Steve Gilliard, 1964-2007
It is with tremendous sadness that we must convey
the news that Steve Gilliard, editor and publisher of The News Blog,
passed away June 2, 2007. He was 42.
To those who have come to trust
The News Blog and its insightful, brash and unapologetic editorial
tone, we have Steve to thank from the bottom of our hearts. Steve helped
lead many discussions that mattered to all of us, and he tackled subjects
and interest categories where others feared to tread.
Please keep Steve's friends and family in your
thoughts and prayers.
Steve meant so much to us.
We will miss him terribly.
photo by lindsay beyerstein
Are you ready for some Football!
Beyond MLS -- eos0000
In 1993, three groups applied to the United States Soccer Federation for the right to organize an American first division league after the 1994 World Cup. Of course, considering that one of the groups (MLS) was led by Alan Rothenberg (then president of the USSF), there really wasn't going to be much suspense as to which group would win the bid.
One of the losing bidders, League One America, planned to build a dozen mid-size soccer stadiums as part of a larger strategy of commercial real estate development -- which several MLS teams have now done (e.g., the Chicago Fire in Bridgeview, Ill.) or are in the process of doing (Red Bull NY in Harrison, NJ). (L1A also proposed dividing the field into thirds (painted blue, yellow and red), playing three-period games, employing eight referees, and putting the players in unitards. So on the whole, it was probably a good thing that the L1A proposal never stood a chance.)
The third proposal was made by the American Professional Soccer League (APSL), sanctioned as a second-division league by the USSF earlier that year. Unlike MLS's single-entity, top-down approach, the APSL envisioned a "traditional" league with independently-owned teams, one built up from already-existing semipro and amateur leagues.
Unfortunately, the APSL was also a traditional American soccer league in terms of its franchise stability, having gone from 22 teams in 1990 to five by 1992. And the league only brought its membership back up to seven in 1993 by absorbing three Canadian teams (which might have complicated matters from the point of view of the USSF). In the end, the APSL received a metaphorical pat on the head from the federation, which told it to go out and be the best second-division league it could be.
But by the end of 1996, the APSL (renamed the A-League one year before) had been absorbed by the rapidly growing USISL, which had grown from a five-team indoor league in the Southwest to dozens of clubs organized into three nationwide divisions. Under the USISL umbrella, the new A-League did gain first-division sanctioning -- from the Canadian Soccer Association -- and expanded to 30 teams by 1999.
Of course, the financial demands proved too onerous for many of those teams, but thanks to the ever-expanding United Soccer Leagues structure (another name change), not all of the unstable teams folded; they simply dropped down a division or two. So the USL First Division (the name the former A-League adopted in 2005) now consists of twelve teams (nine in the US, two in Canada, and one in Puerto Rico); the USL Second Division now has ten (nine in the eastern US, one in Bermuda). And the USL Premier Development League, a largely U-23 amateur league, now has 63 teams throughout northern North America.
(The USL system also includes the W-League, the recently established Super-20 League (with both men's and women's divisions), and the Super-Y League (five age groups for both boys and girls). Sometimes unexpected synergies arise: when the First Division's Virginia Beach Mariners imploded several weeks ago, the club's PDL side (the Submariners) was rescued by the W-League's Hampton Roads Piranhas.)
But one team that will not be returning to this year's edition of the PDL is the Ajax Orlando Prospects.
Back in 2003, AFC Ajax had set up a partnership with the Royale Orlando Football Academy, with the intention of setting up a complete player development system; toward that end, the newly relabeled Ajax Orlando applied to enter teams in both the PDL and the A-League. But while the Prospects entered the PDL in 2004, the higher-division professional team never took the field. By 2006, the Orlando organization's status was at best murky -- the local club had become dissatisfied with the lack of support from Amsterdam, while AFC Ajax had already announced that the affilation agreement would not be renewed. Finally, new owners purchased the American organization and formally severed all ties with AFC Ajax.
As the above suggests, one of Ajax Orlando's problems was that it was never clear what their club's relationship with AFC Ajax was: were they simply licensing the name, or was their affiliation intended to go deeper than that? (The fact that the Orlando-based organization was setting up further affiliations across the country -- including one with a youth club in Anchorage -- would seem to suggest a lack of focus.)
Two new clubs entering the USL's professional ranks this year will not suffer any such relationship problems, if only because they're owned by their parent clubs in Europe.
The USL First Division's California Victory (based in San Francisco) have been named for the home city (Vitoria-Gasteiz) of their parent club, Deportivo Alaves of the Spanish Second Division, and will be fielding at least one player from the Basque side during the upcoming season.
But while the Victory appear to have assembled a capable roster, have found a reasonable home venue in Kezar Stadium, and have northern California to themselves, the single determining factor of the Victory's success or failure will undoubtedly be the team's owner, Dimitry Piterman. Piterman has, to put it mildly, a reputation.
While the Victory do not yet appear to have announced any further player development plans, Crystal Palace FC USA began its American operations last year by establishing a youth academy in the Baltimore area. This year, the club was originally planning to enter a team in the PDL; however, thanks to the peculiarities of amateur eligibility rules, the club had to self-promote to the USL Second Division before ever taking the field.
(Nomenclatural note: while the organization as a whole is named Crystal Palace FC USA, the USL team plays under the name Crystal Palace Baltimore -- even though the usual issues with finding a suitable stadium mean that the team will be playing its games in Annapolis. Imprecision in labeling: an American soccer tradition. (Another example: Red Bull New York (the organization) as distinguished from the New York Red Bulls (the team).))
But what's most interesting about Crystal Palace's American experiment is that the English club's motivations aren't immediately obvious -- they're not a Mexican club looking to solidify its position in the American market (Chivas), nor are they involved in the US thanks to the combination of serendipity and the American team's owner's apparent desire for a greater role on the world stage (Arsenal and Colorado). Nor could the American club's existence simply be chalked up to the personal whims of its owner (Alaves' owner Piterman has lived in the Bay Area for much of his life). Instead, Crystal Palace FC actually seem to be serious about building a viable organization in Maryland. Why?
A facile answer: there's a lot of money to be made off of youth soccer in America, and, reasonably enough. Crystal Palace would like a piece of it. And the fact that they might eventually unearth a serviceable player or two would just be a nice bonus.
A more interesting answer: even though it might be accurate to liken the lower levels of American soccer to the Holy Roman Empire after the Peace of Westphalia, it's still possible for a focused organization to establish itself, and to do so quickly. And after just one year, Crystal Palace FC now has an American base of operations from which they can scout the entire Americas. Young players from Rio or Recife or Buenos Aires (or even Omaha) could then be further evaluated by CPFC's Baltimore organization before the likeliest candidates are brought back to London.
Crystal Palace FC USA -- if managed intelligently -- might be able to build a successful player development program in the Baltimore area, one drawing upon the entire Western Hemisphere, with first-class facilities financed by a steady flow of cash from American soccer moms and dads. Given such possiblities, a lot of people (presumably including the managers of clubs broadly similar to Crystal Palace -- not too far outside the highest levels of the world's game) will be interested to see if CPFC USA succeeds or fails.
(sorry this took so long to post up mate -hubris )
Labels: soccer, USA