Baseball writer Bill James is best known for using statistics, but it was equally important to his writing that he refused to accept baseball traditions as set in stone. This is part of the reason that he once wrote, “The minor league system as it exists today is an abomination in the sight of the Lord” — and if American soccer isn’t careful, its minor leagues will go the same way.
James’ key criticism of baseball’s system was that it treats the competitive concerns of minor league teams as an afterthought. Since minor league teams are directed by their major league affiliates, they end up focusing on player development, not winning. Wrote James: “If you’re selling a sport and the players don’t care about winning, that’s not a sport. That’s a fraud.”
Right now, lower-division soccer in America is going down two separate, very different paths. The NASL, which Minnesota United will leave at the end of the season, is following the path of traditional sports leagues, with competitive, independently owned franchises. It’s been a wobbly model; besides Minnesota, at least three of the league’s other 11 teams are on the brink of collapsing or moving to another league. But there’s no denying that the league’s teams are out to win.
On the flip side, there is the USL, which seems set to become a baseball-style minor league. Only eight of the league’s 29 teams are completely independent; the others are affiliated with MLS teams, which are allowed to send the team players from both the senior team and from youth academies. Ten teams are owned by MLS clubs, making them, in effect, reserve teams.
This isn’t unique to America. Plenty of countries, including Germany and Spain, allow reserve teams into the league system. It has helped players from both of those countries develop much more quickly. Instead of being stuck playing in a reserve league against other developing players, they’re playing against seasoned professionals, all of whom have winning — not player development — on their minds.
Maintaining the supply of professional teams to complement the reserve sides in America, though, will be difficult. Minnesota United concluded that the club’s only hope of survival was to join MLS, and United certainly isn’t the only lower-division club that depended on getting a ticket to the big leagues. Despite the league’s breakneck pace of expansion, MLS can’t continue to grow forever. When all the spots are taken, what will become of the rest of the cities? Will there be any cities left to compete with the reserve teams?
If they aren’t careful, soccer’s minor leagues will go the way of baseball. James described minor league baseball this way: “Great cities drawing a couple of hundred fans a game, pennant races with no meaning, no connection between city and player, player and fan, fan and city.” That’s not what any pro soccer fan wants for his local team, but it’s the way that lower-division soccer may be heading.
• Recently, former Minnesota United team president Djorn Buchholz took over as the general manager of the NASL’s struggling Rayo OKC franchise — and is already dealing with his first scandal. The team has been using a temporary artificial turf field this year. In midweek, Buchholz found out that one of the team’s minority owners had taken half the turf, without telling anyone, so that the other owners couldn’t sell the turf to make ends meet. In a related story, Rayo OKC might not survive as a franchise.
• The Gophers women’s soccer team has made an excellent start to the season, winning its first four games and earning a No. 9 ranking nationally. Now the schedule gets much harder; the Gophers visit No. 7 Duke this week and No. 2 Stanford next week.
• Major congratulations to Minnesotan Adrienne Richardson, who was named to the U.S. roster for the Under-17 World Cup in October. Richardson, a striker, plays for Minnesota Thunder Academy in Woodbury and came on strong in the past year to make the team.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
NWSL: Western New York at Washington, 6 p.m. Saturday, YouTube.com. Now that the Olympics are over, women’s national team players are filtering back into the NWSL, and the league’s stretch run is beginning. Washington has missed midfielder Crystal Dunn but still leads the league — and can clinch the regular-season title with at least a draw in this game.
MLS: Portland at Dallas, 8 p.m. Sunday, MLS Live. Fresh off a 4-2 beating of rival Seattle, Portland continues its push for the final Western Conference playoff spot. FC Dallas, though is unbeaten this year at home. With very little in the way of trophies over its history, Dallas would dearly love to hold on to its lead in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
MLS: Columbus at Los Angeles, 9:30 p.m. Sunday, MLS Live. Suddenly, the Galaxy is in crisis mode. Standouts Gyasi Zardes, Steven Gerrard and Jelle van Damme suffered injuries last week, and the team unloaded big-name veteran Nigel de Jong as well. Columbus has faltered in what most predicted would be a successful year, but the Crew is visiting L.A. at the right time.
UEFA: England at Slovakia, 11 a.m. Sunday, ESPN3. England had a disastrous campaign at the European Championships, and now it has to get right back into the swing of things with the beginning of World Cup qualifying. A trip to Slovakia is the hardest possible start for England, under new manager Sam Allardyce. Can the country forget the team’s summer struggle?