Written by Will Parchman

drogs

At least in the annals of the popular modern history of the fully professional game, in the days since photographs went from curled sepia-toned scraps of paper to filter-warmed Instagram posts, there has never been such a thing as a player-owner. Not really. It is somehow appropriate that Didier Drogba, a man of invested career incongruity (we’ll get to this in a minute, I promise), would be the one to fulfill those dreams with Phoenix Rising.

There has never been much about Didier Drogba’s career arc that resolved itself out of a granulated haze to me. He is a man of contradictions, and the best example I can think of arrived at the conclusion of his year at Marseille, the ostensible hinge point of his career.

Drogba’s is a sensitive soul, perhaps surprisingly so. His launchpad to Chelsea was a one-year stint at Olympique Marseille, where he scored 30 goals in all competitions. Chelsea’s transfer fee after that season — they offered about $1 million for every goal he scored that year — was too good for Marseille to ignore. When Drogba learned the club sold him entirely because they didn’t want to regret leaving that much money on the table, he broke down in tears sitting at his locker for a final time. He took the money and felt burdened by the exchange all at once.

When rumors spread that Drogba was flirting with a return to the club earlier this year, he was told in no uncertain terms by the club’s supporters to “return to China.” There is confusion everywhere.

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Written by Will Parchman

billedwards013117_8col

MLS bids are strange, fickle things fed by blended smoothies infused with overbearing marketing blitzes, pervasive hashtag warz, outlandish stadium mock-ups, and perhaps a dash of underlying neurosis fed by a gnawing sense of overcompensation. But only a dash. Don’t want to overwhelm the flavor.

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Written by Will Parchman

rgvfc-hebpark2

If you weren’t appraised, I’m high on the Rio Grande Valley as a purveyor of Good Soccer. It’s been an overlooked hotbed for years, and the Houston Dynamo’s establishment of a USL affiliate smack in the middle of its flowing waters for the 2016 season was a quiet coup. For multiple reasons.

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Written by Will Parchman

rising

The beautiful thing about non-top tier soccer leagues is in the compensation. And the compensation is beautiful.

Not monetary compensation, mind you, but figurative makeup ground. MLS, for instance, has the money, the sponsorships, the big-name Designated Players. It is nowhere near globally elite, but it is the crowned prince of the U.S. and Canada, which for our purposes is all that matters. Scarcity in anything tends to drive innovation in an attempt to equalize out the deficiencies it creates. And in lower tier soccer terminology, that means leagues and clubs… try stuff, to use gentler language.

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Written by Will Parchman

rgv

They just call it the valley.

The Rio Grande Valley isn’t a true valley, in the strictest sense of the world. It’s technically a floodplain, nearly 1,900 square miles of oxbow lakes and mangroves and Jerusalem thorns situated at the southernmost tip of Texas all spilling out of the coffee-and-cream Rio Grande. It is hot here, seemingly always, and the children play in the resacas and the meanders and ride across the bridges to the interconnected islands.

Two of the five most Hispanic cities in the United States by percentage are in the Rio Grande Valley, and a third is miles up the waterway toward El Paso. It is an uncommon place in these days of Trump, as life plays out in the hypothetical shadow of a wall. Some immigrants who passed over the nearby border into the valley wait and pray. Others stake Trump signs into their lawns.

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Written by Will Parchman

bassogog

The lower tiers of American soccer are an overgrown jungle with a dense canopy that more or less repels light as an evolutionary trait. And until recently, that too included the USL.

The PDL, for instance, is technically the fourth “tier” on the American soccer “pyramid,” which is less a pyramid below MLS as it is a frantic sea of thrown elbows and confused looks. “Fourth tier” would imply it’s hooked into the system somehow, and the PDL more or less floats on its own cloud. It is part of the same sky as MLS and the USL and NASL, but it is distinct within it.

