Recently a couple of articles surfaced about the enigma of Ted Westervelt, likely better known as @soccerreform. The articles focused on Ted's passion for instilling promotion and relegation into the American soccer pyramid but didn't explain how Ted arrived as the lead spokesman for pro-rel. I scheduled an interview with Ted to discuss his history with soccer and I can't emphasize enough how friendly our conversation was. It was an easy talk although we did have the added bonus of our responses not being limited in character length.
How did you get introduced to soccer? Did you grow up playing it?
I didn’t touch a soccer ball until I was about thirteen, well, really until high school. After that, I wanted nothing more than to learn how to play.
So did you play in high school?
Yeah. I went to a really small high school that, pretty much, you know, everybody played.
Did you have any aspirations on coaching or playing in college?
I played JV in college.
And did you play all four years there or…
No. *laughs* I played one year of JV and I just… basically, I played a lot of ultimate frisbee, I played lacrosse, and I just picked up other sports. I’m an American, I like to hurl things. I’m much, much better at that. I tried to learn how to play soccer for a really long time. I mean, one of the reasons I like soccer so much is because it’s something I never… I can respect the ability because I can’t do it, if that makes any sense. I am a right footed, period. And my right foot is my weaker foot. It’s bad.
So why keep with soccer from a fan perspective? Why not another sport?
Well 1990 is when I graduated from college and, you know, that’s the year we got back into the World cup so that was an easy segue. And then ’94 came along so I went to one World Cup game, so I was even more fired up about it. I was in DC at the time, Belgium versus Saudi Arabia. Then MLS came along and that kept my interest up. I became a season ticket holder in DC United and Bruce Arena kept my interest up by making me think MLS was no the path to becoming a real soccer league.
What did you think about MLS when it first heard about it?
Oh I was fired up about it! I wasn’t involved in any way to know what the federation was up to or anything I’m involved to now. I just thought, “Here, we’re getting a soccer league” and sort of subscribed to the conventional wisdom at that point, which was there was the Cosmos and before there probably wasn’t that much. And the reason that NASL died was because they spent too much money.
How long were you a season ticket holder? Or maybe a better question, how long were you a fan of MLS?
Um… It lingered. I was still a fan when I moved to Denver in 2007. I would have still called myself an MLS fan then. But I had been getting into the Fulham relegation battles at that point, which then changed my perspective entirely.
So do you have any club affiliation now as a fan?
You know, I like what the Cosmos are doing with pushing the envelope. Basically, I like any team in US Open Cup that plays an MLS team. That’s my favorite soccer team games... ever. Like those are… I live for those games. So, no. It’s tough once you know how that sausage is made. Why would I throw my support at a club that isn’t free to use it to go places?
So would you say that being a DC supporter for that short period dropped out when you started looking at the bigger scheme of things? Or was it something specific about DC?
What do you mean?
Well I guess, dropping out of being a season ticket holder for DC, I’m just interested in that conversion. Was that—
I was just… At that point, something was creeping in my mind at that point with, “What gives about MLS?” And I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was kind of like, “Okay here we go, we’re going to win the  Interamerican Cup…” So they go that far. And then it’s kind of like… it just felt like something was funny about it. And I decided I didn’t want to re-up.
So how did that snowball from, like you said, not being able to put your finger on it, to…
Can you… expand on that?
*laughs* Those relegation battles back, I guess was in 2007 especially, the Clint Dempsey ones and the McBrides ones. I was following a little bit when McBride was involved but the relegation battles with Clint Dempsey changed my entire perspective. It was like, “This is what it’s missing. This is the chunk of soccer that MLS doesn’t have.” And it was a slow transition.
When I talk to somebody on Twitter who defends MLS, I can see what I said ten, fifteen years ago about MLS. It’s a little… it can get frustrating. I used to be one of those guys that just said, “This is the way we do it and we don’t have to do it that way.” And all that kind of stuff. But once you find yourself wrapped up in a national relegation battle your perspective changes, or at least my perspective changed, fundamentally.
So why have you stopped support Fulham since?
I just really want a fully fledged US club to support. I don’t want to be somebody who goes to the European clubs because we can’t have it here. It just started to feel a little bit, you know, funny. Once I started fighting for this, it just didn’t feel right to continue to support Fulham. And I mean, I still watch a little EPL.
Yeah, I can relate with that. When I was first getting into soccer, I had all these friends that were tied with these EPL teams and it just felt odd to be rooting for a team that’s thousands of miles away.
Right! And that was part of my argument before when I would argue with people that were EPL supporters and I was an MLS supporter, I would say, “Here’s what we got here, we have to support it.” And now, it’s changed to, “Well here’s what we got to fix but I can’t just fall off to a European side”. That’s not going to fill a void for me.
You talked about running into people on Twitter that are echoing what you used to say. What’s the most popular kind of comment that you used to say but now you’re hearing it yourself.
It just goes in that vein of, “It’s what we have here, support it. It’ll grow. If you don’t support it, it’s not going to grow.” That kind of stuff.
