USL & CFU: A Partnership For The Future

Recently, the United Soccer League announced a partnership with the Caribbean Football Union, the sub-confederation comprising the Caribbean member nations of CONCACAF. According to USL’s press release, “The two organizations will collaborate to increase and enhance player scouting across the Caribbean region including at events such as the Caribbean Club Championship and Caribbean Cup.” This agreement also includes provisions for a combine where players will be hoping to catch the eyes of USL clubs’ staff and earn a contract. 

The USL is an organization based in Tampa, Florida which coordinates multiple soccer competitions for men and women. Under the jurisdiction of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), they operate leagues in the second, third, and fourth tiers of the soccer pyramid, populated by clubs from across the United States. Two further clubs from Canada also take part. In the past, there have even been entrants from Puerto Rico and Antigua. Regular RBLR Sports listeners will likely be aware of all this. However, the remit of the USL just got a little larger. 

The two organizations went beyond just player development, however. To quote further, “The USL will support the CFU’s endeavor to build certification programs for coaches, sporting directors and executives designed to boost professional development and open the door to coaching opportunities in the USL.” Caribbean referees and CFU executives will be able to benefit from this affiliation with their own courses and participatory sessions. All in all, people involved in soccer from countries as varied as Cuba and Curacao, to Haiti and Guyana will have the potential to raise their profile personally and as a whole. 

This should be cause for excitement among fans of the USL, its constituent clubs, and international soccer in North America, as continued organization and exposure for a potential sleeping giant will benefit those in and out of the Caribbean. 

First in line to benefit is likely the USL. Whether they be in the Championship, League One, League Two, or the W League, every club naturally wants to improve the quality on their roster. Year over year, hanging onto important players can get more difficult as they look to move up a division, retire, or simply trade clubs offering better salaries. Scouting in the Caribbean can provide coaches with another ready source of talent, much of which could be available on lower salaries. The relative stability and wealth of clubs in the American soccer pyramid might well be attractive to someone in the Dominican league or the Haitian league, for instance. Rather than stay on the island of Hispaniola, if they are good enough, the better competition in America is a natural incentive to the player looking to further test himself or herself. 

Examples should be more illustrative here. At the recent CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, the Dominican Republic went on a run that shocked many viewers. They did not qualify for the tournament from the group stage and, instead, qualified via a route that saw them enter in the Round of 16 against a team which had topped theirs, El Salvador of Group G. The Dominican Republic ended up being the only of four such entrants to win their Round of 16 match and actually advance. From there, they kicked on and qualified for the next FIFA Under-20 World Cup and the Olympics, finishing in second behind the United States. 

All but six of their roster plied their trade within the Dominican Republic. Not known as a soccer powerhouse, several players seemingly came out of nowhere to carry them onward to new heights. Angel Montes de Oca, in particular, was very impressive and got named to the Best XI of the tournament. With that recognition, he may well be destined for greater things, be that in USL, MLS, or perhaps even Europe or South America. But, we must remember how things could have turned out as well. What if the Dominicans had not beaten El Salvador somewhat fortuitously? What if Montes de Oca had been injured? What if it were simply a year during which CONCACAF did not have one of these tournaments? 

Any of these scenarios would have led to him, as well as others, being overlooked. The option of an annual combine reduces the chances that players like him slip through the cracks. If there are any diamonds in the rough who might not be up for it one year, it’s possible that they learn what it takes to get to the next level and work on their soft spots to try again. Allowing deserving players the opportunity to dodge the pitfall of simply being born in a non-soccer hotbed is an unequivocal good.

Having one or two individuals move up a rung can also impact an otherwise struggling national team. Here, Grenada is a good example. Taking a look at the roster for their most recent CONCACAF Nations League games, it could be argued that the USL is the highest level any of them play in: five come from the USL Championship, one plays in the Honduran top flight, and one plays for the youth team at Queens Park Rangers in England. Grenada lost twice and drew the other fixture in its June window. If someone were to excel in the USL combine and then earn a move, that would be just one more spot in their roster competing week in and week out at a better level than the local. 

It may be a good distance between the United States men’s national team and, say, AJ Paterson of Charleston Battery; but, it certainly isn’t as far between that and El Salvador, where a larger number of players are already in the USL Championship ranks. Improved competition for spots will lead to a better team overall. This better Grenadian team would provide tougher competition for the likes of El Salvador and the United States in future Nations League games. Such a rising tide really can lift all boats. 

