Q&A With Kingston Stockade’s Dennis Crowley

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Last week Miami FC of the North American Soccer League and Kingston Stockade FC of the National Premier Soccer League filed a claim with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland to require the United States Soccer Federation to institute promotion and relegation across the U.S. soccer “pyramid,” pointing to a FIFA statute (see principle 9 — search on “sporting merit” in FIFA statutes) that could be open to interpretation. EoS editor in chief Jack Bell spoke with Dennis Crowley, the founder and owner of the Stockade, about the filing and his views and hopes for American soccer.

EoS: Since filing the claim last week, what has the reaction been like?

Crowley: I would say mostly judging from, just things on Twitter, about 80 percent positive things. It’s been covered by a lot of journalists, and that coverage has sparked a lot of interest and intrigue. It’s gotten some people thinking, and they are really interested in seeing a resolution.

Q: How long do you think we’ll have to wait for a decision from Switzerland?

A: It’s tough to say. I’m not expecting anything over the next four-to-seven months up to a year. I think what’s different, there’s always the talk about the leagues talking [about promotion/relegation] with one another, or about it within a single league. Where I’m thinking that the filing could work would be as a forcing mechanism. We can’t wave a magic wand. But I’m saying it has to happen.

Q: When you talk about being a mechanism and sparking more conversation, are you talking about something like an American soccer summit?

A: I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything like that, though it’s not a bad idea. Unless there is some strong leadership, someone who has the power and is able to say you can’t leave room until we figure it out, I don’t think it would make sense. But it seems like it would be helpful. If it’s just talk, we’ve had enough of that. There’s a lot of conversations — should we do this, what would happen if did that? The bigger question is how would it be implemented?

Q: The claim filed by your lawyers obviously was not produced overnight. How long has it been in the works and when did you meet Riccardo Silva [the owner of Miami FC]?

A: There was no exact start date. I’ve been involved with this for a couple of months. I’m a representative for the lower leagues, I have a team in D4, though I think there’s really no such thing. It’s more like D5. It’s really a question of how do teams get into our league? How do best teams get a chance at D3 or above? I’m involved in this as a representative of the lower part of the pyramid. We have lots of discussions about how to put it all together, because things need to change. That’s how it came together. I got connected with Riccardo through mutual friends. He and I were talking about different approaches and philosophies.

Photo Credit: Dan Hoffay

Crowley’s team Kingston Stockade plays in the NPSL. Photograph by Dan Hoffay

QThere have been questions about Silva’s motivation. He bought into the U.S. game on the cheap in the NASL, talked to the Beckham group about joining its MLS bid then floated that $4 billiion proposal. How did he come off to you?

A: I never got that vibe. I understand that he has one of the dominant teams in D2. He believes the best team should move up. I understand that. I believe that as well. I understand the intricacies involved. The situation of the best teams from D4 moving to D3 is a little less complicated. My views are not that different from where he stands.

One of his goals was to win the Open Cup [Miami FC lost to FC Cincinnati in the quarterfinals last week]. One of ours to just to qualify for the Cup. Imagine, I can put team in the middle of [New York’s] Hudson Valley and qualify for the Open Cup. That’s a big deal. He wants to win the Open Cup and get into the CONCACAF Champions league. It’s an amazing goal.

Q: But I come back to the optics, if you will. He’s a guy who seems to have parachuted into U.S. soccer, on the D2 level. Now he sees the facts on the ground and decides, hey, I want things to change and I want them to change now. Whether it’s promotion/relegation, a gambit with MLS or joining the Beckham group. He seems to be all over the place.

A: I did not get the impression that he’s all over the place. He’s focused on improving on the game in the U.S. He may have a couple of irons in the fire. His proposal to MLS was about let’s get the league a better broadcast deal. [At one time, Silva’s company, MP & Silva, sold the MLS international TV rights.] The filing really is about applying some pressure to make sure USSF receives a mandate and follows the rules. We’re not trying to put a rocket ship together and send it to Mars. This is about soccer. We’re not trying to solve global warming, but we’re all focused on the game in the U.S.

Q: You’re a businessman [having co-founded the social networking companies Foursquare and Dodgeball]. How in heaven’s name did you become interested in and involved in soccer.

