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The problem with professionals on an amateur stage

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Why we shouldn’t be watching paid players in NPSL and WPSL.

June 20, 2018 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - VSLT supporters share a laugh in the stands during the VSLT FC vs Dakota Fusion FC match at James Griffin Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
June 20, 2018 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - VSLT supporters share a laugh in the stands during the VSLT FC vs Dakota Fusion FC match at James Griffin Stadium. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

When I turn up to watch amateur league soccer, my expectations are that I will see the blend of college players, alumni and former pros which has made the names of the NPSL and PDL as top of the (albeit someone illusory) pyramid.

The surroundings of mostly high school gridiron fields and exposed metal bleachers reinforce that impression. When one team is vastly better than the others (as Minneapolis City SC were in NPSL North this season), I expect it to have been because of a difference in hard work and choices/recruiting - not because the other team has out spent its rivals. That kind of behaviour is for the “major leagues.”

Unfortunately, this season’s NPSL Final will be contested by a team with a reputed payroll of $1 million, who knocked off our own Duluth FC in the semi-finals. A team of professionals also blitzed their way through the WPSL North before falling in that league’s national semifinals. Prescribed by US Soccer, teams must be entirely made up of paid players, or entirely made up of unpaid players. The leagues are defined as either professional or amateur. Contrary to popular phrasing, there is no such thing as “semi-professional” within the rules of US Soccer. Therefore, I think the presence of these teams is against the spirit of grassroots leagues.

I grew up watching high level men’s professional soccer in England, but the small town where I went to high school and the surrounding towns and villages provided the soil for soccer’s roots in that country. Those small sides provided legitimately semi-professional organisation - a small wage for the production of a low quality product, supplemented by work in another industry entirely. The FA Cup’s tales of electricians, plumbers and farmers are famous. While those players can (and do) move up the pyramid into fully professional soccer, so can entire teams. The women’s system has been a mess for years, and is not particularly useful to explore for this piece.

Torquay United v Sutton United - Vanarama National League
Sutton United went on an FA Cup a couple of years ago.
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

Partly to blame is a history of agreements, first between MLS sides and then with NASL sides whereby the fully professional reserve sides of clubs were granted expansion status into the NPSL while the first team continued in the full-season higher league.

Then NASL decided to sue the federation earlier this year for the right to continue to be considered a professional league and specifically the next step down from MLS - although whether a team is promoted or relegated between tiers is currently defined by money rather than on the field performance.

When NASL suspended its operations and cast its teams into the darkness of unaffiliated play, those reserve sides became the only teams being fielded by the organisations involved.

So that’s the background. Still with me?

The organisations involved vary in the way they have handled this downsizing. Jacksonville Armada deserve some credit for actively rebranding their NPSL under-23 side as just “Armada” when they became the sole representatives of that club. On the flipside, most of my anger has to be towards New York Cosmos and The Miami FC.

2015 Lunar New Year Cup - South China v New York Cosmos Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images

Both of those clubs have insisted on marketing their sides as reserve sides, despite there being no other competitive team, and therefore running out salaried professionals whilst still claiming the DIY kudos and US Open Cup berths designated for amateur clubs. I’ll admit this is not clear-cut. The NPSL national final is between a FC Motown club with a number of former professionals but none actively paid, and the aforementioned Miami FC 2 (as they are officially known).

Over in the WPSL, I had the dubious pleasure of watching the professional farm team Chicago Red Stars Reserves carve up a WPSL North division otherwise made up of college student-athletes. They didn’t win it all, but they stood out amongst the Central Region and against a league where one of the sides (East region winners Cleveland Ambassadors) won through to the National Semi-finals but withdrew because their college athletes were called back by schools who are - after all - giving them scholarships.

Worse still, there is only 1 playoff spot - obviously locked up by Chicago Red Stars.

The WPSL championship was won by Seattle Sounders, which has ownership ties to the professional men's side - although I do not believe they are also a professional side. Washington Spirit NWSL professional club also run a reserve side in the league. For obvious reasons, I know more about Red Stars than the other two.

Any illusions that RSR were amateur have been swiftly dispelled by the club’s own media release when, after the WPSL season had finished, some Reserves were “called up” to the NWSL major league squad. Ironically, the game they were called up for was cancelled.

June 17, 2018 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Chicago Red Stars Reserves defender Patricia George (22) pokes the ball away from Fire 98 SC forward Mimi Eiden (9) during the Fire 98 SC vs Chicago Red Stars Reserves match at Sea Foam Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
June 17, 2018 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Chicago Red Stars Reserves defender Patricia George (22) pokes the ball away from Fire 98 SC forward Mimi Eiden (9) during the Fire 98 SC vs Chicago Red Stars Reserves match at Sea Foam Stadium. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

The waters are getting muddier. UPSL has a division called the PRO division and NPSL is looking to join it with plans for a full season, non-NCAA compliant professional division. But the Federation is insisting that it alone can bestow accreditation for a league to be considered professional grade and have reportedly threatened to sue. I’d rather there was less legal action in the lower leagues, not more.

I also just wish this was clearer. As a spectator and reporter on US Open Cup games, I’m concerned that the already opaque qualification process will be further complicated by teams who are currently affiliated with the amateur leagues either attempting to insist on automatic qualification because they are professional (such as happened with NASL sides like the Loons) or Cosmos “B” and Miami “2” claiming qualification spots from the cluster allocated by NPSL to playoff sides, thus denying amateur sides the opportunity to qualify from a (supposedly) amateur league.

There is no Open Cup for the women (a problem for another article), so the women of the North face playing a season with nothing but personal accomplishments and team pride on the line. They might be fine with that, but I find it hard to believe they would be.

Maybe I would feel less angry if it wasn’t my local club being taken to the cleaners (in WPSL) or my neighbors being knocked out of a national final (in NPSL) but I don’t think so.

Who knows where we will be in a couple of years. With USL trying to launch a lower league to match its current MLS feeder division, NPSL seriously looking into a division solely of professional teams and a couple of models for professional leagues trying to get off the ground. My hope would be that the teams that want to be fully professional can play others who wish to be that way, and the amateurs can continue to operate on their shoestring budgets and college rosters.