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Sunil Gulati, Captain of the USSF Black Pearl

Wednesday 11th January 2017

Just to be certain, I did a quick search on IMDb. USSF President Sunil Gulati did not have a role in Pirates of the Caribbean. At least not an accredited one. It's possible he was an overlooked extra dressed as a pirate in one scene or another. If so, it would certainly help to explain the American football association's decision, last week, to designate both the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer League as Division II competitions.

Football associations, federations, confederations, and all other iterations of such organized bodies make a big deal about rules, fair play, and level playing fields being their sole reason for existence. They proudly claim to guard their game. Yet, the football-loving public tends to see these executives as pirates looting and pillaging the sport they love. Recent interventions by various law enforcement agencies around the world have only reinforced the notion.

Captain Jack Sparrow, Hector Barbossa, along with the rest of the Pirates of the Caribbean had a rule book of sorts themselves. Known as the Code of the Order of the Brethren, it defined proper pirate behavior. Yet, by definition, being pirates made adhering to any code a challenge. Therefore, every rule in theirs was subject to interpretations of the widest latitudes. As Barbossa put it, "the Code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules."

Apparently, the USSF works in a similar fashion. How else do you explain two competitions occupying the same tier in a football pyramid? Neither is a regional league. What's more, according to the USSF's "code," neither actually qualifies to be a second-tier league.

To be fair, the USSF has labeled both leagues status as provisional. It will have a think, then, at an unspecified future date, announce which measures within what timetable will be required to earn one or both full status.
To be honest as well as fair, establishing any hierarchy for the leagues below Major League Soccer is completely irrelevant from a competitive standpoint. There is no promotion or relegation at any level. It's all about money. To move into the top flight, the two new MLS franchises which begin play in 2017, the Atlanta and Minnesota Uniteds will have to pay a $150 million fee. Huh. Pirates are known for demanding ransom, aren't they?

Finishing in your league's top two or three, or winning a playoff, simply doesn't matter to MLS. Minnesota United played in the NASL in the recently completed 2016 season. Like many Latin American leagues, it was divided into two mini-seasons. The club finished fourth, then eighth in the Spring and Fall competitions. Atlanta United did not even exist before being awarded a place in Major League Soccer. Meanwhile, New York Cosmos, the NASL champions three of the past four years, opted against joining the top flight when the franchise fee was only $100 million a few years ago. Manchester City came along to purchase the slot. Now, the iconic American brand is frozen out. Even if it hadn't been facing bankruptcy before finding a new owner, MLS has clearly stated it does not want more than two franchises in a single market. Money talks, skill sets walk.

Although it's beginning to sound like it, this isn't an argument for installing promotion/relegation in North America's professional leagues. Doing so would be an extremely difficult proposition logistically, even were there sufficient investors willing to risk relegation's financial consequences. Those with a bias towards promotion/relegation might ask why? Like MLS, the NASL, and the USL, the Football League includes clubs from two countries, England and Wales, and its lower divisions are divided regionally. If one organization can make it work, why not the other?

Both points are true. Conveniently ignored, though, is the comparative land mass between the two pairings. Canada is the second largest nation in the world, the United States third. The United Kingdom, of which England and Wales are merely parts, is seventy-eighth. Should you remove Scotland and Northern Ireland from the equation, England and Wales together fall to one hundred twenty-third in the global rankings. If you're into jigsaw puzzles, you could fit the duo into the United States sixty-five times alone, one hundred thirty-one times into both the US and Canada. So, if lower division clubs in the Football League pyramid are separated by region to ease travel cost and distance, imagine the financial obstacles facing the eight-team NASL 2017 edition.
San Francisco is 5,010 km from Miami. Edmonton is 4,860 km from South Beach. Puerto Rico FC, not even on the continent, plays in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, 1,660 km, or 897 nautical miles from Miami. The two clubs nearest each other are the two Florida sides, Jacksonville Armada and Miami FC, 556 km apart. North Carolina FC's WakeMed Soccer Park is 736 km from Jacksonville. No other club is within 1,000 km of another.

In England's second tier, the Championship, the two clubs currently farthest apart are Newcastle and Brighton & Hove Albion. The distance between them is, like Jacksonville and Miami, 556 km. In other words, no English second division side ever has to travel farther to a match than a NASL club. Try budgeting new side San Francisco's travel for the season in a league without a television contract. Imagine the fatigue all those air miles place on players. Now imagine trying to coax fans into traveling to away matches to increase revenue.
Promotion/relegation may have worked in North America had soccer been as popular as baseball, hockey, basketball, and gridiron football during the twentieth century's first half. At the time, most professional sports teams were situated in the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions, where the North American population was most concentrated. It was only after WWII that the top leagues began expanding westward into more distant markets.

Had they gotten in on the ground floor, so to speak, American soccer leagues could have permitted play on the pitch to establish the top sides, as occurred in Europe. Certainly, prior to latter twentieth century expansion, NFL and NHL clubs evolved from natural selection. Major League Baseball had already completed the process before WWI.

Having to play catch up to carve out a market share means the USSF must build its pyramid from the top tier down. To that end, MLS has entered into an agreement with the USL to create a similar set-up to Spain's. Each MLS club has committed to establishing a 'B' side which will compete in the lower division with an eye to developing then promoting the best youth players to the senior club, as is done in North American baseball and hockey.

Due to its relationship with MLS, the USL will field thirty clubs in 2017. Its issues with second tier status have more to do with market and stadium size. Many of its clubs do not play in "soccer specific" stadia. As well, their home grounds typically seat well under ten thousand. When you combine the limited gate receipts with extended travel and other North American sports' popularity, it becomes evident how difficult it is to cultivate grassroots support for the beautiful game in North America.

Labeling the USSF board pirates may seem unfair when the challenges to establishing lower leagues are taken into account. It was done tongue in cheek, of course. Sunil Gulati and his crew are simply affording both leagues every opportunity to gain a foothold. The federation is bending over backward to support the NASL and USL so that one or (hopefully) both will one day thrive. Then, rather than just promoting the most successful sides into a thirty-plus club MLS, the looting and pillaging can really begin. Drink up me hearties, yo ho.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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