January 6th, 2017, the United States Soccer Federation made an important and long-awaited announcement about the status of the North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer League (USL) and their sanctioned levels within the US Soccer structure. What happened was unprecedented, with both leagues receiving a provisional Division 2 sanction. There was a huge amount of discussion that took place following the announcement with many arguing about whether either league deserved D2, or what the co-D2 sanction meant for future sanctioning of professional leagues by USSF. But what few noticed with USL’s move from D3 to provisional D2 was that there was now a large gap between America’s professional leagues, who are sanctioned by USSF, and its amateur ones, sanctioned by United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA). This gap could be seen as problematic to some, with the perceived gap in quality between professional and amateur players becoming less a perceived than a practical one. Though to others, this gap doesn’t represent a chasm but an opening. The USASA is in a position now to take advantage of that opening.
The USASA kept soccer alive in the United States through the dark days when professional soccer in the country was nothing but a distant memory, maintaining the US Open Cup as well as amateur cup competitions and leagues. The country’s authority on amateur soccer has always been a vital part of the set up in the States, and now they may have the ability to shape the domestic game. USASA’s role in the US Soccer landscape right now is as the sanctioning body of all the amateur competitions, cups and leagues that occur nationwide. Currently, the sheer number of clubs and leagues at amateur levels is daunting, but the increasing interest in and growing influence of these amateur levels, due in large part to social media, leave USASA with a very interesting opportunity. With so many leagues and clubs at so many assumed “levels” of US Soccer, USASA can not only provide some much-needed structure to these levels but also begin identifying the clubs that could play at higher levels. Uniting the amateur leagues and creating links between national, regional, and state amateur competitions just might be the key to player and coach development while increasing the relevance and influence of amateur soccer in the United States. This article will explore some of the existing leagues and clubs, attempt to clarify the current situation, and look at the way we can improve the structure in the future under USASA.
The State and City Leagues
State and City Leagues are a vastly overlooked part of American soccer. So much discussion occurs at national levels that it becomes increasingly easy to forget that the way truly impressive and organic movements happen is at the grassroots levels first. Much of the reason for this is the utter fact that the State Soccer Federations in the US are incredibly weak, with only a handful even sanctioning amateur state leagues. In Brazil, strong State Football Federations have fostered an environment where even the largest clubs take part in their respective State Leagues in addition to the Brazilian Serie A, an impressive reinforcement of the importance of the local game. There are several leagues and clubs in the US that are making waves at the local level in an attempt to give more and more communities the ability to field teams which represent them. The best examples of this to date are the Cosmopolitan Soccer League (CSL) of New York City and the Evergreen Premier League of Washington (EPLWA).
German-Americans who wanted a league for their city founded the CSL in the 1930’s in NYC. Over the course of their 80-year history, the CSL has grown immensely in participation and diversity and now boasts 85 clubs across nine divisions. This has allowed them to implement promotion and relegation between their divisions, with their top two tiers requiring the clubs to field a reserve team as a condition of their promotion. The links between the divisions give teams incentive to perform and to grow their club by adding a reserve team, giving more opportunities to more players and increasing the footprint and influence of the club. Several of the clubs in the 1st Division have taken part in the US Open Cup in recent history as well, with Landsdowne Bhoys making a run to the third round last year before being eliminated by Rochester Rhinos. The CSL is, however, disconnected from the state league that could easily thrive in a state full of football clubs and City or Sub-State Leagues. If that connection is established, we could see more successful state leagues like the one across the country from New York and the CSL.
The EPLWA says in its own mission statement that its goal is “is to cultivate ‘football club’ culture while providing opportunities for coaches, owners, supporters, players and towns to enjoy the sport and all of the community-building it can bring.” This approach can be very refreshing in juxtaposition to the money of modern football. The league has run for three years now and currently has eight clubs, with Vancouver Victory claiming the latest championship. This league is made possible through a very strong relationship with one of the few strong State federations, the Washington State Adult Soccer Association. Another hallmark of the EPLWA’s approach is social media engagement. This approach can be seen up and down US Soccer, but the reality is that EPLWA is reaching far more people around the country than it would be without a strong Facebook and Twitter presence. The example of a well-organized, community-focused State League for other states to follow could prove to be a difference maker as there are many communities that could start and thrive at this state level but simply do not know how to get off the ground. With strong State Leagues across the country, with a notable one popping up in Texas (Texas Premier Soccer League) and successful, long-running ones in Colorado, Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey and elsewhere on the East Coast, their relevance could be increased with greater connection to the regional leagues that currently exist. If there are 50 strong state leagues in the country, imagine the impact that could have on the amateur game from a talent development and identification standpoint.
The Regional Leagues
The next step up has experienced a lot of growth over the last year, with regional leagues garnering more and more attention. The most notable of these leagues are the Gulf Coast Premier League (GCPL) and the Premier League of America (PLA). These leagues have been established in areas where strong State Federations do not exist and clubs banded together to give themselves serious competition outside of the USASA Amateur Cup. These leagues seem like a very fitting bridge between State Leagues and National Leagues, and the two examples today are very strong leagues with great clubs.
