No closer to unity: PLA becomes UPSL

I have had my eye on the Premier League of America (PLA) since it, via Minneapolis City, caught my eye and turned me into a fan of lower division American soccer, and now I find that it has wholesale merged, with the exception of the unlamented Ole FC, with the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) to become the UPSL Midwest Division.

This merger, when you consider the long-rumored upcoming churn in the NPSL Midwest due to the professional ambitions of clubs like Detroit City FC, Grand Rapids FC, and even Lansing United, coupled with the increasing professionalism and ability to draw crowds of clubs like Cedar Rapids Rampage United FC Sporting City Villa, Muskegon Risers and Oakland County FC, is a good move for the UPSL, which has typically treated expansion with haphazard gusto instead of the measured thoughtfulness of this move.

What does this new competitor mean for the NPSL North?

There are still a lot of chips that have to fall to answer that question with the biggest one, as ever in soccer in America, the question of which teams are going to play in what leagues next season.

1. Where will Union Dubuque and DeKalb United play next year?
Both were vocal about their NPSL ambitions, but that was before UPSL made a strong move into their neighborhood. With Cedar Rapids, the UPSL offers an in-state rival for Dubuque and manageable travel depending on how exactly the divisions are split. For DeKalb, there are two Illinois teams already in the UPSL which is also a benefit.

While Cedar Rapids draw well, Dubuque might prefer to play against higher-profile clubs like Minneapolis City and Med City, which begs the question of where they fit in a division that already has 8 teams.

It’s similar for DeKalb United, a new club that might be wondering where it fits in NPSL, and how it could afford wherever it does fit, but could find a home with in-state clubs Aurora Borealis and RWB Adria in UPSL Midwest depending on how the divisions are drawn.

2. Will La Crosse Aris continue in the NPSL North?
My sources indicate that they will and so does their history, an abject history that stretches back to 2008 and includes some of the worst goal differences ever turned in by a so-called competitive team. That hasn’t stopped them before, the shameless masochists, so while this past season was historically bad by even their woeful standards expect them to stick around for another season as pathetic roadkill.

The important takeaway here is that Aris will not be replaced by Dubuque, as much as every person not in Aris’ organization would like that to happen.

3. Is there a risk of defection?
There is a clear delineation between the have’s and the have not’s between the NPSL North and the UPSL Midwest and, while I have no doubt that an NPSL owner would love to swap out, say, Aris, for Cedar Rapids and their thousands of fans as much as a UPSL owner would love to swap out, say, Croatian Eagles, for Minneapolis City and their traveling fans, I can’t see any realistic risk of defection.

The reality is that the barriers are far too high for this to happen. First of all, the move to UPSL has just happened, and people hate to second guess a recent decision. Second, there is the matter of the NPSL expansion fee. It is rumored to be at least $15,000 which means both that it’s going to be hard for the current UPSL teams to stomach paying it and for the current NPSL teams to walk away from a league they have paid for. Such is the stickiness of leagues absent any governance from the sport’s governing body. In the end, no, there is no realistic risk of defection.

I would like to indulge in some utopianism for a moment.

Right now, the NPSL, and the NPSL North, are stuck with two camps of clubs with two opposing points of view of the purpose of a league.

On the other hand, there are the clubs that are trying to build a following and a business. Most famously Detroit City and Chattanooga, but don’t forget Asheville City, Kingston Stockade, Grand Rapids, and our own “big” draws in the North, Med City and Minneapolis City. They operate their NPSL teams are true lower division soccer, they work hard to get fans out to games, and winning and losing is important to them.

On the one hand, there are the clubs that operate as extensions of youth clubs, like Aris and TwinStars. They operate their NPSL teams as a way to sell players on their youth club and, since their business is built on youth players paying to play, they aren’t interested in attracting fans or creating a gameday atmosphere. It’s youth soccer with older players, right down to the pay-to-play structure.

For example, TwinStars charged their players $1,500 this season. What comes next in no way takes away from their history of player development at youth level, but I care about NPSL and am speaking specifically about NPSL right now. Many, from what current and former players told me on background, couldn’t and/or didn’t pay the dues and partway through the season they were not allowed to play which explains how only 9 players made the trip to Sioux Falls. All restrictions were off in the games against Minneapolis City, which also makes sense of those games too. What these facts add up to is a club that just isn’t that serious about competing to win and, because of the youth revenue and the players who do pay, isn’t serious about building support.

Compare them to Cedar Rapids Rampage United, a professional indoor team in the winter and outdoor team in the summer that is run as a business on the field and off. Despite the ridiculous team name, they are a good team with good players and a strong business plan.

Somehow these two groups of clubs are shoehorned into the same league and the stickiness of the expansion fee and lack of a better option has them partnered uneasily.

Get your tinfoil hats on people because there is a solution to this.

The two conferences should merge and form a multi-division league based on a geographic region built off of a circle drawn around Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St Paul and slightly widened. That will limit total travel, though clubs like Dakota Fusion on the outskirts will still have a lot of miles to cover, but it’s either that or they play against themselves such is the drawback of living on civilization’s fringe.

It will also allow a league of the top performing clubs on and off the field: Milwaukee Bavarians, Minneapolis City, Cedar Rapids Rampage, Med City, Duluth, Dakota Fusion, Madison 56ers.

It will also allow the creation of a league that would encourage other teams to flourish, or at least limit the damage done by clubs that don’t exist to compete, and it could include clubs on the rise like Viejos son los Trapos, Union Dubuque, Sioux Falls, Aurora Borealis, and clubs like Croatian Eagles, Elgin Pumas, TwinStars and Aris.

That set-up, with promotion and relegation, helps clubs find their appropriate level, builds excitement across the division, and also leaves room for some expansion, where it’s only a matter of time I think before we see an NPSL team in one of the Quad Cities, Green Bay, Eau Claire, or St Cloud.

This won’t happen, as much fun as it would be.

So what is the impact of the new UPSL Midwest on the NPSL North? In the short term, there is very little impact and both leagues will likely play near each other just like they did as PLA and NPSL North. In the long term, the set-up of another national league is another barrier to clubs coming together in a single, rationally-organized competition and that’s a shame.


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