By Kip Kesgard| OregonLive.com
December 02, 2009, 9:06PM
As I’ve read more about the recent developments in the USL/NASL struggle that I’ve been talking about over the last few weeks, I’m reminded of my experience in dealing with my mother’s obsession with Kenny Rogers. Before I lost my mother to cancer back in 2005, I was subjected to her worshipping, from his music to his movies, and during one of her visits to the Rose City, we did end up eating a meal at the Roasters restaurant when it had a location in Beaverton. I even enjoyed the first TV movie about the Gambler when it first came out, but eventually, the series and concept ran itself into the ground.
The song mentioned the main concepts of playing poker, essentially knowing when to hold them and when to fold them. I suppose that whole idea could be applied to the most recent developments within the USL/NASL dispute that have occurred recently. I’m not much of a poker player myself because I always seem to fold my cards when I should have played, while playing some lousy hands. I can imagine both sides of this dispute feel like true riverboat gamblers, putting all their chips into the middle and seeing which side blinks first.
Within the past week, we’ve seen reports that the Rochester Rhinos, a long time member of the USL First Division, made the decision to move to the NASL, giving the upstart league 10 members for the upcoming 2010 season. Rochester had attended the USL meetings in Beaverton a few weeks ago but their ownership remained non-committal about their future with USL when asked until this article. The NASL also gained another market that was mentioned by the USL as a potential expansion market, as Edmonton, Alberta will become a new NASL team in 2011 when Vancouver moves up to MLS. To keep with the poker analogy, this is like seeing a couple of queens come up on the flop and you have a queen in your hand while playing Texas Hold Em. You have to like your chances in taking the pot but there are still cards on the table that could beat you if things play out the wrong way. We also learned on December 2nd that Cleveland has followed Minnesota’s lead in releasing all of their players, which is seen as a death blow to the franchise in whatever league they might be in.
Having Rochester move leagues isn’t a huge death blow to the USL First Division; it does say something when one of your most stable long term franchises jumps ship after reviewing what both sides bring to the table. I don’t think you can throw in the towel on USL-1 either, because there are still some valuable assets that are committed to play there in 2010, most notably the Portland Timbers. But right now, the stakes of the game have gotten very high, and the dramatic twists and turns don’t seem to have a stopping point anytime soon. To recap what we know, I’ve put together a question and answer section.
What do we know about the NASL? They have 10 sides committed to play in 2010: the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Crystal Palace Baltimore, Miami FC Blues, Minnesota Thunder, Montreal Impact, St. Louis United, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Rochester Rhinos and Vancouver Whitecaps. They are seeking approval from the United States Soccer Federation to start play in April 2010. Joey Saputo, part of the Montreal Impact organization was elected the first CEO of the NASL.
What don’t we know? Outside of the teams and the CEO, we don’t know much else. There’s no other league management structure, logo, schedule, and perhaps the biggest piece, who’s the money behind this league? Right now, the teams themselves are talking about the NASL, but we haven’t heard much from the league itself. I can’t imagine that the teams mentioned above would make such a move without having some backing money behind this, but so far, we don’t know who is pulling the string.
Where does this leave the USL-1? Right now, they have teams in Portland, Puerto Rico, Austin and planned sides in New York and Ottawa, Ontario. Cleveland’s status in existing is unclear as they are working out ownership issues after they jumped from USL-2 to USL-1 last season. Rumors are circulating that the City Stars want to return to USL-2, but nothing official has been mentioned. New York and Ottawa are in the early stages, so we don’t know if they would be ready for 2010, so this leaves stable franchises in Austin, Puerto Rico and the Timbers.
What about Austin and Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico has been quiet about their plans, but a few years ago, there was talk about setting up a Puerto Rican league with sides based on the island, and the Islanders and a team affiliated with the fabled River Plate franchise located in Ponce. Nothing has surfaced from these original talks, but so far, nobody affiliated with the Islanders has talked about their future. Austin, like Portland, has been one of the poster children of the USL’s website for D-1 teams, and both sides continue planning for the 2010 season.
