U.S. Soccer Federation needs to be more proactive in helping lower leagues grow

Update (10:40 p.m.):

The U.S. Soccer Federation finally made it’s ruling on the NASL and USL Friday evening, moving the USL up to Division II status while leaving the NASL at Division II. My points below still stand.

Original Column

If you haven’t been keeping up with saga of the National American Soccer League fight for survive, you’re in luck. No one outside of those at the top knows what the heck is going on.

For a while in the waning days of 2016, it seemed that the NASL would no doubt be folding before they ever kicked off a 2017 season. The only question was how many teams would make the jump over to the United Soccer League to keep playing.

But now there are signs of life that the league might actually be able to keep the ship afloat for another year. There are six teams with stable ownership ready to go for 2017, another team that could be “league owned” and, this is the biggest key, the New York Cosmos have a new owner lined up.

There is one catch to all of this, however, and that’s contingent on the league staying in Division II and the USL remaining Division III when the USSF makes that long-awaited decision Friday afternoon (hopefully). Essentially, the USSF’s decision will either keep or kill the NASL, and potentially a number of teams.

But the fact it’s come to this point highlights the fact that the USSF needs to be more proactive in supporting these lower league to keep the sport growing in this country.

It’s not much of a secret that the USSF has been buddy buddy with MLS. It was one of the things that helped the league go from being one of the many failing top division leagues in the United States to the stable league today that’s growing every season.

But it’s time for the USSF to expand its focus outside of the top division of American soccer. Instead, it needs to turn to these lower divisions — not only the NASL and USL but also the NPSL and PDL — and make sure that they are stable and can grow as well. 

While MLS will get all of the national headlines and recognition because it is the top league, the lower leagues still have a very vital role in the development of soccer. The biggest is player development. Even as MLS academies continue to improve, it still won’t be enough to cover the entire country. That’s where these lower division teams come in. There are a lot more of them, and if they can feel stable enough to create academies on their own, more players can get more opportunities to get noticed and then the talent of this country improves as well.

Also, these lower division teams help create new soccer fans across the country as well. How many new soccer fans are there in the Cincinnati area now because of what FC Cincinnati has been able to do? If people know their local team and that league is going to be around for a while, then they’re more likely to become fans of the sport and that helps out everyone as well.

So what does the USSF need to do to make sure this development continues?

First, it needs to not pick favorite league (like MLS) that it supports wholeheartedly while ignoring other leagues. It needs to help out leagues, like the NASL, that are struggling and to find ways to make sure those leagues stick around.

And second, it needs to organize the pyramid structure in this country a whole lot better. Right now, the division requirements seem incredibly arbitrary and as if they were thrown together at the last second. The USSF needs to get everything in order in terms of division requirements, and then they need to get all of the leagues in order with those requirements so that everything is nice and orderly. I guess in short, the USSF needs to do everything it can short of just taking those leagues over. It needs to be proactive rather than reactive.

Ideally, this will all lead potentially to a promotion and relegation system once the American soccer landscape is able to support such a system. But that’s a (very) long-term goal that shouldn’t necessarily be the focus. Instead, the USSF needs to do every thing it can to not pick “winners” and make sure that all leagues are stable in order to keep the sport growing in the U.S.