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NASL dug its own grave despite USSF-MLS collusion

What do investors in soccer do when they’ve made one bad business decision after another? And to make matters worse, when they’ve shifted from one rhetorical strategy to another? Sue their governing body, of course!

This is the path the North American Soccer League (NASL) has chosen to justify the league’s complete failure to create a stable and successful second division that works within the confines of US Soccer. After seven seasons as a sanctioned Division II league, NASL was informed on September 1, 2017 that they would not be approved as a D II league by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) for 2018.

While the peculiar structure of soccer in the United States is something that should be reformed, NASL has fallen badly within a current system that they have willingly participated in and within which they have sought and received investment and protections in the marketplace. NASL’s goal to challenge first division MLS while perhaps noble was always doomed to failure whether or not the USSF put its thumbs on the scale or not. But it was perhaps unwise of the USSF to continue to overtly do business with MLS and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), and allow SUM to negotiate TV and marketing deals on the USSF’s behalf that favor MLS. Regardless, NASL has dug its own grave and while an antitrust lawsuit against the USSF from another entity might have more standing, NASL is the wrong party to file such a suit as they have for seven years benefitted in one way or another from the USSF’s governance of the sport in this country.

The lawsuit filed on Tuesday alleges “that the USSF has selectively applied and waived its divisional criteria to suppress competition from the NASL, both against MLS and against United Soccer League (USL). For example, under the USSF’s divisional criteria, there are European clubs that have successfully operated for decades that would be considered ineligible for “Division I” or even “Division II” status due to arbitrary requirements like stadium capacity and market size.”

This is completely disingenuous. First, NASL has been granted Division II status for the last seven seasons and has required waivers in each of those seven years. These waivers have been granted by the USSF time and again and have included at various times, NASL not having the correct number of teams to be a sanctioned Division II league or enough US-based teams or being in the required three time zones with its US based teams. Second, European clubs are subjected to standards similar to the USSF’s divisional standards but ones that apply to those nations. For example, clubs in the English Championship and Premier League are required to have certain sized stadiums, and coaches are required to have UEFA Pro licenses.

SEE MORE: Soccerwarz: An insider’s guide to the conflicts holding back US soccer

The irony of all of this is that NASL had a strong hand in the crafting of the very D2 guidelines the league now falls short of meeting. USL could have filed a similar claim in 2010.

NASL’s leadership at the time worked closely with the USSF to craft D2 guidelines in 2010 that worked to displace USL who had been previously sanctioned as a Division 2 league from the early 2000’s until 2009. USL’s move was to consolidate its remaining clubs into a Division 3 league, working with new investors in previously underserved markets to recover its footing. In 2017, USL regained Division 2 status, albeit provisionally. As of this writing, USL per my sources remains under review from the USSF as to whether they will be granted Division 2 status for 2018.

The lawsuit filed by NASL claims that because USL has a business relationship with MLS and has accepted “minor league status” that the USSF is demonstrating favoritism toward USL. I wholeheartedly agree that MLS has been given favorable treatment by the USSF but would strongly argue USL has not and thus at least part of the NASL’s complaint is misguided. In fact, in January the USSF removed USL owner Alec Papadakis from its Board of Governors and replaced him with NASL owner Steve Malik of North Carolina FC.

A logical move for NASL would have been to do something similar to what USL did in 2010. Drop down to third division and patiently work to rebuild the league and eventually return to Division 2 status. But NASL’s current group of owners lack patience and perspective. Every NASL owner save one did not own a team in US professional ranks prior to 2014 and the league has often appeared to be in a race to get to Division 1 so they could retain the interest of the owners they have on board.

NASL dug its own grave by failing to properly vet new ownership and to aggressively move into markets like Cincinnati, Sacramento and others that lack an MLS team and were open for high-level professional soccer. NASL rhetorically at the time threw barbs at MLS when a far better strategy would have been to expand to markets that MLS would eventually want to grab and create a strong enough league framework to keep those markets in its league. But NASL lacked the patience and the discipline to carry this out and allowed USL to almost completely run the table of prospective strong markets without an MLS club.

Following those failures, the league began to get desperate and made several expansion errors. Out of NASL’s last five expansion teams, four have struggled mightily, changed owners or gone out of business entirely with Miami FC the only one that appears stable. The most recent expansion team, the San Francisco Deltas, has become somewhat of a running joke with the owner pleading for fans to bring friends to the matches among other things.

The San Francisco situation was, according to my sources, the final straw for many in the federation when it came to giving NASL chances. Last year at this time as NASL was battling to stay alive after the defection of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC to USL, NASL touted the new club in San Francisco as a star, a startup that would help redefine its league. Instead, the Deltas have become a noose around NASL’s neck.

