October 10, 2017, Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago. The United States just needs to draw against Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Doesn’t seem too hard of a task for 27th ranked USA against 83rd ranked Trinidad and Tobago, but the result was a day which many current generation US Soccer fans never imagined. After Omar Gonzalez’s 17th minute own goal and Alvin Jones’ wonder goal in the 37th minute for Trinidad and Tobago, the US lost 2-1 and failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
Now the US isn’t necessarily known as a footballing nation, but the US has performed consistently at the World Cup and has performed well at making the World Cup. The US has qualified for ten FIFA World Cups and the last failure to qualify came back in 1986. So if the US has managed to qualify for the last seven world cups, what went wrong this time? Quite frankly, a lot. Everything from poor management to lack of experience hurt the US’ chances of qualifying for this World Cup. However, with this came a sense of insecurity of the future of American soccer, starting from the domestic system.
In many eyes, the domestic leagues in the US, such as the MLS, NASL, and USL are not competitive enough, and therefore American players do not play on the same level as the rest of the world. But what makes the rest of the world more competitive than the US? The US has a large number of players, teams, and leagues competing with each other, but the problem with the US’ domestic system is mainly within the leagues. The leagues very rarely change with the same teams playing in them every season, meaning no promotion and relegation.
Along with having no promotion and relegation, historically, the leagues haven’t gone along with each other well. Earlier last year, what the US considered their second division league, the NASL, was demoted and replaced with the USL due to the strong, unrivaled, success of the MLS and corruption within investments of the NASL. Many teams in the NASL either went bankrupt or bought themselves a contract into the MLS.
But wait, why do teams buy their way into the MLS and not earn their way through promotion? Well, it’s based on how the MLS was formed and is set up. In order to play in the MLS, teams pay a fee to the MLS owners and in return, are contracted to a minimum number of years of participation in the MLS. Due to this contract, unless the contract is broken by the club, a club cannot be expelled from the league, making relegation impossible.
This creates a problem for American players. If they can’t earn their way into a higher league with more competitive football with their team, they have to be bought by an MLS or foreign club to develop and experience tougher competition. Many MLS clubs, however, don’t necessarily need to buy American players as they can import foreign players to improve their teams. Therefore, American players don’t experience higher levels of competition that much as foreign players nor do they get to create a competitive environment with higher level clubs.
After the recent USSF elections, many see improvement for the future of US Soccer, but many, rightfully so, aren’t as optimistic. The change appears to be slow as it took months just to appoint a new manager to the national team, there’s been no known discussion of improving women’s football, and the elected board doesn’t seem interested in tinkering with the domestic system. The reason behind this? The MLS and its clubs are making large profits and the USSF doesn’t want to damage that flow of income. Of course, adding promotion and relegation would, for a short term, lead to less income for the MLS, as not as rich clubs would be able to play in the league, but over time, as the quality of soccer improves and matches become more competitive, the league will have a better reputation, will attract better players, and continue to make money.
So what does the world have which we don’t? Quite simply, competition. Because in many other parts of the world, the quality and level of football are more important than the money made from it. Once the US changes its priorities, the US will become stronger at the world’s game and become more credible. Qualifying for the world cup in the future shouldn’t be too big of a problem. Our players are talented enough to do that. But in the future, the US should only improve and compete well within the World Cup, and if that improvement isn’t seen, the problem is clearly within the inside, and fingers can easily be pointed at the MLS, the USSF, and its domestic system.