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Why did USSF let Austin FC happen?

Everything about the relocation of the Columbus Crew reeks of laziness and disinterested opportunism, to such an extent, that I don’t understand why MLS and USSF are letting this happen. Let’s talk about it.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City at Columbus Crew Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched any videos or highlights on the MLS website this year, you most likely have seen a version of the league’s video promo for the season, titled Our Soccer. I hate that video. I hate it for one particular reason. This is the script for that promo, the voice over that plays in the video (emphasis mine):

Our soccer is our stage.
Our voice is loud in every language.
Our city represents our squad.
Our hustle has no equal.
You see it.
The sound. The fury.
Can’t stop.
Won’t stop.
Our Soccer.

I hate this advert for that one particular line. Our city represents our squad. It exactly reverses the relationship of a sports team with its city. The squad represents the city, not the other way around. We name sports teams after cities and not the other way around for a reason. Sports teams function thanks to fans choosing to come and celebrate the team. But here, MLS has the gall to say “We are what’s important in this place”. This statement represents a toxic attitude that what is important is the corporate entity (the team), that the fans and the city exist to serve that squad. And that kind of mindset leads straight to what is happening with the relocation of the Columbus Crew.

Astounding laziness

The relocation of the Columbus Crew has displayed an incredible laziness and lack of attention to detail at nearly every step, and the announcement of the badge and team name is no different. But I don’t need to tell you that. (Eleven Leaves? Really?) The terrible laziness has been talked to death since the badge was released.

Instead, let’s take a moment and compare this with the other fraught and contentious club that just announced a club crest:

Miami’s design is aesthetically pleasing. This isn’t a badge that works in Columbus or Connecticut, unlike Austin FC’s generic tree. It works in Miami and few other places. And that’s because of work and intentionality in design. You can see how much more effort was placed in designing Inter Miami’s compared to Austin FC. And I’m not the only one who thinks positively of this crest.

And this isn’t limited to the badge and the name. The issue in Austin, Texas so far has hinged around whether or not Precourt will be allowed to buy land from the city and develop his stadium. But there’s been no conversation about whether the stadium will be good or if its location is good. And this is really weird for a league that has insisted on stadiums specifically designed for soccer built in the center of urban cores. Austin FC is building their stadium in McKalla Place, a full 10 miles up the highway from downtown Austin and the University of Texas. McKalla Place isn’t the middle of nowhere, but it absolutely is well outside what anyone would call the urban core. The Houston Dynamo, the last MLS stadium opened in Texas (and also the only other relocation project, though the San Jose Earthquakes returned after a few years), is smack-dab right in the center of downtown Houston. The Columbus Crew itself has a stadium a mere 3 miles north of downtown, and half that to the campus of Ohio State to the east.

Besides the eventual stadium, there’s still the issue of finding a temporary stadium, training site, and getting season ticket holders. The work simply hasn’t been done, and we have to ask Why are you trying to move the team when you are so unorganized?

This is an important question to ask because the history of soccer in the US has demonstrated repeatedly that, for a team to succeed, you have to put the work in and connect to fans. Those teams that have the highest attendance all have done more in order to connect to fans: see Atlanta, Seattle, Toronto, Portland, etc. Those who have struggled also haven’t done much to connect to fans: see Colorado, Dallas, and Philadelphia. And, tell me, does a team that is sloppy and lazy strike you as one that will invest and grow in this new city? Especially after they’ve tanked one of the most historic teams in the league, down to the bottom of the attendance charts? I’m really not so confident.

To an extent, I can understand why Precourt wants to do this. Columbus isn’t an upcoming, hot city like Austin is. The team isn’t one of the league’s attendance or financial leaders. And each team that has gotten a nice shiny stadium in recent years has done very, very well. For a man with no shred of loyalty to the city, nor any to the Crew’s soccer fans, this seems to make sense. And, between the negotiations with Austin’s city council, the lawsuit from the state of Ohio, and overseeing the the current team, I can understand why the new club would be such a sloppy job.

What I don’t understand is why MLS and USSF are letting this happen.

Why is MLS tolerating this laziness?

There’s been a lot of anger directed at Don Garber for allowing the Crew to be relocated in the first place. But in truth, that fury ought to be directed at Garber’s bosses, the ownership of MLS. Garber is subject to the decisions of the ownership, including Precourt. As a result, the issue isn’t whether or not Garber agrees to and pushes the relocation. It’s whether and why the ownership does. And this does not make sense for MLS’ ownership.

I have talked about how relocation threatens to undermine MLS expansion and expansion fees in the past. But that’s not the only way that this hurts the league. It erodes the leagues reputation, a reputation built on fan participation and inclusivity. It undermines any idea that soccer in this country can be different, that it can be better and friendlier than the other major sports. It firmly puts the club before the city, and reminds fans of their insecurities, of how fragile this sport is and how suddenly it can be gone (regardless of how true any of that may be.) And, of course, putting a poorly built Austin FC into the league reflects horribly on MLS.

