The North American Soccer League (NASL) began life as a breakaway league from the United Soccer Leagues (USL). Several of the higher-profile professional clubs sought a team-owned league they could manage themselves. The driving force in this move away from USL was Traffic Sports USA, and the single most influential person was Aaron Davidson who was indicted by the Justice Department for racketeering conspiracy and corruption.
Davidson’s efforts convinced many USL owners to abandon the USL at the same time as he was able to convince potential USL expansion owners to join the fledgling NASL instead.
Currently, Traffic Sports owns the Carolina RailHawks and retains a percentage ownership in the Atlanta Silverbacks, a league-owned team. In 2012, Traffic Sports owned — in addition to the RailHawks — the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Atlanta Silverbacks and over 40% of the Minnesota Stars (Now Minnesota United). Traffic has in the last two years divested significantly from ownership stakes in the league but continues to own the majority of Class A shares in NASL, according to Philly.com writer Jonathan Tannenwald.
Davidson still serves as the Chairman of the NASL Board of Governors. Meanwhile, Traffic’s influence is still felt around the clubs they formerly owned as many employees of the Strikers and Silverbacks were hired by Traffic. The same can be said for the league itself.
One exception is Bill Peterson, the NASL Commissioner whose own relationship with Traffic is not as developed or evolved as that of some current NASL employees as well many team employees. When NASL faced a difficult time receiving official sanctioning from the US Soccer Federation (USSF) as a Division 2 league in late 2010 and early 2011, Traffic stepped forward, buying Carolina and Atlanta which were previously under independent ownership and increasing funding for league promotion and operations. The NASL was given provisional Division 2 sanctioning by the USSF in February 2011, and USL the previous second division was allowed to organize the third division. However, two of the most prominent second division clubs Orlando City SC (now in MLS and formerly the Austin Aztex) and the Rochester Rhinos, winners of the 1999 US Open Cup, chose to self-relegate themselves to the third division and play under the USL umbrella.
In the early days of the league, Davidson was the most public face associated with the breakaway. Throughout 2010 and early 2011, he served as the defacto spokesperson for the league and was largely responsible for direct negotiations with club owners, Major League Soccer (MLS) and the USSF. Even after the hiring of well-respected and politically-connected Commissioner David Downs in March of 2011, Davidson continued to be a visible public face of the league. Part of Traffic’s financial investment in the league was initially motivated by the ability to park players at various teams as a third-party owner. However, by 2012 Traffic had essentially exited the US third-party player business and no longer “parked” players at the NASL clubs they owned.
The entrance of the New York Cosmos to NASL, which Davidson played a large role in securing, changed the dynamic to a large extent. Davidson continued to enjoy sway among many other owners but the Cosmos, with their global marketing brand and strong ownership group provided at times a formidable counterweight to Traffic within the NASL Boardroom.
NASL Commissioner Peterson has tried to publicly keep the league distant from Traffic, though public public perception fueled by the realities of the early days of the league have made this effort difficult. Peterson last month told a group of assembled reporters that Traffic had no stake in the league beyond ownership of Carolina. This might in fact be the case in the present day, but few can dispute that without Traffic and Aaron Davidson, NASL probably does not exist in its current form, if at all.
UPDATE: NASL issued the following statement a few hours after this article was published.
“In light of the ongoing investigation announced by the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday, the North American Soccer League’s Board of Governors has suspended Chairperson Aaron Davidson, along with all business activities between the league and Traffic Sports, effective immediately. Commissioner Bill Peterson will serve as acting Chairperson.
“The Carolina RailHawks, the sole NASL club owned by Traffic Sports, will continue to operate in the ordinary course of business. The club’s management team will continue to manage the day-to-day operations.”
Then, on May 28, FIFA issued this statement:
“Following yesterday‘s decisions and further clarification, and on the basis of investigations carried out by the investigatory chamber of the Ethics Committee and the latest facts presented by the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber of the Ethics Committee, Hans-Joachim Eckert (pictured), today provisionally banned the official Aaron Davidson from carrying out any football-related activities at national and international level.
“The decision was taken at the request of the chairman of the investigatory chamber, Dr Cornel Borbély, based on art. 83 par.1 of the FIFA Code of Ethics.”