Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Tuesday Night in January or: How Alexis Lalas Was Gracious, But His Argument Is Disingenuous And Shows He Doesn't Actually Care About the Work Our Club Does



It was a Tuesday night in January.

Light snowflakes fell against the darkening sky, the dashboard showed sub-freezing temperatures, and the last thing I wanted to think about was soccer in the U.S.

I'd just spent a couple hours after my typical day as a high school teacher preparing sub plans for a personal day I'd be taking the next day to meet with municipal staffers at city hall to finish a grant application for a soccer-related project we've been working on for the last three years.

On Monday, I'd followed a full day at school with a three-hour board meeting for our club in the evening.

On Sunday, I'd spent about seven hours working on club-related issues both on the field and off the field, and Saturday featured about another five hours of similar work.

Friday was the lightest day of my last four days of additional club-related work, both because it was only about ninety minutes of work and because it was a training session with the U12 Girls team I coach.

That means instead of worrying about a shipment of jerseys that had been delayed by a factory closure over the holidays, we could focus on receiving with our back foot. Instead of nailing down new logistics for our teams whose weekly futsal sessions were disrupted by a fire at one of the facilities we use, we could emphasize playing out of the back. And instead of checking the weekend weather forecast again to make sure we wouldn't have to worry about tomorrow's opponents and their 2-hour drive down state for a friendly, we could focus on attacking patterns. You know, the actual stuff soccer is all about.

Anyway, it was Thursday when I'd last had a day "off," which means I just had to work my full-time job and that day "off" was preceded by two other days when I spent multiple hours working on club-related tasks. Rinse and repeat. This has been my January-June for the last five years now, with a lighter workload during the off-seasons.

So it was a Tuesday night in January.

Light snowflakes fell against the darkening sky and the dashboard indicated sub-freezing temperatures, and the last thing I wanted to think about was soccer in the U.S.

And then Alexi Lalas said my name over my car radio.


Before I get into what Lalas said about me in a five-minute segment on his national podcast (see the embedded video below) and what I have to say about he said, a few disclaimers to set the scene.

First, I'll admit I went a little fanboy and immediately called my dad.

Some of my fondest memories growing up are the countless trips he and I took together to Foxboro Stadium, then CMGI Field, and then Gillette Stadium to watch dozens of U.S. National and New England Revolution games--including this one, which we actually still talk about today.

So, yeah, when Alexi Lalas mentions me on his FOX Soccer podcast, my dad's going to be the first one to hear about it.

Second disclaimer, which is the context for Lalas's segment: I had one of my occassional mini-Jerry Maguire Moments at 2a last Sunday morning that started with a Tweet thread related to a talking point Alexi uses pretty often in a debate about whether promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer. (More on that topic later.)

And that thread led to a little back-and-forth between Alexi and me.

And that little back-and-forth led to a five-minute segment of the podcast in which he discusses me and our online discussion. Go ahead and listen to it from 21:05-26:55, and I'll pick up where he left off afterward.




Okay, let's start with the positive:
  • I appreciate Lalas's kind words about my beard, though my wife is happy that I trimmed it a bit since that profile photo was taken.
  • I appreciate him succinctly answering the question he'd previously declined to answer in our back-and-forth. (I'm really annoyed at his extended answer, but this is the positive section, and I'll have more on this below.)
  • And I appreciate his shoutout at the close of the segment for the hard work we're doing with our club and soccer in general here in Maine. (Sorry, can't help myself: I'm a little less positive about his shoutout as the title of this post indicates, but later.)
So that's the positive--with caveats.

Now let's get on with the not-so-positive: Alexi Lalas's extended answer to my question is disingenuous, and he doesn't actually care about the work our club does.

And that's the not-so-positive--with not-so-many-caveats.

Before going on, though, I need to confess something: No other topic of discussion makes me feel more like this guy than the topic of whether promotion and relegation should exist in U.S. soccer for all American soccer clubs.



So if it's okay with everyone, I'd prefer to talk about the issue of promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer by first using an analogy someone like this trust-buster would understand. (Hey, he looks familiar!)



DHL, a Plymouth Duster, and an Open System: A True Story

It's 1969 and a law student in California named Larry Hillblom has $6,000; a business partner; a Plymouth Duster; a few ideas for how to improve the logistics and delivery industry; the work ethic and passion to grow his company by making those improvements a reality; and access to opportunity, infrastructure, and resources provided by the U.S. government--despite the fact that the U.S. government is governing body of the U.S. Postal Services (USPS), its own franchise system for logistics and deliveries.

Fifty years later, Hillblom's company DHL is a global brand that has grown from a few business partners to hundreds of thousands of employees, and their fleet has grown from that single Plymouth Duster to the sleek fleet of trucks, planes, and ships we'd expect a top-level delivery and logistics business to have in 2019.

DHL has been able to do all this because the company--like pretty much every other company in the U.S.--exists in a regulated open system of competition that enables companies that are born in a garage or a dorm room (or a Plymouth Duster) to at least have the opportunity to grow to become a top-level performer in its industry like DHL is today.

