Unprofessional Foul


March 8, 2011

An Un-American Dream: Part 1

MLS playoffs fill a stadium? Sadly, just another dream…

2011 marks the first season for the USL Pro League in the USSF, and despite it being two small steps from the MLS, those steps are huge in terms of revenue and respect.

To delve into this story fully, one must first understand the American Soccer Pyramid. The names and ‘ranks’ of soccer leagues recognized by the USSF can be a confusing topic, and over the past few years, the waters have only gotten murkier.

Until 2010, the United Soccer Leagues Second Division (USL-2) was third in the hierarchy, behind MLS and the USL First Division (which was actually second). Still with me? Good. In 2010, the USL-2 dissolved and became the USL Pro, which combined the existing First Division and Second Divisions. This merger came after Nike agreed to sell their USL holdings to people other than the USL Team Owner’s Association (TOA). In turn, and essentially in protest, 7 USL-1 TOA clubs broke away, a USL-2 team, and St. Louis (huh?) to create a new League in 2010, the North American Soccer League (NASL). This is how the American Soccer Pyramid currently stands:

Footie Food Chain Flow Chart

This year, the USL Pro League will be made up of 15 teams, in 3 divisions: American, National & International, from prominent cities around the US including Orlando, Dayton, and yes, Los Angeles. This past weekend, the USL Pro team in Richmond, Virginia had their annual tryouts and I decided to attend (more personal specifics on that adventure in Part 2).

The Richmond Kickers franchise started in 1993 in the USISL (amateur division) and has since gradually moved through the USSF ranks. In October 2005, “the Kickers announced they would move down to the USL Second Division for the 2006 season, proclaiming it a cost-saving measure to save the franchise.” In 2006 and 2009, they won the USL-2 title. In the 2007 U.S. Open Cup, the Kickers defeated the LA Galaxy. The team’s history has been a roller-coaster with not only the various league divisions but also their city.

Average home game attendance peaked at 2,754 in 2005, which was after the team moved their home field to the University of Richmond’s Stadium (capacity: 22,611…yet only 9,000 for soccer). In 2010, average attendance had dropped to 2,044, the lowest it’s been since the move.

Despite the team not getting much attention from their hometown, they still drew the talents of players from around the world. The Kickers 2010 roster included players from Uganda, Cameroon, Germany, Brazil, England, the US and Scotland. The trialists at the 2011 combine were just as diverse: looking through the parking lot while everyone was on the pitch, I found license plates from Ontario, NC, CT, FL, GA, IN, NJ, MN, PA, NY, TX, VA, CO and IN. From those states, athletes from Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, England, Venezuela, Ecuador, and others (15 countries in all) traveled to Richmond, Virginia in search of a chance at a dream, their dream…and what some would call an Un-American Dream.

Theirs is a dream of hard work with effort, dedication coupled with disappointment, and an abundance of hope…all with very little financial reward. Their dream isn’t of easy money, girls or glory. With this sport, in this country, those perks rarely come with the dream (or the reality). This “Un-American Dream” is solely driven by passion, by the love of a sport that relatively few here appreciate, where they’d still be unknown to the media, unknown to most of the sport, and unknown to most of their home cities. Think that’s not the most unattractive recruitment fact? Think again.

Jesse Myers, the Kickers’ Assistant Coach, explained that players make anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per month. Some players also have housing allowances and/or performances bonuses, but realistically, a USL Pro team player can count on an average annual salary of $12,000-$36,000 per year, pre-tax.

Think about that.

The low-end of that figure is less than the average fast-food cook makes per year ($15,230). Completely discounting the physical toll incurred by a professional athlete, these men (and boys) don’t question a dream that pays $12,000 per year. There is no overtime pay for the hours spent traveling (a USL Pro team may not fly often, but they do have a team bus that sleeps 26). There is just this sport and this chance on their mind right now.

This year, players aged 19 to 39 came to tryout for the Kickers, with over 80 attending in all. The 19 year old came from from Indiana with literally a broken ankle. He played on it (surprisingly well) all weekend because, young as he is, he has the passion to overcome the pain. A keeper in his early twenties, after multiple attempts auditioning for lower-division clubs in Italy, also came to Richmond to make this pro tryout his seventh in the US to-date. A native Spud tore his groin Friday night and sat on the bench throughout the weekend watching yet another set-back cloud his career aspirations. Patrice On, a 24-year old Cameroonian going to school in Hagerstown, MD, also made the journey. He’s in the US attending a community college, which doesn’t have a soccer team. As a result, he hasn’t played organized soccer in almost two years, but came to Richmond because “it’s [his] dream” to play professionally. A 39 year old who blew off multiple Division I and II college recruitment offers when he was in high school said the ‘what-ifs’ finally caught up with him…and that motivated him to try out too.

