that the teams that are part of a Division 2, or Division 1 for that matter, meet a certain standard and most importantly can meet that standard year in and year out and improve.

“We can’t have this constant issue that bedevils a number of sports, that the offseason is spent primarily to make sure that you can come back the following season. That you’re looking for expansion teams not because it makes long-term sense to build the game and the league, but because you need an expansion fee. We had that issue 25 years ago in our league, and we want to make sure that we’re able to avoid that so that expansion is done in a systematic way. U.S. Soccer is not going to be the one deciding that, but if people coming in the door want to be part of Division 2, they need to understand that this is a long-term play and that there are going to be some significant investments early on and aren’t counting on expansion proceeds in a year or two to reduce capital costs. The philosophy we’ve discussed with the leaders of these teams seems to be in line with that. People understand that for us the most important thing is stability, growth is right after that. But you can’t have growth without stability.”

So the question begs, how can we make D-2 pro soccer in North America successful? While suggestions are as plentiful as the teams that have come and gone, three basic concepts seem to be a common thread amongst those involved with the league:

1) A better vetting process
2) Running teams like small businesses instead of on future earning potential
3) Adding teams, regionalizing divisions and reducing travel costs

XXXXX

A better vetting process – a stabilized future.

Last winter, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati spoke to the issue of the federation attempting to get better control of the many teams that have come and gone in D2 soccer.

“There are going to be some challenges, I’m not going to make any bones about that. Our goal is that the people who are going to be investing in teams and leagues understand what those challenges are and are realistic about what it’s going to take to make it work financially. If we see projections from a team or an applicant that says ‘I understand I’m going to have some losses but in the second year I’m going to make money,’ we are going to look at that very rigorously and make sure that we challenge those assumptions. The absolutely critical notion is that we need investors who understand that this is a long-term investment, a long-term business model. And what we’re seeing from the teams that are involved is that they understand that. We’re going to take some actions that are going to guarantee that we don’t have some of the issues we’ve had in the past. Raising the bar early helps us do that.”

Brian Remedi is the Chief Administrative Officer with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). He works under Dan Flynn who is the CEO/Secretary General of the Federation. Flynn is also the chair of U.S. Soccer’s Professional League Task Force which also includes USSF board members Carlos Cordeiro and Mike Edwards. Through the work of that task force Remedi has been meeting with existing teams around the league.

“We are doing something that the Federation has never done in great detail before,” said Remedi in a May interview with IMS when he met with the NSC  Stars, Minnesota’s new D2 team. “We are getting out and looking at the teams in Division 2. In years past we left it up to the league administrators to ensure their clubs were meeting minimum standards and that games were run appropriately. Because we are running the league now we want to get out and make the house calls.”

“We are also looking under the hood from a marketing perspective, from a financial perspective, even from a ticketing perspective. Our goal is to ensure these teams are viable for the long term.

“It’s in our interest to make sure that there are division 2 markets that are going to be sustainable over the long haul. Not a short term 1-year or 2-year thing. We want these markets to be sustainable for long periods of time. So we are collecting information on the team and from the team and we will give some thought to that data and will be writing reports and giving it to our professional league task force who ultimately will make a recommendation to our board of directors. We assume that there will be at least one, two, possibly more entities applying for sanctioning for next year and we believe that the teams that will be part of that league will come out of the 12 teams that are in the USSF D-2 Pro League this year.

The USSF has called a meeting for the second week in August and have invited all teams currently involved with the USSF D2 Pro League. At that time, US Soccer will release their new standards that all current or future D2 teams will have to comply with. Expect the federation to require the future sanctioning league to require a more costly bond for each and every team involved with the league. It’s also said that they will have higher standards for stadiums and a more stringent litmus test for teams that want to join the USSF second division of soccer.

Tomorrow Part II – Running teams like small businesses instead of on future earning potential. Click here for Part 2.

30 Responses
  1. July 13, 2010

    Well done man. Please continue.

  2. smatthew permalink
    July 13, 2010

    “The USSF has called a meeting for the second week in August and have invited all teams currently involved with the USSF D2 Pro League. At that time, US Soccer will release their new standards that all current or future D2 teams will have to comply with.”

    BQ, do you know what if anything could happen to teams that don’t meet the standards laid out by USSF? Will they be forced to fold, ordered to take a season off to get their house in order, moved down a division?

    I’m guessing Part 3 will be on regionalizing and reducing travel costs, that is the Part I’m looking most forward to. Since I think that is the biggest problem D2 has.

  3. July 13, 2010

    Smatthew, I would expect it will be business as usual for this season as far a financial compliance but the standard will be set for next season as well as for the NASL and USL in teams they say they want to bring into the league. This will get rid of some of the posturing of teams an organization will claim they are bringing into their fold just to gain an advantage over the other group when it comes to sanctioning. It’s really the first thing US Soccer had to do to move to the next step which is sanctioning someone to run the league next season. But more on that in part 4.