Obviously, not every packaging delivery company founded in the U.S. has ended up as successful. But at least every company has had the opportunity to reach its full potential.

And that opportunity is due to a significant but under-appreciated reason for DHL's success over its 50-year history: The U.S. government allowed the company to access federally-funded infrastructure and prevented its own logistics and delivery program, the USPS, from becoming what's called a de jure monopoly--or a monopoly created, promoted, and protected by a governing body.

This is key, because if the U.S. government allowed the USPS to be a monopoly created, protected, and promoted by that governing body, then DHL's story would be very different in that alternate universe.


DHL, a Plymouth Duster, and a  De Jure Monopoly: An Alternate Universe

It's 1969 and a law student in California named Larry Hillblom has some student loan funds; a couple business partners; a Plymouth Duster; a few ideas for how to improve the logistics and delivery industry; and the work ethic and passion to grow his company by making those improvements a reality.

However, the U.S. government in this alternative universe has established the USPS as a de jure monopoly, so it has effectively prohibited the DHL from accessing any of the opportunities, infrastructure, or resources the governing body has built and provided for its de jure monopoly.

This means DHL is unable to use the Interstate Highway System. DHL is unable to access airports regulated by the Federal Aviation Agency. If the intertwined U.S. government and U.S. Postal Service touch it, DHL's not allowed to get near it.

Effectively, the U.S. government as the governing body of the shipping industry has closed the system of competition to include only those franchises that fall within the umbrella of USPS.

As a result, in our alternate universe DHL struggles to survive to be a low-level local or regional player in the industry and probably won't still be around after fifty years. It most certainly won't go on to become the top-level company it is today.

Let's now link this analogy to the topic at hand: Promotion and relegation in the U.S. for a soccer club like the Rosevelt Soccer Club, first in an alternate universe and then the club's current true story.


The Rosevelt Soccer Club, a Public School Classroom, and an Open System: An Alternate Universe

It's 2019 and a soccer club administer in Maine named John Morgan has a $150,000 annual budget; forty directors, coaches, and team managers; ten youth teams; a few ideas for how to improve the soccer industry; the work ethic and passion to try to make those improvements a reality; and access to opportunity, infrastructure, and resources provided by the U.S. Soccer Federation--despite the fact that the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) is governing body of Major League Soccer (MLS), its own top-level division for franchises.

Fifty years later, Morgan's club Rosevelt Soccer Club is a national brand that has grown from nine volunteer directors to a full-time professional staff, and the club has grown from exclusively being a youth club to a club that has gradually climbed the ten divisions that makes up the USSF's ten-division pyramid. Over time, this has given the club time and resources to build the infrastructure we'd expect a top-level soccer club to have in 2064.

The Rosevelt Soccer Club has been able to do all this because the club--like pretty much every other club in the U.S.--exists in a regulated open system of competition that enables clubs that are born in a garage or a dorm room (or a public school classroom) to at least have the opportunity to grow to become a top-level performer in its industry like the Rosevelt Soccer Club.

Obviously, not every soccer club founded in the U.S. has ended up as successful. But at least every club has had the opportunity to reach its full potential.

That opportunity is due to a significant but under-appreciated reason for the Rosevelt Soccer Club's success over its 50-year history: The USSF has allowed the club to access federally-funded infrastructure and prevented its own top-level division, MLS, from becoming what's called a de jure monopoly--or a monopoly created, promoted, and protected by a governing body.

This is key, because since the USSF has allowed the MLS to be a monopoly created, protected, and promoted by that governing body, then the Rosevelt Soccer Club's story is very different as a true story.



The Rosevelt Soccer Club,  a Public School Classroom, and a De Jure Monopoly: A True Story

It's 2019 and a soccer club administer in Maine named John Morgan has a $150,000 annual budget; forty directors, coaches, and team managers; ten youth teams; a few ideas for how to improve the soccer industry; and the work ethic and passion to try to make those improvements a reality.

However, the USSF has established MLS as a de jure monopoly, so it has effectively prohibited the Rosevelt Soccer Club from accessing any of the opportunities, infrastructure, or resources that governing body has built and provided for its de jure monopoly, MLS.

This means the Rosevelt Soccer Club doesn't have access to a promotion and relegation system that would give it the opportunity to gradually develop over time into a club that at least has an opportunity to compete at the top level of its industry. This means the Rosevelt Soccer Club doesn't have access to the other sources of revenue other top-level clubs in the U.S. and clubs of all levels around the world have access to. If the intertwined U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS touch it, the Rosevelt Soccer Club's not allowed to get near it.

Effectively, the USSF as the governing body of the soccer industry has closed the system of competition to include only those franchises that fall within the umbrella of MLS.

As a result, the Rosevelt Soccer Club is limited to being only a lower-level local or regional player in the industry and probably won't still be around after fifty years.

(Typing that last paragraph is particularly painful for me to think about, let alone type. But the history of lower-level clubs in the U.S. lasting for fifty years is not an encouraging history, and we have to be realistic. Resilient, but realistic.)

Which brings us back to Alexi Lalas.