The USSF and MLS should be held to account for its incestuous relationship and the continued favoritism with which this nation’s governing body provides MLS. But NASL is absolutely the wrong messenger in this fight and I personally believe US Soccer has to this point shown USL, the actual current rival of NASL, no favorable treatment. This having been stated, the USSF’s relationship with MLS creates a real problem from the standpoint of antitrust laws but the federation can easily argue, as I have above, that NASL has if anything been complicit in this peculiar and potentially illegal structure for the sport in this country.

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  1. uday kumar

    September 21, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    Good article Karthik.

    It seems like the law suit is a posturing and “buy me some time” move by the NASL.

    This yet another tragi-comedy being played out at the end of the year.

    The Tragedy: legendary NASL brand and history for all its ups and downs getting damaged.

    The comedy: the bickering between the various soccer organizations.

    Best Remedy: USL and NASL merge, and then split into legit D2 and D3. Introduce Pro-Rel. between D2 and D3.

    My remedy suggestion is a dream!

    • Neil A

      September 22, 2017 at 1:16 am

      Best remedy:

      NASL clubs that don’t want to die on the NASL hill join the USL. The rest (especially NY Cosmos and Miami FC) just wither and go the way of Fort Lauderdale.

  2. NaBUru38

    September 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    The USSF has had favoritism towards the MLS and against the NASL, yes. But that’s not why the NASL struggles.

    Having two first division leagues is unsustainable, and the NASL was far from reaching that level.

  3. Roehl Sybing

    September 21, 2017 at 8:54 am

    If NASL presented itself as a better product to American soccer, maybe the USSF would collude with them more. Otherwise, they’re not entitled to opportunities for success after derping year after year, getting by on pity waivers.

  4. Ed of Ct

    September 21, 2017 at 4:39 am

    No Where on.n Earth is a third rate reserve lge like usl pro considered a third let a alone second div..NO WHERE not.europe or latin Amer..etc… Not to.mention Bribes offered to Std owners in San Antonioto.oust nasl club there and owners in Tampa Okl. City and Ottawa can… to jump to.usl pro . Similar bribes offered to.npsl clubs to.jump to the us as well……. Ironic now ussf who.did nothing now undermines nasl for not having twelve clubs

    • Joe

      September 21, 2017 at 12:53 pm

      Ironically we don’t live anywhere else in the world soooooooo you’re dumb.

  5. Robert Snap

    September 20, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    I didn’t know who the author was until I had finished the article. I should have known it was Kartik Krishnaiyer, for it is another example of his well informed and substantive writing. Well done, Sir.

  6. Neil A

    September 20, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    The relationship between MLS and USSF is nothing more than a marketing agreement to show more of the game on TV. MLS spent years and a lot of money building itself to stability, even when it nearly collapsed the same way NASL 2.0 nearly did last winter. They were already stable by the time the TOA split from USL, and that was years before SUM. I fail to see how SUM is showing political favoritism to MLS.

  7. Jason

    September 20, 2017 at 11:08 am

    JACKSONVILLE ARMADA at 100% financially stable and regardless of what happens will remain a club, no matt we what league we play in.

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      September 20, 2017 at 4:13 pm

      Right but they count as part of the 4 of 5 because the club would have folded last year if NASL hadn’t carried the team in order to keep a mandated minimum of 8 clubs for provisional D2 sanctioning.

  8. 123 markie

    September 20, 2017 at 11:05 am

    To state that Miami is stable may be correct, however the launch of Miami was directly responsible for the demise of near neighbours Fort Lauderdale in the same season so that actually makes six failures out of six

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      September 20, 2017 at 4:12 pm

      Yes this is correct. FTL’s failure might have come anyway but was no doubt accelerated by MIA’s entry.

  9. SilverRey

    September 20, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Is the intertwining of USSF & MLS really that different from any other country? When EPL was born wasn’t that the doing of the FA? Are there any countries where the national team isn’t vested in the top league?

  10. W

    September 20, 2017 at 9:41 am

    I agree with Kartik. The lawsuit itself is not ridiculous at all but coming from NASL it’s hard to take seriously (Still more legitimate than Stockade/ Miami FC’s lawsuit filed with the CAS). Would love to see USL merge with NASL and then relocate the MLS 2 sides into USL D3. That could be a 2nd division worth getting excited about.

    • Jason

      September 20, 2017 at 11:06 am

      As a fan of an nasl team, I agree, merge the leagues and drop mls 2 teams to d3. The install pro/rel, even if it’s a one club pro/rel system, it would minimize mls ownership income loss and make the system somewhat more fair.

  11. Jason

    September 19, 2017 at 11:31 pm

    USSF doesn’t have a “Board of Governors.” It has an Board of Directors.

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      September 20, 2017 at 4:14 pm

      Sorry, you are correct. My error. But essentially the same thing.

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