No daughter in my arms today for Inter-Fiore or Arsenal-Chelsea as the wife and kid are off being pious while I revel in keeping my own counsel. I am waiting on Maryland to kick off its sweet 16 NCAA tourney match against Harvard at 1 pm and trying to figure out whether I'll be going to campus to watch the Maryland women take on Drexel at 2:00 pm.
In the interim, I slogged through a dismal Inter Milan - Fiorentina Serie A tie by catching up on some online reading about football. Now I am missing portions of an exciting London derby because of some misguided desire to pile more drivel onto a subject few care about. Devoid of context, I was fairly excited about the news last week that Crystal Palace FC USA had left USL2 and was planning on moving up to the second division by joining a group of breakaway owners from USL1. The symmetry of being able to follow teams playing in the first, second, and third division of professional football in the country along with being within walking distance of one of the sport's best college programs is extremely appealing. With Crystal Palace and Real Maryland playing in the same league, Real Maryland began to win out for us because of the closer proximity and, weirdly, the setting at a high school football stadium, as it provided a better venue than UMBC's soccer stadium.
The general reception to the formulation of the new North American Soccer League has been poor. My least favorite American writer on the sport, Kartik Krishnaiyer, has, to no one's surprise, used the development to further decry the state of the country's game. But, to be fair, Kartik (who works his rear off in covering the game) is not alone, and guys like Brian Quarstad of InsideMNSoccer and Rochester's Jeff DiVeronica have similarly raised tough questions about whether the new second division is even viable (although neither have extended their concerns to attacks on U.S. club soccer generally). But even accepting these reasonable doubts (although there are some that I cannot -- DiVeronica's assessment of the market for soccer in Baltimore is absolutely and unequivocally wrong and appears to be the product of a need for a consistent narrative rather than fidelity to substantive analysis), I have drawn precisely the opposite conclusion.
There can be little doubt that soccer in the U.S. faces massive challenges. The team that won the USL2 regular season title last year and was the only third-division team to advance to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, the Wilmington Hammerheads, will not be returning to the ranks of any professional soccer league next year. This depressing announcement comes on the heels of one of the team's most successful seasons -- a year where their on-the-field product was so good, I took enough notice to go out and buy a couple of Hammerheads' shirts (I don't even own a Real Maryland shirt). But I am also a fan of the sport in a far broader context and the challenges faced in this country pale when compared to what club soccer leagues confront around the world. The top European leagues -- the EPL, Serie A, La Liga, and the Bundesliga -- have increased their hold on the attention of football fans across the globe and diminished local enthusiasm for club teams in Ireland, Wales, Ghana, Thailand, and countless other countries/regions where I don't have direct experience over the last year. Club teams in Scotland appear to be perennially mired in crisis (although some clubs are doing interesting things in response, like the supporters of Stirling Albion). Even in England, lower division teams seem to live on a constant precipice narrowly avoiding falling into oblivion (a point hammered home by Charlton's FA Cup embarrassment to Northwich Victoria -- a team that only exists because of the Herculean efforts of their supporters to overcome extreme adversity).
No one has the answers to the myriad issues threatening the current state of the game. And, similarly, no one has the answers to the challenges that soccer faces here. But that is what makes the NASL compelling: it is an effort by people committed to the game to try and improve the sport. I am not in a position to judge whether their approach is the right one, but I do know that the owners of the breakaway teams are putting their own money down on this audacious bet.
And it is difficult to formulate an argument for maintaining the USL as is. Charleston, which finished in the top four of the second division last year and, in 2008, advanced to the U.S. Open Cup final against DC United, is dropping to the third division. It is generally assumed that the Cleveland City Stars will also drop down to the third division as well (although I have not seen any formal confirmation of this widely reported story). Over the last two years, I have gone to more USL matches than MLS games. While I enjoy the USL, the marketing of the league is horrible and has detracted from the creative and interesting individual approaches of various clubs to build fan bases. So what, exactly, is the alternative? Plodding along for another decade in relative anonymity? I'll take the bold shakeup, even if it is a colossal failure.
There is a large and increasing market for the sport in this country and that market has not been fully (or even significantly) exploited. Whatever missteps might be taken, either by USL or NASL or, in the context of a new collective bargaining agreement, by MLS, that market will remain; even if only sustained by televised events drawn from the World Cup, the European superleagues, and domestic leagues in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. The thoughts of the folks at The Shin Guardian are fully echoed here in College Park. Although perhaps only a minority of the U.S. sports' fans, the growth of the sport these last five years has been remarkable. And the future looks bright, whatever speed bumps are hit along the way.