    BTW, you are correct, in that part 3 will be about will be on regionalizing and reducing travel costs. But it ends up being a bit complex.

  4. Bart permalink
    July 13, 2010

    This sounds like the USL mantra since the new ownership took over.

    The concept that a team will increase in value over time in spite of annual losses is simply not applicable to lower division soccer teams.

  5. Soccer Boy permalink
    July 13, 2010

    “While soccer purists will hardly watch MLS let alone a St. Louis – Minnesota Division-2 match, it’s vitally important to give players who are not in MLS a high level league in order to develop and grow their skills.”

    Well stated! I am sick and tired of Eurosnobs that want to sit back and bash D2 soccer in the US and call it trash. Is it the “best” soccer-No. Is it a higher level of soccer-Yes. The fact remains that teams like the Stars do play some good ball and give youth players and coaches alike an opportunity to see a good game being played and can take something away for it in their development. If these people fail to see this then, well, I have no respect for them.

    Great article, BQ!

  6. Super Rookie permalink
    July 13, 2010

    While many people may not want to watch a Stars vs. AC St. Louis match, I am sure there are hundreds of thousands that we be interested in an FC Clip Art vs. Barracuda FC game in which the winner takes on the yet to be named Orlando franchise of the USL.

  7. July 13, 2010

    There is a difference between watching and experiencing a game. So-called purists that do not appreciate the distinction are perhaps not such purists after all. D2 is about up-close, hand-slapping, first-name-basis, beer-garden mingling, autographs-for-kids-on-the-field interaction between players and fans. One wants their team to win because they feel they have a real bond with the individual players. If one simply wants to watch “good” soccer, turn on the TV.

  8. ERic permalink
    July 13, 2010

    Excellent timing on this series. Very much looking forward to the rest of it. Makes me a little nervous, reading the ‘higher standards for stadiums’ bit, as the Aztex are currently in a stadium that everyone hates, but is the best option.

    But it makes me feel good to know that, while everything appeared to go silent, waiting for another winter of insanity, the USSF has actually been moving forward during the season. It gives me a little hope that things won’t be quite so insane this winter. It also gives me a little hope that we’ll have just one league next year, containing teams that are slightly more stable.

    Can’t wait to read the rest.

  9. Bobby permalink
    July 13, 2010

    Glad you’re doing this series.

    The regional thing really has to be done. We’ve lost a lot of teams due to insane travel costs, and almost lost Richmond — another old head by American standards — because of them.

  10. PollyAnna permalink
    July 13, 2010

    Great article BQ! I would be interested to see a comparision between the lower level professional leagues in other countries and here in the USA. I not sure if we need to keep recreating the wheel as much as adapting a wheel that has already been created.

    The little I know about the English Leagues is does seem as if they first have many different levels and that the lower levels are actively involved in their communities and youth programs. That the “towns” have great pride and ownership in their local teams. What are the lower leagues like in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Neatherlands, or Italy like? Does some sort of agreement need to be made with the professional teams and youth soccer, that will allow the professional teams more access into the communities and youth programs?

    I know during World Cup some comments were made that I found quite insulting regarding USA soccer. However, I think those comments completely disregarded the important role that lower leagues play in the development of soccer in USA. The further development of our professional league are essential to the development of the MLS as well as the US National team.

  11. Wayne permalink
    July 13, 2010

    Great job Brian. Keep it up.

    I hope USSF continues to manage D2 well into the future. It provides great leadership stability for the league and makes it more attractive for future owners and expansion. I don’t want to go thru again what happened earlier this year.

    Has USSF leadership indicated how long they will run the league?

  12. July 13, 2010

    PollyAnna. I will be pointing out the differences between other countries and North America in part 3 and there are major differences that you cannot imitate. I do agree that we are sorely missing some of the pride that takes place between teams when they are in close proximity. I think this is principally because we have not created rivalries where teams share a region. When Austin’s closest team is nearly 900 miles away it doesn’t exactly set up fans who take great pride in beating their rival city.

    Check into the US Development Academy and I think you will see that the fruits of project 2010 are starting to be seen. That is how US Soccer decided to try to emulate the club academies from other countries.

    We always want the pro teams to be working with the youth teams and they often do, but it costs the pro teams a lot f money to do so. Unless those teams are making a profit then how do they pay for these academies? Not saying it shouldn’t happen ideally but there is a reality of all this as well.

  13. July 13, 2010

    Thanks for the blog Brian, I’ve found this site to be the most knowledgeable place on non-MLS soccer info in America and I really appreciate the effort you put into it. Being a Clevelander, I know first hand about the perils of the lower leagues (as you folks in Minnesota do as well) and it’s nice to see the USSF want to do something about it.

