NASL Cancels 2018 Season Days After Court Denies Injunction Appeal

The NASL has stopped short of folding and says it “will look at all avenues to return to the field for the 2019 season.”
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The North American Soccer League on Tuesday morning announced the cancellation of its 2018 season, which would’ve been its eighth, four days after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit refused to grant an injunction that would’ve restored the league’s second-division status.

The NASL didn’t officially fold, and commissioner Rishi Sehgal said it “will look at all avenues to return to the field for the 2019 season.” But with only three active clubs, that roadmap isn’t well defined. The New York Cosmos, Miami FC and Jacksonville Armada will play this year in the National Premier Soccer League, a semi-pro competition whose teams contest four-month seasons in the spring and summer.

The NASL, which operated under provisional D2 sanctioning last year, filed its original antitrust suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in mid-September. But the league’s request for a preliminary injunction that would've nullified the governing body’s decision not to renew that sanctioning was denied by a U.S. District Court judge in early November. Judge Margo Brodie already had ruled that the plaintiff required a mandatory injunction, which went above and beyond the restoration of the status quo (the NASL’s D2 status was provisional). That increased the burden on the NASL significantly, and Brodie subsequently wrote that the league “failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits, let alone a ‘clear showing’ of entitlement to relief.”

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The NASL appealed. Meanwhile, it determined that its "2018" season would begin in August rather than March, and conclude in June 2019, giving it time to pull teams together if the 2nd Cir. ruled in its favor. But it was shedding clubs instead. FC Edmonton and the San Francisco Deltas, the 2017 NASL champion, folded. And North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven departed for the United Soccer League, which now is the USA’s only D2 competition.

Although the appeals process took longer than some anticipated, there wasn’t much surprise when the decision was announced Friday. The 2nd Cir. saw no “erroneous finding of fact” or “error of law” in Brodie’s ruling, and wrote that it agreed with the mandatory injunction standard. Absent the discovery process available during the next phase of the case—last fall’s hearings, ruling and the appeal focused on the injunction the NASL needed to play D2 soccer in 2018—the league always was going to have difficulty proving a conspiracy.

Backed by Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso, Miami owner Riccardo Silva and Armada owner Robert Palmer, the NASL confirmed Tuesday that it will continue with the federal antitrust suit for “the long-term advancement of soccer in this country, not only for the NASL, but for all soccer fans, clubs and communities impacted by the USSF’s restrictions on competition.”

The league also has launched a separate suit in New York state court against the individual members of the U.S. Soccer board of directors, including former president Sunil Gulati and his recently-elected successor, Carlos Cordeiro, for “breach[ing] their fiduciary duties to the NASL.”

That suit was filed February 6 and focuses on the conflict of interest allegedly created by Soccer United Marketing, the MLS-owned company that handles the federation’s TV and marketing rights. The NASL is seeking “necessary changes to U.S. Soccer governance, in addition to relief that is essential to the NASL’s survival,” in that case.

The USL will kick off its 2018 campaign on March 16 with 33 clubs, four of whom once played in the NASL.