History / NASL / US Soccer History / USL

That USL/TOA/NASL thing, part III

In Part 1 and Part 2 I provided a time-line of events leading up to last week. On Tuesday, The Kartik Report posted an update on the situation which said that “USSF has been working diligently to foster a compromise that will work in the best interests of all the affected clubs” and singled out Secretary General of US Soccer Dan Flynn for providing “remarkable leadership” and doing  “a remarkable job of attempting to build a consensus based solution to the extremely tricky situation.” But, as the report mentions, a gag order is in place so no one really knows what’s going on. In the end, we are left with only speculation: “I believe fans can be assured their teams will play in 2010, even if we don’t know which league they will compete in, just yet.”

So, in the spirit of speculation, what might happen?

The most likely scenario is that both the USL and the NASL will be sanctioned as Division 2 leagues for 2010. It may look a bit like baseball with two leagues and the champion of each league meeting for a national title. The question is whether USL-1 will be able to field enough teams to sustain a viable league. According to Inside Minnesota Soccer, it’s roster of clubs stands at three. IMNS puts eight teams in the NASL camp with one other apparently hedging it’s bets. By size alone it would seem that NASL has a better chance of survival and hence a better chance of becoming the only sanctioned Division 2 league in North America after 2010.

That said, as evidenced by the lawsuit the USL has brought against three teams associated with the NASL, some of the former USL-1 teams may be in breach of contract because they allegedly had previously pledged to play in the USL. What the USSF’s take on this is, because of the gag order, anyone’s guess. Could USSF  force the three teams named in the USL suit to rejoin the league for 2010, thus bringing the two leagues, in terms of number of teams, on more or less level terms? And if this were to happen, what would be the reaction of the teams? What would be the reaction of the fans of those teams?

The effect that MLS expansion will have on both leagues after the 2010 season must also be considered. Portland, said to be satisfied with USL-1, will join the MLS in 2011. On the NASL side, Vancouver will also join the MLS in 2011.  Montreal is currently in talks to join the MLS. Miami, St. Louis and Atlanta, among others, all want in on the MLS. Will there be enough teams to sustain either league? Where will replacement teams – viable teams that are likely to survive financially – come from to populate second division soccer in the US?

The USL lawsuit is surely a major point of contention for, as stated in Article 62 of the FIFA statues, “it is prohibited to take disputes in the Association or disputes affecting Leagues, members of Leagues, clubs, members of clubs, Players, Officials and other Association Officials to ordinary courts of law, unless the FIFA regulations or binding legal provisions specifically provide for or stipulate recourse to ordinary courts of law.” In other words, the USL’s lawsuit is in violation of FIFA regulations.

What could be the result of that?

Well, in November, FIFA  threatened to expel Chile from the World Cup because a club there had filed a suit against the the Chilean league (ANFP, Asociación Nacional de Fútbol Profesional). The dispute was quickly settled and it’s difficult to imagine that USSF would let things get so out of hand here that FIFA expel the US from the 2010 World Cup. However, as the US begins to ramp up efforts toward its World Cup 2018/2022 bid, it is safe to assume that league disputes are not what the USSF has in mind for promoting the US as a host country. It is probably also safe to assume that FIFA is more interested in the development of the US as a market for soccer than worrying about US second division league disputes. After all, along with perhaps China, the US is the greatest untapped market for soccer in the world.

How all of this will end is anyone’s guess – better informed people than me don’t know. But that this is something for you to care about, even if Philadelphia isn’t a USL or NASL town, is undeniable. For, in the end, this is not only about the viability of second division soccer – which is essential for player development as well as for being an opportunity for fans to see competitive matches in those markets that are not large enough to sustain an MLS team – in the US soccer pyramid. If as some reports suggest, dissatisfaction with the USL is not restricted to USL-1, this is about the viability of professional soccer in the US, generally.

Teams at all levels – MLS, USL-1, USL-2, PDL, whatever – struggle financially, often lack strong fan support, and are neglected by their local media. The wages of most players, regardless of league, are well below international standards. And the history of soccer in the United States is rife with examples of league disputes that have retarded the development of the sport. While soccer in America is undoubtedly at a stronger position now than at any other time in its history, the position of professional soccer, as we all know, is one of flux. With more questions than answers, the future, while not bleak, is far from certain.

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