On March 25th, the Year of Our Lord 2017, the North American Soccer League will kick off their spring season. This is poignant for one very strong reason: it so very nearly didn’t happen.
As the final glow of 2016’s embers subsided, American soccer’s two professional minor leagues were gathered behind closed doors, deep in urgent negotiations with the USSF. Fans of the NASL and the United Soccer Leagues waited, gripped by anticipation and anxiety. What little information was able to squeeze free from this iron-clad huddle was consistently either worrying or frustrating.
The “Team Almost Not Known as Minnesota United FC” had already departed as arranged, readying themselves for their inaugural MLS season. Though there was much gnashing of teeth among those invested emotionally and financially in the NASL, this event had been scheduled a couple of years earlier. Such is the nature of developing leagues in the US.
Less anticipated were the departures of the Ottawa Fury and and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Both had elected to step away from the league and rather damningly, join a USL who for the moment at least, were still designated as Division 3 to the NASL’s Division 2.
Then came the teams that were leaving not just the NASL but potentially all existence. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers went away under financial difficulty. Rayo Vallacano’s satellite club Rayo OKC did the same, but in a much more farcical, messier manner. At one point, one part-owner even had the turf pulled up in a display akin to an angry lover taking a pair of scissors to the contents of their ex’s closet.
The real shock though, was yet to come. Few if any, anticipated it. The announcemnt came very much out of the blue.
It was looking like a very distinct possibility that the New York Cosmos were also done.
For the NASL, even the hint of losing the Cosmos was brutally earth-shattering. A dominant force in the competition and the spearhead of all the league’s stated ambition. If not for the Cosmos, the NASL could well have gone in a very different direction.
The league itself had been founded in 2009, the product of a somewhat acrimonious split by a number of owners and their teams from the USL. The split had resulted in much wrangling between the two for among other things, USL’s Division 2 status.
After this messy divorce had traversed across a one-off “USSF Division 2” season, where both leagues played in a combined competition, NASL got their way and received provisional D2 status, while USL dropped to a new D3 categorization.
With the dust settled and a major battle won, MLS came to the NASL with a proposal. It was reportedly very much the same arrangement that now exists between MLS and USL (with MLS reserve teams and affiliates participating in the lower league). Discussions were reportedly amicable and it looked like a partnership agreement was coming to fruition.
Then in walked the Cosmos, like a bad-ass cowboy striding confidently into an Old West Saloon. They had not come to the NASL to play second fiddle to MLS. They had come to make themselves and the NASL the Division 1 in US soccer.
Their ambition was infectious, their plans seductive. With the NY Cosmos in their ear and at their helm, NASL walked away from the table, leaving naught behind but grand proclamations of becoming competitors rather than partners.
In the short period since NASL’s inception, the league has become something of a de facto champion for skeptics of USSF and MLS.
Their now-former commissioner Bill Peterson has frequently talked about his desire to implement promotion and relegation in professional US soccer. NASL is comprised of clubs that are entirely independent, while MLS is a 50% owner of every team in its league.
They’ve even challenged the USSF’s application of a “divisional structure”.
On that last point, I’d like to raise a point that doesn’t seem to be well understood across the American soccer community, even among some of those who have been moved to activism by the situation.
“Division One” designation is not a USSF invention. It is a FIFA requirement. Furthermore, it is a grade of assignment that sits above many of its statutes in status. While FIFA and the football confederations around the world have guidelines, rules and statutes, the tendency is most often to defer to national associations on how to run their domestic competitions.
Where this differs is in matters of social concern and protection (such as restricting international movement of youth players), on-field cheating and in this case, essential logistics and organization.
The issue of “D1” designation, actually had some minor prominence prior to the inception of Major League Soccer. There was a point in time when the American “A-League” (the forerunner to USL, not be confused with the Australian football league of the same name) was the nation’s “top tier” by default. However, FIFA actually withheld “D1” status due to a harder stance at the time, over cross-border leagues. The A-League had clubs from Canada.
Of course since the rise of MLS, the USSF has since managed to argue the point that Canadian clubs competing in predominantly USA pro leagues is a cultural norm, hence MLS receiving the designation. I’m sure the fact that MLS was a direct result of FIFA mandating a major Division 1 as a condition of awarding America the 1994 World Cup, didn’t hurt the leverage on that one.
In any case, “D1” status is something that FIFA requires for domestic top flights. Its main function is to indicate which league competition clubs are drawn from, to qualify for things like the Champions League or the Club World Cup.
This is also why USSF isn’t just handing it out to everyone, despite there being no pro/rel in professional US soccer. If that was the approach, you would be required to provide berths to any D1. American clubs have enough trouble competing with Liga MX sides in the CONCACAF Champions League, without the Humboldt Hydroponic Enthusiasts of the newly-formed Less Famous California Locations League weakening the pool.