Does that ever bleed over into real life? Have you had any success—
Oh, yeah, I talk to people about it all the time!
And how does that usually go?
It’s easy. *laughs* Promotion-relegation is the easiest sell. You know, on Twitter or my SIX years of pestering people on this, I used to think that that was the problem. That we didn’t understand promotion-relegation or it’s some problem with American fans. But even my most ardent opposers say they like pro-rel. So pro-rel isn’t the problem. It’s easy to talk to someone about pro-rel. College football fans understand pro-rel really well, for some reason. I don’t get that, but they understand that teams aren’t limited or for whatever reason. Maybe it’s that a lot of the big college arenas are where professional sports are relatively thin? So maybe that’s part of it, I don’t know. So convincing people of pro-rel is easy. My point has changed from convincing people to like pro-rel to convincing them to fight for it.
How do you feel about being the face of promotion and relegation?
*long pause* It’s not… I don’t know that I am…
Well I would say at least within the American sect of soccer, you’re fairly well known as far as being an advocate for pro-rel, if not the biggest one.
“How do I feel about it?” It’s not my goal, you know? It’s just… That’s not a big part of my thinking. It’s just here’s something we need to fight for and I’m going to fight for it. That’s pretty much what it comes down to. *laughs* Certainly, it’s not lucrative financially in any way. I don’t know, being the face of promotion and relegation that’s a really interesting question. I never really thought about that.
*laughs* You could probably throw that in your Twitter bio, “Face of Pro-Rel”.
[sarcastically] I guess. I don’t if that’d do me any good…
Okay so if you had to critique MLS on a positive note, on what are they doing well, what would you give them credit for?
*long pause* Hmm…
There has to be something!
I don’t know *laughs* There’s something to be said about… I’ve gone back and looked at American soccer history in-depth, as I’m sure you know, and the more I look… the less I give MLS credit for. I guess if I was pushed I could say the stadiums are one thing that MLS has done that other leagues [in the US] had not done before them. But after that, it gets really thin.
You talk about survival and tenure, I mean, okay, they’ve done decently there and they’ve passed [the current] NASL but teams are turning over and failing out of MLS at comparable rates to NASL in the ‘70s and ASL in the 1920s. And even ASL 2 between the ‘30s and the ‘70s. So I think stadiums is probably where I would go and stay there. I can’t think of anything else that’d come close.
We had previous talked about the old school Rooseveltian mindset of, and I thought you were talking FDR there, so excuse me on that—
Well it’s both of them! You should watch the Roosevelts PBS documentary. They go there pretty strongly. The old school progressivism, included, not only social security and helping the poor and the least endowed among us, but it was also about breaking up the cartels, monopolies, and the powerful elite and exposing them in the free market that the rest of the Americans do. I think my crusade against US Soccer and MLS fits right in with that philosophy.
So you’ve talked about Fulham relegation battles and now you’ve brought this up, well I brought it up, but that this idea also. Did those ideas pop up at the same time? Or did one proceed the other?
What do you mean?
Well you have two main reasons now why you support pro-rel. One, the idea of sharing the wealth and breaking up cartels but also how exciting the relegation battle was for Fulham. So which one—
The political angle wasn’t the driver. It was more, “Wow [Fulham’s relegation battle] is really exciting. This is the most compelling thing I’ve ever seen!” And that was the driver initially. And connecting it in with my political philosophy… I began to recognize that a little later. It wasn’t the driver but it does fit in very nicely with my political philosophy, if that makes any sense.
No, it does. So realistically speaking, what would be a first step for MLS that would be a positive note? Saying, “Okay that’s a good step forward for them” to not strictly obtaining pro-rel within the next year or so but something moving—
I’d take MLS completely out of the equation. It’s not their job. I don’t give them the power for them to decide if there’s a promotion and relegation pyramid. I go at it at a little bit of a different angle. So my goal is for the [US] federation, or a federation, to open up a system and give every club the option to participate or not. And MLS, you know, if the Indian Super League is any indication, MLS could go on outside of a pyramid. Just be more-or-less the Indian Super League, just without a D1 sanction.
I’m not familiar with the Indian Super League, are they not inside—
No, they are not a D1 league. A lot of people point to the Indian Super League which is a construct of some English investors connected to EPL, from what I understand. I’m no expert in it. But what I do know is they operate without a D1 sanction from the Indian federation. And part of that is because the Asian federation has some really strong language on promotion-relegation.
So for NASL teams, they haven’t done poorly, but not doing so hot in the Open Cup, do you think that has any sort of relevance—
Oh they’ve done great! NASL wiped a third of MLS out in the last Open Cup and I think the year before that, it was 40-50%. So, they haven’t won [the Cup] but the games last year were fantastic! The call that lost the Cosmos game against Philadelphia was absurd. They were right there in those games. It’s splitting hairs at this point with quality. And that Silverbacks game, they got seven red cards *laughs* between the two teams and they went into the next round without four of their top players! It was an absurd game and also one of the best games for sheer wackiness. That was against the Rapids, it was an incredible game.
