Soccer leagues in North America, including MLS, USL and the NASL, are continuing to grow, not only in the volume of teams but, more importantly, in the volume of people attending games.
Soccer is growing in the United States.
So, what might that mean when looking to envision the future of FIFA-sanctioned first division soccer in the United States?
I submit that the sport's recent growth helps to set the table for an ideal first division that has 36-40 teams playing in one league, with two conferences (split by the Mississippi River) of 18 - 20 teams each. A similar, but more numerous vision to the newly embraced setup of USL Pro.
This gives you the beauty of a single league table for each conference, plus the added value that we, as Americans, love so much: a playoff system that has the winner of one conference competing against the winner of the other to determine a true national champion.
I am not advocating a formal merger of the continent's three leagues, I simply feel and think that the centrifugal force on the growth and popularity of soccer will lead to this type of scenario.
But wait - there's more! (Oh, how I miss Billy Mays!)
The NCAA needs to change.
I also think and feel that a good vision of the future includes seeing the NCAA adopt FIFA standards: ruling out unlimited subs, altering the game time to match 'extra time' FIFA rules, and creating a schedule that is longer than 3-4 months.
In speaking with Jamie Clark, head coach at the University of Washington, in my Possession with Purpose podcast last week, he acknowledged that the number of substitutions allowed in NCAA soccer may be limited in the future.
Others have also indicated that the NCAA may adopt an expanded schedule.
For me, the natural progression should include the NCAA applying for league division status as an amateur league within FIFA, giving college teams the ability to directly compete against professional teams for the US Open Cup.
Imagine how huge of a boost that type of environment might create for youth soccer players knowing that, even if they attend college, they could potentially compete in front of a national audience against a professional soccer team.
The other advantage that this offers is that it will also change the complexion of the college soccer game to better match that of professional soccer.
Unlimited substitutions changes the game for the worse.
In the same interview with Jamie Clark, he made it no secret that unlimited subs impacts the tactical nature of the game, so much so that, instead of seeing the grind of minutes wearing down a players' energy and valuing skill over raw power, instead you now have a game where 100% energy is expended 100% of the game.
In other words, the time and space you may see in the later stages of a game in professional soccer simply isn't present in college soccer because fresh legs in the midfield are guaranteed, rather than a tactical choice.
Jamie Clark also offered this means the tactical nature of the game that the players and head coaches in college experience is significantly different than that of professional soccer.
A change in the number of substitutions allowed in college soccer would not only benefit the identification and development of players capable of becoming professionals, it would also help head coaches and referees to better adapt to the professional game as well.
I think we all can agree that the better prepared the referees are, professionally, in the United States, the better the on-field judgment should be as first division soccer is played.
An interesting anecdote from Jamie, during that interview, was that the 2002 USMNT side that advanced to the World Cup Quarter-finals, was the the furthest that a United States team has gone in the World Cup since the inaugural World Cup in 1930. And it's that team (2002 USMNT) that had the most players with College experience.
Anyhow, enough from me... What do you think is a solid vision for soccer in the United States in the next ten to fifteen years?