A: I would never consider myself a businessman. I like to build things. The moment when I got the idea to start something was when I attended the NYCFC-Cosmos Open Cup match that the Cosmos won on PKs. I had known the history of Cosmos and that they were dead for years. I saw a team brought back to life, someone decided to start again from scratch. And I thought, why can’t we? I’ve built a lot of things, but not like this. It’s fun and it’s a meaningful project. Then I started learning, to be honest, by sitting in seats at Cosmos games. I didn’t know anything about the NPSL, about teams in D3. I really fell down the rabbit hole of lower-division soccer. Trying to be a D4 NPSL team and making a run for the Open Cup is what inspired us. It’s only when you peel back the layers of the onion that you see so much opportunity and so much obstruction. It seems there’s no motivation to work together.

On Twitter, someone said that in rest of the world the leagues are the containers for the clubs and the clubs all compete against each other. In the U.S. it’s the leagues that compete with each other and every league in soccer is jockeying as opposed to the clubs. Leagues should just be containers, holding whatever teams are in the league at that moment. In Kingston, we have aspirations and some day want to be up in D3. I love having that goal. We want to win, not only win this year, but next year. We added a bunch a of new teams — Hartford, New Haven — those were expansion teams, they were not promoted from a lower level. The league is more interesting as new clubs come and go. NPSL is awesome, transient — last year there were 80 teams, this year 96. It’s always changing, but once you’re in it’s hard not to believe in it.

Q: How do you respond to the notion that promotion/relegation is not our system, meaning that professional leagues in North America all are basically closed leagues?

A: I agree, it’s not the American system, but soccer is the world’s game, it’s not just America’s game. We’re just playing with different rules on the same field. When we talk about a grassroots approach, the motivation is to develop players, the culture is totally different. A lot of folks say the U.S. men’s side lags behind rest of the world. I’m one of those who believes a lot of that is due to there not being as much investment as there should be. The reason is that there’s not the opportunity to move up. There’s less incentive at the top. If someone started a club an hour away from Kingston their goal would be to beat us and get and an Open Cup slot. That would encourage us to be better. Competition is what causes everyone to be better. Without the incentive to be better it all goes too slow.

Q: Let’s say the decision from Switzerland confirms your claim. What then?

A: If we get the results we expect, I think the USSF would say, and this is not just about MLS, it’s not about singling out MLS, it’s about the entire pyramid. It’s crazy that there are two leagues in D2. Let’s put in some structure, some rules about how teams can move up and down, and how long it’s going to take. We need structures for MLS owners who feel it isn’t fair, a conversation. But we have to do this, these are FIFA rules. It’s not about how do we do it. Once the conversation starts — it has to be done — it’s a whole different conversation. There are 50 really hard questions that need to be resolved and those don’t matter until it’s mandated. What’s the best answer? Whatever it is it won’t happen until the claim is validated.

There’s a hundred different ways to draw this out. This country is huge and that’s a recipe for bankrupting teams. We need more regional structure. My team in Kingston has never gotten on a plane because we only play in the East.

Q: What’s your message to the federation and MLS?

A: I agree that certain things had to be done in certain ways in the mid-90s in order to reward people investing in soccer infrastructure and to get the league off the ground. Every fan owes the league some credit and respect for getting us to this point. But that’s 20 years ago, and the world is different. Every kid gets up Saturday morning and watches the EPL, we’re all playing FIFA with teams from around the world. It’s time to revisit some of the reasons some of the decisions were made. I don’t think there’s any incentive to revisit without being forced to do so.

The filing is about reminding the USSF that FIFA rules say this and the U.S. doesn’t adhere. Tell us why we can’t start playing by the rules and give us a plan to get there. FIFA has these statutes about the way game is supposed to be played that are enforced all over the world. Submitting the claim is us raising our hands so they notice that we’re not following the rules.

Q: Do you think this is a delicate time, what with the World Cup bid, issues with the NASL and USL.

A: There really is no good time. The hardest part about any type of change is the moment between not doing it to doing it. There’s no perfect time for it. This will take some time to get it all resolved.

Q: Are you happy you’ve gotten involved in soccer?

A: I’ve had the privilege of working on a lot of great projects. What we’re building in Kingston might be the most rewarding. It seems so small, but it’s is so rewarding. So we may be getting bashed on Twitter. But what we are doing is very pure, it’s representative of passion and enthusiasm for sport. People love the game and love supporting it. Kids come out, and we have a good thing going up here. How do you create 100 versions of Kingston? It’s easier when the incentive is clear to people. In my role as the chairman of a D4 club it is that I’ll do two blog posts every year and tell people how it went. I will keep doing this. it’s my opinion and the feedback helps people understand how I deal with the financial risks. How many people we have, how much time we spend. I think it will inspire another dozen teams. What we’re trying to do is super transparent. We’re helping to push the game forward at lower levels, and for whatever good we do to work its way up.