The Old Men are excited for the season to finally be here (despite the fact that FCC has a two-week break between games…) Please make sure to subscribe to the pod wherever you get your pods, and give us a follow on Twitter (@OldManUltras)
Anthony Precourt has announced he wants to move the Columbus Crew, the oldest MLS team, to Austin Texas. There is a sham part of the announcement regarding getting the city to buy him a new stadium in Columbus, but it is clear now that he purchased the Crew with intent to move to Texas.
I’ve seen a variety of takes on this so far, including the idea that the Crew moving might increase the chances of FCC joining MLS. Regardless of whether that’s true (and it probably is), all American soccer fans, including FCC fans, should be united in resisting this franchise relocation.
Ever since the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, American sports culture has allowed for the possibility that an owner can load the moving van and head out of town whenever they want, for really whatever reason they want. We’ve seen this play out repeatedly in all four major US sports leagues, and Americans have internalized this as a normal by-product of sports and sports fandom. Even yesterday, talking about the Crew situation with both die-hard and casual sports fans, there is a tone of understanding that I’d summarize as “well, it sucks but the owners are in it to make money, so what can you do”. What we can do, as fans, is it make it clear that soccer in the US should not be allowed to follow the extortionary pattern of franchise relocation that the other leagues have gotten away with. There is no inherent right for an owner of a team to play cities off against each other to increase his own profit; what there are are rules in both the leagues and the US Soccer Federation, as well as norms and customs, that dictate what is and isn’t allowable. And now is the time to say that franchise relocation is not okay.
I’ve been trying to think of ways that we as fans can have an influence on this situation. I have a couple of ideas:
- At the next home FCC match (either in the playoffs or next season), we pick a minute (I would vote for either the 21st minute if it’s this year or the 22nd if it’s to reflect the years the Crew have existed) and everyone in the Bailey go silent and turn their back on the field. We could have a pro-Crew, anti-MLS tifo to hold. A fan protest like that would definitely get media attention and would show solidarity between FCC fans and Crew fans.
- All US Soccer fans should lobby the US Soccer Federation to change the rules regarding what a league needs to do to qualify for Division 1 or Division 2 status, to explicitly state that a Division 1 or 2 league cannot allow for franchise relocation.
- Don Garber should hear from us, from all of us, about how MLS should not allow it’s owner/operators to play cities against each other.
As I’ve gone on at length before, I think MLS’ needs to rethink their strategy – they should lower expansion fees, expand massively and regionalize. Everything about this Crew move stinks, and it reflects a very backward, franchise scarcity model. To be fair, that model worked well for MLB, the NFL and the NBA, but I think it’s both a bad business model for the 21st century, and it’s also just wrong.
This is bigger than just the Crew or FCC. This is about changing the terms of what it means to own a soccer club. If Anthony Precourt wants to maximize his profit he can go back to being a hedge fund guy or whatever thing he did to get rich; owning a soccer club should mean holding a public trust as well as running a business. Just because it isn’t that way now doesn’t mean that we can’t demand that it be that way.
Thanks to our buddies Tampa Bay Rowdies, we are in the playoffs, even if we suck again this weekend against TFC 2. With that result, though, I’m now actively hoping we lose on Saturday, so that we get to open the playoffs at Louisville.. I think Koch should play a lineup of Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Quinn, Schindler.
There is a long-standing debate / holy war in American club soccer regarding whether MLS is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. A lot of this debate is focused on promotion and relegation, a subject much in the news as MLS considers another round of expansion (which includes hefty cartel-like buy-in fees) and the NASL lawsuit against the USSF (which, while it isn’t directly about pro/rel basically is). I’m not going to get into that debate, really. I find the idea of pro/rel attractive; I think most US sports leagues reward mediocrity and use franchise scarcity as a club to beat cities and fans with. However, I’d like to focus on a couple of other things that make soccer in Europe great that would be good to replicate in this country:
- More opportunity to win stuff;
- Better match-day experience.