Alexi Lalas's Disingenuous Extended Answer

I asked Lalas if he supports or opposes any club in the U.S. having the opportunity to become an MLS club through promotion and relegation, as sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

He initially gives a succinct answer to the question by saying he opposed the premise. Wrong, in my view, but succinct and clear.

But then he extends his answer to say that even though he opposes promotion and relegation including MLS, he actually supports promotion and relegation.

Now, before you think these are effectively contradictory, mutually-exclusive statements (which I also do, which I'll talk about in a minute), let me fairly flesh out his extended answer.

Even though he doesn't think every club in the U.S. should have the opportunity to become an MLS club through promotion and relegation, Lalas says he supports every club's opportunity to establish promotion and relegation in the USSF-sanctioned leagues they try to establish themselves as a competitor to MLS and all the other current leagues sanctioned by the USSF that don't currently feature promotion and relegation.

This is the reasoning behind his infamous "build a better mousetrap" talking point for opposing MLS-specific promotion and relegation, but supporting the concept of promotion and relegation in general.

Once again, it's probably best if we return to our DHL alternate universe analogy to explore just how disingenuous this argument is.



It's 1969 and Alexi Lalas is an apologist for the monopolistic U.S. Postal Service, but he also wants to appear fair to those calling for more opportunities for fledgling logistics and delivery companies like DHL.

So his go-to line of argument is this: While I don't think the USPS should be forced to allow DHL to compete within the same structure that the de jure monopoly exists in, I fully support DHL's right to grow as a company by building a parallel infrastructure already supported by the USPS's governing body.

You know, build a better mousetrap--and a smoother interstate highway system for your Plymouth Duster to drive on, a better network of airports for your non-existent airplanes to fly between, and deeper ports for your non-existent cargo ships to sail to.

How do you think that investor pitch would've worked for DHL in its early days? Here, I'll give you a hint.



So that's why his answer is disingenuous: You either support promotion or relegation in the U.S. that involves U.S. Soccer's je jure monopoly MLS, or you don't support promotion and relegation.

None of this build-a-better mousetrap-by-building-an-entirely-new-parallel-league-system-sanctioned by-the-USSF make-believe.

Because even though it sounds like my Ford Edge is a little nicer than DHL's Plymouth Duster I guarantee I'd get the same reaction among potential investors if forced to pitch not only a growing club, but also funding an entirely new infrastructure for that club to exist.

Building a club is tough enough, Alexi. Don't patronize us with your unrealistic on-the-other-hand-I-support-promotion-and-relegation attempt at evenhandedness.

A Tuesday night in January, Revisited

Which brings me to my last point: Alexi Lalas doesn't actually care about the work our club does.

Now, I don't doubt that Lalas was being genuine when he closed this five-minute podcast segment with a shoutout to the work our club is doing up here in Maine. He and I both love soccer, we both want to see soccer in the U.S. reach its fullest potential, and we both appreciate the time and effort of folks who work to accomplish that goal. So I think from that standpoint, he was showing that he appreciates the work we're doing.

But if he actually cared about the work we're doing, then he would support a club like ours having access to promotion and relegation in the U.S. that involved MLS. Full. Stop.

No equivocations. No "build a better mousetrap" make-believe argument that has any higher expectations for a club than to build a better club. Just like we don't expect a company to do anything more than build a better company to succeed.

Without promotion and relegation that includes MLS, there is currently no other viable or realistic option for this American small business to get the same opportunity to reach its full potential as every other American small business.

And without promotion and relegation that includes MLS, there is currently no other viable or realistic option for this small soccer club to get the same opportunity to reach its full potential as every other club elsewhere in the world.

Therefore, there is no single greater idea, action, talking point, argument, or contribution a figure such as Lalas could support to show he actually cares about the work we're doing than supporting that opportunity for our club.

On the other hand, there is no single greater idea, action, talking point, argument, or contribution he could oppose to show he doesn't actually care about the work our club is doing than opposing that opportunity for our club.

Here's why:

It will be a Tuesday night in January.

Light snowflakes will fall against the darkening sky, the dashboard will show sub-freezing temperatures, and I won't be thinking about soccer in the U.S.

And the reason is because U.S. Soccer doesn't think about me or the millions of lower-level stakeholders like me. And U.S. Soccer doesn't think about our club and the thousands of clubs like ours.

Passion and work ethic only take you so far.

It's the system, stupid. And our current system is not only the exception to how soccer is done in the rest of the world, but it's also the exception to how business is done in America.

- John C.L. Morgan

6 comments:

  1. Great explanation, John.

    As a ludicrously active supporter of Chattanooga FC, I have seen first-hand the lengths USSF/MLS/SUM/USL will go to to protect their monopoly. We're going to keep up the fight, largely because we know that smaller clubs like yours and ours benefit from an open system.

    Good luck with the upcoming season.

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    1. Thanks! Best of luck to you guys as well!

      - John

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  2. The way you frame P/R here in the States is the clearest I've come across. Keep up the fight.

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  3. As a club from Saint Cloud, Minnesota we fully understand all of your points first hand. What you’re doing is amazing, and you spoke the truth. Clubs like ours just need the open system to flourish.

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  4. Thanks! Keep up the good fight as well!

    - John

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