No option was ideal and in the end, after weeks of conversation and speculation, the U.S. Soccer Federation found a compromise that should give both the NASL and USL time to figure out their natural and ideal place on the country’s professional pyramid.
The NASL, the incumbent second-tier league, was bleeding teams and money and heading into 2017 had only six guaranteed members and an uncertain future. The fast-growing USL, which occupied the third tier, applied for second-division status as it surged to 30 teams, some of which are MLS reserve squads. But around one-third didn’t meet Federation standards governing things like stadium size, field dimensions or coach licensing.
Demotion would kill the NASL. The status quo would infuriate the USL. And attempts at some kind of compromise, from the absorption of the healthy NASL clubs into the USL to a D2/D3 split within the USL itself, went nowhere. So on Friday evening, the U.S. Soccer board of governors conducted a lengthy conference call and reached a decision that should leave both leagues temporarily satisfied while reminding them that there’s a lot more work to do. Both the NASL and USL will have provisional second-division sanctioning in 2017. That means there will be no third-tier league this year. But there could be one in 2018 if the standards—which also cover the number of member teams, owner net worth and other elements—aren’t met during the next 12 months.
“After an exhaustive process working with both leagues, in the best interest of the sport the U.S. Soccer board of directors has decided to grant provisional division two status to the NASL and USL," USSF president Sunil Gulati said in a statement. "U.S. Soccer will create an internal working group that will work with each league to set a pathway to meet the full requirements for division two and allow for the larger goal of creating a sustainable future. We look forward to another productive year for professional soccer in this country."
The Federation had been granting waivers to both leagues in recent years. The NASL, for example, was well short of the 12 clubs required for D2 status. The USL meanwhile, had teams that still weren’t playing on regulation fields. U.S. Soccer was worried additional, permanent passes would rob the standards of their heft. The whole point was to ensure stability and sustainability, and the waivers were sparking the opposite.
Now both leagues have 12 months to get it right. The working group Gulati referenced will hash out the benchmarks each circuit must reach in order to maintain D2 status in 2018. And the Federation said “additional criteria” will be added to the existing standards. A timeline for compliance will be determined. And those decisions may be made unilaterally by U.S. Soccer or in consultation with the leagues. But it’s also possible that future cooperation or migration between the NASL and USL could be negotiated, especially since it appears almost certain that the former will be operate under new leadership. There is nothing in U.S. Soccer’s bylaws preventing two leagues from occupying the same tier, but that’s not considered an ideal outcome.
Friday’s decision may signal the return of the New York Cosmos, the iconic club that was in danger of folding despite winning three of the past four NASL championships. The Cosmos lost their primary investor and were forced to release most players and furlough most staff following the 2016 season. But on Thursday, a buyer emerged—New York City communications entrepreneur Rocco Commisso, a former Columbia soccer star who said his purchase of the Cosmos was conditional on D2 status. There was no word from the club or Commisso Friday evening concerning the status of the transaction.
The return of the Cosmos and the potential collective but temporary flotation of the Jacksonville Armada would lift the NASL to eight teams. And the league hopes that provides enough stability to lure prospective expansion teams in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Hartford, Orange County and San Diego.
"The NASL board of governors and I support U.S. Soccer's decision to grant the league provisional division two status,” North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik said Friday. “We’re excited about beginning play in April, and we look forward to the continued growth of our league and soccer in the U.S.”
USL plans to play with 30 teams in 2017. League president Jake Edwards told SI.com this week that the clubs falling short of the established D2 standards had submitted binding plans to conform. Those, in turn, were part of USL’s comprehensive application to U.S. Soccer. Those teams now have time to make the necessary changes, and there’s little doubt the league will continue to grow, whether its through the addition of independent teams or as MLS clubs decide to enter reserve sides.
"We would like to thank U.S. Soccer for taking the time to work through this process and provide us with provisional sanctioning for Division II in 2017,” USL CEO Alec Papadakis said. “We welcome the opportunity to work closely with U.S. Soccer to meet all the division two standards in the near future and continue to be part of the impressive growth of the sport in the United States."
USL and its predecessors occupied D2 through 2009, crowning champions such as the Seattle Sounders, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps, all of which now play in MLS. In 2010, following a schism within the league, U.S. Soccer administered the country’s D2 competition. In 2011, the NASL split off and occupied the second tier while USL gathered itself in the third. Now that tier is empty, at least for the time being. There has been a third-division pro champion every season since 1995—the year before MLS launched.