In terms of improving the U.S. Soccer scene over the next decade, let’s start with what isn’t going to happen:
Promotion-relegation will never land on U.S. shores. This concept sits atop the wish lists of a disquieting number of domestic soccer fans. Why? Because that’s the way they do in Europe, and emulating Europe is a time-honored guilty pleasure for futbol fans on our side of the Atlantic. But know this about Europe: they also put mayonnaise on fries over there, which is all the proof you need that just because they do it in London, Lisbon and Lyon, it’s not necessarily right.
Mayonnaise on fries just ain’t right. And while I do love the concept of promotion-relegation and all its evocative nuance, such a system in an American sports culture inextricably attached to (and perhaps even enslaved by) corporate sponsorships and the mighty TV dollar simply will not ever be a good fit.
So there you are. Now, as our heroic soldiers on the battlefield might say, "Let’s not worry about the ones already dead, let’s worry about the ones we can still save."
In Major League Soccer, the only way is "up" in terms of salary. The current $2.3 million cap (per team) must rise in order for the quality to continue on the incline, as it has over the last few years. (Euro soccer snobs in our country, and they are legion, don’t want to believe this. But how would they know? They don’t watch MLS. It’s easier to sit back and be elitist about it all than to actually educate themselves on how much the level of play has improved over the last 5-6 years. But I digress…)
Obviously, any elevation in the level of team compensation can’t be accomplished in a vacuum. MLS teams aren’t making money. So it’s not good enough simply to raise the flag of "Higher salaries for all!" It has to be managed, and it must go hand in hand with efforts to draw more to the gate and more eyes to the TV screens.
That’s where Major League Soccer must make the real progress. Individual clubs simply must shake up the Etch-a-Sketch when it comes to marketing their sides. They have to slough off the old ways of thinking about selling the game. Out: the ol’ "bring in the families" model. It’s as dated as disco. Chasing the suburban family, the one with 2.3 children, the one looking for some good entertainment on three random Saturday nights a year, is no way to build real allegiance. It doesn’t build a proper fan base.
MLS teams must create true allegiance by creating better community bonds. They must find ways to stir up real passion. Fans don’t just need to show up on Saturday night; they need to show up and truly want their team to win. They have to feel invested. That way, they’ll start planning events around games (the way football fans do), buying season tickets and sharing passion for their team around the water cooler on Monday mornings.
Truly effective marketing strategies go hand-in-hand with proper stadium development. And by "proper development" I mean "urban." Stop putting facilities in the suburbs and start putting them in urban areas. Yes, the land is cheap, and cost effective land acquisition is an important part of the equation. It’s a tricky balance, to be sure.
Still, look at what happened in Toronto and Seattle, where the stadiums sit downtown or just beyond. Those places are rocking, the same will Portland and Vancouver will be next year in MLS when they launch expansion franchises in downtown venues.
When a few more markets like that are created, money flowing in through TV contracts will rise appreciably, greater national awareness will enhance the value for all clubs, sponsors will be easier to woo and – yes – it will be easier for owners to stomach the salary cap increases that are essential to continued quality on the field.
See how we tied that off into a nice, tidy package? Oh, if it were truly that easy. It’s not … but smart leadership will make it plausible, at least.
From a numbers standpoint, MLS commissioner Don Garber has been aggressive on expansion. He’s on the right track. A 24-team league by the end of the decade is within easy reach. Chances are strong that it will get there.
For the United States national team, there’s not a lot going on right now that needs to change at the senior level. The progress needs to come at the youth levels, where the U.S. soccer establishment must continue to devise better ways to reach deep into the soccer-playing community to identify top talent.
There is absolutely no reason why the next Jose Francisco Torres needs to slip through the cracks. Torres is the Texas-born talent who was recruited by Mexico’s Pachuca at a young age. He was subsequently identified by the United States, and is now a member of the national team pool. But his story serves as a cautionary tale and an example of how the U.S. Soccer mechanisms for identifying the best and brightest youth talent require constant tweaking and efforts at improvement.
It’s a big country, and some of the little fishes will always get through the net. But only through diligent effort to tighten the nets will the establishment ensure itself the best chance of scooping up the highest percentage possible.
From an administrative standpoint, U.S. Soccer needs to develop a "points program," one that rewards the best U.S. Soccer fans for showing up at World Cup qualifiers. It’s a complicated issue, I realize, because it’s a big country and getting to qualifiers is a challenge in a day of, as Jon Stewart calls it, the national "Cluster---- to the Poor House."
The point is, every four years there’s a rush to buy World Cup tickets. It won’t be quite so bad this year because the World Cup is in South Africa; travel and economics are problematic, which will hold down the number of World Cup-related visitors from our country. But future World Cups in Brazil and (most likely) England will bring an absolute stampede of would-be ticket buyers. This hoard will include band-wagon types who have no interest (and possibly no awareness) of qualifiers along the way against the likes of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala and such. A match against Guatemala in Nashville just isn’t as sexy as a match against England in the World Cup, after all. But these qualifier matches are important, too, and U.S. Soccer must find ways to reward the good and loyal fans who show up at these essential contests. The most obvious way is by adding incentives that provide the first shot at purchasing World Cup seats. (This type of program could also help keep World Cup tickets out of scalpers’ hands. And who wouldn’t like to see that?)
In youth soccer, with U.S. Soccer’s guidance, systems must be created that actually strive to develop players and young people. Currently, it’s not done this way. Not really.
I’m no expert here, but best I have always been able to tell about the ways and means of youth soccer in this country, too many decisions are made not with the development of the child in mind, but with the best interests of the clubs or the coaches.
I’m not talking about the recreational level, where there are many, many good people devoting many hours to kids who will never, ever play professionally. I’m referring to the world of competitive soccer, where so many of the decisions are made with the club in mind. For instance, club officials begin pressuring children at the age of 10 or 11 to choose soccer as their main sport. Why? Because practicing twice a week and devoting time and money to travel and out-of-town tournaments helps justify the cost of paying salaries to coaches and underwriting the other substantial costs of playing competitive youth soccer. Meanwhile, a 10- or 11-year old must make a decision that drastically impacts his or her future.
A 10- or 11-year old might have trouble choosing which video game they want for Christmas. Asking them to make these larger choices strikes me as unpleasant, at very best.
That’s just one small example. But U.S. Soccer does need to take the lead here and begin to provide better guidance. So do other leaders in the sport.