    From what I’ve read through your other posts, it seems that USL forced us into USL-1 so I guess there is not much our actual team management could have really done and they probably forced the move into the larger capacity stadium but moving your stadium from a very nice actual soccer pitch right in the heart of downtown to a high school football stadium 35 minutes southeast of Cleveland just does not make sense.

    I also question the timing of everything because I cannot hold a grudge towards Rennie and the players for wanting to move up to USL-1 and maybe get a crack at MLS but for USL to announce we were moving up like two weeks after our entire team bolted for Carolina was just absurd, as you know, it was a death sentence.

    I really cannot wait for the rest of this series and your thoughts on things, I’ll be curious to see what you think should be done. I never understood why they’ve tried to force so many tiers, soccer is so young in America and without promotion and relegation with MLS, why don’t they just have one super second tier modeled after the PDL and then if it becomes more viable financially you can have a Champions League sort of thing with the regional winners. It’s just too much to expect west coast teams to travel to Puerto Rico or Bermuda to win a second of third tier championship.

    Until the USSF becomes the aggressor and sanctions something official or the MLS gets involved, I know we will all hope that these problems will get solved. Thanks again for everything BQ and I look forward to all of your future posts.

  14. July 13, 2010

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this series on D-2. I consider myself a bit of a purist, a “Euro-snob” if you will, and I wholeheartedly support D-2 and grassroots soccer. I don’t dismiss the importance of lower-level pro soccer at all, but embrace it as part of the natural development of our sport we so desperately need. (I do abhor logos will balls and ambiguous team names, however.)

    I must take exception with your point, “Also gone are the many North American soccer fans who followed the saga last winter. ” Not true. For weeks I’ve been combing through many blogs and other news outlets looking for ANYTHING that will shed light on what’s going on. There’s nothing out there, until now. It was this whole USL v. NASL debacle that lead me to your site to begin with. And I continue to return because you seem to be the only one keeping tabs on it. Again, I say thank you.

    I’m sure there are legal ramifications involved, but I was so hoping the NASL site would become a source of information beyond just game summaries. When Kartik took over, I thought the NASL brass made an excellent choice to use him to “manage the message,” so to speak. But they haven’t used the site to expanded on the vision, to keep the fans informed. This disappoints me.

    I am distrustful of the USSF running the D-2 show, but I’m also hopeful they correct the missteps taken by USL and set a more reasonable framework for the future. Something had to be done. Keep up the great work, Brian.

  15. July 13, 2010

    Quick comments:

    1 – While some folks – like us – are still interested in the machinations here, it seems to me to be absolutely true that the people who were feeding on the offseason story were more consumed by the sturm und drang and the controversy than they ever were or are now consumed by the soccer itself or what happens after the dust settles. If the dust kicks back up again, some of those people will be back. But there’s no question in my mind that the actual competition is less sexy to the bulk of those people than the drama was.

    2 – Any comparison of “our” second division with those around the world will be slightly off unless it takes into account the relative (un)popularity of the professional club sport in this country versus that in other countries. In short, we can’t necessarily do things like they do ITROTW at the Division I level for various reasons, we sure as hell can’t expect to do them that way at the Division II level.

    3 – DII seems to me to be less about developing players and more about providing the game to fans who (obviously) don’t have an EPL team near them or an MLS team that they can attach themselves to. If they can make a go of it, great. But some places simply aren’t going to be big enough or will have too much competition to deal with or any one of a number of other reasons why they simply can’t sustain a team. To be honest, while players at the DII level can improve their games, it seems to me like NSC Minnesota and the Tampa Bay Rowdies can exist for their own sakes, too, and have their own stars who can be a part of the fabrics of their communities without necessarily looking for that MLS contract or an overseas opportunity.

    4 – If USSF is really going to put some teeth into D2 regulations, that will be fabulous. Unfortunately, I fear there won’t be eight clubs who can live up to them fully for 2011 if they’re at all worthwhile. And I’m not optimistic about USSF holding firm. But we’ll see.

    5 – One doesn’t have to rip on USL if someone points out in passing (and just as an example) that St. Louis/Minnesota ain’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. You’re being a fanboy when you don’t recognize that NEITHER side in this squabble is exactly head and shoulders above the other. Don’t be so goddamn hyper-reactionary.

    I look forward to the rest of this series. DII is a valuable part of our soccer structure.

  16. July 13, 2010

    Excellent timing to take a look at this.

    I figure the short version of the solution will be “regionalization and MLS reserve teams.”

  17. PollyAnna permalink
    July 13, 2010

    BQ
    Great comments.

    My comment about getting the professional leagues involved in youth soccer has a bit to do with the MYSA/Thunder debacle. I think unless people beyond MYSA /State Organization get involved this will always be an issue. Unfortunately I think it is a step that is necessary in order for us to progress.

