Lower division football in the United States of America has been going through some difficulties of late, with some difficulties that will sound familiar to some of our British readers. Elliott Turner reports on the peculiar case of the RGV Grandes.
What if we could create a Frankenstein football league that patched together the worst parts of English and American sports? First, the teams would be owned by wealthy individuals, not the community. Second, the teams would be franchises and able to disappear or relocate, like in America. Third, the corporate entity would be so convoluted that nobody would know the true owners or responsible entities. Fourth, and finally, toss in a hobbled Igor of a league with no salary cap or teeth behind regulations. Sound far-fetched? Terrifying? Or both? Sadly, this Frankenstein stalks the world in real life. He is United States lower division football. And the story of football in South Texas offers an example of how everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
When talking about lower divisions, the immediate question is not which team, but which division of the division. No, not 2nd, 3rd, or 4th, but rather which 2nd division? That’s right – in 2009, the United Soccer League (USL) First Division experienced a change in ownership, Nike sold its share to a mysterious Georgia based corporation instead of the Teams Owners’ Association, and a nasty divorce followed. All but 3 teams threatened to break off and form a new league – the North American Soccer League (NASL). The US Soccer Federation intervened and forced the two groups, USL and NASL, to merge and play with one another for a single season in 2010, but they have since gone their respective ways. So the US has two Second Divisions. Go figure.
As a foundation, this is pretty rotten. The worst aspect of amateurism is, frankly, the amateurism. When an institution’s only tether to football is the love of football, they can be foolishly stubborn like any head-over-heels lover. Unlike the UK, in the US this amateurism combines with the worst tenet of the franchise system: rootlessness. With the flippancy of a middle school relationship and the solvency of a nascent small business (read: none), many lower division teams float about the country like a ghost with an infinitely renewable one way Greyhound bus ticket. Here today, gone tomorrow.
South Texas, of course, has a large football-loving Hispanic population. It is the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), where the US meets Mexico. On days when Mexico plays a game, the towns are a sea of green jerseys. Competitive leagues for players of all ages dot the landscape. However, this is also one of the poorest regions of the United States. Instead of one major metropolitan area, there are 19 different municipalities. McAllen and Brownsville are the only cities with sizable populations, yet they are separated by an hour and half commute. Thus, it should be no surprise that external factors complicate the life of any aspiring lower division team. What’s surprising is that none of those factors can truly explain the string of franchise failures.
The lower divisions are even more helter skelter than the second. Just this year, the 4th tier Southern Premier Soccer League (SPSL) dissolved, yet the Texas Premier Soccer (TPS) League has formed in its wake. Who knows how long it will last. The teams are just as dependable as the leagues. For example, in Brownsville, Kru Kayan Sitsanthaparn founded the RGV Bravos in 2008, and they dissolved in 2010. But he started the RGV Ocelots FC in the same town in 2010. The Ocelots won the SPSL championship in 2010, but the victory was short-lived as the league promptly dissolved. They do plan on playing in the TPS. Head spinning yet?
If you prefer acronyms to continuity, then lower division football in Texas is right up your alley. And many an Englishmen will be happy to see a successful Thai businessman investing in a club other than Manchester City. However, it should be noted that the RGV Bravos were technically terminated from the lower league because their owner could not meet his financial obligations. The league did allow for a new franchise in Edinburg, a mid-sized city about an hour and a half drive to the East. The new franchise, the RGV Grandes, though, would face an even shadier fate.
The RGV Grandes initially claimed to be a “professional” team. This was incorrect. As per the structure of the USL, there is USL Pro which lays claim to being a 2nd division team, and then there is the “amateur” Premier Development League. This was the least of their sins, though. On their website, the President, Jose Ignacio Larraga, claims the goal of the team is to generate “positive emotions” and be an “agent of social change.” He even directed a DVD listed on Amazon about “the Power of Emotion.” However, his background in media has only served one purpose: construct an elaborate mirage.
To call Larriaga a “deadbeat” would be an insult to deceased beats the world over. Behind all of his ventures, he has left a trail of bounced checks and unpaid wages. In just one year, the RGV Grandes experienced an exodus of coaches, staff, and players. At their last game of the 2011 season, four players walked out to protest unpaid wages. The team delayed kick-off and had to set two injured players on the bench to avoid a league fine. If Sitsanthaparn is the successful businessman and lifetime soccer lover who can’t quite make it, then Larriaga is the media tycoon who has imported snake-oil strategies from the industry of visual deception. You may love one and hate the other, but neither has made a football franchise stick.
The infinitely multiplying, diverging, and dying leagues. The transient “franchises.” The incompetent and malevolent owners. The Texas lower division offers drama for everybody but the football fan. For those of us who just want to see eleven guys kick a ball, sighs of exasperation have long replaced giddy gasps of anticipation. Most clubs and leagues disappear before we can learn their name. All that’s left is to root for roots – but nobody holds their breath.