Kartik Krishnaiyer’s newest book, SoccerWarz: Inside America’s soccer feud between MLS, NASL and USL, examines the role that the now disgraced Traffic Sports had within NASL, as well as the league’s plans to challenge Major League Soccer’s position as the top division in the United States.
What follows are the lessons the author learned behind the scenes, from when he joined the new NASL before it’d played its first game through the time he left its front office when a new group of ambitious leaders replaced those that had just come to grips with North American soccer’s realities. From its marriage with Traffic to reclaiming its storied name, from the halcyon days of unfettered ambition to US Soccer’s initial rebuke and the reset of year two, he saw NASL 2.0 go from dream to reality, and he knows what part of today’s rhetoric remains anchored in 2011’s dream.
As a special to readers of World Soccer Talk, we’ve included the first chapter of the book for free (see below).
Enjoy the free chapter. And if you’d like to purchase the complete ebook, SoccerWarz is available on Amazon Kindle, Apple iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, Kobo, Smashwords and other fine online booksellers.
Chapter 1 – Origins
When FBI raids and US Department of Justice indictments thrust FIFA into full-blown scandal in May 2015, the role of Charles Gordon “Chuck” Blazer, the opulent executive best known for his Santa Claus beard, Trump Tower apartment for his cats, and physical features that reduced him to a mobility scooter, drew fans’ focus. Wired, acting as an informant for the FBI, Blazer’s unlikely role as the man who would take down FIFA made sense, but another prominent US executive’s surprise indictment aroused interest around American Soccer.
Aaron Davidson, the President of Traffic Sports USA, had been the driving force behind the rebirth of the North American Soccer League. He was a key factor in creating dissent within US Soccer’s second division, and as the unity that held United Soccer Leagues Division 1 (USL-1) dissolved, he tried to purchase the league. When he couldn’t, he blew up the entire division’s structure. Five years later, both he and Traffic were being indicted by the US government.
Traffic Sports, the giant Brazilian marketing company that used its influence in South America to win numerous television contracts and rights to market events, also had an office in Miami, one setup to curry similar favor with decision makers in the federation that administered North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, CONCACAF. In 2005, as several individuals connected with the former Miami Fusion and Fort Lauderdale Strikers hoped to set up a club in Fort Lauderdale, Davidson, running Traffic’s office, beat them to it, setting up a club in Miami and forgoing Fort Lauderdale.
Before the FIFA scandal broke, with US soccer fans debating how pro leagues should be run, Traffic Sports looked to find some degree of recognition within the US soccer community. Traffic saw Major League Soccer’s single-entity model as an opportunity to make a legitimacy play in the American market. This would be done by establishing a league that was based on more worldwide accepted standards for running leagues, in theory appealing to the large segment of the soccer-watching population MLS had not won over. For Davidson personally, recognition was as important as real accomplishments. The sport seemed a way to increase his public stature while keeping his bosses in Brazil happy. To say Davidson was a megalomaniac would be an understatement.
Davidson had entered the soccer business when Blazer, then the Secretary General of CONCACAF, got him involved in the 1994 World Cup at the Dallas venue. Less than a decade later, he was managing the Miami headquarters of Inter-Forever Sports, a collaboration between Traffic and future Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks, who, like Davidson, was from Dallas. The company had the marketing rights to CONCACAF events, rights government indictments now allege were acquired through bribes.
The relationship with Blazer was a key to Davidson’s emergence in the soccer community, and that of Traffic. Without those types of relationships, aspiring power brokers in the CONCACAF and American soccer community were left on the outside of what amounted to an old boys’ club. As each Department of Justice indictment shows, CONCACAF’s was a world of favors, and along with Jack Warner, CONCACAF’s now-disgraced former president, Blazer was the gatekeeper. Time after time, when Traffic needed a favor in North America, it would turn to Blazer, relying on Davidson’s relationship to ensure their plans moved forward. Whether it was marketing rights to Gold Cup tournaments, developing positive relationships in Central America or pushing to break up USL, Blazer was a key part of Traffic’s empire building efforts in North America.
Miami is arguably the single worst large pro soccer market in the United States or Canada. Major League Soccer’s failure with the Miami Fusion from 1998 to 2001 is only the most popular example. The Fusion played 20 miles up the road in Fort Lauderdale, so when previous Miami entries to American leagues flopped, they made the short move north, to the smaller city which tended to embrace American pro soccer with more enthusiasm.
