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What’s next for growing American would-be pro soccer clubs like Detroit City?

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As our attention switches from international football back to the club game, a new article coming out of Michigan recalls where American soccer was when the American soccer world hit pause for the World Cup in June.

That’s when the United States Soccer Federation rejected billionaire businessman Rocco Commisso’s plea for a 10-year runway to bring the North American Soccer League to Division 1 league status by virtue of a $500 million investment proposal.

As if on cue, a John Niyo article in The Detroit News drags the so-called “closed system” back to the forefront, and his writing on National Premier Soccer League side Detroit City FC makes an interesting case.

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DISCLAIMER: Before we go any further, it’s important to note I operate a club in the same league as Detroit City, and very much admire how they’ve built what they’ve built there. That said, my opinions may be buttressed by that fact but are not birthed by bias.

The would-be Cliffs Notes go something like this: Detroit City FC wants to move from the short-season, semi-pro National Premier Soccer League to a fully professional league with a longer season. The rub is that DCFC currently only has one path and it’s one neither they nor the lion’s share of their supporters would support at the given time.

That’s largely because the U.S. Soccer Federation has only sanctioned two options above the NPSL: The United Soccer League and Major League Soccer. If DCFC doesn’t want to play a part in either of those organizations, it has no other current option. And while Detroit City has continued to bring huge crowds to its restored Keyworth Stadium whether NPSL matches or friendlies against the likes of FC St. Pauli, Necaxa, or Venezia, its next step is currently stuck in a holding pattern despite the club’s achievements.

And — and this is where Commisso’s offer comes back into play — the USSF has no reason to sanction any league that doesn’t go by its current divisional guidelines, which demand a very wealthy owner and specific stadium requirements amongst other things. Infrastructure and fan support can be built, but asking these clubs to hand themselves over to someone with deeper pockets simply to meet a standard is real 2×4 to the gut.

“What you’re doing is awesome, but imagine if instead of you owning all of your success, you found a wealthier person to help you meet our standards?”

As we saw when MLS had its Detroit press conference without DCFC, there is no longer the ability to pretend soccer wasn’t already in town. DCFC may seem like an outlier, and may well be one, having had massive success with big crowds in a stadium they renovated themselves. Yet there’s little doubt there are myriad markets in this giant country that wouldn’t mind trying their hands with something new.

Put plainly, there are 172 clubs in the NPSL and Premier Development League alone, few of whom are in markets with MLS teams. Even eliminating the PDL teams with close relationships to MLS and the USL (The USL owns the PDL), and there are still well over 100 teams in play. Sure, some of those may not have the ambition to grow higher, but they are also currently also shackled by having to compete against the former NASL teams who had no alternative outside of the USL once their Division 2 league shut down last winter.

So Niyo’s article asks a question many have posited in the realms of social media: Why not go outside the structure of FIFA?

From The Detroit News:

Building a league outside the constraints of U.S. Soccer’s “Professional League Standards” could be one option for remaining NASL owners — New York, Miami and Jacksonville — and NPSL teams that are looking to grow pro. Detroit City FC was one of at least a half-dozen NPSL teams — clubs from Boston, Phoenix, Virginia Beach and Boca Raton, Fla. among them — poised to join the NASL with letters of intent last fall. But whatever path a new league pursues, it’ll require strength in numbers — at least 10 or 12 teams — and a geography that makes sense.

It’s a major risk, one that certainly is lined with the hopes that the influencers and money people behind the USSF might blink at significant competition.

But it still requires significant salesmanship: Getting top-notch players to commit to a league which several hampers their international aspirations is a hard sell (The NASL had capped players from 27 caps heading into the 2016 season).

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So, too, is convincing deep-pocketed investors that they are capable of slaying, or at least denting, a big machine which has grown in a dramatic way in the last two decades. If a guy like Commisso, who has since went deep into discussions for a takeover of AC-freaking-Milan, sees the value and necessity of USSF sanctioning, lawsuits or not, certainly most would have the same questions.

Are there enough of the renegade rich to self-sustain a league outside of the MLS-USL set-up, and even get to sanctioning? Probably, as evidenced by Commisso’s belief that he’d be able to go from multi-club ownership of a D-1 NASL to 10 owners within a decade.

And there’s no denying the allure of safety for new markets. NISA founder Peter Wilt left his nascent D-3 league to helm USL soccer in Madison, and it’s easy to envision his safer new venture an almost automatic success.

So would that same group of risk takers be willing to do it outside of USSF sanctioning, without name players?