Curious as to where players go from here, Coach Myers explained to me that most of his current starting XI spent time with MLS camps or franchises…”there’s always movement. Usually amongst the younger guys. For the veterans, they’re good players but the MLS doesn’t take a look at them.” The players in this league understand there’s little chance of moving up the ladder, and are content to play that this level (for this money) indefinitely…just to live the dream.

An incredibly talented kid, who apparently spoke very little English, came off at the end of one of the training sessions, took some street-clothes out of two garbage bags, changed, and then pulled out a blanket out to cover himself before falling asleep on the edge of the pitch. I don’t know where he came from or where he was going, but it was obvious he sacrificed a lot to be where he was, both literally and athletically. Sadly, the USSF isn’t seeing him or players like him. For all of the governing bodies in US Soccer reaching down, trying to get people involved in the sport from a grassroots level, they’re still not connecting with any of the talented, dedicated players working throughout the lower-leagues, reaching up.

Between the USSF and FIFA requirements for national team qualification, very valid questions are raised here as to why there is so little diversity on the national team for a country considered a global “melting pot.” Huh Bob was known for giving young players their first cap…may we suggest there’s more to US Soccer’s prospects than those in Europe or the MLS?

If you have a lower-division club near you, take the time, go to a game, and show these under-appreciated players that you respect and appreciate the Un-American Dream, especially if it’s your dream too.

If nothing else, these lower-division combines show that at least that many athletes are passionate enough to play this sport professionally at any level they can, even if they know it will only take them as far as one end of the pitch and back again. They will never be measured by the size of their bank account or the power of their personal brand, but rather, they will measure themselves on their accomplishment of an Un-American Dream.



About the Author

Mountain Wag


  1. TrentonPorkRollUnion

    That picture/caption is very unfair! FakeNY is not a good barometer for any kind of attendance.

  2. Sleeping by the pitch? This guy is my hero.

  3. Arkie

    its hard sometimes not to see these open tryouts as more of a revenue stream for these small clubs. My brother has been pursuing this dream for the past year, after quitting a much more lucrative corporate job he was offered out of college (he played all 4 years on an NAIA school). The open tryouts are probably more grueling on ones emotions and confidence than anything else. He has done these things for Puerto Rico, for Harrisburg City, for Wilmington, Atlanta… He also had a brief training stint with Atlas in Mexico before he took this job where they really just wanted to look at the Mexican Americans who came with him (didn’t want to waste a foreign player spot on someone who wasn’t a known quantity). The point is, he’s a great player, and I hope he gets picked up, but until that happens these open trials suck for players. They normally pick 1 or 2 tops, and for a position like GK (which he plays) they very easily could have no intention of picking up any player at the position, but still take their money for the tryout. There needs to be some sort of help given to college seniors to help develop the stockpile of American talent.
    Anyways, this was a great article, and I can’t wait to look for pt II.

  4. @Arkie: For sure this is a revenue maker for the teams. $50 a pop for someone to chase a dream that costs the team very little and may turn up a nice surprise. But, these teams don’t need a lot of players and only want the very best from the tryouts. It’s a numbers game for them.

  5. Arkie

    Obviously I see why they do it, it’s just good business sense. It’s just frustrating seeing my brother go to these trials and they’ve yet to pick a ‘keeper from it. They are all mainly waiting to take MLS rejects at that position.
    I wish we had much more of the infrastructure, namely scouting, and support in the lower leagues here as they do in other countries. Either way, I hope someone got picked up from the tryout described in the article.

  6. Mountain Wag

    @TFA/Arkie – There were a total of about 80 trialists, 80% of whom were invited (and I believe therefore they didn’t have to pay the $99 fee). So, if 14 paid the fee, that’s a net of $1,386. The coaching staff was there for an entire weekend (and probably on salary, so no loss there). The physio could be PT so would therefore have to cover is hourly staffing costs for the weekend, the fields had lights that were on all Friday night (electric bills), No bathrooms but there are porta-potties on-site. The guys probably filled those up, so they’d need to pay to empty them. All in all, although other combines certainly could be more expensive, I didn’t think it was an unreasonable sum. Then again, if I were a player going to every one of these I could find, yes, the costs would add up quickly.