I guess I’m just thinking from the last time a non-MLS team has won the Cup...
’99 with the Rhinos, yeah.
I’d feel like to have an argument that NASL was good enough to take on MLS—
Well I feel like the US Cup is still a little slanted towards MLS. MLS is in a later round than NASL. And NASL only has… nine teams? So yeah, they only have seven, if my math is right, in the Open Cup because of the Canadian Clubs. So you’re sending seven in against sixteen MLS sides, and coming in an earlier round, the odds are against NASL.
Fair, fair. What about your attitude towards the US National team?
Being that US soccer is really part of the problem, part of the rock blockage to promotion and relegation, it’s becoming harder for me to support the United States soccer team. I do, but it’s hard.
Do you see that because the national team and the federation are so closely tied to one another?
Yeah, well, I mean, it’d be a little bit easier now that Klinsmann has shown some independence with MLS. It’s a little bit easier under these circumstances, when you can see that they’re two separate entities, that helps. But when they meld it gets tougher.
I guess you kept up with the World Cup?
Mhmm, yeah, it’s not that I don’t watch. I still watch. It’s like Champions League! We’re throwing teams in that are handicapped by the system. So it’s tough. Once you believe that, it gets really tough to throw your full weight behind it. I used to love CONCACAF Champions League and obviously the US Men’s Team but if you come to the conclusion that we’re handicapping these sides before we send them anywhere it becomes sort of a sadistic exercise.
“Handicapping”? What do you mean by that, exactly?
Oh, well, for Champions League, MLS teams are inordinately limited in international play. That’s the key point. You think, “Well we have to do that here but we’re going to send those teams in and hope they do well against Mexican sides that don’t have any comparable restrictions.” [Mexican clubs have] no caps, no drafts, nothing close to the curbs on unfettered use of support MLS applies with the blessings of US Soccer.
And for the United States Mens National Team, it’s sort of a crossover effect. MLS’s shortcomings show up in the USMNT. Klinsmann has to go and scour Germany [for players] so it’s still caught up in the system. Soccer’s a global market, one in which MLS and USSF still refuse to fully participate. That’s the core of the pro-rel debate, from my perspective.
Okay two more questions for you. I’ve got this one and the pizza question. Give me a prediction fifteen years down the road what’s the situation of US soccer. Where’s it going to be?
I hate to do time predictions. We can change this. People can change this just by standing up and saying “We want a change.” I have no idea how long it’s going to take. I don’t know when the tipping point is but when we get there. It’ll change. So… I hate to make time predictions. When we have the strength to either change the US Soccer board or change policy at US Soccer. When US fans stand up to it and say, “We want this change to the point of which something has to be done,” it’ll change. And that’s the entire point.
But obviously you wouldn’t feel so strongly about it if you didn’t think if there was a realistic change to happen.
Oh I think everything is set up! Soccer is unique in that it runs, at least for now, under a federation in which promotion and relegation is the accepted mode of operation. It’s part of the FIFA bylaw structure and you can argue if that applies to the US or not, but it’s in there. We have a federation that governs that is, at least ideally, set up to be responsive to supporters and fans.
We have an opportunity that, say, a baseball fan or a football fan doesn’t have. To push and achieve and have our voices heard on something like this. There’s no where to go in baseball to say “We want promotion and relegation”, there’s no governing body over them. You’d have to go straight to Major League Baseball and say “Yeah, open up we want promotion and relegation!” And you’re going to a body that intrinsically is a different kind of business and basically answers to nobody but the US Congress.
Okay maybe not a prediction but maybe an expectation between MLS and NASL. How do you see NASL advancing in the future?
I think the D1 sanction to MLS, with the current makeup is all but ironclad. That gives NASL some real significant roadblocks. It’s an asset. I think US Soccer giving D1 to anybody is an automatic asset in terms of global perception and the perception of major league versus minor league in the United States. So that’s going to be a roadblock for NASL and it’s real.
Quality-wise, again, I think the gap is really small. US Open Cup games go a long way to proving that. Still, it’s intrepid of NASL to go for this. I think it’s good for everybody involved that they do. It’s the one thing pushing MLS to improve quality. I don’t see any other factors out there. If you believe that MLS is in better financial state in any time of their history, while at the same time EPL continues to leap heads and bounds over them in American interest… For me, it’s like, if you have this whole thing set up that you can profit regardless of your relevance versus other American sports or imported soccer and you have a willing party in Sunil Gulati, who is financially tied to an MLS owner, it’s tough to see how it changes any time soon. But that’s what’s going to have to happen.
Okay, last question, best pizza you’ve ever had. Toughest question of the day.
I actually make really good pizza. *laughs*
Yeah? What's the secret?
I like pesto with sort of half-whole grain crust and a kalamata olives and Joey Saputo’s cheese, mozzarella cheese. But I’ve had really good pizza on the street in New York but that’s different. It’s a very different kind of pizza.
If only there was some sort of way to promote and relegate these pizzas you’ve had into one standing.
Absolutely. But none of these pizzas are limited by domestic parity so that’s a good thing.