Promotion and relegation do a couple of things in countries that use it (i.e. just about everywhere else). One is to ensure that clubs have incentives to try to win, at least enough to rise up the leagues or maintain a position in a top league. Another, though, is that it just gives more fans things to care about over the course of the year. One problem with MLS is that everything comes down to MLS Cup. Despite valiant efforts to make the Supporters Shield a Thing, it’s really not, and the unbalanced schedule makes it a Kind of Unfair Thing at best. The US Open Cup has been an underappreciated trophy in this country for a long time. I think this season’s competition, with a bar team doing a Go-Fund Me to play DC United and the long runs for both Miami FC and FC Cincinnati have given it some juice, which serves as a reminder that it’s good to have more stuff to win.
As for the match-day experience, at this point just about every American soccer club has a supporters’ section, complete with flags, songs, capos (even Louisville in their fucking baseball field!) There are lots of reasons why the game has grown, but I think the experience is part of it, and it’s something that American fans have consciously borrowed / adapted from Europe in general and England in particular.
One big disadvantage that MLS has relative to leagues in any European country (except for Russia) is geography. It’s basically impossible to have away fans for matches between two teams across multiple time zones. However, the local rivalries that do exist are clearly among the MLS flagship matches of the year: think the Hudson River derby between NYCFC and NYRB, or Philadelphia vs. DC United, the Pacific NW matches between Vancouver / Portland / Seattle, etc.
To maximize these regional rivalries, give US fans more of the good stuff of multiple trophies and competitions, and put a better framework in place to ultimately maybe get to promotion / relegation, I’m proposing three things:
- Massive expansion of the league to 36 teams;
- Division of MLS into 4 regional leagues;
- The creation of a North American “Champions-league”, populated by the winners of the regional leagues.
Imagine this. In 2022, MLS consists of the following Regional Leagues:
The North Atlantic Soccer League (NASL (I couldn’t help myself))
- DC United
- Montreal Impact
- *Ottawa Fury
- NE Revolution
- *New York Cosmos
- Philadelphia Union
- Toronto FC
Longest road trip: DC to Montreal (9.25 hours)
Median road trip: 6 hours
Percentage of road trips under 5 hours: 42%
Percentage of road trips under 8 hours: 88%
|Trips under 5||4||1||3||5||5||5||2||4||1|
Great existing rivalries; bringing the Fury onboard gives us a nice Canadian flavor. The longest road-trip is DC to Montreal at just over 9 hours. Everyone has at least 1 road-trip less than 5 hours; the New York teams have 5, DC & Philly 4.
The Great Lakes Soccer League
- Columbus Crew SC
- Chicago Fire
- *Detroit City
- *FC Cincinnati
- *Indianapolis XI
- Minnesota United
- Sporting KC
- *St. Louis FC
Longest road trip: 11.75 hours, Detroit to Sporting
Median distance: 5.5 hours
Percentage of road trips under 5 hours: 47%
Percentage of road trips under 8 hours: 75%
This is a great travel region. Everyone except Sporting & MN have 4 or more trips under 5 hours. It’s not our fault no one lives near Minnesota.
|Trips under 5||4||5||4||5||6||5||0||1||4|
The Southern US Soccer League
- Atlanta United
- *FC Carolina
- FC Dallas
- Houston Dynamo
- *Miami FC
- Orlando City
- *San Antonio Toros
- *Tampa Bay Rowdies
Longest road trip: 20.25 hours (FC Carolina to San Antonio)
Median distance: 11 hours
Percentage of road-trips under 5 hours: 17%
Percentage of road-trips under 8 hours: 31%
|Trips under 5||1||0||1||2||2||1||2||1||2|
Okay, this is where it starts to get tough. Carolina winds up with no one w/in 5 hours (Atlanta, at a little over 6 hours is the closest). If we put Carolina in the Northeast or moved DC to the South they’d get a 4 hour road trip. Atlanta & Nashville have each other and then a bunch of long drives, and then we wind up with the Texas & Florida trios which more or less work as “pods” within the league.
