The natives, and by natives I mean thousands of second division soccer fans around the United States and Canada, are getting restless. The staring contest between the United Soccer Leagues and the Team Owners Association/North American Soccer League shows no signs of breaking. Lawyers may not unfortunately have a say in the outcome, with the USL suing three NASL teams in Florida circuit court.
Fleshing out exactly what this all means, what outcomes may be possible, and what needs to happen next is not only difficult, it might depend on your chosen viewpoint. Fans are lined up on both sides, with little room in the middle for those reserving judgement. It’s either the USL is bad for soccer because of their draconian league-management style and refusal to allow team owners a say in league direction, or it’s that they’re their role as builder of lower division American and Canadian soccer is being unfairly discounted by fans, while team owners illegally break contracts signed in good faith. It’s either the TOA/NASL is moving second division soccer forward with a larger vision and more open cooperation than the USL, or that they’re threatening the future of second division soccer by fostering discord and uncertainty.
Here’s one thing we can all agree on, NASL revolutionaries, USL loyalists, or impartial third parties: US Soccer must take action, and they must do it now.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that USSF should simply sanction the NASL; while there is a large segment of soccer fans that desperately hope for that, doing so won’t really solve the current problem. It’s hard to imagine USL dropping their lawsuits without being given satisfaction of some kind, and if the NASL is sanctioned alongside USL-1 as a second division league, there won’t be any. Additionally, the potential for FIFA involvement, thanks to violations of Article 62 of the organization’s statutes, remains in play if both leagues are sanctioned.
The alternative, of course, is to sanction NASL while at the same time revoking that of USL-1; on the surface this seems like a fine idea, though it wouldn’t be right to pull USL-1’s card without cause. Maybe the lawsuits are cause, or maybe it’s the lack of committed clubs the league has. Then again, the lawsuits would indicate that at least three TOA/NASL clubs should be playing in USL-1, making the «they don’t have enough clubs» argument a little weaker. Of course, we’re only concluding that the clubs are contractually obligated to play in USL-1 because USL says so; the vagaries of contract law make it impossible for those on the outside to know for sure.
We’re one day removed from the deadline imposed by US Soccer on the USL and NASL leadership for «additional information» (said to include copies of stadium leases, which indicate a team’s ability and intent to play in 2010). The USSF could be getting their ducks in a row as I write this, intending to take action immediately, or they could be sitting on their hands, waiting for something to force them to make a decision. I truly hope it’s not the latter; there’s nothing worse they can do in this instance than remain quiet. And no, Monday’s «statement» doesn’t cut it.
The clock is ticking. Time is not on the side of either group, and though both are forging ahead with plans for 2010 (the TOA/NASL group certainly is), the unknowns make it difficult to believe either can fully be prepared for an April kickoff. Not only are travel itineraries, a significant portion of a team’s non-salary outlay, in limbo, some clubs have yet to sign up a single player. If fact, that’s the perfect work for all of this: limbo.
The leagues are in limbo, the clubs are in limbo, the players are in limbo, and the immediate future of second division soccer is in limbo.
Just to catch you up, here are the clubs involved and a short note on each.
AC St. Louis
- Newly created club owned by St. Louis Soccer United, the group behind an unsuccessful MLS expansion bid. Original TOA member despite the team not being created until Tuesday.
- Founded in 1995, the Silverbacks sat out 2009 voluntarily due to financial issues. Original TOA member.
- Original member of the TOA.
Crystal Palace Baltimore
- Flipped to the NASL despite originally planning to move up to USL-1 after three years in USL-2. Named in the breach of contract lawsuit filed by the USL in Hillsborough County, Florida.
- Original TOA club, Owned by Traffic Sports, believed to be a major force behind the split with USL.
- Reported to be in serious financial trouble, the Thunder were an original member of the TOA group.
- Seemingly tabbed by MLS for a move up in the near future, one of USL-1’s «flagship» clubs, and owned by NASL’s spokesman, Joey Saputo.
- A late convert to the NASL after owner Rob Clark remained uncommitted during the initial stages of the conflict. Named in the USL complaint.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
- A new franchise named after the original NASL Rowdies, 2010 will be their inaugural season. Flipped from USL, named in lawsuit.
- Headed to MLS in 2011, the club has committed to launching a replacement NASL team in Edmonton (to be named after the Edmonton Drillers, an original NASL club).
- Thought to be the next likely club to flip to NASL, just finished their inaugural season in USL-1.
- Like Vancouver, headed to MLS in 2011. Have remained quiet on their plans for 2010, though the club just completed their first signing of the off-season.
Puerto Rico Islanders
- Seem committed to remaining with USL. Hold exclusive USL rights to the island, though there is talk of USL trying to add another Puerto Rican club to the league.
In addition to these three clubs, former USL-1 club Charleston Battery has voluntarily dropped to USL-2, 2009 USL-1 entrant Cleveland City Stars appear to have folded, and new club FC New York has shown no signs of being ready to field a team in 2010.
Thirteen clubs, no resolution in sight, and committed fans left in the dark.
Remember that every one of these clubs operates on small margins or loses significant money; for them to wait around for the stalemate to break naturally could be catastrophic to the whatever product they are able to put on the field for 2010. The NASL may want a flashy debut, but without sanctioning and time to properly organize themselves (which may be part of the problem USSF has with their application), they’re not going to get it. They might put on a professional soccer league season, but I have serious doubts it will be of any legitimate quality.
Time for USSF to do something. While they sit around and twiddle their thumbs, doing nothing but meet with the involved parties and release non-committal spun-to-the-hilt press releases, the fans of the involved clubs get angrier and angrier. The Canadian fans, including those of Toronto FC, are concerned that their national championship could be in jeopardy. Many people have just thrown up their hands, sick of the whole mess. There’s a very real possibility that the battling clubs have lost a significant number of fans because they just can’t get along.
It’s in US Soccer’s power to put an end to the nonsense. I’m not sure that many fans even care what action the federation takes; at this point, it’s just about getting it sorted and doing it now, before the damage done becomes utterly irreparable.