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:
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.