Of course, the most visible and pressing threat the relocation presents (at least for the league’s ownership) is from the lawsuit filed on behalf of the state of Ohio and the city of Columbus to save the Crew.

Let’s take a second and break down the lawsuit. In response to the Cleveland Browns moving years and years ago, Ohio passed a law that says that major sports teams that receive support from public tax dollars and then relocate must

  1. Notify the public a year six months* in advance that the team is moving
  2. Make an opportunity to buy the team from ownership that will keep the team in place

We’ve known well in advance that the Crew was moving, so the first part isn’t in issue at all. But the second is a big deal depending on how long the lawsuit goes on. (It seems like it’s going to go on for a while longer.) And here is where the ownership issue becomes a big deal. MLS is a single entity organization, which means that individual owners don’t own individual clubs, but, instead, have an equal share in the league and are then authorized to run a club. This lawsuit puts that explicitly at issue by forcing the league, not to possibly sell a club, but to possibly sell a stake in the league. The MLS ownership has used the expansion process to pick and choose who gets to join their lofty ranks, but this would compel them to let in someone else, someone that they did not handpick. And who knows what implications that could have. The worst case scenario is a challenge to Fraser v. MLS, the court case that underpins the status quo.

Why would MLS risk this? Why would they risk any of this? It’s thoughtless and near sighted, and that’s all that makes sense to me. They are putting club before city, as if they don’t understand — or care — at all what they are doing.

Why is USSF allowing this?

Overlooking MLS is, of course, USSF. It’s USSF’s job to manage and organize the structure of American soccer as a whole, including the professional divisions. USSF has a duty, a duty to everyone who loves and enjoys soccer in the US, to protect the sport. But on their watch, MLS is engaging in a scorched earth campaign against Columbus and the Crew. We don’t know exactly how devastating this will be for the sport of soccer in Ohio and the city Columbus. At the very least, the team will be gone. That means uprooting all the players and their families, the coaching staff, and the technical and advertising teams. The people who do security and concessions will lose their jobs. The academy will either be sold or disbanded, the coaching staff let go, and the kids and their families left to fend for themselves. And, of course, all the supporters will feel betrayed as their team moves across the country. Finally, the oldest and most historic soccer-specific-stadium in the country, arguably the greatest bastion of the national team programs, will be left abandoned and vacant before it’s 20th birthday. The best case scenario is not good for central Ohio. The worst case scenario is an incredibly bleak one. Columbus and central Ohio is now a significant talent pool for youth development. That likely will be gone. It now is a symbol of how far American soccer has come, how far it will go, and how much we can (and have) achieved, both on the field and off. And it will instead be a symbol of blight. A place of cultural soccer vibrance, but a modestly attended club, will be replaced with desolation.

And it’s all utterly avoidable.

USSF oversees all of American soccer, including MLS. That means they have a lot of influence on what happens. No doubt someone with the league has talked with the federation about moving the Crew. Why didn’t the federation quietly convince the league not to do this? Why haven’t they really used their muscle to quietly kill this uprooting of American soccer heritage? Because they certainly have that muscle.

FC Austin doesn’t have a stadium lease for the start of next season yet, which means that USSF must grant a waiver for the league to be in compliance with the rules. Which means that USSF can instantly kill the relocation (or at least delay it a year). That’s serious muscle, but it only counts if USSF will use it.

Here’s the thing: USSF has almost exclusively given MLS a free ride. Not only that, but they have explicitly organized in order to make MLS as successful as possible. They play national team games (both men’s and women’s) in MLS stadiums all the time. Most of the national team players either play or have played in MLS. USSF has set up its media distribution fees through SUM, which means that all the money goes to SUM’s owners, who happen to be the ownership board of MLS. The federation depends on MLS to use this money in order to grow the game by building stadiums, training kids, and hosting professional games, for the federation.

With the league so buddy-buddy with the federation, do you really think USSF is going to stop a stupid relocation, or at least force the league to make Austin FC work in a more professional manner? I’m not holding my breath. USSF is the one who is supposed to step in and help ALL parties involved in soccer in the US. They are exactly the entity that is supposed to be in place to make sure that clubs don’t come before cities. But, you know what? I don’t believe they even realize how much they’ve failed in that.

All of this is so utterly stupid. It’s pointless. It’s wasteful. And it’s lazy. So, so lazy. And I can’t comprehend how something so stupid, pointless, wasteful, and lazy, something so absurdly destructive, can be allowed to happen.

But, of course, I’m one person. What do you guys think? What am I missing? Let me know in the comments below.

*Note: There was a mistake on the contents of the Ohio law that regulates professional sports teams’ ability to relocate. The notice period is a minimum of months, not 1 year.