The 91st Minute: Professional soccer in the United States needs a makeover

With MLS Opening Day on the horizon, here is why relegation and a U.S. Open Cup overhaul are the future of soccer in America.

“The 91st Minute” is a column by Sam Reno about professional soccer.

Major League Soccer, the sport’s top league in the United States, returns to action this week with a two-match slate on Friday that features a Western Conference Finals rematch between 2019 MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders FC and Minnesota United.

After an unusual season featuring fewer matches, little to no fans and the one-off “MLS is Back” tournament at Disney World in Orlando, the league is finally set for a return to normalcy this season. However, that normalcy may be stunting the growth and limiting the “magic” of the beautiful game here in America.

As much as I hate to revisit it, we must once again return to the United States’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Much was made of the lack of pressure and accountability the players on that team faced both during their match in Trinidad and at home with their professional teams.

Taylor Twellman of ESPN, as much as I disagree with his reactionary tendencies when it comes to the USMNT, said it best in his infamous “WHAT ARE WE DOING!?” rant. He spoke about how many of the players on that qualifying roster had never faced real consequences during their time in the U.S. soccer system.

He is absolutely right. Nearly all of those players could walk any street in America virtually unrecognized. This lack of public interest diminishes the gravity surrounding events such as World Cup qualifying, which can lead to a failure to meet the moment like we saw in 2017.

While MLS clubs draw incredibly well, the lack of a major national audience and media attention breeds a similar absence of performance-based accountability at the club level as well.

Since nearly all of the support is from the local, match-attending fan base, many fans will fill stadiums for the matchday experience regardless of team success. Fail to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs? Fans will still return in droves the following season.

Obviously, you cannot force Americans to take an impassioned interest in the national team or their local MLS club. So how do you create this environment of pressure in a league currently void of it? One word: relegation.

A significant portion of the groundwork for such a system has already been laid, considering a thriving second division complete with a national television deal already exists in the USL Championship.

Throw in USL League One, which operates specifically in cities with less than one million residents, and the NISA, and you have four functioning leagues with which to construct a relegation system.

Imagine a scenario, using last season’s table as an example, where instead of merely trugging to the finish line, clubs like FC Cincinnati, D.C. United and Houston Dynamo were battling to keep MLS soccer in their cities.

With relegation, many American players would be thrown into the pressure cooker that is a soccer relegation battle, providing them with invaluable experience in “do or die” situations. No player wants to be the reason their club won’t be playing in MLS the following year, and that responsibility is not unlike the one that was lost on that 2018 World Cup qualifying squad.

While a relegation system would certainly help solve the lack of experience problem facing USMNT players from MLS clubs, it still falls short of achieving the large-scale growth of the game many in the United States crave.

A shot at reaching MLS would certainly excite some fanbases in lower leagues, but realistically, it is nothing more than a fantasy for many of them. The real growth of small-market soccer lies in the “magic”, or current lack thereof, of the U.S. Open Cup.

In principle, the U.S. Open Cup, similar to many European domestic cups, is a single-elimination tournament featuring teams from across all levels of the sport in the United States. The beauty of these domestic cup-style tournaments is that some of a nation’s top teams, who are protected by entering at later rounds, will travel to much smaller communities for cup matches.

In this year’s English FA Cup fourth round, for example, Tottenham Hotspur, one of London’s biggest clubs, traveled to take on Marine FC, a seventh-level side, at a stadium with a seated capacity less than 400. Some of the games biggest stars like Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min came to play mere feet from people’s backyards.

The Premier League’s top side, Manchester City, played away at fourth-division Cheltenham Town where they trailed until the 81st minute of the match. Cheltenham Town was less than ten minutes from one of the competition’s most memorable results of all time, on their home soil no less.

Under normal circumstances with fans in attendance, these “magic of the FA Cup” moments are many kids’ introduction to the game. There is someone in England whose first memorable experience with the game is Harry Kane playing right outside their window or their hometown club nearly knocking off Pep Guardiola and Man City.

MLS clubs also enter during the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup; however, a lack of overall teams in the tournament creates a largely MLS-dominated competition immediately upon their entrance.

In 2019, the last year the cup was contested, 65% of fourth-round participants were MLS teams, just 10 were from the USL Championship and only one team was from outside the top two leagues. Five of the sixteen matchups were between MLS sides, and of the eleven other matches, only two of them saw an MLS side play away at a lower league venue.

The U.S. Open Cup became essentially another in-season tournament for MLS sides, which defeats the purpose of letting lower division teams compete in the first place. Teams from MLS need to enter the competition a round sooner and play a majority of those matches away.

MLS has also become a popular destination for some of the game’s greats to finish out their careers. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and David Beckham have completed largely-successful stints with teams here in America.

Imagine Rooney and D.C. United played in front of a local crowd in Chattanooga, Tennessee or Zlatan and the LA Galaxy doing the same in Madison, Wisconsin, Greenville, South Carolina or Fort Wayne, Indiana. By entering the competition earlier and playing on the road, MLS can expose some of the game’s biggest stars to audiences that would not otherwise get that opportunity.

With more and more MLS players, such as Weston McKennie, Daryl Dike and Brenden Aaronson, being sold to top European Clubs as well, these local fans would also have the chance to watch, and become attached to, many of this nation’s future stars at even earlier stages in their careers.

In order for soccer to truly explode here in the United States, the highest level of the game needs both the high-stakes competition relegation would provide and the smaller community exposure an improved U.S. Open Cup would bring.

“The 91st Minute” runs every Wednesday.