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USL, NASL to learn fate as U.S. Soccer votes on division sanctioning

On Friday, U.S. Soccer will at last put to rest the uncertainty surrounding the division sanctioning of the lower-tier NASL and USL.

On Friday afternoon, we finally will learn which leagues, if any, meet the standards.

Those standards—reviewed and re-established in 2014—are succinct, clear and easy to follow. In fact, the entire summary document produced by the U.S. Soccer Federation detailing the conditions pro leagues must meet in order to operate and receive sanctioning is all of 12 pages long. It’s black and white, and comprehension doesn’t require a law degree. It really isn’t that much more complex than the average tifo.

And yet, when it comes to determining where leagues fit on U.S. Soccer’s nominal pyramid, how those leagues try to meet those standards and how evenly and consistently they’re enforced, there’s been more than enough uncertainty. For years, leagues and fly-by-night teams came and went. In response, USSF unveiled the first set of standards back in 2008, hoping to establish a bit of law and order. Stability required clubs run by owners with resources and commitment, facilities that made the grade and a veneer of professionalism throughout. Leagues needed a sufficient number of those clubs.

But not every team can check every box, and reality frequently intrudes. It made no sense for U.S. Soccer to kill off a league simply because it didn’t meet all the criteria, and it made no sense for leagues needing investors to raise the bar simply because a particular stadium or city couldn’t do so. So USSF granted waivers—lots of them.

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At the start of its third season, for example, the second-tier NASL was supposed to be fielding 10 teams. It had seven, which wasn’t even enough to qualify for a third-division sanction. In 2017, the NASL should have 12 members. But at the moment, there are only six definitively viable teams. Even if the New York Cosmos survive, and even if the Jacksonville Armada find a buyer, that’s still nowhere close to adequate—and that’s after six years of play.

Enter the USL, which has had endured ebbs and flows of its own. While the NASL originally sought to contest first-division status with MLS, Tampa-based USL—which can trace its history back to the mid 1980s and the roots of the minor league game—was comfortable anchoring the base. It’s partnership with MLS, under which clubs in the top top-tier league either affiliate with USL teams or establish their own reserve squads, lent the stability it sought. Growth was quick, from 13 teams in 2013 to 29 last year. And so self-image and ambitions changed as well.

The USL wants to be sanctioned as a D2 league. It’s wanted that status for around two years, but it’s argument now is stronger than ever. It will field 30 clubs in 2017. It’s model and connections to MLS are such that the Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies joined from the NASL, essentially taking a voluntary step down the pyramid. The only two minor-league teams in the U.S. or Canada that draw average crowds in the five digits—Sacramento Republic and FC Cincinnati—are in the USL. And although the USL’s average attendance is lower than the NASL’s, that’s largely due to the presence of MLS reserve teams that don’t really market themselves. Average crowds for the USL’s 19 independently owned sides was only 4.5% lower than the NASL’s in 2016, and the latter just said goodbye to three of its top four most popular sides.

And while salaries might be higher in the NASL, there hasn't been a gap on the field. USL teams are 10-8-2 against their D2 rivals in U.S. Open Cup play over the past five seasons.

At the moment, USL is the larger and stronger of the two pro circuits beneath MLS. So on the surface it’s logical that it should be considered D2. But USSF isn’t measuring the USL against the NASL. It’s measuring both leagues against the standards enacted in 2014. And it’s understood that the Federation is concerned that if it continues handing out free passes, those standards will become meaningless. The authorities no longer are afraid to say ‘no.’

On Friday afternoon, after receiving a report and recommendation from the Federation’s pro task force, the USSF board is scheduled to vote on sanctioning for 2017. It’s a vote that’s been put off several times as the NASL fought to stay alive and as questions surrounded the health and intentions of its clubs. Now time is short. The season starts soon, USL teams don’t have their schedules and NASL players and staffers aren’t sure if they’ll have jobs. Plenty hangs in the balance.

Demotion to D3 could likely would scare off investors and kill the NASL. The status quo would send shockwaves through the USL. Although there’s nothing technically prohibiting two second-division leagues, USSF has little interest in something so cumbersome. Ideally, it would like one league at each tier. Perhaps more ideally, the Federation wants each of its leagues to meet the appropriate standards.

Speaking to this week, USL president Jake Edwards made the league’s case.

