There are those who consider themselves "above" the lower leagues of football. They perhaps don't appreciate watching semi-professional players spend 90 minutes on the pitch, or listening to up-and-coming commentators doing their best to speak on a match. To those people: I'm sorry.
I'm sorry there are no superstars. I'm sorry there are not even a thousand fans in attendance. I am sorry there is no television coverage. I'm sorry there are players on the pitch that don't get national attention, don't even get recognized when attending their local food store.
But I'm mostly sorry because you're missing out. Lower league U.S. soccer is worth your time.
First, let me define what I mean by "lower league" soccer. I'm talking about the leagues below MLS, the top tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. That's leagues like the North American Soccer League (NASL) and United Soccer League (USL).
But some lower leagues are not as low as the rest. The USL is gaining attention. We have had this conversation here at Once a Metro and it is a wonderful league. The USL has received its moment under the spotlight and will continue to - just not here. The NASL is in a similar boat, although there is a perception that it may be losing ground to USL and lagging increasingly far behind MLS. Still, I personally love watching the league and specifically the New Yo[REDACTED]mos - and they too have their fair share of attention.
I want to make the case for the even lower leagues: like National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), Premier Development League (PDL), all USASA (Amateur) leagues, and US Club Soccer (USCS). They are also worth your time.
Perhaps most importantly, lower league teams are local teams. All teams are local to somewhere, of course, but not every soccer fan in the New York area lives in Harrison or 161st St in the Bronx. Some live in Bensonhurst, for example, which is Brooklyn Italians territory.
The Brooklyn Italians play in NPSL. Their home ground is at John Dewey High School and has a sub-1,000 capacity. But they are team that has twice won U.S. Open Cup - in 1979 and 1991 - which is twice more than the higher-profile MLS and NASL teams in this area. Former players include Mike Windischmann, who captained USMNT at the 1990 World Cup, and Brent Sancho, who was part of the Trinidad and Tobago World Cup squad in 2006 (and won a NCAA national championship with St. John's in 1996).
That's the sort of history a team accumulates when it has been around since 1949. And the sort of history that builds a solid identity for any club. But what makes the Brooklyn Italians a team to get interested in today is, in part, what is attractive about most lower league soccer teams in this country: for some, it's a more accessible and more meaningful option than the big league options.
Being easier to get to than the rest isn't everyone's reason for following a team, but it's a good one: if you can get to almost every game in a season, you may develop a stronger affection for your club; live soccer is a different (better) experience than watching on TV.
But there's more to it than just ease of access. The smaller teams will often have smaller, yet tight-knit groups of fans who consider one another family. Small stadiums and less imposing crowds also can mean players and supporters are closer to one another - and when players start to recognize fans there is a stronger connection between the team and its support.
All that amplifies the pride to be taken from the 11 players out on the pitch playing for you: your local club representing your local area.
Take San Francisco City FC, a US Club Soccer team that is supporter-owned. All fans have an opportunity to take ownership in the club with the ability to make actual decisions. They have a 51% stake which allows them the final say on decisions that are usually made by higher-ups or opaque ownership groups . (By the way, I absolutely love SFCFC kits.)
Being local allows families and neighbors to get to know one another, as shown in the video below all the way from Chattanooga Tennessee. It is not just about soccer at this point, it is about hanging out with a group of friends before, during, and after matches and building a community around the club. Sharing a common interest is what holds soccer fans of any club together. Lower league teams offer a less expensive path to that experience.
Though lower league soccer may not have the greatest players you've ever seen on the pitch, the style of play is still engaging and worth tuning in for.
Bob, these teams don't have TV deals. Sure, you may not be able to watch these teams on TV, but many soccer games are broadcast on channels that are not available to a large part of the soccer-loving population in this country.
Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN carry English Premier League games but only air select matches and certainly not all. So fans of clubs such as Aston Villa or Southhampton may take a backseat to clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea. For leagues such as Serie A, Ligue 1, or La Liga, you may need to get language-specific channel-packages or premium channels such as BeIN Sports. Even MLS's league-wide coverage is restricted: you're either looking at a stand-alone package from your TV provider, or MLS Live, the streaming service that is too often hamstrung by its own blackout policy.
There is more soccer on our TVs than ever before, but it can still be a frustrating experience if you want to follow a team through a season, rather than tune in for whatever the schedulers decide is the big game of the week.
