Pro-rel is already in the United States, but is it the future?
Is American soccer missing out on the best feature of the international game? There's a vocal and passionate segment of supporters who believe so, and they've got an ally in Yan Skwara.
The United Premier Soccer League commissioner is trumpeting his competition's move this year to promotion-relegation as the first step toward full integration of the many U.S.-based leagues. The promised land is a system by which your neighborhood club could, through years of success at one level and the next, rise from the amateur realm all the way to Major League Soccer.
It sounds like fantasy, but dreamers will dream.
“I think it's essential that we connect the dots throughout American soccer with the amateur and the professional clubs. We as a league have the opportunity to initiate that process,” said Skwara, whose UPSL has created a two-tier system in its Western and Colorado conferences.
“Where it goes in the future, I can't exactly tell you, but I can tell you that a lot of the pro-development-slash-amateur teams want to be connected into a system that allows teams to move up and down.
“That's the movement that we've initiated and we are pushing aggressively.”
Another 12 to 18 months and you'll see pro-rel in many more markets. We have to keep on beating the drums on what we're beating.
The UPSL, founded six years ago in Southern California, is a U.S. Amateur Soccer Association-sanctioned Division 4 league, an amateur competition at a similar level as the USL's Premier Development League or the National Premier Soccer League. It's home to La Maquina, which took the LA Galaxy to overtime in last year's U.S. Open Cup, and the L.A. Wolves, coached by Eric Wynalda and featuring several players with MLS or NASL experience.
The league has an immense presence in and around Los Angeles, with 36 clubs and counting, and it has expanded across the country over the last few years, into several Western states and, soon, Florida, North Carolina, New York and New Jersey. Sixteen first-year clubs are among 66 competing in this year's spring championship, with another dozen ready to jump in for the fall season or next year.
More keep coming, and Skwara says the UPSL is “on track to double in size over the next 12 to 18 months, assuming we continue to grow at the rate we're growing.”
Growth brings pro-rel; will pro-rel bring growth?
That's essential for promotion-relegation to work. The Western Conference has 18 clubs in both the top-tier Pro Premier Division and second-tier Championship Division. Eight teams are in the Colorado Conference's top tier, with at least four clubs signed up to start play in the second tier in the fall campaign.
The plan is to bring promotion-relegation into every conference, once there are enough teams. Skwara thinks anywhere from 10 to 15 teams per division within a conference is workable.
“Another 12 to 18 months and you'll see pro-rel in many more markets,” he said. “We have to keep on beating the drums on what we're beating. I think we've set up what we wanted to set up, and now it's just a matter of keeping our foot on the pedal.”
Promotion/relegation is underway in the Western Conference, with two clubs set to climb into Pro Premier and two to drop to the Championship when the spring season closes next month. The Colorado Conference will institute pro-rel with the fall season, which begins shortly after the spring's conclusion.
Skwara, also the L.A. Wolves' president and general manager, foresees a third division in the Western Conference by next year.
“We're getting a lot of inquiries with clubs, especially here in Southern California, who have players who are, frankly, younger – 17, 18, 19 years old – and they want to participate in this process,” he said. “They don't want to participate in a limited-age category. The first thing that popped into mind was, 'here's your Division 3.'”
Skwara, who grew up in Southern California, came to appreciate the pro-rel system while playing for a lower-level club in West Germany in the 1980s.
“You look at the system over there, and the first thing you notice is, wow, there's eight to 10 divisions over there,” he said. “You see the tables in the local newspaper back in the day, fourth- and fifth-division tables, and they have a chance to move up. That whole connection is transparent.”
So he's serving as a pied piper for the pro-rel movement, aiming to unite the NASL, USL, PDL, NPSL, and anything else that might be out there. It won't be easy. The UPSL has no plans to rise into the professional ranks – D3 and higher – but “let's see what happens,” Skwara says.
“We know who we are and we know who our clubs are, and many of [our] clubs don't even come close to the minimum requirements of Division 3,” he said. “But that doesn't mean that we can't get to where we want to go. What I mean by that is, look, there are teams in our league right now that can compete with Division 2 clubs and Division 1 clubs. So we're not worried about our label.
“We're focused on doing it right, and we hope that by doing it right we get the right sanctioning and the right movement from U.S. Soccer and USASA moving forward. Hopefully, there can be some opportunity, some connectivity with some of these other leagues. We hope that just by minding our own business and staying on track with our business model, that it creates a connectivity opportunity at the end of the day to only further promotion-relegation with some of these leagues.”
MLS has made it clear it's not interested in the concept, and with entry fees now in nine figures, why would it be? What potential owner is going to pay that kind of cash for a club that might be playing at a lower level next year?
Skwara gets it.
“I wouldn't, right now, bet on [pro-rel coming to MLS],” he said. “Maybe in 10 to 20 years, but the way they've structured it and the way they keep talking about it, I don't see it in the near future. That's kind of a bummer ... but we've got to start somewhere, and we definitely are excited about the fact that we're in it now and we're monitoring it.”
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.