It is fair to say he’s well on his way towards implementing his legacy. Elected Chairman of the Board of the National Premier Soccer League in 2013, Joe Barone has been at the helm of the largest amateur soccer league in the United States during a pivotal time in American soccer.
After a bumpy few early years, Major League Soccer has coalesced into the dominant professional soccer league in the United States at a time when interest in the sport is at an all-time high. Launched in 1996, in the aftermath the United States hosting the 1994 World Cup, MLS has grown to 22 teams, with a 23rd due to kick off in 2018 and a slew of suitors looking to fill four additional expansion spots as the league grows into its ceiling at 28 teams.
While the North American Soccer League has regressed somewhat in recent years, the United Soccer League has surged since syncing up with MLS in early 2013, and has undergone a significant boom of its own, growing to 31 teams, attaining provisional Division II status in January, and recently announced plans to populate the currently vacant third tier of professional soccer.
Underneath the professional ranks of the game exists a vast range of amateur leagues ranging from the Premier Development League to the National Premier Soccer League all the way down to quintessential Sunday leagues that exist in a sort of purgatory that they may never escape without the implementation of some sort of merit-based system that rewards excellence and punishes substandard performances over the course of a season.
In November of 2016, Joe Barone criticized the “structured, organized chaos” in American soccer that was affecting the ability of the NPSL and other USASA Elite leagues. While Barone never clearly identified the source of this chaos, I understood that his irritation stemmed from of the club then known as the North County Battalion, who had recently opted to move from the NPSL to the USL’s Premier Development League.
With the turbulence of the offseason having largely subsided, I caught up with Barone to check up on the health of the NPSL, the status of lower division American soccer as it is today and get a glimpse into what is to come from the National Premier Soccer League in the future.
Dike Anyiwo: How would you assess the NPSL today compared to six months ago during the offseason tumult?
Joe Barone: The league is doing quite well. The west is nearly into the middle of the season because of how unique and proper it is. I have to say it is proper, the way the west does it, with the Southwest and the Golden Gate conferences playing one game a week and spreading it out. We’d love to see the east get into that longer season as well but there are challenges there.
The league is healthy. We’ve already seen some applications in some unique markets for 2018. I think the west is going to show some significant growth in new markets and new owners. You’ll see some other new markets growing in the Midwest and in the South. Some interesting ones will emerge for the 2018 season.
We’ve identified some hotspots. Places where we need to pay specific attention to. Primarily the Carolina’s. When I spoke about structuring and turbulence, that was one area I was referring to. We’ve put a lot of emphasis and we’ve put full time people onto working with chambers of commerce and town and city sports advisory groups; looking at the right kind of investors. Baseball groups, minor league entities who maybe want to find more uses for some of their facilities.
The other one we focused on is in the Midwest. Since the last time we spoke we’ve brought in a whole new conference. It took us a little while to find the right partners and find the right groups but those are where we’ll continue to focus on.
The largest conversation in American soccer is Expansion: Does the NPSL have a strategy for expansion?
Joe Barone: Yes of course. We look at the supply and demand. There are areas in the country where these is huge demand. There are people who want to be part of something. It’s not just the NPSL that is seeing unprecedented interest in amateur soccer in local areas.
Our model is sustainable because our fees aren’t very high, but at this point it’s about more than the NPSL growing as a league.
What I’m trying to work on with US Soccer and the governing body, with Sunil and with John Motta the president of USASA, is to implement some actual structure to the amateur game.
I’m saying “let’s work together for the good of the game here.” We need to put some structuring together where we can all coexist. If we continue to rip each other apart, the game suffers. When the game suffers, development suffers. We want the United States to win the World Cup. We want the United States to produce the next Roberto Baggio. When you have teams at any level that fail, then the game fails. We need investors to come in at all levels of the game, from Sunday leagues to Major League Soccer itself.
What I would like to see first in the amateur game, is that there is structure. That there is a hierarchy. The amateur game needs it. If we have professional Divisions I-III, then we need to have an official Division IV with criteria that delineates the standards of that level. To me, the current divisions don’t really mean anything, but that’s a whole other conversation. For now, let’s at least put some structure in where there are requirements that teams need to meet.
Everything that is underneath the National Team, underneath MLS and the other pro leagues, be it youth, recreational, amateur – we are the ones who are supporting the professional game. We’re supporting, we’re promoting, we’re buying tickets. We are the lifeblood of the professional game.
We need to come together and come to some agreement as to how we can all coexist. There’s room for everyone.
Have you had any success in these overtures?
Joe Barone: I’ve been told that at the mid-year meeting, conversations will happen, but look these conversations need to happen right away. Why wait? These need to happen immediately. I’m not here saying one league is bad and another is good. There’s room for everyone.
In the meantime, does it make sense to experiment within the NPSL? Perhaps a longer season, or a larger regional league?
Joe Barone: Definitely. We should be experimenting more. Now, there are certain regions where you can experiment more than others. The west definitely one of them because of the weather. The south. Places like the Sunshine Conference. Florida. Texas. Those are all areas where we can experiment. Traditional soccer hotbeds, where there is demand, where there are huge ethnic markets. Where the weather cooperates.
Places like New York are limited, but we should be experimenting more with different types of structures.
We’re willing to work with everyone here, but we need to be on the same page, unified with the same goals. This is where I say that the federation needs to step in and have all USASA, which is technically our governing body, and get us to get together. I’ve had these conversations with John Motta and I’ve had these conversations with Duncan Riddle.
There is an extensive plan. I know, because I was part of putting it together. Along with Jef and Cindy we were part of putting this thing together.
I’m looking at the future of the game. I’m seeing these huge numbers, and not only with us in the NPSL. It’s not only about Detroit and Chattanooga. It’s everywhere. State leagues are drawing large crowds.
These are big potential fan bases that could benefit the professional game. The top of the pyramid is the pro game. That’s where our players aspire to be. It’s going to take time for a variety of reasons, but that’s where we want to go.
Is there anything else you’d like to see in American soccer?
Joe Barone: I would love to see more of our teams competing in other USASA competitions like regional state cups.
There are certain state associations like Cal South that are ahead of the game and are doing things at a higher level than others around the country.
The deliberate destabilizing scenarios in American soccer exists more today than it did 10 years ago. The game is much more advanced today than it was 10 years ago. That exists because of control. There are people who want control the game. And grow the game into a template.
Leagues like the NPSL and any other amateur league, pub leagues, the women’s game etc., have brought us to where we are today. And at the end of the day, we all need each other.