Can Gregory Richardson, shown here scooting past USL-1 player of the year Cristian Arrieta of the Puerto Rico Islanders, lead the RailHawks into a successful new league? (Photo by Jeremy M. Lange)
In an interview Thursday afternoon, Carolina RailHawks president Brian Wellman confirmed that the dissident group of USL-1 club owners known as the Team Owners Association (TOA) would be submitting an application to the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to form a new league.
“We’ll be submitting application to USSF for new league as soon as tomorrow,” Wellman said in a phone interview from Charleston, S.C., where he was meeting with Andrew Bell, president of the USL-1 Charleston Battery, to coordinate the scheduling of friendlies next season.
“Nothing’s changed as far as the teams go,” Wellman said of the composition of the proposed new league. The TOA consists of five former USL-1 clubs (Minnesota , Miami FC, Montreal, Vancouver and Carolina) and three ownership groups (in Atlanta, Tampa Bay and St. Louis).
Wellman suggested that the TOA has other member prospects, as well. “We have at least one conversation a day with people representing new markets. Even without media coverage [of the dispute], there’s a lot of interest in the league.”
Furthermore, Wellman left open the possibility that the new league might follow the FIFA calendar, playing during the winter months.
If the TOA settles on a winter schedule, Wellman said, “It wouldn’t be this winter. It would start sometime in the summer, and prorate as our fiscal year went along.”
Wellman acknowledged the challenge of going up against the entrenched fall-to-spring sports of football and basketball, but cited the upside: “Going on the world calendar opens up opportunities for players to move more freely. There’s a long list of benefits.”
Wellman also said that a new league would continue to press for greater access to the CONCACAF Champions League, the annual club championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean. To the longstanding chagrin of US-based USL clubs, the Champions League is all but impossible to get into. “The US Open Cup winner goes to the Champions League, but let’s face it, chances [a USL team winning it] are slim,” Wellman said, noting that the 1999 Rochester Rhinos squad was the last USL team to win the Open Cup.
“The USL-1 champion should have an automatic spot in CONCACAF,” Wellman said.
While Wellman didn’t explicitly say that the RailHawks will definitely be playing in a new league as opposed to reconciling with the USL, he said little to contradict the remarks of league CEO Alec Papadakis, who was quoted yesterday by a Montreal radio station as saying that negotiations with the TOA were finished and that the two Canadian members of the TOA, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, would not be playing in the USL next year. (Montreal and Vancouver are the two most valuable clubs at stake, and the movements of both have been closely watched ever since their season-ending matches in the USL playoffs. For a hint of the importance of Canadian clubs to the USL and TOA, see this effusive press release issued today by the USL that extols the power of Canuck footy.)
Later in the day yesterday, the USL issued a clarification that seemed intended to walk back the finality of Papadakis’ remarks.
Wellman expressed surprise that Papadakis had characterized the communications between the league and the TOA as “negotiations.”
“Unfortunately, there’s never been a negotiation,” Wellman said. “The TOA requested a meeting that would get everyone together.” But the USL declined to hold a group meeting, Wellman said, preferring to meet with clubs individually.
“When six to nine franchises are looking to do something else, the logical thing is to talk to them,” Wellman continued. “We wanted to be patient, to find time to negotiate. It never happened. We were hoping to have third-party mediation to find something that would make [USL league owner] NuRock happy, that would make the TOA happy, a two- to four-year plan. It never happened.”
“We have a strong group of owners. Keep in mind, the [TOA] owners have record of success inside and outside of sports. We’re not a bunch of rogue outsiders with pie-in-the-sky dreams. It’s a monumental task to keep a pro team alive.”
In other RailHawks news:
- Wellman said that winger Gregory Richardson, the midseason signing from Guyana, “signed with the RailHawks two and a half weeks ago. His P-1 work visa was renewed today.” Wellman confirmed reports that Richardson is heading for trials with Scottish clubs. If there’s interest in the services of the RailHawks’ offensive player of the year, a transfer fee will be required. “[Head coach Martin] Rennie believes in giving opportunities for our players for higher level play. There’s a stipulation in our contracts that if higher-division play is an option, we allow them to go,” Wellman said.
- Midfielder Daniel Paladini, who was voted team MVP and was selected to the USL All-League first team, is a free agent who has obvious market value after a stellar season. “We clearly want Daniel Paladini back,” Wellman said. “We talk to him a couple times a week…. He was the point guard, the motor of the team.”
- Wellman offered few other details of the makeup of next year’s lineup. “We sent a letter to all of our players under option that we’re interested in having them back. After that, we’ll start looking for three to four extra guys. Nothing [else] has been determined. We’re trying to keep the team as intact as possible.”
- Wellman said that the RailHawks will play a friendly in March against the New England Revolution (the two teams played last year, and the RailHawks won, 1-0). Negotiations are also under way for mid-summer training visits and friendlies against a “high-level English Premier League team” and at least one Mexican first-division team (”at least one, and hopefully two”). The RailHawks and the Charleston Battery may end up sharing the expenses for the English and Mexican squads’ visits, Wellman said.
- And, in other North Carolina club soccer news, WECT in Wilmington reported last week that a white knight may be in the offing for the recently shuttered USL-2 Wilmington Hammerheads.