The lower leagues are leading the way in providing unrestricted access to match broadcasts throughout the season. For example, NASL has a deal with ESPN this year to air every NASL game through their free app and website: WATCH ESPN (otherwise known as ESPN3). USL has made a deal with YouTube to air all of its games to viewers for free - all archived on the USL YouTube page where one can find playlists for every game this year, as well as highlights and other videos.
I know what you're thinking: You said you weren't going to talk about the NASL or USL. Fair point. And it cannot be denied that lower league soccer is mostly pitched at those who want to follow a team they can watch live, not on TV.
But we are seeing deals being struck to broaden the accessibility of lower league soccer, and since almost every 11 year old in the United States owns a smartphone, many teams (NPSL and PDL mostly) can set up some sort of live stream for their games, even without a deal with a recognized broadcaster or website. ESPECIALLY, during the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
This year in the Preliminary Round, we found SFCFC playing against Cal FC live-streamed in full 1080p glory.
So while it isn't necessarily easy to follow a lower league team from your couch, it is not impossible.
For example, last week I took the advice of a new found Twitter friend, who advised me to watch FC Tucson play against the Las Vegas Mobsters on Saturday, May 30th. The Division 4 PDL game was live streamed on YouTube.I thoroughly enjoyed watching and found that there were quite a few conversations going on in the world of Twitter about the game. Supporters from both sides were speaking actively about the match, and this made watching it more enjoyable - much like the online chat that accompanies most big events.
But live soccer is best soccer, and the lower leagues offer fans live soccer at very low prices. Furthermore, concessions are often as inexpensive as going to any NCAA game or simply just going out to eat anywhere. Pre-game festivities like tailgating or going out to a restaurant come into play just like any other sports event, but with the luxury of not having to travel as far just to go see your team play.
Your local lower league is likely easier to get to than the bigger league alternative. It is almost certainly a cheaper ticket. It is probably going to offer you the chance to get physically (and maybe emotionally) closer to a team than you will with a MLS club or big-time Euro outfit. And it's quite possibly also accessible on some corner of the internet, where you'll find many of the same people you're cheering alongside at home games.
It's still soccer, just brought closer and made more affordable: what's not to like?
Quality of play is your concern? Some will surely only be satisfied if they can say they are watching BEST SOCCER. That is their prerogative. You won't enjoy the lower league game if your interest is primarily in seeing the game's various skills and tactics executed perfectly. You probably don't enjoy many games if that is your primary interest, but I digress.
For me, lower league games are - plain and simple - fun to watch. As mentioned above, I watched the FC Tucson vs. Las Vegas Mobsters game on Saturday. But what I did not mention, was all the other soccer that I took in that same day. I watched the USA U-20 World Cup game that didn't come to an end until 2 AM, the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Aston Villa, as well as the New Yor[REDACTED]smos.
As the day wound down, I decided to take in a PDL game. I found it had something the others didn't really offer: imperfect passes, missed tackles, through-balls being played too hard; there were actual mistakes being made in the game. [Editor's Note: You sure you watched Villa play that Cup final?]
I liked it. Anything could happen. A player could dribble through ten men, an immature footballer could make a scene on the bench, the most amazing free kick could be taken. Mistakes happen in lower league games, but not necessarily in a bad way: they can make the matches have higher scorelines than we typically see in leagues of higher standard. And surprisingly, to me at least, those mistakes allow for really amazing goals to happen.
Aside from that, there are a number of ex-MLS players as well as players who have made a few international appearances in the lower leagues. Did you know Ruben Bover, the ex-New York Red Bull, is playing for the New Yo[REDACTED]mos' B team in the NPSL as he looks to work his way back to higher league play? Not even curious to see whether he looks markedly better than players in a lower division?
The understanding of who stands out at a lower level gives fresh appreciation of the full scope of the game. Some lower league players are destined for great things at a higher level, some are not. But if you've never watched a minute of soccer outside the EPL or even MLS, you're missing out on a chance to understand how talent asserts itself and rises through the ranks.
Lower league soccer has a lot going for it. So go out there and choose a team. There are many for us NY/NJ Metro area soccer fans to choose from: Jersey Express, Long Island Rough Riders, Brooklyn Italians, RBNY's U-23 squad, FA Euro, or AC Conn.
Pick one and I think you'll agree: lower league U.S. soccer is worth your time.