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CLOSED: How the United States Soccer Federation Needs to Help Amateur Clubs

The upcoming presidential election provides an opportunity for conversations to be had and for change to happen.

Graphic by PaleVermilion
PaleVermilion

The United States Soccer Federation presedential election is receiving an unprecedented amount of attention from media and fans alike. The vote will take place on Saturday, but since the multitude of candidates’ declarations that they would run—and current president Sunil Gulati’s admittance that he would not seek re-election—there has been immense debate over which issues are the most important. The importance of the election only increased when the USMNT were eliminated on the final day of World Cup qualifying.

Many of the proposed and requested reforms have circled around issues like equal working conditions for the USWNT, ending pay-to-play youth soccer programs, and the ever-controversial installation of a promotion and relegation system in the American pyramid. Unfortunately, and rather fittingly, the status of amateur soccer has gone fairly undiscussed.

It’s time that changed.

“It’s difficult to judge whether or not USSF does its job”

The United States Soccer Federation has a single purpose: to govern all forms of soccer in the United States. This includes everything from the youth game to professional leagues to the national teams and everything in between. The USA is a large country, and it is therefore a large job to track all of that, which is why the federation often utilizes affiliates, such as the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA), which is in charge of amateur soccer.

USSF nonetheless holds considerable weight in control of the amateur game, especially in regards to the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, the knockout-style domestic soccer tournament for the US. The Open Cup is selectively open to amateur teams.

There are several amateur leagues that are sanctioned across the United States, and they are usually given a set number of Open Cup entries to award to their teams. In the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), for example, first- and second-place finishers in each conference are generally admitted, as well as other teams who can receive an “at-large” bid.

NPSL North Conference

Duluth FC, who were crowned the first-ever champions of the NPSL North Conference last summer, are set to take part in the first round of the tournament. However the Blue-Greens were left in the dark over their Open Cup status. “With the US Open Cup we never got an answer [from USSF] at all,” explains Duluth’s general manager Tim Sas. “Thankfully our NPSL League Office was proactive in seeking clarifications.”

Sas doesn’t want to say that USSF is bad or fails to to do their job, but he says that “it is very difficult to judge whether or not USSF does its job well simply because it’s unclear what the overall reponsibility is. They claim governance over all soccer in the USA. However they only seem to pay attention to national teams and MLS.”

“They need to be willing to bend on their rules a little bit”

Minneapolis City SC has not had the best of experiences with the US Open Cup. The Crows were disqualified from the 2017 competition after they moved to the NPSL North Conference from the now-defunct Premier League of America. The Open Cup does not allow teams who have switched leagues to participate for stability reasons.

“I get the spirit of that,” says Dan Hoedeman, one of Minneapolis City’s co-founders. “You don’t want to enter an amateur team and then all of a sudden they turn into something else. But we stayed in USASA at the same level of the pyramid and moved for greater proximity so it was all about stability. We didn’t change our players, we didn’t change our coach, we didn’t change the corporate structure or the management team or any of that stuff. So kicking us out for just trying to keep going—that’s not helpful. It’s a pedantic reading of the rules.”

The Crows’ appeal was denied by the Federation.

Minneapolis City SC takes the pitch before a friendly against the University of Minnesota club team.
Eli Hoff

Minneapolis City experienced systematic issues again with the 2018 Open Cup. Because the tournament is so large, qualifying rounds take place starting in the fall of the previous year. Minneapolis City were drawn away to a team from Rochester, New York. The club found out about the game on Twitter.

“There’s no communication with us directly, it’s all via Twitter,” explains business director Sarah Schreier. “They don’t tell you ahead of time—there’s an email afterwards. They draw it, and then they’re like, ‘as you saw.’”

The Crows took offense to the location of their match. After all, New York is a broad definition of “local.”

“They shipped us all over the country,” says Hoedeman.

Minneapolis City’s trip to upstate New York would require much more than the vans normally used by the club—suddenly flights were necessary. And plane tickets to Rochester aren’t exactly cheap.

The Crows had budgeted about $3,000, a significant amount of money for a local amateur team. The trip carried a price tag of $15,000, so the club turned to GoFundMe. “We were lucky with the fans that we have and the support that we got,” says Hoedeman.

There isn’t a vetting process for teams to host Open Cup matches, and so Minneapolis City found themselves playing a game on a sloppy pitch in upstate New York in November, when bad weather conditions should almost be expected. The back-up plan for if the match had to be rescheduled was to play the next day, a Monday. “We didn’t have the money or the ability to just stay an extra day,” points out Shreier. “We can’t just say, ‘oh no big deal.’ We can’t just call into work and say, ‘hey, I have a soccer tournament’—that’s not how it works. They need to be willing to bend on their rules a little bit.

“Gracious and helpful”

On an individual level, USSF’s employees are “gracious and helpful,” according to Hoedeman. Minneapolis City has high praise for their liason and his communication. The only issue was what he had to communicate.

“We have a lot of nice things to say about [USSF],” says Hoedeman. “Their heart’s in the right place.”

“A wider vision”

With the United States Soccer Federation drawing plenty of ideas for reform, there need to be some changes to benefit amateur teams. “I’ve got to believe that the federation can pay attention to more than the top division,” expresses Hoedeman.

Schreier feels that the amateur level doesn’t receve the attention or resources it needs. Clubs often do not have access to transportation to locations outside of their normal league area. Players and staff hold full-time jobs in addition to their roles on a team. Stadiums are rented and cannot always be secured on short notice. “It doesn’t seem like they understand,” she laments.

Hoedeman would like to see some stability in the amateur game. “Soccer is aggresively political,” he points out. “Why are there all these leagues? Everything is confusing and changing all the time.”

Two leagues currently feature teams in the upper-Midwest area: the NPSL and the UPSL. Teams do not intermix between them, except for the occasional friendly.

The amateur game hopes that the new USSF president can be a catalyst for change. “I think leadership is a part of it,” says Hoedeman. “They have to pay attention to our side of the game.”

The Candidates

The field of candidates for the USSF election can only be described as crowded, but there are some figures who seem to be moving ahead of the pack, but few of them have promised much in regards to the amateur game.

Kathy Carter, a soccer marketing executive who has been picked by many as the favorite, provides some ideas for the amateur level. She would like to focus on marketing and giving resources to local sides while also shortening the US Open Cup.

Carlos Cordeiro, the current Vice President of US Soccer, is more oriented on how youth soccer can translate into adult amateur players.

Eric Wynalda, who fulfills the role of anti-establishment candidate, has some radical ideals, but only wishes to market the Open Cup’s more valuable latter stages.

Kyle Martino, a former player turned analyst, emphasizes transparency and equality, but hasn’t really given specifics on what he would do.

Steve Gans promises to hold a “Soccer Summit” in order to make the voices of groups across the country heard. He also hopes to help untangle the mess of leagues and state associations, clarifying the amateur level.

Whoever is elected and whatever changes are made, the amateur level of soccer must be considered. Clubs like Duluth FC, Minneapolis City SC, and FC Minneapolis have experienced the “fine for MLS, wrong for us” rhetoric too many times. The amateur game needs to receive the attention and resources it needs.