What are the main issues behind this dispute? You can boil the issues down to really control and the search for more money. Umbro, the equipment company based in Great Britain, was the owner of the USL, but once they were acquired by Nike, the multi-national corporation based in Beaverton made it known they wanted to sell the league. A few bids were being evaluated, including ones from Traffic Sports, the group behind Miami FC, and another group affiliated with other current USL franchises. NuRock Holdings came in with a late bid that was accepted by Umbro/Nike, and that was the impetus that started the instability and frustration we currently see. Carolina, Miami and Minnesota were the first owners to talk about a breakaway league, and now we have a larger, more developed stable of teams.
So what is happening now? Everyone is waiting to see what the USSF will do with the sanctioning request. It is expected that they will rule by the end of the year, which will then set forth a rash of proceedings.
What is expected to happen after this ruling? If the NASL earns USSF sanctioning, I can imagine that would be the nail in the coffin for USL-1, because it would be asking quite a bit to get enough teams together to cobble together a 2010 schedule. The USL-2 is strictly based in the eastern and southeastern United States, which puts Austin and Portland really on the outside geographically, and nobody that currently plays in that division is making noise about wanting to move up. Whether the NASL would be interested in accepting Portland remains to be seen, but the factors of having Vancouver in a similar situation plus the strength of the Timbers name would be two strong points for considering a jump.
If the NASL doesn’t gain sanctioning, there’s talk that the USL would accept some or all of the breakaway teams back for the 2010 season and things would return to some state of normal. I can’t imagine this is an ideal situation, because with egos and money involved, it would be difficult for some of the NASL owners to return to a league they abandoned. I would also expect that regardless of the sanctioning decision there will be litigation involved as some of the sides making up the NASL might have contractual obligations to the USL that need to be met. Baltimore and Tampa were expected to be part of the USL, and jumping leagues might have some legal ramifications.
In reading a great piece from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, writer Jeff DiVeronica posts a guest piece from Peter Trimble, a soccer fan who provides his thoughts on what is happening. Trimble’s piece does cover new ground that I hadn’t considered, such as the NASL gunning for a possible merging with MLS at some point. But I agree with him that this situation isn’t good for soccer and I’m really wondering what the NASL thinks they have to gain by following this path.
What Will Portland Do? Right now, I expect them to do what they’ve been doing, planning for MLS in 2011 while trying to field the most competitive team for the 2010 season. With the stadium issues in Portland, the search for a home for the Portland Beavers and general deadlines going on, I can’t imagine this mess is what team owner Merritt Paulson and his management team was expecting to deal with during the offseason along with everything else.
Paulson has said he expects that the NASL bid will fall apart and some of those sides will return to the USL, but those comments were made a few weeks ago before some of the most recent news events. I can imagine that any league would love to have a committed, passionate owner like Paulson in the fold, which means whatever league the Timbers end up in they will be an asset.
What Does This All Mean for Soccer Fans? The actions of the past few weeks could end up altering the landscape of soccer in America as we know it. It could also end up like the XFL, a forgotten football league that destroyed Saturday night television for science fiction geeks everywhere and brought us He Hate Me, bad team names, and camera operators running for their lives on the turf.
I trust in Mr. Paulson and his team, and expect we’ll hear something official from them very soon as they continue the planning for 2010 and beyond. The game isn’t over until all the cards are laid out, and I expect there’s some aces in the equation coming very soon.
Speaking of aces, if you’d like to ace your Christmas shopping and you have a Timbers or Portland Beavers fan on your holiday list, the annual PGE Park Holiday Sale is coming soon! Open from 10 AM to 2 PM on Saturday, December 12th, you can find lots of Timbers and Beavers gear on sale, including selected items up to 75% off. There will be coffee available, and you can say hi to Timber Joey. Just don’t sneak up on him if he’s working the chainsaw.