Twenty years ago if soccer supporters in the United States were to make a list of things that they would like it would probably be rather simple:
1) To have a club league
2) To have the chance to consistently appear at the World Cup for both men’s and women’s soccer
3) To have the chance to actually watch soccer on a consistent basis
Although these seem like simple goals the truth is that all three at the time were highly unrealistic or difficult to obtain.
It goes to show how much the culture has shifted over these past twenty years and despite the consternation of many how much things have improved.
The question is now what are three goals that U.S. Soccer supporters could lay out and expect to be resolved within 20 years time.
There are certainly many goals to choose from, whether it is promotion and relegation in the club system for the United States and Canada to an American player lifting the European Champions League trophy to the United States Men’s National Team winning the World Cup.
Of course there are certain roadblocks to achieving these goals. Money, resources, time, are all variables that could impact the success of these goals.
There is certainly nothing wrong with being optimistic and it is certainly beyond the scope of possibility of any of these things occurring. But often when has to make projections one has to be realistic and neither of these three situations seems feasible for the foreseeable future.
So what are three reasonable goals for the U.S. Soccer community? Let’s take a look:
1) To build a stronger U.S. Open Cup
The U.S. Open Cup, the American version of the F.A. Cup, has always felt like a bit of a Cousin Oliver in the North American football landscape.
Despite it being the oldest soccer competition here in the United States and holding great stories about the game’s past it has yet to really make a footprint during this current soccer boom. It is a real shame.
There are two main reasons for this. First, Major League Soccer’s interest in the product is at best tepid and at worst annoyed at the prospect of playing in these matches. Teams often use players who are on the lower rungs of the roster and even coaches have been known to skip out on matches.
This lack of interest will only be worsened this year after it was announced that Major League Soccer-owned affiliates will not be playing in the tournament, thus freeing up the senior sides to play academy players.
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) April 5, 2016
Second, the coverage of the tournament is very, very poor. Matches in the early rounds often do not have any television or online coverage. Even when MLS sides enter the tournament games are often only shown on the team’s website.
That Open Cup coverage was not included on any of the recent television deals that U.S. Soccer and MLS struck through IMG is a bit of worrying sign for what the federation truly thinks about their club competition.
Building up this competition seems like a no-brainer. There is nothing more that Americans like more than sports tournaments and the idea of an upset. Watching last year’s derby match between New York City FC and the New York Cosmos gave viewers a glimmer of what could possibly be a great tournament.
Who wouldn’t want to see Sacramento Republic FC take down the Los Angeles Galaxy in a prime-time match?
There are some short-term solutions to the coverage problem. Major League Soccer already offers the Voyageurs Cup coverage on their MLS Live package so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the league could work with the NASL, the USL, and the other lower division sides.
Even at the lowest levels matches are being played at high school facilities which already house television matches for other sports. It is just a matter of U.S. Soccer working with these sides to help finance it.
2) Improve the quality of soccer coverage
Twenty years ago, soccer supporters in the United States would have taken a match from anywhere in the world just to get their fix of the beautiful game.
The situation was so dire that more often than not indoor soccer would serve as a proper substitute for the lack of European, South American, heck even North American coverage. My how things have changed.
Whereas in the past it was difficult to get even one match on a weekend supporters have the chance to watch or read about hundreds of matches from around the world.
The removal of communication barriers in the early 2000’s due to the internet and Fox Soccer expanded Americans soccer horizons and exposed them to matches and ideas from all around the world.
The problem is that while the quantity of coverage has improved the quality of coverage still has not caught up. When one goes to watch a UEFA Champions League match on Fox Soccer 2 Go and gets no commentary and no graphic explaining the time or the score it makes the whole product come across as a bit cheap.
This unfortunately seems to be a running theme with Fox who certainly cover a plethora of matches but often put little effort into the final product.
There is also an unfortunate truth that many who cover the game here in the United States face on an everyday basis: that this is not a full-time gig. While in other countries soccer journalism is a full-time business here in the U.S. it is mostly on a volunteer basis.
Writers and photographers who do not work for a major publication often have to miss out on training camps, practices, and games due to having full-time jobs.
Many websites in particular do not offer the opportunity to be credentialed, instead asking their writers to write “reaction pieces.” The overemphasis on slideshows and catchy titles over fetching interviews and hard-hitting pieces has hampered the industry.
The bullish attitude that Major League Soccer (who have their own media site that acts as a quasi-independent source) and U.S. Soccer One of the biggest questions that always seems to be asked on social media is why soccer reporters do not ask the hard questions.
The answer is simple: they are not given the tools or the medium to do so.
The good news is that both of these issues seem to be changing. With NBCSN and Fox signing new television deals there seems to be a bit more of an emphasis on attention to detail in media production.
These deals are also a good sign for the soccer journalism industry as it is providing more opportunities for young and aspiring writers to work in more professional environments.
3) Make the NWSL profitable
Women’s soccer has perhaps made tremendous strides over the past twenty years and in many ways the game is more successful than men’s domestic soccer. Having won multiple World Cups and Olympic Gold Medals helps.
That being said, the one area where the game still needs work at the club level. After two unsuccessful tries, the National Women’s Soccer League is attempting to build off of the success of the United States Women’s and Canadian Women’s Soccer teams.
With more modest expectations than its predecessors, the NWSL has seen some success particularly in the Cascadia region with the Seattle Reign FC and Portland Thorns.
But salaries are still very low ($6, 842 is the league minimum) and most sides are forced to use unpaid academy players for league matches when international matches conflict with the league schedule.
Despite U.S. Soccer bankrolling the league it often puts international friendlies against league matches. It is one thing when it is a World Cup Qualifier in May but a completely different issue when a “World Cup Victory Tour” match is scheduled against a playoff match.
It is difficult to figure what a successful model looks like for women’s soccer given that there really isn’t a league in the world where success has been seen over a long period (leagues in Europe are just about as old as the NWSL, and most leagues in South America, Asia, and Africa are played at a semi-professional level).
While it means the league is breaking new ground in terms of women’s sports that can be a bit scary for investors.
As with the Open Cup it comes back to better coverage. Given the success of the Women’s National Team it is apparent that there is an audience for women’s soccer.
The question is now how can the NWSL get people interested in players who might never make Jill Ellis’ starting eleven.