The U.S. Soccer Federation managed to postpone upheaval in its professional pyramid for a year, but chaos now appears inevitable.
Last January's decision to provisionally sanction both the incumbent North American Soccer League and the promoted United Soccer League as second-division circuits bought both organizations some time to make changes and a few months of stability. On Friday, however—hours before the national team fell to Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier at Red Bull Arena—the USSF board voted to end the NASL’s pursuit of D2 sanctioning in 2018. The vote was first reported Tuesday by Minnesota website FiftyFive.One and later confirmed to SI.com by multiple sources.
Later Tuesday afternoon, the NASL issued a statement that said, in part, “The NASL is disappointed with the decision and does not believe that the federation acted in the best interest of the sport. U.S. Soccer’s decision negatively affects many stakeholders in soccer: fans, players, coaches, referees, business partners, and the NASL club owners who have invested tens of millions of dollars promoting the sport. The decision also jeopardizes the thousands of jobs created by the NASL and its member clubs.”
The NASL currently fields eight teams—four short of the required 12 for D2 status. Now in its seventh season, the NASL also already has confirmed expansion sides for San Diego and Orange County, Calif, for 2018.
SI.com understands that the NASL asked U.S. Soccer for exemptions on its 2018 D2 application, and it’s likely one of those requests covered the number of members. The NASL has remained in discussion with other potential expansion markets and perhaps was prepared to show U.S. Soccer its path to 12 clubs if it couldn’t field that number next year.
“While the last several days have seen some unfortunate results for U.S. Soccer, both on and off the pitch, the NASL remains committed to growing the game and is exploring multiple options as it continues planning for the future,” the NASL statement concluded. “The NASL knows that its fans will continue to show undying support for their clubs, and the league looks forward to the home stretch of the 2017 season and beyond. The beautiful game is bigger than any decision, result, person, league, division or federation. The NASL will continue its work to ensure that brighter days are ahead for soccer in the U.S.”
Membership isn’t an issue with USL, which has expanded from 14 teams in 2014 to 30 this season—with at least three more coming next year—in large part due to the stability offered by its MLS partnership. Ten MLS clubs own their own reserve teams in USL and several more affiliate with organizations in the lower league. Amid that growth, however, the level of success has varied. While the likes of FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic set attendance and sponsorship records and establish top-tier standards, others—especially the MLS2 teams—have had difficulty gaining traction.
SI.com understands that USL also has asked U.S. Soccer for exemptions next year. It was unknown Tuesday afternoon what those exemptions are, but toward the end of 2016 there were issues with stadium and field size for several USL teams. Others hadn’t met all the required coaching license requirements. If some of those problems have persisted, it’s possible the USSF felt they were more likely to be fixed in the short term than the NASL’s membership concern. The USL apparently has been given time to do so by U.S. Soccer. The third-division league the USL plans to launch in 2019 very well could be the long-term solution for current members unable or unwilling to meet every D2 standard.
U.S. Soccer has no rules against sanctioning two leagues at the same level, but that’s never been the ideal. The Federation was careful to call its January decision “provisional.” It’s now apparent it wasn’t going to wait the full year to see how things evolved. While the NASL might wish for more time, its member clubs now do have a few months to figure out where to play next year. This same USSF decision made in January 2018 would’ve caused even more chaos.
Some turmoil is inevitable, however, even though that’s what the division standards were designed to prevent in the first place. Flux appears to be an inevitable condition in American soccer. It’s unclear whether the NASL can do anything between now and the end of the year to get U.S. Soccer to change its mind. If any potential expansion investors were on the fence, now’s the time to commit. If not, NASL teams may start to jump ship.
The Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies left the NASL for the USL at the end of 2016. Ottawa wanted to lower its expenses and Rowdies owner Bill Edwards had clashed with NASL partners and was targeting an MLS expansion spot. The USL could have killed off the NASL over the winter had it incentivized additional teams to make the move. But with exit (from the NASL) and entry (into the USL) fees in place, the smaller league remained sufficiently intact as the expansion San Francisco Deltas came abaord. When local cable TV entrepreneur Rocco Commisso then made an 11th-hour purchase of the eight-time champion New York Cosmos, a 2017 season was ensured.
What will happen next year is anyone’s guess. The USL likely will do enough to maintain its D2 status, even if it means promising that certain teams will fall to the new D3 league in 2019. The viable NASL teams have a difficult decision to make if the league can’t be saved. Some, like North Carolina FC (an MLS expansion candidate), Jacksonville Armada or Indy Eleven, could simply join the USL. Miami FC and the Cosmos, who’ve been more outspoken about their opposition to the centralized MLS/USL structure and who compete in current/future MLS markets, are facing larger, more existential questions.
Former Indy and Chicago Fire chief Peter Wilt has been seeking sanctioning for a new D3 league to kick off next year. He announced last week that the National Independent Soccer Association already has eight applicants. The NISA theoretically could add the Cosmos, Miami FC or others who choose not to join the USL set-up, but a reduction in division status may not appeal to those owners.
The debate surrounding the necessity of enumerated divisions in a system lacking promotion and relegation certainly will intensify following the USSF vote. The standards were put in place to ensure pro soccer investors had staying power, and that they're putting a professional product on the field. Both are necessary. But complications arose nevertheless, and now the moving or folding of clubs—not to mention potential lawsuits—are around the corner.