Major League Soccer is preparing for its 21st championship match, with host Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders taking part Saturday in what could be one of the biggest finals in the league's history. But for many fans of clubs outside the top tier, this has been a week of confusion and worry.
The second-division North American Soccer League is in crisis, with its flagship club, the New York Cosmos, on the brink of closing operations. One club is moving up to MLS, two others have quit the league to join its rival, the officially third-division United Soccer League, and others are reported to be in serious financial difficulty.
The NASL was set up just seven years ago, initially out of a group of breakaway USL clubs. It chose its name to hark back to the 1970s league that enjoyed a short spell of great promise and prominence before collapsing in a pile of debt. Perhaps the choice of name was tempting fate: History appears to be repeating itself.
There was a documentary film made about the original Cosmos called "Once in a Lifetime," but it seems plenty of people have lived to see the same thing happen all over again. Once, the club was NASL's star attraction, with all-time greats such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer on the roster, but it ultimately saw the league crumble around it. The Cosmos were resurrected in 2010, joined the new NASL, signed former Real Madrid and Spain striker Raul and now find themselves furloughing staff and possibly without a league.
Why should any of this matter to soccer fans? MLS is, after all, proof that a more prudent, cautious and well-planned approach can produce a stable and sustainable professional soccer league in North America.
But it matters because the United States and Canada are two large countries, and MLS can never provide a club for every major population center. Lower-division (or minor league, if you prefer) soccer can provide fans in those other markets with the experience of supporting a local club and attending live games rather than just consuming the sport via television. They help grow the game and popularize the sport in communities that will never have an MLS team.
In football and basketball, college programs bring thrills to communities that never get the chance to experience the NFL or NBA up close. NCAA soccer is never going to enjoy that kind of prominence; it is up to the professional game to fill the gap.
Lower-division soccer matters from a player-development point of view, too. Throughout the history of professional soccer, there have been countless players who reached greatness after being missed or rejected by scouts at a young age and who thereafter worked their way up from lower-league clubs. One of England's finest, Kevin Keegan, began his career at lower-league Scunthorpe United and ended up a two-time Ballon d'Or winner.
Closer to home, former U.S. national team defender Jay DeMerit was not drafted by MLS, moved to England and worked his way up from the seventh tier to the Premier League, earning a place in Bob Bradley's 2010 World Cup squad as a result.
The North American soccer system is different. The absence of promotion and relegation, while understandable given the nature of investments made in MLS, undoubtedly makes it harder for lower-league clubs to grow. Being a minor league side in good-size markets such as Tampa or Indianapolis is a tough sell - in New York, it's almost impossible.
While much remains to be resolved, the indications are that the USL will soak up the remaining clubs, should the NASL be unable to continue. But the USL has also seen plenty of short-lived clubs, brief expansion experiments and financial worries. The history of soccer in this country, before MLS and outside of MLS, has been one of instability and insecurity. That shows no sign of changing.
One of the truly unfathomable aspects of this mess is the insistence both NASL and USL have in trying to cover all of North America. When crowds tend to be below 5,000 in many cases, how much sense is there in having clubs fly coast-to-coast for games? With no major television deal and limited revenue, why have the expense of, for example, flying a club from Florida to Edmonton?
A regional structure surely makes more sense. Regional divisions would not only reduce costs dramatically but could replicate the kind of intraconference rivalries seen in college sports. It is hard not to think that such a structure would also appeal to the many regional sports television channels and get lower-division soccer exposure outside of the limited realm of Internet streaming.
It is also a system that is used in soccer in many European countries. Germany and France, for example, have regionalized soccer for their fourth tiers, while Russia regionalizes from the third tier down.
In the North American context, regional championships could lead into a full national playoff competition. Ally that with a better-organized, better-marketed U.S. Open Cup competition, which annually pits teams from all levels of U.S. soccer, and the game beyond MLS would surely be more attractive to fans, the media and sponsors.