The Mountain West Soccer League
- Colorado Rapids
- LA Galaxy
- Real Salt Lake
- San Jose
Longest Road trip: Vancouver to Colorado
Median distance: 12 hours
Percentage of road-trips under 5 hours: 14%
Percentage of road-trips under 8 hours: 28%
|Trips under 5||0||1||1||1||0||1||3||2||1|
The West is obviously also going to be tough. Colorado and Salt Lake are just not close to anyone. Adding Sacramento connects San Jose and the LA teams nicely. Also, the cities along the West Coast can take advantage of reasonable commuter airline flights that connect Seattle to LA.
Overall, though, it’s not a bad picture – over half the teams in the league have 2 or more easily driveable road trips. In addition, this regional framework gives us an opportunity to continue to expand: add teams in Charlotte and Richmond to fill out the Southeast a bit. Add San Diego, Phoenix and Vegas and the Southern California / Southwest starts to fill out. Plus, do we really think Chicago and Toronto couldn’t support two clubs each? Could Madison support a pro team and give Minnesota fans a reasonable road trip? (I think they could.) I think you could get to a future state where the four Major Soccer Leagues (see what I did there?) could have a total of 48-52 teams, just about all of them with major away fan presence at a decent percentage of their games. It’s always going to be tough for Colorado, KC, Minneapolis and Salt Lake, and the West and South are always going to be split into north/south east/west/north “pods” respectively, but I think the overall picture winds up much better than the current state.
As for how the competition calendar would work, you’d start by playing everyone in your league home and away. Since we are starting out with 9 team leagues, I’d say you play each team in your league home and away twice – 32 matches. Whoever has the most points wins the league – no playoffs, just a straight table (or 4 straight tables). However, the top 3 or 4 teams in each league qualify for the following season’s Major Soccer Leagues’ Champions League. This is modeled after the UEFA champions league, where you play a set of group play matches to qualify for a knockout phase, ultimately leading to the MSL Cup Final. So a team going all the way through would play another 6 group matches, two legged semi-finals and a final. That would be 9 more. Everyone would get Open Cup matches. I would ditch the CONCACAF Champions League if I’m honest; if we have to stay in because of FIFA, I’d give it to the MSL and Open Cup champs.
The benefits of this setup include:
- More chances to win stuff – there would be 6 major trophies available across the 38 teams (the four leagues, the MSL Cup and the US Open Cup).
- Way more player friendly travel schedule: No one has to play “normal” league matches across more than 1 time zone.
- Significant away fan presence at about half the matches in the Northeast and the Midwest, and 15-20% of the matches in the South & West.
- Extra-regional games that actually mean something. The MSL Champions League concept helps weed out the “Columbus vs San Jose” game that nobody really cares about. Because matchups in the Champions League will be less common, you should get a higher level of interest.
- More media packages. Each of the regional leagues could have a set of media packages (on TV and streaming) with a separate package for the Champions League.
- A better framework to continue to expand the league.
The biggest downsides I can see are:
- Dilution of the player pool. This is probably the biggest concern, though I don’t know if it’s that big of a problem. At the salary level that MLS teams pay the vast majority of their players, there should be a relatively elastic supply of replacement level players. Miami & Cincinnati this year were competitive against MLS squads. I also think there is potential for increased alignment with youth soccer development which would be a very good thing. Champions League caliber teams would have to have bigger squads, so the whole salary cap/ DP structure would have to evolve or have different allowances for teams that qualify.
- “Edge” cities. It would sort of suck if Louisville and Nashville (who are only a few hours apart) never play each other. I did as good a job as I could balancing that out, but I think it’s inevitable that some possible regional rivalries will be “over the wall”.
- Too much expansion. There is no doubt that adding 13 teams over a very short period of time would be traumatic, and it increases the chances that a few of the teams won’t make it. I have been a bit chagrined about how crappy the crowds are in a place like St. Louis or Charlotte for their USL teams (FC Cincinnati fan snob klaxon). However, it’s clear that MLS likes most of the 12 groups that have applied for this latest round of expansion; my proposal basically says let them all in (and throw the Cosmos in as well in a great bit of lawsuit negotiation). Some of them won’t make it, but each region has a few viable contenders to take their place (or even better join ‘em).
Overall this regional approach to the American top division gives us more of what makes soccer unique, and what’s made it successful in this country: a great match-day experience for fans.