Nonetheless, D1 designation and the various associated requirements, has long been presented as a tool with which USSF aids MLS in maintaining a supposed ‘monopoly’ over US domestic football.
It was a 2015 written proposal to tighten these requirements that caused NASL to cry foul and start talking about lawsuits. The NASL felt that the new requirements were effectively shifting the goalposts on their efforts to qualify for the designation. USSF/MLS detractors were on this like a shot. Here they felt, was the proof of what they’d long believed was going on.
There were however, a couple of issues with both the posturing of the NASL and this piece of supposedly damning information.
First off, it’s now 2017. To date, the new requirements listed in this proposal have not been implemented. As it stands, a proposal is all it is and the further we get from the date that it surfaced, the less serious its content seems.
Secondly, the NASL were technically struggling at the time, to meet the D2 status they’d so aggressively wrestled from their former league-mates. Furthermore, the USSF were playing ball with the NASL via waivers and extensions to meet the criteria.
Another situation would seem to further support that the USSF was by no means out to get NASL on behalf of MLS or any other entity. The NASL’s very own application for D1 status.
Considering that the NASL was just skating by on maintaining D2 status, an application to have their designation upgraded to D1 was downright frivolous. USSF were well within their rights to dismiss it out of hand and issue a swift rejection. Instead, despite knowing that the NASL was in no way suitable for D1 status, they put the application on-hold.
Peterson and the NASL would argue repeatedly that not having the designation was harming their capacity to do business competitively. I frankly question this.
First, Division One Designations are not really common knowledge. If anything, NASL actively promoting themselves as D2 in name only raised the profile of their non-D1 status. A smarter move would have been to carry on regardless, letting their clubs operate as ambitiously as appropriate and draw as little attention to the designation as possible.
NASL and the Cosmos in particular, spoke of competing, suggesting that the money saved by not paying a 9-figure MLS expansion fee, could be plowed into the teams. I would suggest that the best use of that money, would have been to directly approach the notoriously underpaid MLS “mid-range” players.
That strategy would see NASL literally competing for talent with MLS and while the D1/D2 might have made a difference elsewhere, we’re talking about a domestic transfer market where Wayne Rooney’s weekly salary pays three-and-a-quarter Sebastian Lletgets. Not only are you visibly paying D1 salaries, you’re now fielding established D1 talent. In effect you are D2 in name only.
In hindsight however, it seems that the whole thing may have been a house of cards. The Cosmos, the pied piper guiding the league to glory, were apparently struggling to make money with the players they had – and while Raul and Marcos Senna called for good money, the supporting cast were largely MLS rank-and-file at best.
The Cosmos were actually heading for the abyss, the other clubs were either right alongside them or were bolting for whatever sanctuary was available and it looked like the NASL was going the way of the old league they were named for and sought to continue in spirit.
The huddle of the holiday period remained tortuously tight. Even as an observer, the process was an agonising drag. USSF would set deadlines, then push them back at the eleventh hour. Until finally, mercifully, the announcement came. “Merciful” was in fact the operative word.
USL would receive their D2 status, with all the provisions and waivers to help them get up to speed with the requirements.
And the NASL? The league that according to conspiracy theorists, the USSF/MLS sought to limit, to put down?
Consider that if the USSF was indeed protecting MLS from domestic competition, there was absolutely no reason to do NASL any favours. The league had aimed accusations and cried “lawsuit” at the federation. They had now, by any observation, mismanaged themselves to the brink of oblivion. USSF could nudge them over the edge with clean hands.
Instead, they reacted in the manner that you would expect of a federation looking to serve and protect one of the leagues under its jurisdiction.
Against expectations, they did not pull NASL’s D2 status, even though they had grounds. Instead, they settled on a contingency of having two provisional D2s. This allowed the Cosmos to find new ownership, saving them and allowing them to defend their league title. While some accused the USSF of fence-sitting, others of indecision, nobody could accuse them of not pulling out all the stops in a bid to rescue NASL.
In addition, this decision now sets some precedents. The USSF can and will allow more than one league to have the same designation. This lack of exclusivity shows that once and for all, other leagues are free to become D1 if they meet the reqs. The USSF use of designation in practice becomes more like a “grading” than a hard ranking. That makes a huge dent in the MLS “monopoly” accusation.
The conspiracy theory that USSF colludes with MLS beyond simply doing what it can to help its only current incumbent top flight to succeed, that they seek to crush or hobble any potential competition, is pretty much dead in the water.
With USL in partnership with MLS, allowing NASL to fail would meet the goal of such a conspiracy. The USSF did exactly the opposite.