The lower divisions of U.S Soccer is unpredictable. One day a professional league is playing at a competitive level and the next they get de-sanctioned, throwing the lower divisions and leagues into crisis mode. Every single staff member, from the players through to the front office and stadium staff, are affected by a professional league losing sanctioning. When the United States Soccer Federation makes these decisions they don’t think about the players and their families, and how they will be hurt by the process.
Where does a player affected by the USSF decision go to ply their trade? Must they play in a Semi-Pro or amateur league and hope they impress a coach or scout from a Pro team? The collapse of a league through de-sanction creates ripples through the entire specialized labor force. It even creates problems for other players’ career and compensation stability, as their value decreases when hundreds of talented players suddenly become available and perhaps desperate. We have players in this country being passed on not because they are insufficiently talented, but because their employers are artificially kept few and heavily regulated on the demand side. If there’s ever to be a stable development pipeline capable of capturing and nurturing the best of us, it must be wide and capable of supporting players through an entire career cycle. This is not the risk that an individual with very specific skills may encounter in seeking work. This is systemic market-wide uncertainty, despite the USSF’s stated intentions of league stability. In a proud immigrant nation of 300 million diverse people, there cannot simply be a handful of ‘winning’ leagues and a few dozen employment centers to sustain that pipeline.
Over the years we have seen the NASL be a home for hundreds of professional players. For example the New York Cosmos signed Danny Szetela ahead of the reboot season. Danny Szetela was coming back from an injury and MLS clubs didn’t want to sign him, but the Cosmos were in a specific space to provide for him a second chance. Had the NASL or the Cosmos never existed, would dozens of players just like Danny Szetela have had a chance to make a comeback from a serious injury? Many stories like Danny’s could be found in recent years, either with the NASL or in other leagues.
With these players affected by the NASL de-sanctioning, and the lack of other professional leagues paying a living wage, First Team Podcast contacted New York Cosmos Forward Bledi Bardic – currently on loan in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League ( New York City Amateur League) to get a player’s perspective on the current state of affairs in the lower divisions.
FTP: It has been announced that you are currently on loan with Cedar Stars Academy for the Fall Season. I have a couple of questions on that. How did that come about? Are you still under contract with the Cosmos or did you decide to play to stay fit for next season?
BB: Yeah I’m playing for Cedar Stars for the fall until December to stay fit and sharp. Cedar Stars was my former team before I signed at the pro level. I thought I should stay here and play as much as I can so I’m fit for next season at the pro level.
FTP: The past NPSL campaign was noteworthy but ultimately wasn’t successful in the short-season league’s playoffs, as Cosmos B were defeated by FC Motown. You were out with an injury. What were your thoughts on the NPSL campaign?
BB: Our NPSL season was short. Everything was fast, trying to put a team together to compete. We had a pretty good squad, good coach and a great owner but we came out short. That happens in sports. I pulled my hamstring in our first play- off game. It was disappointing but it’s something I couldn’t control.
FTP: With the NASL on a hiatus, and with the lawsuit and the rumor of a possible NPSL professional division, what are your thoughts on that?
BB: On the NASL lawsuit I don’t know what’s going on. They [United States Soccer Federation] stopped us from playing professional soccer. With USSF de – sanctioning the North American Soccer League, so many people lost their jobs. These people make their money and feed their families from soccer. What they did is not right, but hopefully it will get better.
FTP: I don’t know much you can say about this, but reportedly the USL is not paying their players a living wage. This is not good for the sport. I believe a true professional player is a person who doesn’t have to work another job to support themselves and their family. What are your thoughts on the wages in the lower divisions? What do you think has to change for players to receive more money in the future?
BB: I think a professional soccer player should be focused only on training and games. They shouldn’t work other jobs to try to make a living in other ways like a lot of USL players do, that’s not right.
FTP: What are your thoughts on the future of the lower divisions, with the possible launch of an NPSL ‘Pro’ league in 2019, and the National Independent Soccer Association kicking off next season? Do you think the future is bright for independent professional soccer?
BB: Lower divisions matter because a lot of guys need playing time, so that’s why I think NASL, NPSL PRO, all these pro leagues would help American soccer in so many ways.
I would like to thank Bledi Bardic, New York Cosmos forward, currently out on loan with Cedar Stars, for taking time to answer these questions.
The lower divisions are a vital part for any soccer pyramid across the world. Restricting the pyramid for the benefit of one professional league is simply not sustainable. We need at least four professional leagues in the United States. Not every player can play in the top flight for one reason or another. Clubs can play roles in the second or third division and players can still get paid a decent wage to do a job, either developing on the way up, or finding a level representing their club. More players with potential will stick it out long enough to become actual good players if there are more spaces in which they can improve while being compensated. Likewise, more players with potential will pursue their dreams if the average domestic career arc extends further than a few years. In a 2010 study examining over a thousand MLS players, “…over half of the players who enter the league in a given season are out in two years, and less than 20% of that incoming class are still in the league after five years.” If a player can expect to be paid something on the way up, and then on the way down, that adds up to a career tieline at closer in alignment with other countries like the UK. With such a high attrition rate, even setting aside the issues with the mens national team, vision, and the pay-to-play academy landscape it’s no wonder our domestic pipeline is so inconsistent.
I personally believe we need more players to speak out on the problems in U.S Soccer occurring behind the scenes. As supporters all we see is the performances on the field, we don’t directly witness the problems at the federation, club or league level. I personally believe a players union that aggressively advocated for better wages and work conditions for all players at all levels in the pyramid, people would begin to pay attention. At the moment few people have stepped up, and the rest of the constituents of US Soccer continues to retain the option of not forcing change that might put at risk what little they do have now.
First Team Podcast believes professional soccer players should be paid living wages. Professional soccer players shouldn’t have to work another job plus training throughout the week and the match at the weekend, their bodies should be ready for the matches throughout the season. I hope the USL’s wage suppression is stopped, and other Pro leagues commit to a healthier player market where players are always the first priority.
We need a US soccer landscape where the Jaime Vardys of the world can reliably thrive. Vardy of the English Premier League’s Leicester City is a familiar tune overseas. Playing in the lower divisions and working his way up, Vardy reached the top flight, but it has been only one part of a much longer career path. In the U.S that almost never organically happens; mainly because the people at the top are isolated from having to care about supporters and players in the lower divisions. They’re allowed to believe they’re not all playing the same sport. Imagine if we had a proper soccer pyramid and we can see soccer players from across the country rise to the top and become global superstars. It’s a lie that our best athletes are attracted to other sports; we drive them there early on through conscious decisions. Things must change.