Ethnic breakdown and other demographics indicate a Miami team should be popular, but the American club game has never found support in city. Over the course of 2006 and 2007, Davidson’s Miami FC was aggressively marketed, but diminishing attendances and an incompatible league structure left Traffic dissatisfied with the structure of the pro game in North America. When Miami FC moved up Interstate 95 to Fort Lauderdale, they were, according to South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter Jeff Rusnak, the fifth professional soccer team in 35 years to migrate north.
Davidson’s numerous critiques about USL-1 were for the most part accurate. Why should pro teams be in a league that is run like a private business, focused on profits, and one that sells franchises instead of properly managing its competitions? Based in Tampa for years, USL had established a monopoly on lower division and high-level youth soccer in the US and Canada, but Davidson was able to exploit growing unhappiness from those who had invested cash into professional clubs.
The problem was Davidson himself didn’t have a single dollar invested in USL or Miami FC. He was merely a trustee of an ownership group based in Brazil, one that threw its money behind the project. Jose Hawilla, who would become well-known during FIFA’s scandal, was the chief bankroller of Traffic Sports. Davidson was merely spending his money.
Davidson wanted to challenge MLS, but he knew USL first had to be restructured. It had to become into a team-run league. While MLS continued to struggle in some ways, the runaway success of the Seattle Sounders (a longtime second-division team that moved to MLS in 2009) began to change perceptions. It began to look like a missed opportunity. Davidson came to believe that if the second division had been a team-run league, the Sounders never would have moved to MLS. The success the Sounders brought MLS would instead be used by the league’s competition.
This was a highly naive way of thinking. MLS continues to this day to be an attractive proposition for just about any owner stuck in the mire of the US’s lower divisions. But Davidson firmly believed a Traffic-backed league would be an alternative for many MLS investors. In time, this thinking began to dominate the views of other owners, even though there was little or no evidence to support it.
For many, prior to the explosion of access to foreign leagues on TV, MLS was like a gateway drug. American fans would fall in love with the sport via Major League Soccer but find the hokey rules, trades, lack of promotion and relegation and the sparsity of clubs in certain areas of the nation too much to handle. Eventually, they’d seek out alternatives, find them, and move on. In 2009, the English Premier League and the Spanish first division, commonly known as La Liga, both had a limited number of games available on ESPN’s family of networks. As the popularity of the European leagues grew and began entering the mainstream, this encouraged Davidson and many fans that did not support MLS. Competition for the US fan was increasing, and drastically so. Four years later, NBC Sports acquired the US broadcast rights to the Premier League, pushing recognition of the sport to new heights.
In 2009, with dissatisfaction toward USL growing, and a lack of interest in maintaining control from league owners Nike (who inherited ownership of the league after its 2007 purchase of fellow apparel company UMBRO), the opportunity to buy the league presented itself to Traffic. But why would Traffic, a major player in South American soccer, want to buy the second division of American soccer?
First, Traffic wanted a foothold in the American soccer market, one that wouldn’t require them to do business with MLS. Second, the league would give Traffic a way to buy, sell and park players they owned in third-party deals. And third, the league could help Traffic create a rival to MLS’s Soccer United Marketing (SUM), one that could market lucrative friendlies and bundle TV rights.
Traffic did not win control of the USL, but within hours of being denied control of one league, Davidson set out to create another. Many of the owners in USL-1, unhappy with a league that did not allow them a traditional vote on a Board of Governors, or input into expansion or television, were still behind him. Dissatisfaction with USL left owners willing to consider more extreme solutions.
It didn’t take long for Davidson to organize a group of teams willing to break away from USL, one that included Davidson’s team in Fort Lauderdale, the Carolina RailHawks, Minnesota Thunder, Crystal Palace Baltimore, Atlanta Silverbacks, expansion hopefuls St. Louis United, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and, most significantly, the Montreal Impact and MLS-bound Vancouver Whitecaps. The owners of these clubs followed Davidson down the path of no return to where they eventually had to form a new league.
As I reported on the situation, in those last months before I’d work for him, it occurred to me that Davidson, despite his marketing background and professed success with Traffic, actually had very little investment in the product. He didn’t have any money in the team in Fort Lauderdale. He wasn’t an investor in USL. He wouldn’t have a financial stake in the breakaway league. Yet his views, his personality and his rhetoric were being used to drive the decisions of those who had invested and lost millions of dollars over the previous few seasons. In hindsight, the willingness of owners to listen to Davidson, and their eventual decisions to bail on the project, spoke volumes about the circumstances of the breakaway league.