The middle of the winter isn't usually a time for soccer news in America, but last week was filled with it.
Probably only American soccer fans know that England was in a deep freeze so severe that most soccer games were canceled—but fortunately not the one that featured American golden boy Landon Donovan making his successful debut in the Premier League. American soccer fans were also attuned to a horrifying event in Angola that rated only as a brief world news item to most people: an armed gang's ambush of Togo's national team (which includes superstar striker Emmanuel Adebayor) in a lawless province, which killed three members of the team's entourage.
Blogs and Twitter unite American soccer fans, and when the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) announced a telephone press conference last Thursday, the intensity of that grassroots media seemed to catch officials off guard. More than 100 people dialed into the Chicago conference, prompting Sunil Gulati, Columbia University economist, president of USSF and bureaucratic face of American soccer, to express surprise at the turnout.
The issue at hand was the future of lower-division soccer in America. Among the principal stakeholders in the controversy are the Cary-based Carolina RailHawks, who, with nine other clubs, are seeking to start their own soccer league.
But first, some background.
Domestic club soccer worldwide—the French, Brazilian and American leagues, and so on—is organized into a divisional hierarchy, first through fourth. In England, the first division is the Premier League, while in America the first division is Major League Soccer (MLS). Sports fan in this country (fans, that is, of the "traditional" American sports) frequently assume that lower soccer divisions function in a manner akin to minor league baseball—nurturing talent for an affiliated parent club—and are often intrigued to learn that soccer clubs actually move between divisions in a process called promotion and relegation. What is pro/ rel? Imagine, Durham Bulls fans, that your hometown team, by winning the Triple-A baseball championship in 2009, would have been rewarded with a promotion to the major leagues (the woeful Washington Nationals, conversely, would have been relegated to Triple-A). This is what happens in soccer leagues around the world every season.
Except in America. The reasons for the lack of a promotion and relegation system in this country are too complex to discuss here, and, at any rate, few serious soccer observers believe such an arrangement will exist anytime soon. Nonetheless, there are four divisions of play in America and Divisions 2 through 4 have been operated for years by the United Soccer Leagues (USL). For the their first three years of existence, the RailHawks played in the USL-1, America's second division, one tier below the MLS.
But for the past five months, RailHawks fans and followers of the sport around the country have been wondering if there would be any second-division soccer at all in 2010. Last September, a group of owners—including the RailHawks' ownership group led by Selby Wellman, a retired Cisco Systems executive—unsuccessfully bid to purchase the USL from its corporate parent, Nike. These owners (other key dissident leaders are the owners of clubs in Miami and St. Louis) had concluded that the USL leadership was insufficiently committed to growing a league that from season to season seemed preoccupied with mere survival, each year being forced to replace collapsed franchises.
The owners' bid for the league failed, however, and it was sold instead to an Atlanta-based investment group, thus precipitating the crisis that occurred when Wellman and the other rejected owners declared that they would not return to the USL. Instead they would start their own league, later announced as the North American Soccer League (in a conscious nod to the original NASL, which folded in 1985), with nine teams.
Lawsuits ensued. At this point, the USSF stepped in to mediate the dispute. The compromise announced last week allowed Division 2 soccer to proceed in 2010, while postponing resolution of the deeper issues. Essentially, 12 viable clubs—nine that have declared their NASL affiliation and three that are USL loyalists—have agreed to settle their legal disputes and play together for a single shotgun-marriage season under the administration of the USSF.
"The most important thing here is long-term stability," federation president Gulati told the dialed-in journalists. "What we think we've achieved today is a short-term solution for the 2010 season, but we want to work with a number of people and all the teams to find a long-term solution so we don't have teams changing back and forth between divisions."
Although Gulati presented the resolution as a Solomonic, evenhanded compromise, Railhawks owner Wellman said in a phone interview afterward that the deal bodes well for the future of the NASL. "This is nothing more than a 2010 transition," he said from Fort Lauderdale, where he was meeting with other NASL owners. "We are going to launch North American Soccer League for 2011."
One of the challenges facing the RailHawks, however, is building a fan base that can sustain a franchise. Despite marked improvement on the field in 2009—the RailHawks finished second in the regular season—overall attendance has declined at WakeMed Soccer Park. According to statistics compiled by blogger Kenn Tomasch, 2009 saw about 2,700 per game, far fewer than the 9,000 to 12,000 who turned out for the games of rivals in Portland, Ore., and Montreal.
Still, this figure belies the fact that there's a very strong core of loyal supporters. Jarrett Campbell, the leader of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, the teams' independent fan club, hopes that last week's development will solidify the future of the club. "What soccer fans really want is to know that good quality soccer is going to be played at a reasonable ticket price," wrote Campbell in an e-mail.
League stability, too, is crucial, Campbell said. "If each year, soccer fans had no idea if their team would be back in the next season, it makes it difficult for them to develop a strong commitment to following the team and become invested in the players or the match results," said Campbell, who works as a marketing executive at a Wake County manufacturing firm.
Campbell also reiterated a long-standing concern, that the club has been unable to attract some obvious fans. "I feel the RailHawks have much more to do to embrace the local Hispanic community. It seems they have done a good job of reaching out to the local youth soccer communities, but it is clear from the large attendance at matches involving Mexican and Central American teams at WakeMed Soccer Park that there are still many, many futbol fans in the local area that have not adopted the RailHawks as their local team.
"I also feel that there is great opportunity in the 20- to 30-something, college-aged and young professional crowd. If you look at successful soccer teams in this country, like Seattle and Portland, a large portion of their fan base comes from this demographic. The Triangle area has a large number of residents that fit this description," Campbell said.
"We hope to work with [team management] to take advantage of the excitement around the World Cup this year to help build awareness of the RailHawks."
Indeed, this summer's World Cup in South Africa will no doubt give many casual soccer fans an opportunity to follow along and cheer. However, many might consider it a temporary passion, not unlike cheering for a swimmer or gymnast at the Olympics. The longtime health of the sport in this country—not to mention the prospects of someday winning the World Cup—depend on a strong professional league hierarchy in the United States. It's too early to tell whether a new, stronger second division has emerged, but for now, area fans can count on Division 2 soccer's return to Cary in April.
David Fellerath covers the Carolina RailHawks on Triangle Offense, the Indy's sports blog.