The United Soccer League on Monday submitted its final application for second-division sanctioning from the U.S. Soccer Federation. In his first public comments since the NASL—the country’s other D2 league—sued the USSF and named the USL a “co-conspirator,” USL president Jake Edwards stressed that his league “has had to go through an extremely rigorous process over the last two years to get to where we are now,” and “hasn’t asked for a single waiver to be in [D2] compliance” next year.
Both the NASL and USL received provisional D2 sanctioning for the 2017 season. And both were granted waivers by U.S. Soccer, whose board convened at the beginning of September to assess the leagues’ plans and progress. The outcome of those meetings has shaken the American soccer pyramid. The eight-team NASL, which occupied the second tier alone from 2011 through 2016, was stripped of its sanctioning and subsequently filed an antitrust lawsuit against the federation. The USL, now at 30 clubs and set to add at least five next year, was given a month to provide a detailed plan to address U.S. Soccer’s concerns.
In its court filing, the NASL accused the USSF of “employ[ing] a strategy of selectively granting and denying waivers from its Professional League Standards in order to elevate USL to a Division II monopoly designed to finally destroy the NASL as a potential competitor to either MLS or USL.”
The NASL’s most pressing sanctioning issue is the number of teams required to meet D2 standards. It needs 12. And with North Carolina FC apparently headed to the USL, FC Edmonton reportedly eyeing the planned Canadian Premier League and the first-year San Francisco Deltas facing financial concerns, it’s unclear how it’ll reach a dozen even with the commitment of 2018 expansion outfits from San Diego and Orange County, California. The NASL told U.S. Soccer that it was negotiating with several potential investors and likely needed three years to reach full compliance. When that time wasn’t granted, the NASL filed suit, claiming the federation was favoring MLS and its USL affiliate. The NASL told the U.S. District Court that the USL was asking for “approximately 20” waivers in its D2 application.
Speaking to SI.com, Edwards addressed the USL’s application in some detail on Tuesday.
“We read that statement as well. That was a surprise to us,” Edwards said of the NASL’s accounting. “I don’t know where they got that [number] from. They’re choosing a path that they want to go down and really, given the situation we find ourselves in, I don’t want to make any comment on that lawsuit or speculate on any other league’s application.”
Edwards added, “We submitted an application for the USL that meets or exceeds all of these standards required for division two sanctioning. For the 2018 season, we’ll be fully compliant.”
There actually are two sets of standards professional clubs must meet—one that covers all leagues, regardless of size or tier, and one that covers each specific division (D1, D2 or D3). The USL is requesting four waivers from the former and none from the latter (hence Edwards’s claim that the league will be D2 compliant).
There are eight USL teams currently playing in stadiums that don't meet the D2 minimum capacity standard of 5,000 seats. A cursory online glance at the league’s facilities indicate those teams are the Charlotte Independence, Pittsburgh Riverhounds and six MLS reserve outfits—LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II, Seattle Sounders 2, Swope Park Rangers, Toronto FC II and Vancouver Whitecaps 2.
Edwards said each and every situation will be resolved before the 2018 campaign kicks off. Teams intend to either add seats to their existing venues or, in the case of the MLS reserve sides, they could move to the first team’s stadium.
“All of those waivers [granted for 2017] will be cured going into the 2018 season,” Edwards said. “We’ve worked with the clubs to make sure that happens.”
The four “General Requirements” waivers the USL is requesting are field-related. Such a waiver would apply to a club at any level of the pro pyramid. Edwards said that two USL teams play on artificial turf pitches that aren’t FIFA certified and two play in stadiums with “physical limitations” that reduce the playing surface to a couple yards below the minimum. Edwards wouldn’t name the teams but one of the latter is thought to be Louisville City, which currently plays at a minor league baseball stadium but intends to open its own 10,000-seat venue in 2020. Edwards claimed the four teams affected are averaging nearly 5,500 fans per game.
“We had to provide a road map to meet the pro league standards … the federation wanted a road map to cure all waivers,” he said. “And we’ve provided a road map so that within two years, both of the [artificial turf] fields will be relaid with certified turf, and the two teams that have dimension issues are in the process of building in their cities a soccer-specific stadium of 10,000 seats or more.”
Edwards and the USL believe that the league’s growth, the number of currently-compliant teams, the relatively modest nature of the waivers requested and the promised, “comprehensive roadmap” to bring those clubs up to standard are sufficient to maintain a D2 sanction and shed the “provisional” label attached this year. The USL may get a decision from the federation following a board meeting at the end of October. Coincidentally, the first major hearing in the NASL vs. USSF antitrust lawsuit is scheduled in Brooklyn on October 31.
None of the 30 existing USL teams intends to tread water at the second tier before dropping into the new, unnamed third-division the USL plans to launch in 2019, Edwards said. Of the five clubs coming aboard in 2018, three have been announced—Fresno FC, Las Vegas Lights and Nashville SC. North Carolina FC is expected to join them, along with a potential expansion team that hasn’t yet been revealed.
“We have eradicated all of our D2 waivers and we’ve worked hard on all the pro league standards. We’ve got only four clubs who are requesting pro league waivers, and that is a great accomplishment,” Edwards said. “We used to be a second division [before 2011] and then we were moved to the third, where we regrouped our league and rebuilt our league to get to where we are now. We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.”