As fans of the American game await the decision by US Soccer on the divisional status of the United Soccer League and North American Soccer League, the question of “why” pops up again and again. Here in the States, there is no model for promotion and relegation in the professional game, yet numeric divisions are assigned to each fully professional league.
Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated addresses this in today’s piece on the sanctioning fracas that has overshadowed play on the field for the better part of six months. I want to state here in short form the reasons that soccer executives think divisions are important.
When lobbying for media attention, broadcast deals, and sponsorship (basically anything that can increase a pro sports league’s bottom line), perception is reality, and the perception is currently that Major League Soccer is tops, NASL is second, and USL is third. The Federation assigns the divisions that create those perceptions, supposedly doing so after evaluating the league’s strength on a number of factors including market population, ownership wealth, stadium capacity, and coaching competence.
Today, the USL says that it meets the Federation’s definition of Division 2 - with a handful of identified and solvable exceptions - and simply wants the title to go along with it. In other words, they want the perception that they deserve.
NASL has held Division 2 status since 2011, and has consistently failed to meet the guidelines set forth for each stage of its existence, requiring multiple ongoing exceptions from the Federation. Now teetering on the brink of non-existence, it’s more important than ever to NASL that it retain its divisional status, and associated perception of strength, no matter how tenuous.
So, while lovers of the game itself question the need for divisional structure in a country where field results do not factor into the decisions on that structure, it is inescapably meaningful to the future of this country’s clubs, leagues, and soccer market in general. That’s why the Federation’s decision counts as “news”, and why it’s worth following.