“We’ve got a tremendously strong application on file for division two. They’ve never had something this comprehensive,” Edwards said. “This has been the most exhaustive process on record … It’s important to know that this has never been done before. What we’ve been asked to provide is new territory that’s never been asked of any other applicant. We’ve provided all this information ad nauseam, as have our clubs, and here we are.”

Edwards said “people inside the Federation” have said that the application is “far and way the strongest ever application” they’ve received.

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He said the process involved the submission of hundreds of pages of information and data, on-site Federation audits of each USL team and an independent financial audit of every USL owner. The principal owners of division two teams must have individual net worth of at least $20 million (not including the team) and each club must play in a stadium seating at least 5,000. Several USL teams do not, and while waivers will be required to start next year, Edwards stressed that the league and each club will submit a detailed, binding plan to become compliant if they’re not currently.

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For some, that may mean simply widening a field or ensuring its coach boosts his license from ‘B’ to ‘A’. For others, it will require significant expense. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Charlotte Independence and Orange County Blues, as well as several MLS reserve teams, play in stadiums that currently are too small. Edwards ensured both the Federation and that those venues will be expanded or that the impacted clubs will find facilities that comply.

That will come at a cost, and it's one he said the league and its members are willing to pay despite the fact that, without promotion and relegation, the meaning of a division sanction is debatable.

“It absolutely does matter,” Edwards insisted. “We’re operating this league at the highest possible level and our team owners are probably the strongest group of any second division league in the world. They’re investing millions of dollars into stadiums, youth development, into their teams, to build the right infrastructure needed in the U.S. and Canada. To not have the recognition of that, that they’re operating at that level, does a huge disservice.”

He continued, “You’re talking about perception and value for the clubs and the owners, an impact on franchise values, an impact on revenue streams, an impact on commercial activity and media activity—media rights, sponsorship value in the marketplace and marketing perception of second division or third. Those are real tangible benefits for teams and their validation of the fact that the team is making that investment and operating at that level.”

A USSF source told that about one-third of USL is now non-compliant either with D2 standards or with overall pro criteria related to fields, licenses and other operational issues. Again, Edwards said the Federation will be provided with the league’s plans to remedy those issues. U.S. Soccer chose not to comment when contacted regarding this story. It’s expected to release a statement following Friday’s vote.

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A request for comment from MLS wasn’t returned. Speculation that the D1 league might be ambivalent about promotion of its D3 reserve teams to D2 has increased, but it remains just that. There are those inside USSF and NASL who wonder whether MLS clubs really want to spend money moving or increasing stadium capacity for reserve sides that don’t exist to attract fans. But Edwards said that every one of them has committed to doing so. And MLS teams that decide it’s not worthwhile can simply drop out and affiliate with an existing USL outfit, as the Montreal Impact will do in 2017.

“No other league has provided the Federation with a road map for addressing any non-compliance with the standards,” Edwards said. “It is unprecedented. We’ve provided a road map with dates, deliverables and punitive measures against the club if they don’t become compliant. We’ve laid that out for the last 12-18 months.”

So these are the questions facing the board: How much faith does it have that each affected USL team will close every sanctioning loophole in a reasonable amount of time? And if that happens, is a second-tier USL worth the likely death of the NASL? If USSF concludes the latter is doomed anyway, that changes the equation. But the fact that NASL owners (thought to be Miami FC’s Riccardo Silva and San Francisco Deltas’ Brian Helmick) were meeting with the Federation as recently as Wednesday suggests there’s a pulse, and the potential return of the New York Cosmos under new ownership complicates matters further.

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U.S. Soccer has tried to find a creative solution. It proposed a merger, and even told USL it would be willing to sanction a split whereby the D2-compliant clubs would move up and then be joined by the D3 teams when they were ready. But no agreement was reached. So Friday, it must finally do what it’s been hoping to avoid—intercede and disappoint somebody. If the standards are to have any steel, however, disappointment may be inevitable.

USL will continue to pursue D2 if it’s denied Friday. But Edwards said rejection is hard to imagine.

“Based on decades of past practices from the Federation and the fact that we have the strongest application they’ve ever received, I can’t see a rational reason why they wouldn’t approve it,” he said. “Why they would turn down the strongest [D2] application would be very hard to understand. However, if they do that, if that happens, we will evaluate the situation at that time. Let me be clear. We will look at all available options to us at that point. We believe this is the strongest application they’ve ever had. If they reject this, we’ll look at all options available to us.”