Throughout the summer, Scratching the Pitch documented several problems with the American Soccer League and questioned the idea that it upholds professional standards. A former general manager for a team in the ASL, who did not want his name attached to the quotes he provided, told StP about some of the same issues swirling around the ASL from another point of view. He lamented the league’s presentation, the organization of the teams involved, and the role of the league itself.
The former general manager described how players were misled by the allure of being a professional soccer player.
“Most of these guys can’t even afford transport to practice or games,” he said. So, a contract promising compensation for playing soccer naturally had a strong appeal. He characterized many of the players on his ASL team as “prima-donnas” who were convinced they had made it big and that the “professional contract was the end-all, the end goal.”
“Their play isn’t that good,” he recalled about most of the players he saw in the league during the inaugural season. “There were maybe two young players that could move on and move up” to a higher level.
Even if players had the talent, he stressed that he “didn’t see a single scout in the fall season or the spring season.”
The former general manager criticized the business model of many teams in the league, including a failure of maintaining a budget of capable of paying players for an entire season. He told me that an opposing team, Ironbound Soul SC, was suspended from the ASL in 2015 for not paying players.
The ASL wants its teams to develop players and then sell them on to professional leagues to turn a profit. This sounds simple enough in theory but in practice without scouts in attendance or match streaming available, no one can take notice of the league or its teams or their players.
“There wasn’t a professional identifier of young talent,” the GM said. “If you’re going to run a league, every team has to have an academy in place.”
From his time involved in the operations of teams in the ASL, this former general manager has an important perspective. If the league does not have structures to promote youth players, if the league does not market itself, if the games are not broadcast or attended by scouts then what is the point? Teams in the ASL use the tag of “professional soccer player” to draw in susceptible young men and sign them to questionable contracts.
The former general manager impressed upon me the following stirring indictment of the American Soccer League.
It’s hurting young men and it’s giving them a false sense of accomplishment. It’s not a good thing.
Another former general manager in the ASL, who was dumped unceremoniously in that team’s first season, also leveled criticism at the external constraints on the league.
This experienced soccer hire was brought on board to focus on player identification and development, but after a couple months the team owner approached him. Due to the financial realities of operating a team, even at the ASL level, the general manager was directed to switch his energies to marketing and selling tickets.
This former general manager said, “at the ASL level, in terms of players, coaches, staff, and even owners, it’s who’s still around, who’s still here.”
He said at the beginning of 2016 that the ASL was approaching the cusp of “what it could be, but it’s definitely not there yet.”
StP also spoke with the general manager of a team that decided not to join the ASL after a lengthy courtship. The league had promised a full 20 game season and stressed this over what the PDL and NPSL offered.
“If they actually did what they said they would do, we probably would be in the ASL right now,” he said.
He explained that the ASL was more affordable to buy into, but would end up being costlier down the line. This general manager had heard very serious concerns from teams that had left the ASL about the competitive integrity and financial commitments of participating in the league.
This prospective ASL general manager told me that Matt Driver personally contacted him to persuade him to join the league.
“The league had great ideas,” he said, but a lot of things Driver had promised fell through even before the application deadline.
The GM said that the initial buy-in was just $10,000, but that there was $100,000 in league dues to be paid over five years. He relayed the buzz around the Annual General Meetings was only a few teams paid the full fees in the league’s first year.
After his team had reached a verbal agreement with the city for use of a municipal facility, the situation deteriorated quickly. A former ASL team again warned the him not to get his team involved with the ASL and appeared to be proven correct when the league postponed the Fall 2015 Season.
“The cookie was crumbling so hard, the wheels fell off so quickly,” he said.
The general manager of the now-defunct Rhode Island Oceaneers David Borts agreed to speak on the record about his experiences with the ASL after his team ceased operations in 2016.
“What we found out going through the fall, I think probably our owner found this out as well because we were ostensibly a minor league pro team, he found out that he bitten off financially more than he could chew. Our finances were really tight. In the fall, I think it may have been putting 50 bucks a week into a kid’s hand; money for players was not there,” said Borts.
He said, “It was really aspiring young players who were attracted to the fact that we were local and then we had a really good coaching staff.”
A recurring theme with operators and organizers of teams in the ASL is the unexpected task of raising money to support their teams.
Borts recalled, “Honestly, I had some discussions with the owner and he offered me a budget to run the team that was probably about half of what it cost last year, which would have meant that we would have to go out and basically be fundraising. In terms of my experience in the soccer world and my professional world, I’m not a fundraiser; I’m an organizer. In the soccer-world, my strengths and talents over the years have basically been finding and developing players. So fundraising wasn’t something I was equipped to do.”
He continued, “When you start up a new league, basically you’ve got to set up a template for the league in terms of the franchises, what to do, how to do, the websites have to be clearly up and running, the twitter feed has to be up and running. All that stuff for publicity that the league can do has got to be top notch.”
Borts said that the league didn’t replace a vacated web position during the season so the league’s website “was never up to date. It was always an issue. It was an issue in terms of actual communication from the league. Basically the web was the official communication of the league in terms of which guys were playing, like what place are we in? Are the results up? Everything was behind. That issue is a technical issue that clearly was not, they were not on top of.”
“The American Soccer League is a league under the USASA, so these teams are technically not professional teams, but they have professional players because everybody who plays has to register to a USSF professional contract. It’s kind of a PR dilemma,” said Borts.
We were told point blank don’t advertise yourselves as professional teams but you can always say all your players are professional players.
“You can get around that with good wording,” Borts said, “but it’s something you have to be careful because you’re not.”
The experiences of these four general managers (two long term, one short term, and one prospective) paint a picture of a league whose teams were hamstrung from the outset. Team officials felt manipulated by the league and were in turn encouraged to deceive players. Desperate and ambitious players blinded by the label “professional” worked through conditions far from it with little chance of advancing their careers.
The league did have support measures in place to help teams get off the ground and failed to keep its own internet presence up to date as it stumbled through its opening two seasons. About to kick off the Fall 2016 campaign, the ASL appears to be suffering from the same pitfalls that general managers have been wrestling with since 2014.