The lower strata of American soccer – that is, everything underneath the “third tier” USL – is an unkempt rambling bramble patch of confused identity. The further into its expanse you travel, the darker the overhanging limbs and the more stifling the air. Even most of the most ardent U.S. soccer supporters couldn’t tell you the manner of beasts that live in those dens.
For some context, here’s a side-by-side look of the U.S. and England (sorry about it) cobbled together last year by Wrong Side of the Pond.
It just becomes a fractured glass with an obscure painting inside. You guess the NCAA is part of the pyramid somewhere, considering it feeds directly into the USL and NASL and MLS, but where exactly is it? How do USCS and USYS fit into the puzzle? State leagues? What are those, even?
One league you don’t see on that pyramid, incomplete as it is, is the United Premier Soccer League. The UPSL was formed in 2011 primarily to service the massive underutilized ‘tweener population of SoCal soccer players. It’s technically referred to as a fifth tier league, although that’s entirely an interpretative measure. It’s an amateur league made entirely for players who fell into the Neverwhere of American soccer. Perhaps the Development Academy didn’t work out, or perhaps you’re an under-recruited player at a D2 school. Players of all backgrounds flock to the league in hopes of perhaps catching on elsewhere.
Most of the time their visibility is relegated to U.S. Open Cup runs. PSA Elite notably bumped off LA Galaxy II in the 2014 3rd round. The Cal FC team once coached by Eric Wynalda that knocked off the Portland Timbers in 2012 is now within the league’s borders.
In any case, the league largely toils in obscurity, although it’s been growing in shuddering bounds over the last five years. It’s since expanded into Arizona and Nevada, with 10 teams across both states. The stated aim is to crest 60 teams at one point.
And the UPSL just announced that, for the first time, it’s introducing a system of promotion-relegation to its league structure in 2017.
The league is essentially splitting in half, with the best teams moving into the Pro Premier division and the bottom half calving into what’s being termed the Championship division, no doubt an homage to the British system. We have scant few details at this point in time, but it isn’t unlike a recent proposal I fronted for a possible method of introducing pro/rel to the USL in the coming years. Basically expand regionally until you can afford to cut the league in half and make an sort of internal, manageable pro/rel.
We termed it faux-rel because it’s a shadow of the idea, but it’s a necessary launch point. Without major funding you need test balloons at the lower levels to prove the thing can work. There are already youth pro/rel leagues all over the country, and the city of Dallas runs one of the more successful ones in the country. It’s why, among other factors, the DFW area is so surprisingly full of quality academy players. Kellyn Acosta was not developed in a vacuum.
I do think pro/rel will need to grow from the grassroots level up, rather than starting with MLS. Of course MLS will be the major driver once it latches onto the idea, but it won’t originate in its carpeted halls. Lower tier leagues almost assuredly need to prove to Don Garber and MLS ownership that these leagues it agrees to demote its teams into are stable enough (and have enough experience managing pro/rel scenarios) to warrant a change.
Frankly, pro/rel is a fantastic idea but the footing has always been hopelessly awkward below MLS. I don’t buy that a pro/rel hook-in between MLS and the NASL would’ve saved the latter. More likely, it would’ve dragged down MLS clubs rather than raise up NASL ones. The economics wouldn’t fit. Especially knowing what we know now about the NASL and its turbulence (it will have single digit teams in 2017), it would’ve left the demoted clubs in terrible situations playing in half-empty high school stadiums while the promoted clubs scrambled to keep games within four or five goals with players earning $12,000 a year.
In truth, there is no adequate comparison abroad. It would’ve been like promoting a League 2 team to the Premier League straight off and skipping three rungs on the ladder along the way.
Fair play to the UPSL. There is nothing to lose here, and in the process you experiment with a project most want to see undertaken on a practical level here first. This is not a salve to anything, mind you, and it won’t have much of an impact beyond its borders. But pro/rel needs to work in the American soccer underbelly first for it to work at all. These tottering, awkward first steps are positive ones. The germ catches and we’ll see which other leagues follow suit.