I am a soccer fan. I’m a MLS fan. I’m a US National team fan. I’m a fan of the goals and ambitions of the people running MLS and the USSF. Here are my thoughts and a suggestion for a very solid plan to reach those goals and ambitions. This plan alone will not get the MLS and USSF to where they want to be, but this is one fan’s idea for the next step that should be taken on the road to get there. First, let’s make sure everyone knows where "there" is. "There" is for the USSF to have a stable and profitable soccer pyramid across three tiers (MLS, NASL, and USLP). "There" is for the USMNT program to have a player pool stocked with talent that is unlike any generation before it. "There" is for MLS to be talked about as being a top 5-8 type league as far as talent and competition (The Don wants to say top 5 … I’ll be slightly more realistic and say top 5-8 at this point in time). If we get there the USMNT will be THE class of the CONCACAF region and MLS will be THE class of the CONCACAF region and their clubs will consistently perform well in the confederation’s club competitions.
I have been motivated by a couple of recent blog posts (like this one) and used the information they have presented to help give my plan some detailed end results. Each have their well thought out points and flaws, but I will present the big plan and show how those steps would put a specific club (Sporting KC) in a position to be a CCL Champion and ultimately compete in the World Club Cup Competition. The budget generator is a great tool, but as it says, it doesn’t take into consideration DP restrictions, international restrictions, and a big obvious one … you simply can’t blow the league up, start from scratch at a higher budget and have all of these types of players available to each and every team at these prices. So I took the information I have for Sporting KC as a basis to limit the need to completely start from scratch. Currently they’re a mid-table Eastern Conference team, but admittedly a team built on depth and not high end DP talent.
You can’t get anywhere worthwhile if you don’t have a plan.
The USSF and MLS need to make this plan fully transparent to the clubs and really to the country because more people will be able to help the process if they know the plan … and there is a lot of room for help. The plan is to help develop talent in the US as well as ensure the players we have on rosters are getting the minutes they need at the professional level. My suggested plan for the USSF is put out a clear "plan" moving forward with how they want to develop the US Soccer Pyramid. That plan is for the USSF to provide a stable full pyramid that is built from the MLS academies, through each tier of the United States soccer structure that culminates with MLS and allows for each player and tier to have a full potential for development and growth. The USSF has provided the support and structure to turn MLS into a premier league in North America and with that continuing support MLS can help the rest of the pyramid succeed with the my laid out plan. MLS has already started to benefit the sub-tiers of the American soccer landscape by settlements set forth with USL Pro. Now, it’s time for USSF and MLS to partner again to ensure that the game continues to grow and the footprint of professional soccer is not only grown geographically, but also through the talent and quality up through and including the USMNT by the following:
Step 1 – MLS teams will reduce the roster size from 30 to 25 (keeping roster restrictions with regards to DP’s, international players, etc.). Each MLS team will then create a U23 team of professionals to play in the 3rd Division of US Soccer. This team will have 20 paid players. MLS teams will be allowed to call up ANY player on the U23 team to be on the game day roster of any MLS full squad match. MLS teams will be allowed to send 2 players from the full squad team to support the U23 game day roster at any given time (restrictions could be made on these players … like U25 or injury rehab only).
Step 2 – USSF needs to present the goals for what they envision the soccer pyramid look like in 2018 (or sooner). Here is an example.
Is this perfect? No. I understand and appreciate that expansion is a bad idea if you don’t have the right ownership group in the right location and it’s better to NOT expand than to force something. I’ve taken the liberty to fill in some potential expansion locations to fill each league. Of course the names of cities could change but the USSF should look to help each division seek ownership groups and help set everyone in the league up for financial stability as well as developing and building stadium plans for all levels (I’ve put some estimates for sizes and examples of best available types below). I think MLS should commit to not expanding beyond this until 2020 to allow time for this pyramid to fill. I would also suggest that the MLS should make a blanket statement that you will NOT be in consideration for a future MLS expansion unless you have proven yourself in the NASL or USL for a minimum of 3 years. This will help motivate potential ownership groups and possibly scare ownership groups away that are just in it with a "MLS or Bust" type of motivation.
Step 3 – USSF Draft. MLS, NASL, USL will take part in a 5 round draft that will populate the teams from the college ranks. Due to many U18-U23 players being given opportunities on the MLS U23 teams there somewhat fewer highly talented players in the college level and more "Homegrown" types of players for MLS teams. I would start with a 5 round draft MLS gets to pick players in the 1st round, NASL in the 2nd, USL in the 3rd, , NASL in the 4th, and USL in the 5th. There will also be a draft held each year for the NASL and USL to draft players that will be released by MLS U23 teams. MLS teams may decide to release U23 players or they may simply have players reach the age above the limit and choose not to sign them to a full squad contract. There will be a week where other MLS teams can offer them a contract, and after that they will be put into a draft where NASL and USL teams can draft these players (this isn’t a "must" as these players could just be released into the open market to sign with anyone … just a good talking point).
Step 4 – US Open Cup. I would continue to put an emphasis on this competition. I would not allow the U23 teams in the US Open Cup but allow those players to be part of the player pool for that MLS’s team’s entry to that competition. I would consider publishing a full bracket after the draws have been made showing the exact path a team has to take to get to the finals … allowing for fans to take part in an NCAA tournament style type of "office bracket pool" to add interest.
There are many details to be finalized and this could get even more lengthy than it already is but I’m not sure who is hurt by this? USL Pro teams have less travel due to a more regionalized set up and the end of the season tournament draws more interest from their MLS counterparts. There are much more opportunities for US youth players to develop in a professional environment between the ages of 19 and 23 than there has ever been, and hopefully that opportunity provides more interest at the U18 and below levels given that there are more opportunities to continue to play the sport.
In Part 2 we will look at how this is to be financed and specifically what it looks like for one MLS club.