American Club Football in Crisis? 2010 Will Tell the Story

We’re not quite there yet, but the situation is much worse than a great number of American footy fans would like to admit to.

First tier Major League Soccer may have officially hailed 2009 as a watershed year for the sport in the United States, but in fact 2010 will be the year which determines whether or not MLS is on the right trajectory.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLS Players Union expires in January 2010 and all early indications tell us that MLS does not want to move in the players direction on reforming MLS’ structure to meet FIFA mandates and directives. MLS’ appears ready to move in the players direction on salaries and spending, but not more importantly on dumping single entity, allowing free agency and transfers within the league.

MLS was also the centerpiece of the USSF’s plans unveiled in 1998 to compete for the World Cup title in 2010. Entering the year, not many experts give the United States a realistic chance of competing for the title, but then again these same experts didn’t give the US its due before the 2002 World Cup.

The second tier United Soccer Leagues competed with half as many first division clubs in 2009 as it did in 1999, a clear sign that second division football, or minor league soccer  of a professional variety cannot survive in most American markets without the prospect of promotion to the overall top flight nationally. Now USL finds its most storied clubs, including several that have stuck around since the 1990s leading a breakaway league that has adopted the name of the defunct NASL, the league that made the sport big time in many American homes in the 1970s.

But the new league is not the NASL, even if they call themselves such. Kaka, Ronaldo, Lampard, Seedorf and Ballack are not flocking stateside the way Pele, Eusiebo, Best, Cruyff and Beckenbauer did. This league instead is trying to bridge the gap between USL which was decidedly minor league (despite some very good results in international competitions)and MLS, which despite being a “major” league has serious issues with its structure and the way it treats its players.

I’ve spent some time speaking to NASL leaders, and have no doubt they are competent and that the league has potential. But, I also know that after twenty years, USL has essentially failed with its professional setup (despite its outstanding amateur and youth structure) and that MLS isn’t as far along after 14 years as many of us had hoped it would be. These realities mean that skepticism of the new NASL must be higher than optimism. After all, we still haven’t gotten club soccer right in this country after so many tries.

American Club Football/Soccer isn’t in crisis yet, but 2010 could be a very bad year, or the tipping point of something even greater. Right now, we just don’t know which way things will turn.