Perhaps the PDL’s most obvious utility is as a heat lamp for college players languishing in a comically long offseason that drags, for most teams, through eight entire months. The PDL season (there are 75 teams) runs May through August, and most every elite college program encourages its players to play in the PDL to keep the edges sharp. In fact, North Carolina coach Carlos Somoano told me as much earlier this month.

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Written by Will Parchman

uslcup

Over the weekend, USL and Opta debuted their new partnership for the USL title game. It was good timing for Red Bulls II, considering they used the occasion to pummel SKC’s affiliate Swope Park Rangers 5-1.

Opta’s deal with the USL will peel back a section of American soccer that’s yet to be plumbed by outside observers. We’ve never had more in-depth analytics before beyond the standard numbers, so the league is about to become more known than ever. This, as ever, is a net positive all the way around. More knowing is good.

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Written by Will Parchman

USL-cincinnati

The decaying underpinnings holding up what’s left of the beleaguered NASL are foundering. The league has been in trouble for the better part of 2016, but things, it seems, are accelerating. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding clubs that haven’t openly defected, many still in the league are faltering. Clubs like Rayo OKC and Fort Lauderdale are riven by internal strife. The pilings crack more quickly every day.

There have been rumors that, alongside the Ottawa Fury, longtime NASL stalwarts Tampa Bay were on their way out of the league. Now it would seem those rumors are closer to fruition than perhaps we previously imagined.

The Rowdies, it should be said, are situated in the same city as the USL’s headquarters. You know. For whatever that’s worth.

The time of the NASL’s demise is most likely at hand. Perhaps not this year, but it is contracting faster than it can possibly hope to expand spread over time. Even if this isn’t the end of the league as a concept, it certainly looks like the end of the league’s current iteration. Like an elderly grandparent nearing the end of the road, this all feels both expected and sad in some equal measure.

In the short term, puncturing the NASL won’t likely do much to impact the American soccer scene. The NASL is currently just 12 teams, and if it contracts like we expect it will that number could be in single digits by the time a proposed 2017 season would start. Many of those teams are already poorly run, have flagging fan support and lack dedicated home stadiums. Players good enough will simply flee to other leagues. Call it a winnowing process.

In the long term, though, the fall of the NASL knocks out the last section of wall keeping the invasion from rolling over the final defensive bastion. The NASL has quietly been at odds with MLS since reforming in 2009, stymieing any broader collaboration between the two on any significant scale. And its possible demise would clear the pathway for the first true promotion-relegation system in U.S. professional soccer.

The U.S. soccer’s pyramid is, at present, a completely theoretical construct. If someone from a country with a connected system asked you to provide it, this is where you’d point him.

pyramid

But in reality this is an example of looking through a glass darkly. The NASL and USL are beneath MLS in theory, cobbled together off a series of judgments calculating revenue, support, quality, staffing. Everything, really. And it makes sense. MLS is a better league than both. Nobody argues.

But there is no actual mechanism hooking these three into this shape. They are three independent orbs rotating around the same sun but rarely interacting with the gravitational pull of each other. Conventional wisdom has long had the USL and all its previous iterations underneath the more widely known NASL. Not only is that now wrong, but there’s no actual consequence to that conclusion even if it wasn’t. It’s a line on a piece of paper. The leagues never interact, so what, ultimately, does a pyramid matter?

If the NASL does collapse, I think a few things happen. For one, I think the USL and MLS bond strengthens the same way two relatives become stronger by the loss of a third. The primary reason the USL usurped whatever claim the NASL had to the No. 2 spot on our figurative pro ladder is in organization. They’ve frankly been better in every facet, from promotion to media interaction to stadium sites to team building to expansion. It’s folly to not see the MLS tie-in here. The retraction of the NASL means less inhibition. Or it should, anyway.

But the one thing that should happen next not only to solidify the USL’s position but to lay the groundwork for the flowering of American soccer’s next generation? Pro-rel. Today, we are talking about pro-rel. May God watch over us from above.