The GCPL is based in a state with quite a strong State Federation, the Louisiana Soccer Association. The league began as the Louisiana Premier League and in 2016 decided to take the league to a regional level to include cities and states that did not have the backing of their State Federations. The league currently boasts seven clubs but has added four more who will join in the summer. The league now includes teams from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, living up to their name. What is important to note about these clubs is that they have all expressed their desire to help bring an authentic, community experience to their cities, while connecting those communities to other ones along the Gulf Coast. This development and approach are hugely important in further developing a bright and vibrant soccer culture across the US.
The PLA was formed originally as the Great Lakes Premier League and has an interesting position as the league that contains perhaps some of the most historic clubs in US Soccer. Clubs like Milwaukee Bavarians, RWB Adria of Chicago, Croatian Eagles of Milwaukee, and FC Carpathia of Michigan have been playing the game for a long time and have kept soccer alive in the US when it seemed all but dead. The mix of these clubs with new, vibrant clubs like Cedar Rapids Rampage United, Aurora Borealis SC, and Oakland County FC has produced what, for my money, is one of the best amateur soccer competitions in the country based on the quality of the teams that participate. Adria, Bavarians, Croatian Eagles and Carpathia have been going to and winning amateur cups for longer than most owners in the PLA have been alive. Currently, the league has teams in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio. This Midwestern Regional League is having their annual general meeting as of the writing of this article, so their full footprint will not be understood until their new expansion clubs are announced. The opportunity presented to clubs joining the PLA is one where the competition will be absolutely some of the toughest offered at amateur levels but the exposure happens at a national level, with the champion also qualifying for the US Open Cup.
The challenge that faces these leagues is often costs associated with travel. The clubs operate on small budgets but traveling across a region can make it very challenging on clubs who do not have the infrastructure in place to support it. Notably, Minneapolis City SC departed the PLA for the NPSL, which was forming a new division that would decrease MPLS’s travel costs. These regional leagues have the potential to be huge for the communities that participate, but there needs to be genuine connection both downward to the State Leagues and up to National Amateur Leagues. This is where USASA can really exert their influence.
The National Leagues
In terms of truly national amateur soccer leagues, there is really only one, the National Premier Soccer League. However, due to the sheer amount of clubs involved and a growing footprint, I’ve decided to include the United Premier Soccer League as well. With the NPSL encompassing the whole country but being most prevalent east of the Rocky Mountains, and UPSL mainly focusing west of the continental divide, it seems that there are lines beginning to be drawn concerning the top divisions at the amateur levels.
The NPSL started, oddly enough, in Northern California and has since expanded nationwide. Whether on purpose or accident, the NPSL’s influence has shifted east and that is due in no small part to Joe Barone, the Commissioner of the NPSL and the Chairman of NYC club, Brooklyn Italians. In addition to Mr. Barone, the NPSL’s most influential clubs exist on the east coast and in the Midwest, with Italians, Chattanooga FC, and Detroit City FC being some of NPSL’s standout clubs. The league’s vision is to reach a level of “100 clubs in 100 communities” in order to aid in player development and the nurturing of a soccer culture in each of those communities. With regular season play that takes place on a regional level, but playoffs that include teams from all over the country, the national format of the NPSL is very attractive for clubs in terms of their potential exposure as well as the ability to claim a national championship in an amateur league without travel costs reaching unsustainable levels. Several clubs from NPSL also take part in the USOC and this can only help them develop the culture and increase the impact of their clubs.
The UPSL has had a whirlwind few months. The league, which started in Los Angeles in 2011, has exploded to include 53 clubs from five states, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada. This rapid expansion is due in large part to UPSL’s vision of improving communities, raising the standard of play, providing affordable entertainment, and providing an intense environment for young athletes to continually improve. These goals have attracted a lot of interest in the Western states, and this expansion has emboldened the UPSL to implement what a lot of people have been asking for in US Soccer, promotion and relegation.
Starting this year, the UPSL will divide into two divisions, the Pro Premier Division and the Championship Division. What this system allows the UPSL to do is to allow the play on the field to decide whether clubs deserve to be at a higher level, rather than using market studies or focus groups. The appeal of teams being able to win their way to the top has spurred this expansion and increased the influence of the UPSL. So with the UPSL and NPSL competing for clubs and communities, this is where USASA can make an impact.
The Way Ahead
USASA has identified those leagues that represent the highest levels of amateur soccer in the US, calling them Premier Leagues. This move has helped increase the profile of some state and regional leagues but has done little to clarify the structure of what would be referred to as “Non-League” levels in other countries. The USASA has taken the first steps in identifying the leagues that are doing the most work and exemplifying the type of clubs that any soccer fan in America wants to see succeed. Ones focused on community and player development opportunities. The next step is to officially establish the structure and unify the existing leagues into a pyramid. USASA has plenty of options. They could install NPSL as the national amateur top tier, with UPSL, PLA, GCPL and perhaps the American Soccer League of the northeast becoming the tier beneath, followed by all of the state leagues at a lower tier. With so many clubs across the whole country at these lower levels and with plenty of them doing great work at a community level, there has never been more incentive to unify these clubs into a system that rewards those who excel above their peers and allow those clubs national exposure. However USASA decides to go forward, the bottom line is that there needs to be a genuine structure and connection between these leagues if we want the amateur levels of our game to thrive while the clubs that succeed are allowed to rise to the top. You cannot build a pyramid without a foundation, and the USASA has a great opportunity to solidify that foundation while the top of the pyramid is being repaired.