This does, unfortunately, bring us to a common scenario in the Caribbean, though: poor federation management. While some federations are more established than others, there are still myriad problems individual countries face. Whether that be a lack of funding, a lack of proper soccer infrastructure, or even the devastation of a natural disaster, many states of the Caribbean have ongoing problems that affect their national teams. In certain places, other sports will even take precedence, as with baseball in Puerto Rico or cricket in Saint Lucia. The money allotted to sports programs may not be much, considering a difference in GDPs. That which is then allocated to soccer may be minuscule if other games are more popular. In places like Haiti, sports are not going to be first on many people’s minds when they are struggling to make ends meet after multiple events have rocked the country. 

All of this means the people involved in soccer need to be even more creative and knowledgeable of the landscape if they are to truly succeed. The USL can again be of benefit, for it has been in a place not entirely dissimilar from that. In the American context, second division soccer might seem like an afterthought of an afterthought. However, we have a fan culture which is thriving in many places, supporting strong clubs all over the country. This is not an accident, and it certainly isn’t down to teams having been around a long time. While some club names are older than the clubs themselves, very few are more than a decade old and even fewer are continuous organizations. What the USL has going for it in many situations is quality people in important  positions. Whether that’s General Manager Todd Dunivant at Sacramento Republic, team owner DaMarcus Beasley at Fort Wayne FC, or coach Neill Collins with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, many teams are run by folks who know their way around a football club. 

It would be much more difficult for a person right out of college with their sports management degree to join, say, San Juan Jabloteh in Trinidad and Tobago and crank out the results, increase attendance, raise their profile online, hike profits, and turn them into a regional power. What would be more likely is someone who has seen how to do that at a big club coming back to San Juan Jabloteh, taking that new college grad, and giving them specific tasks that will, in concert with others doing their work, see to all those things. If the likes of Dwight Yorke and Shaka Hislop do not take up those roles in Trini (because they already have more lucrative jobs), the TT Pro League needs expertise from elsewhere. The professionalism of clubs like Sacramento Republic, Fort Wayne FC, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies is enforced by the people who run them. The ability to share best practices could make a world of difference. 

How did the Rowdies convert a stadium that used to fit baseball games into a fantastic atmosphere for soccer? How have Fort Wayne handled the transition from being nonexistent to competing in League Two, all before they make the move to being a pro team in League One? How have Sacramento budgeted for the stars that sent them on a run to the most recent US Open Cup final? While some clubs have already done one or two of those things consistently in the Caribbean, several are in even more fledgling circumstances than the USL. Montserrat’s home island was made partially uninhabitable by a volcano eruption. Bonaire only became a CONCACAF member in 2014, and they cannot join FIFA or compete for World Cup glory. These issues and more prevent the creation of thriving clubs, let alone whole leagues. What is a young boy or girl in Sint Maarten supposed to do to take the next step in their career if it is to be in soccer? To whom can they turn for better training or education?

One of the most important rungs on this ladder up the soccer world is certainly coaching. America has made great strides forward in the technical side of things because children are coached by more qualified folks than ever before. Through our licensing programs, people receive training in how to inculcate both tactics and technique from the earliest ages all the way to the pros. We have seen just how important that can be with the emergence of a very good cohort of young players on the men’s side who have taken us back to the promised land of the World Cup. More than a few of those who will compete there have played at the USL level. 

The importance of spreading coaching acumen is, therefore, a vital pillar of the partnership. While the individual Caribbean countries should surely have their own coaching license courses, it is not likely that everyone everywhere is getting what they need to manage their players and raise skill sets. The USL’s ability to disseminate that information to new corners of the region can improve the chances that good young athletes both matriculate through the youth levels and then continue to grow when they hit the pros. Especially in those countries without any major soccer star to turn to, proper coaching of coaches will help spread the game in measurable ways and, hopefully, with measurable results. How long before Dominica has their own player who made it to the big time? Time will tell. 

The potential for benefits of the pact made between USL and the CFU are too many to list here, despite my attempt. As a fan who got into soccer via the international game – and one who loves to see the minnows succeed – I am personally very excited for that aspect. When Cuba and Bermuda, the US Virgin Islands and Aruba can all see the growth in the game, they will cheer. When more of them make it here, I will personally cheer for their stars in the USL. 

Oh, and having more quality refs should probably help, too.