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The state of soccer in the U.S.

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After the USMNT didn’t qualify for the World Cup, what is the future of soccer in America?

Bobby Wood dribbles around a couple defenders in USA vs. Trinidad and Tobago.
John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

After mulling over the reality that doesn’t seem, well, real, that the United States Men’s National Team will not represent our country in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, I have come to the conclusion that this is the best thing that could happen for the future of US Soccer.

It took me a long time to come to that conclusion, but that’s where I stand. Hear me out.

Although Alexi Lalas’ rant a couple of weeks ago about the state of US Soccer carries more gravitas because of the timing (two games before their exit), at the time I felt he exaggerated things a bit. At the time, we still had plenty of opportunity to qualify.

Now? We have questions about soccer in our country that need answering in a hurry.

Soccer has a strong subculture, but for the momentum to continue, the USMNT and USWNT at every level needed to continue winning so interest won’t wane. The Herculean amount of money spent by FOX to cover the World Cup here in the States took a serious blow with that result. Personally, I will still watch every game I can, but I’m not a fringe fan needing convincing to watch.

But that’s not all that is going on in soccer in the U.S. these days.

The American soccer world is still shaken by the Crew-to-Austin drama that’s arisen. When the Crew’s owner expressed the possibility of the Columbus Crew SC moving to Austin, Texas, we were reminded once again about the single-entity structure of MLS. I have advocated for this structure for many years because I sensed that it was the primary mechanism for soccer to take hold in the States. And while I believe that is still the case, my confidence in this mechanism has lessened with the news from southeast Ohio.

The fans in Columbus that trekked every weekend to the erector set known as Mapfre Stadium to watch one of the original MLS clubs for the last 21 years, and having a measure of success, now being taken away. Call it greed by the owner, call it obstinance by the city council, but the fact that this is even a possibility at this stage of MLS is disconcerting.

Even more so because Colorado Rapids fans know that we are not guaranteed a long-term club in Denver. Could attendance, location, sports-saturation, stadium size, or lack of entertainment surrounding the stadium be a reason for MLS or Rapids ownership to move them along?

It’s time for promotion and relegation and do away with playoffs. I know the owners of MLS clubs did not pay millions of dollars to invest in a team that could face relegation, but I also believe now that the lack of pressure on teams to produce is bringing about a sad complacency among those same owners. When I first started following soccer, I watched the Premiere League and found myself watching not only the top end to see who would qualify for the Champions League, but would watch the struggling teams to see who would avoid relegation and who would be relegated. That happens in no other sport but soccer.

Unless something turns around, the Rapids would face relegation battles should that system come into play. I’m actually at peace with that. It would provide more incentive to improve. Kroenke Sports Entertainment would likely pull out, but another more invested (not just money-wise) ownership group would come in, turn DSGP into that thin-air fortress that our team deserves.

I would also suggest ditching the MLS playoffs, at least the format in place now. Having 12 of the 22 teams in the playoffs right now is too many. I reserve the right to change my mind when the league expands to 28 (28!) in a few years (more on that in a bit). I know the playoff system in place helps make some money, but seeing the sparse attendance in Chicago and in Houston shows that, in those markets at least, a knock-out round in the middle of the week does not capture the attention of many (unless you’re in Atlanta).

Back to this 28 team business. It’s here that MLS, should they decide to expand to this number, and should they still refuse to go the pro/rel route, should break the league up into MLS East and MLS West similar to what the USL does. No interleague play, but basically two separate leagues. That will help cut down on the immense amount of travel, and help provide play with players with fresh legs and, thus, a better product.

I could go on (and at some point, I will). I’m still mulling over whether US Soccer should encourage our best players to play in Europe or stay in the states to help improve MLS play, even at the cost of their own development. But failure is often a catalyst for evaluating and implementing change.

Here’s hoping that happens.