Big questions ahead for U.S. Soccer with Klinsmann exit, #ProRelforUSA

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 14: FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati poses for a photo after part II of the FIFA Council Meeting 2016 at the FIFA headquarters on October 14, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 14: FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati poses for a photo after part II of the FIFA Council Meeting 2016 at the FIFA headquarters on October 14, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images) /

Thanksgiving could not come sooner for U.S. Soccer. 

Everyone loves thanksgiving. Whether it is the food, the drinks, the food, the American football, or the food it is one of the best holidays on the calendar. But above all else it is a great chance to take a day or two or off and just get away from things. Before the holiday season and just after a long grueling stretch of very few days off it is the holiday where everyone seems completely cool to relax and forget about one’s troubles.

U.S. Soccer could certainly use some of that right now. After firing Jurgen Klinsmann as USMNT head coach and Technical Director one would have thought that their troubles were over. But with one simple study the topic that they really do not want to discuss was brought back into the spotlight: promotion/relegation. And with that the turkey and all of its fixings seems just that farther away.

On the surface the ties between the two issues are tenuous at best. Aside from the odd quote by Klinsmann through the years there really has not been that much connecting the performance of the senior national team to the efforts to creating a globalized style club system. Although there are many who support the structure it has always felt like more of a luxury issue to the greater public. Not many players have made the jump from a second or third division side directly to the senior national team so there was always a bit of a disconnect. That may also be due to U.S. Soccer, who have spent the lion’s share of their attention over the years building Major League Soccer, sometimes to the detriment to those below it.

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But there are certainly connections. The first and foremost is Sunil Gulati, the President of the United States Soccer Federation. Gulati oversees both the United States Men’s National Team and club soccer here in the United States. Above all others it is Gulati that has made himself the face of the federation for close to 10 years. Every major decision and every major issue that has come before U.S. Soccer has gone across his desk. So while the USMNT and promotion/relegation may be two topics where the tires aren’t strong there is just one man deciding on both.

Second, having a club soccer pyramid where there is such acrimony certainly impacts the national team. Having an owner for a second division side commissioning a study that openly questions your current model shows how fractured the current system is. Although there are certainly times where owners in clubs across the world decry decisions made by their respective Football Associations none openly call for the end of the status quo. That is not to say that they are wrong, far from it. But it does point to disorganization and opens up the question as to how U.S. Soccer thinks they can be a world soccer power when all of the owners under their umbrage aren’t on the same page.

The answer is: they can’t. If the United States wants to become a global soccer power in the men’s game there are two paths: either develop a fully unified club system (such as with Germany) or be willing to use their club system as a feeder system for a larger league (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Netherlands, etc.) Trying to develop a strong club system without all parties on board is a very difficult thing to do. This is the problem that the England FA find themselves in with strong club teams but no real resolve to building a national team. It is hard to get so many self-interested parties to agree on one thing and U.S. Soccer ignoring the lower divisions for so many years has not helped.

So how does this situation resolve itself? Is there a way where all parties can be happy? In the short-term the answer is no. Promotion/relegation will not happen in the United States next season. Nor the next. Probably not the one after that. Nor will the United States win the 2018 World Cup. These big issues that are hovering over the game’s head will continue to do so mostly because of pre-existing contracts with sponsors and media partners. ESPN and Fox would probably not be happy with a complete 180 degree turn in U.S. Soccer.

But there all sides could work on to help get to that point. Although Bruce Arena will likely be named USMNT manager chances are he is not going to be there for long. With the next manager Gulati would be wise to include the heads of MLS, NASL, and USL as to who will take over. The reason for this is simple: the USMNT manager and technical director roles have a large impact on how the game is played and not just at the top level. The NASL and USL have a stake in this too  and should be included in this discussion. Not every player is going to be developed abroad or in MLS.

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Improving the U.S. Open Cup is another matter that all three sides could work on. Although more effort has been placed on the tournament in recent seasons it still feels like a lesser tournament. The uncertainty over media rights, scheduling, and sides putting in experimental sides makes it a difficult tournament to watch from time to time. Coming up with ways where all three sides can work to improve upon the tournament is for the better of all U.S. Soccer and again should have an indirect impact on the USMNT.

Do these scenarios lead directly to promotion/relegation. Again: no. But what they do is show MLS and U.S. Soccer that the days of disorganization at the lower levels are gone. It is a sign of trust that these entities are here to stay and that they are partners that can help build soccer in this country. Even if MLS may never be interested it gives U.S. Soccer the confidence that they can bring in the system without fear or hesitation.

In the end U.S. Soccer will only be as strong as it allows it club teams to be. A disjointed system benefits no one and only causes more chaos and disruption at the national team level.  Gulati has to find a way to make all parties work on the same page, promotion/relegation or not. Otherwise there are going to be many more ugly Thanksgivings to come.