Where does the MLS-USSF partnership leave lower-division soccer?

Soccer United Marketing created an indelible link betwen MLS and U.S. Soccer. Does that bond go too far?

MLS Cup week, like All-Star week, is something of a convention with a game attached. It’s one of the relatively few occasions when ownership groups and technical committees, normally scattered around a vast continent, can efficiently meet and discuss the business of MLS with any sort of macro perspective. And while the atmosphere in the host cities tends to be collegiate rather than frenzied, there’s at least a degree of logistical urgency that comes with taking advantage of these windows.

Last week was no different in Toronto, this year’s MLS Cup host. There were the meetings, deal brokering and general business of governance going on in hotel conference rooms and restaurants downtown — perhaps given extra spice by the imminent arrival of expansion teams in Atlanta and Minnesota.

But another city loomed over proceedings: New York. Not because the two New York teams, seeded one and two in the East, had let a historic opportunity for a high-profile conference final slip, but because it was the venue where the NASL, the existing Division 2 league in American soccer, was fighting for its life at U.S. Soccer’s Board of Directors meetings.

While much of what’s going on at NASL is the result of a self-inflicted wound of financial and cultural hubris, you could argue that the artificially graded American soccer landscape was always going to make it likely that certain parties would trip and fall on their own swords. So watching the stately procession of MLS Cup week, and the Commissioner’s pointed remarks on the league’s relative stability, during his annual state of the league address, something jarred.

The tastefully presented assumption that this is the “natural” order of things in America is at the heart of every MLS defense of its structure. Yet the growth of the game as a whole in this country — and particularly the aspect of Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of MLS, U.S. Soccer and the Mexican national team — is dependent on all of the cultural and financial logic of globalization, and the U.S.’ future viability as an engaged global player.

We’re missing a meaningful discussion of exactly where a protected top league, structurally enshrined within U.S. Soccer, without full accountability, is taking us as a soccer nation.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At the moment, we’re seeing that the edifice of MLS, and its ever-expanding and more vocal ownership group of self-interested investors, sits not just as a natural lateral obstruction to any kind of country-first technical development push, but it also sits in the domestic club game with an ever-more top heavy presence. Regardless of what U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati decides in terms of allowing NASL some kind of stay of execution on its second-division status, it’s hard to escape the impression that U.S. Soccer has allowed certain structural developments to go unchecked, with inevitable results.

We may not have a traditional soccer pyramid, and it may be a long way off, if ever, before we do. Frankly, I’d expect more breakaway, protectionist moves from top European clubs, MLS style, before I’d expect any move from MLS owners to dilute their own position. But we do have a governing body which is about to preside over the top league effectively pancaking such a tiered structure as we do have.

Again, there’s plenty of blame to go around here — the NASL’s decision to climb onto a Cosmos vehicle that was always going to lose 80 percent of its value the second it drove off the nostalgia lot, was always a reach. My colleague Richard Farley described it as a “Fake it till you make it” gambit on these pages, and he’s right.

But the prosaic reality of the Cosmos trying not to disturb the campus neighbors at Hofstra University, and the recent absurdity of the NASL’s showpiece game being played on the car park roof of Belson Stadium, did not suggest unrestrained glamor swaggering freely past the puritans of MLS.

Throughout the NASL’s recent existence, it has been hard not to think of William H. Macy’s character in Fargo, convinced that if he can just get his father-in-law to buy into his property deal, he can get out from under — unaware that there is no version of events where he’ll be treated as a peer. The game is rigged against him from the start.

That goes back to the unease I feel as lower league events unravel in the shadow of MLS — it’s understandable that U.S. Soccer should build a national strategy around supporting its top league, and that neither federation nor league owes any other league the opportunity to compete with or surpass it (which increasingly became the zero-sum strategy of NASL) on a sporting level. But there’s something about U.S. Soccer’s insistence that it can be a business partner with MLS on the SUM side of things, while also serving and facilitating the structural and technical development of the game in an even-handed manner, that’s impossible to reconcile.

At which point you might want to ask what duty U.S. Soccer had to do something more than just let events unfold. We’ve talked a lot about Gulati in recent weeks, and while the pursuit of Klinsmann and the fallout of his failure may well be what determines Gulati’s legacy, there’s a trait within that story that has relevance here. Until Klinsmann’s position became untenable, the presence of Gulati at U.S. men’s national team games was always a reminder that there was a stabilizing presence with a discreet eye on the bigger picture behind Klinsmann. But that discreet style of leadership, when applied to managing the structure of domestic club soccer, has also allowed for situations like we’re facing now to develop.

Because right now, Gulati is in a difficult position. The NASL might be glad for the extra time that could be bought by a favorable Gulati intervention, but if he’s to insert himself into events to shape them, then it’s fair to ask where and when else he has done so or intends to do so.

I don’t wholesale buy the argument that MLS has killed the NASL — the NASL did a lot of harm all by itself. But nor do I buy an idea that the playing field is fair for all, and I’d like to know what sort of sustainable structures the leader of U.S. Soccer is willing to put in place, or consider reforming, so that the footprint of MLS — which on Thursday announced its schedule for expanding to 28 teams — doesn’t trample the lower tiers.

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.

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