With David Beckham’s departure, MLS is left with a void to fill.
The void will not be filled by any one player because Beckham was in a category all his own. He was part great soccer player and part great marketing machine.
A couple of players are close to his status. Didier Drogba and Kaká have the soccer pedigrees, and Clint Dempsey is close to being an American icon, but sadly none would completely match what Beckham brought to MLS.
So, the question must be asked, what other kind of promotion could raise the MLS profile and help build momentum for the future of the league?
How about a contest among minor league pro soccer teams that gives one of the teams a one-year pass (free of charge) to play in MLS? The winner gets to play one full season in MLS without any franchise fees.
This kind of competition will rally fans in minor league cities while raising awareness for pro soccer throughout the U.S.
There are several ways to ‘skin this cat.’ One suggestion is to make the competition only available to those minor league teams with Soccer-specific stadiums.
The competition needs a little time to simmer and get the marketing efforts it deserves. The best idea is to announce the competition to start for 2014 with the winner to join MLS for the 2015 season. This format gives a few metro areas the time to build a stadium in case they want to enter the competition.
The competition could be called the USML (United States Minor Leagues) Cup.
Minor league pro soccer in the U.S. is mostly made up of two competing leagues, USL Pro and the NASL. Of these two leagues, the metro areas/cities that would be ready for a competition in 2014 with Soccer-specific stadiums are: the Rochester Rhinos, Carolina Railhawks (Raleigh area), Atlanta Silverbacks, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, San Antonio Scorpions, Minnesota (Minneapolis area) Stars, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Harrisburg City Islanders, Wilmington Hammerheads, Charleston Battery and the Puerto Rico Islanders.
There is very little to lose on the part of MLS. The league will continue to be 19 teams for a while. The 20th team has not been announced and may not still be announced for some time.
There is a talent level difference between the minor league teams and MLS, but there is no doubt that the USML Cup winner will win some games in MLS and tie more than a few, too.
MLS has been trending up over the last few years mostly because of all the new franchises joining. Beckham came in at the right time. Undoubtedly, Philly, Toronto, Montreal, Portland, Vancouver and Seattle (see Turning Point in MLS History) have given MLS the jolt it had been waiting for. MLS is now mentioned much more often by the media as a ‘Major Sport’ in the U.S.
The USML Cup would be unique in its existence and delivery for pro Sports in the U.S. As something different, it will provoke a lot of passion from Soccer fans and give MLS more headlines.
What happens after the one year trial period is done for this winner of USML Cup? This is the most interesting part of the whole process for MLS. They might find out that this idea has legs and can be done yearly or they might make a deal with this one-time winner.
There would be many options for MLS with few negative repercussions. In fact, it might be that the influence of USML Cup can provide the pathway to better organizing the structure of minor league pro Soccer in the U.S. and Canada. In doing so, the process may end up being significantly improved for those teams trying to make the step up to MLS permanently.
For more on this topic, see ‘New Jersey Red Bulls as an alternative?’
Howard Alperin is Managing Editor of AmericanizeSoccer.com