Whatever your thoughts on the topic, the divisiveness tends to ward off wider discussion. Completely understandable malady. Some ideas become so corrupted by their messengers that the virus is downloaded onto the idea’s hard drive. The loudest (and thereby angriest) pro-rel advocates in this country have done more to damage their cause than they probably understand. By and large they have packaged their message into grenades, not pamphlets. So I understand the recoil. Unfortunately, in the current climate, disclaimers are still necessary in matters of promotion and relegation in the U.S.

But I think to ignore the opportunity facing the USL is to miss the future.

The USL has been expanding at pace for the past three years now, and the vast majority of MLS clubs now have affiliates, if not teams operated by central command, in its ranks. The league is still attached to its regional model, which is understandable. The stated goal has always been to get the league to 36 teams divided between three conferences with 12 in each. It had 28 this season, with Nashville and Reno already announced. You can probably expect more soon – welcoming the most well organized of the NASL defectors will help – meaning 36 is not a distant goal. I’d expect that in the next few years.

Once the USL reaches that benchmark, it is time it embarked on the great promotion-relegation experiment.

The way the USL does this is ultimately up to them, but there’s a fairly tamped-down pathway to follow. Play the, say, 2018 season the way it’s currently arranged; 36 teams, three conferences, one unified postseason. Then in 2019, cut the table in half based on the previous season’s results, 18 and 18. The top 18 go to USL I, the bottom 18 move to USL II. Then incentivize USL I, giving teams some sort of small monetary benefit for staying up to create a bottleneck to the first tier. At first that might be whatever bonuses the league can afford. Just make it something.

Because in the end this is ultimately mimicking global pro-rel. It is a means to a broader goal, but it has to start somewhere. And you have to start at the base. The fact that the USL is already hooked into MLS makes this an even more enticing place to begin. Because down the line it allows MLS, if it is so inclined, to simply attach the USL’s two divisions onto its back hitch. Then, immediately, you have a three-tiered pro-rel system.

The only immediate issue I see, aside from whatever unforeseen back end monetary kerfuffles might arise, is what to do with the Galaxy 2 or Sounders 2 or any second team in the event of a promotion situation. And to that I’d say to simply look to Spain. A club’s second team can’t progress to the same level as the senior team, meaning Barcelona B can never ascend to La Liga so long as Barcelona is in it. This system has worked abroad for years. It can work here too.

There are operational hurdles to implementing this plan because of course there are. This is American soccer, the longing land of single entity. Convincing incumbent MLS owners to get on board won’t be easy. And to be sure, MLS may not be open to pro-rel in large part because there is no currently viable option on their table. All the USL can do is create a sort of closed two-tiered pro-rel (my colleague Travis Clark termed this “faux-rel,” which I think works nicely) and hope the seed germinates. In the meantime, the USL will have a functioning promotion and relegation system which will almost certainly attract new fans simply on the basis of novelty.

My hope is that something grows out of the mounting detritus of the NASL. The USL doesn’t need the NASL’s collapse to attempt this most audacious of plans. But it may need that kick to spur on to something larger than any single club or even any single league. Let it be pro-rel and perhaps we’ll see that American soccer’s capabilities can shock even the most skeptical of us.

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Written by Will Parchman

arellano

Another member of the 2013-15 U17 World Cup cycle just signed a pro deal in lieu of turning to college soccer.

LA Galaxy Homegrown Hugo Arellano, the American captain at that most prestigious of youth tournaments, just signed for LA Galaxy II.

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Written by Travis Clark

quinn

For soccer fans seeking a fix outside of the Copa America, the tournament’s break opens up the door for the USL and NASL to secure headlines.

Both leagues are powering through the competition, and on Sunday, Louisville faced Orlando City B down in Florida.

The game, which Louisville won 4-3, was ultimately decided by former Akron star Aodhan Quinn’s 68th minute free kick.

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