Sunils' Law

For many many years, minor league soccer in the US of A was quite literally the private personal property of USL (nee USISL) President-for-Life Francisco Marcos.

If you had more money than sense you called up Frank in Florida and he'd tell you how big a check to write him. When the check cleared, you were officially in.

The league names constantly changed, player designations and divisions blossomed anew each year only to be replaced by something else 12 months later and teams came and went at an alarming rate.

The only constant was that you paid Frank Marcos. There was no other way in.

The owners had no say, no vote in anything important and no real power. Unlike any other league on earth - even MLS - the owners didn't elect Marcos and there was literally no way to get rid of him.

You paid money, you fielded a team and then, after you got tired of losing money, you withdrew from the league and Marcos moved on to someone - and someplace - else.

There were of course some "standards" you had to meet in terms of stadiums, personnel and financial responsibility - I have copies of them around here someplace - but there wasn't much that wasn't considered negotiable.

As long as Franks' check was good, the rules, as they say, were "more like guidelines, really".

As we all know, in the fullness of time and after years and years of searching, Marcos found someone (Umbro) dumb enough to give him money for ownership of what amounted to not so much a soccer league as a Ponzi scheme.

This led, as we all know, to USL ownership by a couple guys in Florida, the rise of a rival league and USSF stepping in last Spring to take control over second division soccer.

All of which was a preamble for the USSF decision last week to raise the ante for Division 2 soccer by drastically revising the requirements.

As you surely know from following Brian Quarstads' excellent INSIDE MINNESOTA SOCCER (and if you haven't, shame on you) Sunil and Co. have decided that from now on second division pro soccer - whatever the name of the league turns out to be - is going legit.

Brian mentions some of the requirements and links to the rest, but the big ones center around, among other things, having at least one principal with a net worth of over $20 million and having each team post a $750,000 performance bond before their team can take the field.

The days of having a Fly By Night league run out of some guys' back pocket are now officially dead and buried.

The comments I've seen on these developments have been almost uniformly approving, and it's hard to disagree with the notion that it's high time there were some rules and standards.

One reason I keep seeing quoted is that, supposedly, minor league soccer has a "75% failure rate".

I don't know who ran the numbers, but frankly I'm surprised that it's that low.

But here's the thing: the "failure rate" for first division soccer in the US over the last 30 years is probably pretty similar. Just because we have a seemingly stable league at the moment (albeit one where two teams have shut down and another one was relocated three states away) doesn't clear the slate of all the Rochester Lancers, Chicago Stings and Memphis Rogues who ended up in the crowded dust bin of US pro soccer every bit as ignominiously as the D2 Syracuse Salty Dogs.

Now I for one am not, not, not going to get into whether raising the bar for D2 is the first step towards relegation and promotion. If you're of a mind to do so, knock yourself out.


Nor am I going to try and figure out what this means for the Puerto Rico Islanders (a successful team that nonetheless has no chance of meeting the requirements), the impending demise of Crystal Palace Baltimore or the crisis at NSC Minnesota.

Neither am I going to waste any time gloating about how the NASL blew it by hitching their wagon to Commissioner Jeff Cooper in St. Louis (and have you seen where, all of a sudden, Cooper has money to spend? The whole thing just reeks) and now look like idiots.

Suffice it to say that a lot of team, even seemingly stable ones like Rochester, have some hard decisions ahead.

More than that though, and much as I'm loath to admit it, it may just be that Marcos, for all his failings, got it mostly right: if it wasn't for low, flexible and amorphous "standards" there wouldn't have been a second division at all.

The problem with D2 soccer isn't that it's not run like a business by serious deep-pockets guys.

Rather, the problem is that it's a loser.

Before Cohiba Don - the guy who a certain Toronto blogger says has been a "caretaker" rather than a builder, which is one of the stupidest things I've ever read - created the adidas deal, the ESPN deal and S.U.M. out of thin air, MLS was undeniably on it's way out.

The reason the league has been able to attract new cities, new owners and new money is because Garber has been able to show serious men with serious money that the whole thing isn't just an ego exercise destined to bankrupt them.

And it's not just soccer; minor league sports in general has a dismal track record in the US. Minor league baseball only exists because Major League baseball heavily subsidizes it's player payroll. Otherwise, a whole bunch of Erie Sea Wolves and Trenton Thunders and Portland Sea Dogs would simply cease to exist.

The problem isn't lack of seriousness or lack of business sense or lack of commitment. Rather, it's that by and large, without TV money, big national sponsors or piles of merchandise sales, minor league soccer is a lousy investment.

What's more, as we all know, the clubs that were able to dance around the margins of profitability - Montreal, Portland, Seattle, et al - are leaving or have already left.

So while I do applaud USSF for trying to put Pro 2 on a sounder foundation - and by the way, I know they're still saying they are determined to make their custodianship of USSF D2 a one-year-and-out deal don't be shocked if it doesn't work out that way - the fact is that there really isn't a sound foundation to be had.

Until the masses are willing to wander out in the thousands to cheer on their local minor league soccer team, then D2 and D3 will continue to be what it's always been: a dicey proposition held together by optimists.

The difference now is, apparently, they're going to have to be optimists with 20 million bucks in the bank.