Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Local Ownership and USL

This is a thoughtful article about local ownership, pride, patience, and the USL.

BY THOMAS DUNMORE world's game
Here come the Austin Aztex. No, it’s not a Northern rebirth of the nation still ticked at Cortes. It was announced this week that Texas’ new soccer team will play in the First Division of the United Soccer Leagues, one rung below Major League Soccer on the American soccer ladder. Unlike in baseball, no minor league soccer teams are affiliated to major league teams, thus offering an organic opportunity for the game to put down roots in the huge swathes of the country still untouched by MLS.
Many USL teams can hang with their MLS brethren on the field—only last season in the U.S. Open Cup, USL’s Seattle Sounders crushed MLS’ Colorado Rapids 5-0 on their way to the semi-finals, a stage also reached by their league rivals the Carolina RailHawks, who beat the Chicago Fire at home. The USL First Division, with locations as diverse as Minnesota and Puerto Rico amongst its 13 teams in 2007, sees average attendances ranging from five figures in Montreal to three figures in Miami. USL teams do best when they develop local support over time. The Portland Timbers are well-known in American soccer for their loyal, passionate supporters who can stand proud with any in MLS.
The Aztex have been launched by an Englishman, Phil Rawlins, who is also an owner and director of Stoke City of England’s Championship, one tier below the Premier League. The Aztex will be officially affiliated to Stoke, so the English club will hold training camps, scout for talent and exchange players with their American cousin.
Austin’s affiliation to Stoke is part of a deliberate strategy by USL founder and president Francisco Marcos to further internationalize the league. Marcos, fluent in five languages and with four decades of experience in international soccer, splits his time between homes in the U.S. and his native Portugal. He sees this latest foreign connection as a key moment in his plan.
“I firmly believe that Phil Rawlins understands, and is fully committed to, the concept of international relationships as the way to speed up American player development and to further the creation of thriving soccer culture in the US. Following in the footsteps of Crystal Palace Baltimore, who began play last season, and of our recently announced partnership with West Ham United, this is a significant moment in the history and growth of the USL First Division.”
The question is whether such internationalization is the best way to build soccer as an embedded culture in the U.S. On the one hand, international expertise could help improve player development practices, and American soccer can hardly be sniffy about people who want to invest in soccer here. On the other, it’s hard to imagine American supporters becoming deeply attached to the likes of Crystal Palace Baltimore, a franchise run for the benefit of a parent club abroad.
Locally rooted USL teams can develop strong support and identity, as we’ve seen with the Portland Timbers. But foreign owned USL teams, as appendages to a higher priority team, seem unlikely to set down roots for long.
One example of this took place in San Francisco last year. The California Victory were an expansion team in the USL First Division under the ownership of Dmitry Piterman, chairman of Spanish club Deportivo Alaves. The Victory developed a small but fervent fanbase centered on a group called the “1906 Supporters” –smartly linking themselves to the city’s history—who created a vibrant atmosphere.
But by mid-July, it had become clear the Victory were being abandoned by their foreign owner, with players wages left unpaid. It was left to the 1906 group, lead by Mike Alonso, to keep the club alive. Indeed, they showed the power of local soccer passion with their own outreach and promotional efforts, as Alonso recently told me:
“People kept coming. Eventually, we went from 500 people a game to over 1900. No money. No corporate support. No Dmitry. The last game was our biggest attendance ever. Sure we lost, but it was magical. Our flares were lit, our songs were sung, our banners hung low and our flags flown high and our smoke hovered over the crowd. After being wrongfully ejected, striker Chuck Kim ran to the supporters’ section, threw his jersey to a fan, and dove into the arms of his loving fans.”
Despite the supporters’ passion, the Victory were left high and dry by their foreign owner, and they’ll be on hiatus from the USL in 2008.
The USL must be careful not to alienate this valuable grassroots passion for soccer. Despite the forced way they’ve stuck “tex” into the team’s name, it’s good news for the Aztex that their English owner Phil Rawlins now lives in the area. He asserted that “My goal is to make the Aztex a community-based club that the Austin area can be proud of.”
Let’s hope so.

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