    While rivalries are good I also think it would help if more of the D2 teams had some personal ties into the community. I can’t help but think that some of the Thunder greatest years were with lot of local talent playing. I’ve been impressed with the Thunder PDL team, in many instances I believe they have provided a more entertaining product that has something to do with the familiar names involved. I don’t know what their attendance overall has been like but I would be interested to find out.

    Something also to think about, in other countries did they start with lots of interest in soccer or as the professional teams developed so did interest in soccer? In otherwords as often discussed here, what incentive do we provide that drives good athletes to train hard in soccer. Here in the US there little incentive (other than the pure love of the game) to work you butt off to become a highly skilled soccer players.

  18. MarkO permalink
    July 13, 2010

    This is some great work. Keep it up. Very informative.

  19. Kevin permalink
    July 13, 2010

    As a Vancouver Whitecaps fan from New York, I perfer to watch the USSF division 2 league over the EPL. In the EPL, it is the same teams winning the league. In the division 2 league, it is a different team winning the league, just like MLS. This is one of the best articles on soccer I have read in a long time, Thanks Brian!

  20. stpauljosh permalink
    July 14, 2010

    Nice article, Brian. Much thanks!

  21. July 14, 2010

    Excellent work, thanks for all your reporting BQ

  22. July 14, 2010

    PollyAnna, the discussion about local players playing for the Stars has been had many times. If they had local players who where good enough they would be on the team. The reality is we are not outputting enough players of the caliber to compete in D2. It’s just that simple.

    As to the Rochester Thunder numbers: http://www.kenn.com/the_blog/?p=3375

    Average attendance: 354

  23. July 14, 2010

    Brian, As always, first class reporting. You have filled a much needed gap for soccer fans. The coverage you provide for Non-MLS Soccer is second to none. Well Done !

  24. Dave permalink
    July 14, 2010

    Well done. Can’t wait to read the rest of your series.

  25. Lee permalink
    July 15, 2010

    Great read! I’m actually part of a group that is looking to set up first a PDL, then Div II team in Canada and reading this article has been very helpful.

  26. July 15, 2010

    thanks for sharing…

  27. Wayne C. permalink
    July 15, 2010

    Great reporting Brian and I can’t wait to read the remaining parts. I think Div II soccer is crucial in the States and I really enjoy following it, even from a distance in the Detroit area. I just wanted to make a few random comments.

    I hope the USSF’s recommendations and standards will be implemented and followed. I’m old enoough to have followed the old ASL that operated at the same time as the original NASL. I believe the average attendance for that league was, with a few exceptions, 2500 – 3500 fans. When I see the current USSF Div II reporting some attendances as under 2000 fans, I feel that some of the current owners have totally ignored the lessons of the past. If clubs like St. Louis and Minnesota (with their soccer histories) cannot consistently draw a minimum of 4000 – 5000 fans a game, then there’s something terribly wrong.

    I would like to see the clubs put together teams that have quality coaching and feature some recognizable player names so that a young promising player could develop his skills without falling into a career black hole.

    I hope that the more stringent vetting process will find organizations with the proper resources to accomplish some of these things. Anyways, great article(s)!

  28. Jason permalink
    July 15, 2010

    @PollyAnna: What are the lower leagues like in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Neatherlands, or Italy like?

    From my remembrance of Football Manager and Wikipedia, Portugal, Spain, and Italy regionalize their leagues starting at the third division level. Norway and Sweden do so as well.

    Netherlands splits into groups at the third division (not sure if they’re regional or national; the Belgian league splits into groups at the third and fourth division, but those are still organized on a national basis), with a further break into clubs playing on Saturdays or Sunday (that bit is cultural. The clubs organized with a Protestant Christian base typically weren’t allowed to play on Sunday, so they would play on Saturdays; the Catholic and working-class clubs would play on Sunday because their players with full-time jobs usually had to work on Saturdays).

    The Russian league is also regionalized at the third division level.

    Brazil is a bit of a weird case because they have a national league at the third division, but all their clubs also take part in state leagues. They have a 4th division where teams play in groups of 4, with the group winners advancing to a two-stage national knockout, which then gets exceptionally complicated in figuring out. Mexico and Chile (for a couple other examples) go regional at the third division.

  29. July 16, 2010

    Easily the most comprehensive view or lower div soccer in early 21st Century America I’ve read.

    but….

    What increases lower div investment more than opening promotion to every team, I wonder? God bless every owner out there who runs a second or third div team on a Bud and the Love of the Game. They deserve a shot at so much more.

    If we keep treating MLS like a fragile baby, a fragile baby is all it will grow up to be.

  30. Mike permalink
    July 16, 2010

    I have to strongly disagree with you. Soccer ‘purest’ are exactly the people who will watch MLS or D2, because they are the ones that love the game. The fans that only want to watch the Manchesters, the Milans and Barcelonas are not ‘pure’ soccer fans.

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