The past few weeks have been horrific to say the least for some historic franchises in US Soccer. Both the Rochester Rhinos and Atlanta Silverbacks are set to miss the 2016 season, and the future of more and more USL and NASL franchises are regularly being questioned . The Rochester Rhinos were the last non MLS team to win the US Open Cup in 1999, and have a been one of the top non MLS clubs in US Soccer for the past 20 years. The Rhinos who were recently crowned USL Pro champions, had their ownership group removed by the league. The league responsibly took over the franchise, and is working with the city over the stadium lease which the city of Rochester terminated. The team still may play next season, but there are obvious issues that need to be resolved in the very near future if they are going to participate in the 2016 season.
The Atlanta Silverbacks seem to be done for, as the NASL suspended operations for the team early this week. The team was founded in 1998 and played a pivotal part in soccer growing an area of the south where baseball and football dominant the sports market. The club failed to find a local ownership group willing to invest in the franchise, with investors aware that MLS is coming to town next season. The Silverbacks may be back in the future, with rumors of participating in NPSL or PDL becoming a possibility.
The lower leagues in the US are what built the foundation of the soccer culture we see today. Whether it was a local european social club, clubs you still find in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and throughout the country, or a franchise that participated in one of the lower tiered leagues of the past either indoor or outdoor. The influence the participants in these lower level leagues in the US have had on the development of youth soccer in the US is enormous. We can look to clubs like Rochester Rhinos, as one of the reasons Rochester, NY produces talented youth players who are now playing at the highest levels in this country and abroad.
Let’s look at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a county in southeastern PA with a population of about a half million people. Known mostly for its’ PA Dutch culture and as an agricultural hub, Lancaster county has produced in the past 15 years five players to play in MLS, many more who went on to play in lower leagues professionally, and countless collegiate soccer players. PA Classics, the club where a majority of the players developed over the years was originally started by former Hershey Wildcat Steve Klein and Harrisburg Heat player Gary Ross. Klein and Rossi, along with various other former members of former A-League Hershey Wildcats, Harrisburg City Islanders, and Harrisburg Heat stayed in the area they played in, developed themselves as coaches, and helped develop the Lancaster and Harrisburg areas into a consistent producers of top young talent.
And so to my point as to why I cringe every time I see lower tier outfits struggle in the US. Neither of the coaches mentioned previously were originally from the Lancaster area, and would have never came had these teams not existed. Christian Pulisic, who had an assist in a first team friendly for Borussia Dortmund Tuesday, hails from Hershey, PA. A product of PA Classics and son of a former Harrisburg Heat legend Mark Pulisic, the youngster has benefitted from not only his father’s experience, but also from Klein’s guidance before taking off for Germany. By no means am I saying that young Christian’s bright future may have been different if his father had not played for the Heat and remained in the area as a coach of Lebanon Valley College. But it is hard to not credit the existence of these professional teams which allowed for so many great soccer minds to converge and help in the development of not only Pulisic, but various other top talents.
One of the aspects that has lead to so many top level coaches and soccer minds developing in areas where these lower tier teams are located lies in the low salaries the players are paid. Pursuing soccer in this country will not earn you a very large salary, unless you are in the top 1% of players in MLS or NASL. This almost forces the players on these teams to branch out into the surrounding communities in search for part time work. Soccer Shots, a large child fitness and youth soccer program was started by former Charlotte Eagle Jeremy Sorzano who decided to start to coach in the mornings at daycares prior to training. The company has grown to numerous franchises across the US and Canada is the reason many youngsters are introduced to soccer at a young age. The list of former professionals who branched out into coaching at various levels is endless and you have the franchises in USL Pro, NASL, and the past lower leagues like the A-League to thank for the education many of us received in the beautiful game as young players.
The powers at be in US Soccer need to provide support for franchises like Atlanta and Rochester, and the local communities need to get behind these clubs. These franchises do more than just produce a product for their local supporters. They provide chances for domestic and foreign players alike to pursue their soccer careers in new areas they someday may call home. Areas where the professionals may develop some promising young players who hope to replicate the career their coach may have had at the professional level. I understand that not all coaches need to be great players, but in my opinion, being coached by a former professional does add a positive aspect to the experience the young players receives. USL Pro and NASL provide areas where imported soccer minds can be driven to smaller markets in the US for a chance to pursue their playing careers, many of which then coach and build the game in the surrounding communities. This leads to a higher quality of coaching, and allows for young players to be developed as the next generation of bright young stars.