Rocco Commisso and US Soccer have a tumultuous relationship.

New York Cosmos Owner and Chairman Rocco Commisso recently spoke exclusively to World Soccer Talk about the state of the North American Soccer League (NASL) that his club plays in, which has been sanctioned as a second division by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) since 2011. On September 1, 2017 at the USSF Board meeting that preceded the United States humiliating 2-0 World Cup Qualifying loss to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, NASL was denied a continuation at the Division 2 level for 2018 due to the league’s failure to meet the USSF’s Pro League Standards (PLS).

Following this denial of sanctioning, the NASL filed an anti-trust lawsuit against US Soccer alleging among other things a conspiracy from USSF and Major League Soccer (MLS) to weaken the league.

Behind the Scenes

Eric Wynalda, who is a candidate for USSF President, last month alleged that a conspiracy to weaken NASL had been undertaken at the direction of long-time USSF President Sunil Gulati. Wynalda is perceived as sympathetic to NASL, while Gulati has been largely seen as not only pro-MLS but someone who is willing to use the levers of power within US Soccer to protect the current top division in the US.

During the last several weeks, I have spoken on background to several figures who indicate that conscious efforts to weaken NASL took place at the board level due to the presence of owners who eventually left the league to join the MLS-affiliated USL while pursuing an MLS expansion franchise. Far more will be said on this at a date in the near future, specifically related to the exits of San Antonio and Tampa Bay from the league in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

Similarly questions have been raised about North Carolina FC Owner Steve Malik whose purchase of the team then known as the Carolina RailHawks in October 2015 and then his decision to stick with NASL despite courting from USL in late 2016 can be interpreted as having saved the league. However during 2017, the actions of Malik, who by this time had launched an expansion bid to join MLS and who had purchased a league in the USSF-subsidized and aligned National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), have been questioned. Last month, Malik’s North Carolina FC formally switched leagues from the NASL to USL.

Rocco Commisso and US Soccer

Here are some highlights from our conversation with Commisso on these matters as well as my analysis of his comments:

“(In January 2017) no one on Steve Malik’s side was open to me about what might happen to me. That’s why I have this anger.”

While this might be fair, at the time Malik like other NASL owners and employees was likely desperate to get Commisso in the door and in control of the Cosmos who would have folded otherwise, leaving NASL in a precarious state with too few teams to compete and without its most marketable and recognizable brand. In fact, it could be argued that NASL as an independent league has no real need to exist if the Cosmos brand is not active. Additionally, if Commisso had failed to buy the Cosmos, it is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the league would not have been sanctioned to play in 2017.

It’s been a common theme that new owners in both NASL and USL often aren’t warned about the pitfalls of the lower league soccer business by league officials or other owners that are anxious to close the deal on sales. This having been said, Commisso deserves praise for coming into the ownership of the New York Cosmos and quickly retiring the numerous debts the previous club ownership had to players, staff and vendors. The Cosmos previous owners, the Saudi Arabian-funded Sela Sports group, had brought the reputation of the famous club into disrepute with non-payment issues as well as the treatment of players. Commisso quickly corrected course and steered the Cosmos ship forward once again.

Less than a week after the NASL was sanctioned for 2017 with Malik being the owner quoted in the press release, the NWSL team Western NY Flash relocated to the Raleigh/Durham market with Malik purchasing the club and rebranding it as the North Carolina Courage. At the end of that month, North Carolina FC formally applied to join MLS, a process that had begun with a press event in December. The following month, Malik moved North Carolina FC’s U-23 teams from NPSL, a largely NASL-aligned 4th division, to USL-owned PDL which operates at the same level. It should also be noted Malik’s North Carolina FC Academy teams play in the US Soccer Development Academy setup, which is owned and managed by the USSF.

In March, Malik was added to the USSF Board of Directors as one of only two representatives from professional leagues, the other being MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Commisso implies in the interview above (and sources who have spoken to us on background) that Garber was largely responsible for Malik’s appointment.

Commisso explains that 57% of the votes on the pro council are controlled by MLS. It’s worth noting that 30 of 53 professional clubs in the US that played competitively in 2017 are owned by MLS or its investor-operators so the ratio appears to be fair. But the NASL only has roughly 4% of the votes according to Commisso, despite 11% of the US-based professional clubs being owned by NASL owners.

Given the precarious nature of NASL’s current situation and sanctioning difficulties, expansion was critical. The NASL has had in both 2016 and 2017 first year clubs that have not been able to continue to a second season. Therefore the league put in more stringent vetting standards for potential new club owners. Commisso mentioned that investors gave presentations from the following markets: Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, and Albuquerque. None of these applications were approved during the period of time Malik was on the Board of Directors.

Commisso meanwhile alleges Malik was negotiating independently with USL during the period when these presentations about potential new clubs were being given to the existing NASL owners.

The arrogance of the US Soccer Federation, something any objective person who has worked within the sport in the United States has seen, was also discussed by Commisso.

“I didn’t receive a ticket to the (USA-Costa Rica game at Red Bull Arena) despite being an owner of one of the three New York professional teams” (the match was on September 1, the same day as the NASL was denied D2 sanctioning for 2018). As an owner of a professional team who is in a USSF-member league, Commisso claims he’s never gotten a ticket to anything. Jacksonville Armada FC Owner Robert Palmer had to rent a suite at Red Bull Arena for that United States versus Costa Rica match. At the game, Steve Malik — who was a guest of US Soccer — never came by the Palmer suite to say hello or explain what had transpired at the USSF board level (Malik had recused himself from the vote on NASL’s sanctioning).

Commisso isn’t impressed by Malik recusing himself from the vote alleging he was at the same time working to enhance his own position.

“Look what he did to enhance his position with Don Garber. He went out and screwed us, it’s as simple as that,” said Commisso in the interview.

The description of the timeline from Commisso is telling if it is in fact accurate as to why views of Malik within NASL circles are so toxic. The Cosmos owner’s claimed that the NASL board was not notified of North Carolina’s departure from the league until September 29 but that Malik had indicated to US Soccer before its September 1 decision regarding NASL’s sanctioning that his team would in fact be jumping to the rival USL.

The tone from Commisso indicates he believes the powers-that-be in MLS and USSF want to drive him personally out of business. While it is without question that Commisso’s hard-charging drive and personality has rankled people in the game, it’s probably less about him and more about the team he owns.

The New York Cosmos represent a unique brand in the annals of American soccer lore. Representing the biggest market in the country and having brought countless people into soccer fandom in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Cosmos legacy persists around the globe to this day.

The MLS model of soccer which has been advocated by the leadership of the USSF under Sunil Gulati is one that tightly controls narratives and investment while ignoring or even ridiculing the pre-1990 history of the sport in this country. The Cosmos represent something very different – a brand that connects with fans across the globe and evokes memories of a time when some of the biggest names in the world of club soccer played in the New York area and across North America.

Routine World Cup qualification and victories in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which is always held on American soil, for the United States has been the currency by which the powers-that-be in the game have used to control the system and narrative. But in the post-Trinidad debacle world of American soccer, voices of dissent like Commisso and Wynalda have a greater platform and increased credibility.

Instead of making the types of changes needed to move the game forward, the powers-that-be have engaged in the sort of gamesmanship entrenched yet threatened elites often use in global society to keep power. This includes a certain degree of misrepresentation and character assassination. While our readers may not agree with much of Rocco Commisso’s assertions or not find his tone necessarily to their liking, his voice is an important one in this critical time and so we present this extended interview.