Hello readers of the AP! This article is a break from the norm. It's not an interview or a team update, but an Op-Ed, which is kind of a big deal. Why, you ask? Because it's only the third op-ed ever done on the AP.
When I started AP, the goal was to provide people a window into lower level soccer by talking to the people on the ground and occasionally covering interesting topics. Basically, I wanted to stick to facts and reality, not opinion and fantasy. But every now and then something happens, or an idea comes along that must be written about. This is just such an idea.
Let's start by laying the groundwork. Right now, there is an explosion of soccer in the Midwest. The NPSL has a conference that is made entirely of teams in Michigan. The Premier League of America has 12 teams in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. The American Premier League has 5 teams, soon to be 6, in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. And we didn't even cover the PDL.
But I want to focus on two leagues in particular, the PLA and APL. Both leagues started play in 2015, have grown quite a bit and are looking to continue to do so. I'm all for more soccer teams. More teams means more playing time means more players means more talent being produced. However, with 4 leagues competing for teams in the area, something might need to change, and these two leagues are in the unique position to do something could not just change the landscape of soccer in the Midwest, but quite possibly in the US. First, lets cover the easier of the two plans to pull off.
A merger between the PLA and APL. Lets assume any merger results in keeping the PLA name. After the merger, the PLA would have an increased footprint not just on the regional, but national level as well. The Western Division of the PLA would go from 6 to 12 teams, and stretch into North Dakota. This also means that if FC Fargo can with the PLA, they have a chance to play in the US Open Cup. The PLA Championship doesn't just mean you won the league, it means you can play for an even bigger prize.
Now, merging also means the Western Division of the PLA will more than likely grow beyond 12 teams, as several groups in the Dakota's might be looking into joining the APL, with at least one expressing genuine interest. The biggest problem with this merger, and, to a point, with the second option discussed below, is how it unbalances the Eastern Division. But I think there's a better solution.
Merge, Re-brand, and institute Promotion and Relegation. Pro/Rel is the great 'what if?' of American soccer. I believe these two leagues are best positioned to pull it off, without unbalancing the Eastern Division.
First, the APL becomes the PLA 2. This keeps the Western Division of the PLA at 6 teams, with 6 teams beneath it in the PLA 2. Now, here's where we get into numbers and financials, so bear with me.
Currently, it cost's $3,000 to join the PLA, and $1,000 a year to remain in the league. Here's a solution for making sure both PLA 1 and PLA 2 can grow.
Lets assume a team in Omaha, Nebraska, and a team in Davenport, Iowa, decide they want to join the PLA. Omaha is confident in their ability to compete in the PLA 1 right away. Davenport is a little less sure. They contact the main office about an joining the league, and are presented with two options.
This creates a safety net and opportunity for teams starting from scratch. They can go straight to Division 1 if they have the finances to do so, but will need to be confident in their squad as their is no protection from the drop. This increases the pressure on the players of the new team to perform and work hard. This is the choice Omaha takes. An expansion teams that's unsure if it can compete right away can save some money by joining the PLA 2, while promotion gives the players to strive for as well. This is a better fit for Davenport.
By doing this, the Western Division of the PLA 1 can remain at 6 teams, unless an expansion team like Omaha buys in, fully aware that they must play to win or drop down. The cheaper cost allows the PLA 2 to grow at more rapid rate by being a more cost effective option for teams.
Now what about the Eastern Division? Who's under that? By creating the PLA 2, the PLA as a whole can put a freeze on entry to the Eastern Division via expansion for a year or two to ensure the creation of a PLA 2 Eastern Division of six teams. And there's a nice league in Buffalo, New York, that might be worth talking too about joining this effort.
This is also a solution for the Western Division. By freezing direct expansion there, they can relegate 1 team and promote 2 until the PLA 1 Western Division reaches 10 or 12 teams. Then it's 2 up, 2 down every year from there on out.
After setting all of this up, as the PLA moves into new regions, it can cap new PLA 1 Divisions at 6 teams, then start creating a PLA 2 Division underneath it. This is a model that can be replicated in any region of the country as the league grows.
All PLA 1 Divisions would grow to 10 to 12 teams before being 'locked in.' Until they hit that number, the PLA 2 Division can promote 2 teams while 1 gets relegated unless a new team buys in to the existing PLA 1 Division.
Now, after all of this is instituted, the new league office can work for its teams by finding a league sponsor and division sponsors, creating the 'General Motors Premier League of America,' or the 'Summit Brewery Western Division One.' These sponsorship dollars can be used to help the teams with travel cost and marketing.
The league office can also leverage its number of teams to help secure hotel blocks at discounted rates, get sponsors who will help with transportation and health, and set up some kind of league wide broadcasting ability. As more teams join both divisions, the total amount of yearly fees goes up, allowing the league to do more and self and team promotion.
In closing, these plans allow soccer to grow and expand throughout the Midwest and Great Plains at a sustainable scale.
What do you think? Do either of these ideas make any sense? Is one better than the other? Would the excitement of pro/rel work at this level, and could it carry to a national level? Let me know in the comments below!