History / NASL / US Soccer History / USL

That USL/TOA/NASL thing, part I

You are probably aware that a breakaway group of owners (the Team Owners Association, aka “the TOA”) has left the United Soccer Leagues (USL) to form a new league intended to rival, if not supplant, the USL for Division 2 status in the American soccer pyramid. More recently, you may have become aware that the breakaway group has acquired the name of the North American Soccer League (NASL) formerly the home of the New York Cosmos, the Philadelphia Atoms (NASL champs in 1973), the Philadelphia Fury (whose list of investors included the likes of Paul Simon, Rick Wakeman and Peter Frampton) and lots of other teams with silly names and sillier uniforms.

Or maybe you aren’t aware of these developments. After all, Philadelphia doesn’t have a USL team and the nearest USL franchises are three 2nd Division teams, the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Real Maryland Monarchs, and two Player Development League (PDL) teams, the Reading Rage and the Ocean City Barons. (The Hershey Wildcats were in the First Division as recently as 2001 before folding and the Delaware Wizards were active in the USL 3rd Division in the 1990s.) I’ve watched some enjoyable USL games on FSC over the years but, in all truthfulness, my aspirations for soccer in Philadelphia have always been focused on the MLS. Any interest I had in the USL could at best be described as passing.

Of course, I could say the same thing about my interest in Italian soccer. So, much as with the case with Italian soccer, while I haven’t been very interested in the USL I do recognize that developments there are important – if not in the world of soccer, then at least  in the American world of soccer. And, rest assured, if Philadelphia did have a USL team, both you and I would be very interested in what’s going on with the league.

So, I thought I would share a time-line of events leading up the current crisis. Thankfully, the folks at Inside Minnesota Soccer, in conjunction with The Kartik Report,  have already done much of the hard work in a three-part series that was first posted at the end of August entitled “United Soccer Leagues at a Crossroads.” Both of these blogs are directly concerned with the USL and the breakaway NASL, what with the Minnesota Thunder and Miami FC, not to mention their excellent coverage of various other levels of league play in Minnesota and Florida. Let me say that both blogs are outstanding resources. May we at PSP someday attain their high standard of reporting.

Here we go:

  • 1986: Former Tampa Bay Rowdies executive and soccer entrepreneur Francisco Marcos forms the forerunner to USL, the Southwest Indoor Soccer League.
  • 1989: Marcos forms the Southwest Outdoor Soccer League. The name is soon changed to Southwest Independent Soccer League to include both the indoor and outdoor leagues. The league name is then changed to the Sunbelt Independent Soccer League (1990), the United States Interregional Soccer League (1991), and the United States International Soccer League (1995).
  • 1990: The American Soccer League and the Western Soccer League merge to form American Professional Soccer League (APSL).
  • 1993: MLS founded.
  • 1995: The Unites States International Soccer League name is changed once again to reflect the formal organization of a professional and a amateur league (the Pro League and the Amateur Premier League) to the United Systems of Professional Soccer Leagues (USISL).
  • 1995: The APSL changes it’s name to the A-League.
  • 1996: Inaugural season of the MLS.
  • 1996: With the aim of gaining USSF sanctioning as the official 2nd Division of US professional soccer, the USISL establishes a Select League consisting of the strongest teams from the Pro League and the Amatuer Premier League.
  • 1996: The A-League and the USISL merge, retaining the A-League name.
  • 1999: The A-League changes it’s name to the United Soccer Leagues. In need of investments to fund the new league, Marcos sells USL shares to Umbro, Signal Apparel and Riddel Sports. By April, Umbro owns 60% of the league, Signal Apparel and Riddel Sports each own 15%, and Marcos owns 10%.
  • 2000-2005: The USL continues to developed as a true soccer pyramid system along European lines with a USL-1 league (second tier behind the MLS), a USL- 2 league (third tier), and the PDL (fourth tier). The W-League functions as the second tier for women’s professional soccer. The Super -20 and Super-Y leagues support youth soccer. While such development is impressive, the league struggles financially, its teams are generally in smaller media markets with little press coverage, and the league matches often suffers from poor attendance. Meanwhile, the MLS begins to expand into USL markets. In 2005, Toronto FC’s expansion into the MLS is announced leaving the USL’s Toronto Lynx to voluntarily relegate themselves to the PDL.
  • 2006: Umbro increases its ownership of shares to 94%, leaving Marcos with a 6% share.
  • 2007: Nike announces a deal to buys Umbro. The deal is finalized in February, 2008 and thus Nike owns 94% of the USL. Nike begins to pressure teams to move to soccer-specific stadiums (SSS) and to “improve their on-field product.”
  • 2008: The TOA begins to officially operate in February in an attempt “restructure the USL in a way that would elevate the league and raise the franchise values of its teams.” Among the TOA’s concerns are a lack of influence in the league office and the need for greater representation there in decisions which directly affect the franchises; a perceived lack of direction and paucity of marketing for the league along with the related inability by team owners to influence the direction of the league; the need to reconfigure the financial structure of the league so that losses are shared by the league; the need to better respond to MLS expansion. Despite widespread dissatisfaction among league owners, the USL, Nike and all of the teams – except for the Atlanta Silverbacks – agree to commit to the 2009 season.
  • 2009: Team owners tell Nike that “they were not going to play another season under current conditions.” Nike agrees to sell the league, the owners pay their franchise fee and the season begins. Three groups make bids to buy the league: members of the TOA,  along with Traffic Sports (a Brazilian sports marketing group and owners of the Brazilian teams Ituano FC and Desportivo Brasil – Desportivo Brasil are described on the Traffic Sports website as “a club and company to find and prepare promising newcomers of the Brazilian football to pursue careers in other clubs of Brazil or abroad” –  and the American team Miami FC); the NuRock Group (described in a USL press release as run by two men: Rob Hoskins, “one of the country’s most respected and largest real estate developers in residential housing,” and Alec Papadakis, “a franchise attorney with domestic and international expansion experience” who, as “a player in the North American Soccer League for the Atlanta Chiefs and the Boston Minutemen,” had “a long, storied soccer career in the United States at the collegiate and professional level, with numerous accolades” – one of these guys is apparently, according to IMS,  “a former college classmate” of USL founder Marcos, but which one is, unfortunately, not identified), and a group headed by Jeff Cooper, (former backer of St. Louis’ MLS expansion bids and owner of  St. Louis United, an “investment group” and owner of  the WPS team St Louis Athletica and the then nonexistent but now existing – though presumably unpopulated – NASL club AC St. Louis). Cooper’s group includes backing from Anheuser-Busch, a group of European investors and Addidas, “who were reportedly acting as a proxy for MLS.”  Cooper’s is the winning bid. The TOA, finding Cooper “on the same wavelength,”  begin to work with him on how to restructure the league. Then, in a move “which was done legally but without properly notifying many owners,” Nike awards control of the USL to NuRock.

Well, that brings us up to date with the background for more recent events, to which we will return, in Part II.

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