  7. Mountain Wag

    @Arkie – Oh, and they had referees for their 11v11 games Sat and Sun, so those were probably hourly costs as well. This event, at least, seemed like it was closer to a break-even than any massive money-making endeavour, but others may be set up quite differently.
    as for positions, agreed that must be frustrating. This combine was run like the National combine where there is more emphasis on how you play the game (not just the individual skill set you walk onto the pitch with). So they had some fitness tests friday night, then lots of rounds of short-sided games. Full field games Saturday and Sunday. The coaches basically saw what/who they were interested in Friday and then watched for consistency throughout the weekend. Everyone else (esp. the keepers) are really just there to facilitate the actual prospects having someone to play with/shoot on.

  8. Mountain Wag

    In 2010, the Kickers offered 4 people from the combine a contract. This year, they signed 3 from the combine. 3.75% chance of making the cut – the average is certainly better than a lottery ticket…but I understand what you’re saying. The travel costs consume these guys more than anything. Some flew out. Some slept in their cards. The guy noted just got to the field and seemed to ‘live’ there all weekend. Stunning.

  9. Mountain Wag

    @Trenton-lol. True in that case, but the other shots from MLS teams in middle-America weren’t much different (except those in the extremely small stadia, of course)…

  10. Arkie

    I see what you mean, and absolutely no one is getting rich at all off of this. However, I know that often times invitees are given a reduced fee, not a free one. Of course, I’m sure different teams operate differently. What I mean is that it is grating on players when they play well and still do not get picked up due to roster spots or a lack of fitness which could be alleviated with regimented training. Of course, it is not in a teams interest to take a chance on players when they have those spots filled up. But imagine quitting a job to pursue this and then continually playing and feeling yourself to be the best or one of the better players at your position for each tryout and still not receiving a call back. Makes you feel for these guys and what it does to their confidence. Also, that dude sleeping on the pitch is lucky cops didn’t run him out of there.

  11. Mountain Wag

    @Arkie -absolutely re: player confidence. Re:sleeping on pitch: the coaches made trialists wake the guy up so they could lock up the field (for cars). I have little doubt the guy just walked out of sight till the coaches left and the lights were out. It’s in a semi-wooded very far out suburban area in the ‘nice’ part of Richmond (which means 35+ minutes from downtown). Safe from vagrants, except for soccer bums. (-;

  12. NotLucasLevia

    Loved the article, but I just don’t know.

    Something I’ve always wondered, and that has seemed to make perfect sense to me, is why US Soccer doesn’t have promotion and relegation.

    I know I know, MLS Franchises are about being profitable and they need to stay in the league to do that consistently and yadayada. But who cares? Footy is not a profitable business.

    What are the arguments for / against promotion and relegation?

  13. Ryan

    Footy not a profitable business? Really? Name a league in the world that isn’t being run for profit.

    What’s the argument for relegation? Besides the fact that Europe does it.

  14. James T

    Did you read Soccernomics? The argument they lay out regarding why owning a soccer team isn’t a very smart business move was quite compelling. Look at Barca; they sell a ton of merch, put 95k in the seats for home games, and are the best club team in the world. Yet they’re in large debt.

  15. Precious Roy

    Yeah, Ryan… the joke is something like: “To make a million dollars in football, first start with two million dollars.” Think the numbers were released just yesterday about how collectively the Ligue 1 teams are around £200M in debt.

  16. Mountain Wag

    @JT – luckily for you, John W. Henry must not have read Soccernomics either…

  17. Ryan

    Okay, for clubs sure, but the leagues themselves are profitable right?

  18. Mountain Wag

    @Ryan – leagues profitable? Hmmmmm. Well with WPS, teams are folding left and right, so I have no idea how the league will maintain let alone the clubs. These lower division teams – the one thing that I didn’t include in my cost blurbles above (that really must eat up the lion’s share of their budgets) is insurance. It’s a mess. Merchandising profits are minimal for those clubs. Frankly, I don’t know how they do it…

  19. WhoNeedsForwards

    Football is not for profit. Unless you’re a TV company, because football gets great ratings (in Europe at least). That billion plus pounds coming into the prem from TV money goes right out to the players and paying back loans and staff. The teams that turn a profit are the teams like Wigan. They don’t have many fans, but they also don’t spend any money, and money they do spend comes from players they sell.

  20. I do not even know how I ended up here, however I thought this post was once good. I do not recognize who you might be but definitely you are going to a well-known blogger in case you are not already. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>