That’s where DCFC’s status as an outlier might really come into play. For everyone tooting the proverbial horn of MLS’ rapid and impressive evolution in quality — academies and foreign recruitment alike have made the league very entertaining — there’s no doubt that players with the name quality of Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Carlos Vela still put butts in seats.

Consider this: For all its growth, MLS’ top performing players remain almost overwhelmingly foreign-developed. Using an advanced rating site like WhoScored, the Top 20 finds only two players with any sort of U.S. or Canadian development in their lockers (and that’s being gracious with Kei Kamara, who came to U.S. for college at the age of 20).

You get to No. 23 before another U.S. developed player, Sean Davis, hits the list. It only gets to seven by No. 40 if you allow foreign-born players who largely grew their games in college soccer (including Mark-Anthony Kaye from TFC’s Academy and York University in Ontario).

Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of quality American and foreign talent which would benefit from more jobs.

As DCFC CEO Sean Mann says in The Detroit News piece: “It was frustrating: Why are there so many obstacles? We’re not zealots. We’re not crusaders to reform American soccer. We just want to play at a higher level. We want to naturally grow. And U.S. soccer doesn’t allow that.”

This nation is gigantic, and there are few fans out there who genuinely believe MLS will stop expanding any time soon. In fact, it’s a safe bet that the long play is to one day announce a knockoff of promotion and relegation within the confines of the Major League Soccer umbrella.

The question isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong. Let’s face it: the answers seem likely to fall along the lines of one’s political alliances. Those who fear the risks of the new and unusual will worry about short-circuiting the current path, while the other side will beg to give ideals and theories a chance at practice in the name of something better.

But something does have to change. Soon, more and more major success stories are going to be held short of their goals because of the current structure. Whether that’s Detroit City or Chattanooga seeking a next level and not finding it, or the Sacramento Republic not getting its shot at MLS, or a fan base and market like Columbus getting waylaid by a slimy contract and inaction from on high, they will keep coming into your news feed.

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And if we keep making the mistake of letting these conversations regress to simple “pro-rel” banter, then we’re all going to lose. And it’s going to take a bunch of risk takers who put aside their egos to find common ground.

Here’s a quick way to put the American soccer landscape in perspective: Look at a map. As this sport continues to grow, and the country’s young players are coached and encouraged by generations of fans who were coached and encouraged by fans themselves, the markets for summer sporting entertainment will continue to explode in the United States (with only baseball to compete with them thanks to the given calendar implemented by the USSF).

Are there more than 26 markets fit to host a top-tier side? Yep. Are there more than the 60-plus when tossing in USL (but subtracting MLS reserve sides)? Yep.

And if Commisso’s offer tells us anything, anything at all, it’s that there are figures out there who love the game and have an appetite for something not currently satisfied by the current structure. So either MLS or the USSF is going to announce its plan for a much bigger league with more than a couple dozen markets, or someone is going to challenge from the outside (Of course, both could happen and that would be very intriguing).

Either way, let’s hope it happens before the next guys who want to take up Detroit City’s example decide they’d rather not rattle their skulls against an unnecessary ceiling.

What’s the solution given the current power and success of the USSF? Your takes are welcome.

Rooney on the bench for DCU, Audi Field debut

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WASHINGTON (AP) — D.C. United forward Wayne Rooney was not in the starting lineup for Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Rooney is listed as one of the seven available substitutes for coach Ben Olsen in the teams’s first game at Audi Field.

The 32-year-old Rooney, who signed a 3 1/2-year designated-player contract with Major League Soccer on July 10, is the all-time leading scorer for England’s national team and Manchester United in the Premier League.

Rooney led his boyhood team Everton with 11 goals last season before following in the footsteps of fellow countrymen David Beckham, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard in making the move to the United States.

United are 2-7-5 on the season while the Whitecaps are 7-7-5.

Columbus adds Mullins in bid to strengthen playoff stock

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Patrick Mullins has dropped down the DC United depth chart, and that’s just where Columbus was happy to see him.

Gregg Berhalter and the Crew have scooped up the two-time MAC Hermann Trophy winner as the best college player, sending $150,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to the Black-and-Red.

[ MORE: Kane on ENG loss | Player ratings ]

DC has added Wayne Rooney in addition to Jamaican striker Darren Mattocks.

Mullins, 26, is yet to score this season but has 23 goals and nine assists in five-and-a-half seasons between New England, New York City FC, and DC.

He made just two starts amongst his 10 league appearances this season.

