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Thursday, July 16, 2009

PDL - Premier or Professional Development League?

Despite the fact that I have not made it to a game yet this season, I am a huge supporter of the Des Moines Menace. With two games left in the regular season, the Menace have already clinched a playoff spot and secured a share of the Heartland Division Championship. With at least a tie in either tonight's match against the Brass in Kansas City or against the St. Louis Lions on Saturday at Valley Stadium, the Menace will win the division outright. Even if they lose both matches they can still lay sole claim to the division as long as Thunder Bay does not beat Rochester (who they beat 3-0 last night) Saturday night. Winning the division means a first round bye in the division playoffs and hosting both division playoff games the weekend of July 24-25.
All of the excitement surrounding another possible run to the Premier Development League championship got me to do some research. There are currently 68 teams in the PDL. They are divided into four geographical conferences which are each subdivided into two regional divisions. The Heartland Division might be the most widely dispersed with teams in Thunder Bay, ON in the northeast, Springfield, MO in the south and Denver, CO in the west.
Primarily the PDL has been about developing players beyond their college programs and increasing their exposure to professional soccer scouts. Former Menace players such as Andy Gruenebaum and Matt Nickell have benefited from playing PDL soccer (although Nickell's pro career seems to be finished). The bulk of each team's 26-player roster must be under 23; three players must be 18 or younger. However, each team can have up to 8 players over age 23. Allowing so many older players has led to the adoption of a program call PDL-Pro.
Traditionally the PDL has been a great tool for college players because they have been able to play very competitive soccer during the American professional season and compete in the prestigious Lamar Hunt US Open Cup against professional teams, including Major League Soccer teams. The PDL is technically amateur soccer (the players are not paid) but is run like a professional league, which allows the players to retain their college eligibility. The NCAA allows its athletes to compete against paid players, as in the US Open Cup, but never on the same team as paid players. PDL-Pro allows for small salaries to be paid to players on PDL teams; their unpaid players are not NCAA eligible by rule. Considering the PDL's basic structure, having the PDL-Pro rules seems kind of counter intuitive.
In effect the PDL-Pro rule allows for semi-professional and/or professional reserve teams to compete against amateur select teams. While these teams may not be up to snuff compared to USL Second Division teams, I am not sure that they should be competing against the amateur PDL clubs. Instead I propose a fourth United Soccer League division slotted between the USL-2 and PDL.
The USL Third Division would be semi-professional and would require an adjustment to the American Soccer Pyramid. In addition to privately run semi-pro teams, many MLS, USL-1 and USL-2 sides could field reserve teams of players that could be called up to the "big club" as needed. Since the American league system does not have promotion and relegation or a true reserve division like European countries, USL-3 teams could become farm clubs for the top tier teams in US. Preferably these reserve clubs would operate outside of the MLS/USL teams' cities, but still in a close regional market (similar to most US minor league sports systems). This would increase exposure and expand the fan base. Of course a stringent salary cap would have to be in place with possible concessions for players contracted to larger clubs.
Proposed US Soccer Pyramid - Expanded
Changing the pyramid would definitely affect the US Open Cup system, but such a change may be a positive. In fact with an additional league currently playing at roughly the same level as the PDL, a change already needs to be made. The current format sees eight teams each from the MLS, USL-1, USL-2, PDL, and USASA. The eight berths granted to the United States Adult Soccer Association include truly amateur men's teams and teams from the National Premier Soccer League. Since the United States Soccer Federation acknowledges that the NPSL is roughly equivalent to the PDL (in many cases competing for college players), they deserve their own qualifiers. One of the joys of the US Open Cup is watching an amateur side, like Dallas Roma, roll through professional clubs so they must remain as well.

Proposed US Open Cup System (current leagues)

40 teams
USASA: 6 teams (1 for each region; runners-up playoffs)
NPSL: 6 teams (1 for each conference; playoff of final spot)
PDL: 6 teams (1 for each conference; runners-up playoffs)
USL-2: 6 teams
USL-1: 8teams
MLS: 8 teams

Proposed US Open Cup System (expanded)
42 teams
USASA: 6 teams
NPSL: 6 teams
PDL: 6 teams
USL-3: 6 teams
USL-2: 6 teams
USL-1: 6 teams
MLS: 6 teams

*An alternative solution would be to change USL-2 to a semi-pro league, leaving only two fully professional soccer leagues in the US and Canada. Current USL-2 teams would move up to an expanded USL-1 or significantly cut player salaries. This would be similar to the French Football Pyramid. This option might make more sense in terms of structuring our soccer leagues, but may be harder for US soccer fans to embrace. It might also be less financially appealing to current operators of USL-2 clubs as they will either have to increase expenses to join USL-1 or lose their professional designation. The soccer pyramid would be relatively unchanged.

Tribe 7