It’s a clever scoop for Columbus, who is trading a league-allocated asset for a regular contributor to MLS score sheets and can produce like Will Bruin with more opportunities.

England’s “great opportunity” for glory

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Football isn’t coming home just yet. But a win for England against Sweden will signal that it’s well on the way.

Gareth Southgate is about as level-headed as managers come, but the England coach knows his young team have a monumental opportunity to make the World Cup final.

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The Three Lions, the youngest team left in the competition, face Sweden in Samara on Saturday and if they win they’ll face either Russia or Croatia in the semifinals.

Southgate acknowledged that England are on the kind side of the bracket but isn’t underestimating Sweden’s veteran squad at all.

“It’s a great opportunity, and although our team will be individually better in two years, we might not have this opportunity again,” Southgate said. “We have huge respect for Sweden. They are a team that I think in the past have been underestimated – we won’t make that mistake. Our players come from the same background as their players. We shouldn’t get carried away with ourselves being better than Sweden. They are older, more experienced, and have a better tournament record than us.”

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

England’s first big test of the World Cup, their Round of 16 penalty shootout win against Colombia on Tuesday, answered plenty of questions about the mentality of this young squad.

Colombia tried every trick in the book but Harry Kane scored (of course), England kept their cool and they rallied after a 93rd-minute equalizer to exorcise their penalty kick demons from major tournaments in the past.

This truly feels like a monumental moment for the English national team, with this likeable squad hungry to achieve and capable of fine attacking, flowing play.

As memes and videos do the rounds on social media, for the first time in what feels like a long time there is positivity around the English national team. There’s no more moaning about not beating minnows 8-0 in qualifying games, no more complaining about superstars not caring about wearing the Three Lions on their shirt.

That is one of the nicest surprises. There are no egos in this team.

This is a squad Southgate has said perfectly represents the modern day society in England as fans back home gather in pubs and parks together to roar on a team they expected very little from, given the amount of shocking defeats in the past.

“We are a team with our diversity and with our youth that represents modern England,” Southgate said. “In England we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is and I think as a team we represent that modern identity, and hopefully people can connect with us.”

England’s players now have that connection with its fans thanks to an openness with media outlets, Southgate encouraging his players to speak out and Kane leading a new generation by example.

That ‘golden generation’ came and went without a trip to the semifinals of a major tournament but now this team, who have captured the imagination of their nation along with their amiable leader Southgate, have the chance to do what the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lamprd and Wayne Rooney couldn’t.

“We are based on working hard for each other, we don’t carry anybody, they all pressed, they all have good organisation and they are prepared to graft and dig in for each other,” Southgate said. “I know those are slightly old-fashioned qualities but we don’t have the right to just stroll around a pitch. We play with character and I love that about them.”

For England the equation is now simple.

Win and they’ll exceed expectations and the wave of euphoria surrounding the team not just in England but around the globe will continue to the semifinals and beyond. “Football’s Coming Home” will dominate the minds of every Englishman until at least next week.

Lose and everyone will lament them stumbling at a key moment once again, as England, whether they like it or not, will be expected to beat Sweden and then reach the final.

The time has arrived for this young England side to become the darlings of the tournament as they try to bring football home.

Rooney looks to lead DC ‘on and off of the pitch’

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Wayne Rooney knows DC United needs a lot of work to get back to into the playoff race, let alone its previous glory.

But the longtime Manchester United and England man thinks he’s the sort of guy who can fill the nets with goals and the Black-and-Red supporters with hope.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

And with Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Yamil Asad, there’s reason for Rooney to think he can be the straw that stirs the proverbial drink.

From DCUnited.com:

“I think there is talent in the team, maybe with a little bit of guidance and a little bit of help, on and off of the pitch, I can help them and they can help me. So, I am looking forward to it — a new challenge, a new culture, a new league to play in and new teammates. I’m excited for the first game, I can’t wait to get started.”

There’s also reason to be hopeful that Rooney can lead young American stars Chris Durkin and Ian Harkes in the ways of professionalism (not that there are any signs Ben Olsen’s young men are missing it).

I’ve made it clear in my posts about Rooney that I’d be stunned to see him fail to make a positive on-field impact at DC, though whether that translates into enough wins to move the meter in 2018 remains to be seen.

But he thinks he’s found the right American city for him.

“I’ve been to places like L.A. and New York and it’s too hectic, it’s like London. For me, I never fancied going to live in London. I need my own space to get away from things when I need to, and Washington seemed to give me that opportunity to do that.”

Read his quote sheet here.