The Pointlessness of Sanctioning Drama

By Benjamin Massey

January 7th, 2017 · No comments

Matt Schlotzhauer/Indy Eleven

Calling the United Soccer League a “second division,” as the US Soccer Federation announced that they provisionally would[1], is only fair. It is also fair for the USSF to maintain the NASL’s second-division status now that it looks like they’ll probably be able to keep going for 2017. On the field, the NASL and USL seem relatively even: the NASL had an advantage over USL teams in last year’s US Open Cup but in 2015 the USL pulled off a 7-0 whitewash. The best-supported USL teams, Cincinnati and Sacramento, outdrew the best-supported team remaining in the NASL, Indy. USL still has more full-on-minor-league teams with 1,000-odd attendances even if you don’t count the MLS reserve squads, but added two good ones from NASL in Tampa and Ottawa.

Neither league meets all the USSF criteria for a second division; thus the “provisional” in their announcement. The USL has its weak-sister clubs, many of which allegedly only pay staff part-time and have no appetite for continent-wide travel. Indeed, this was a selling point for the Ottawa Fury jumping to the USL, and the main barrier to FC Edmonton ever doing the same. The NASL, of course, is a bit of a basket case. But they would have been far more of a basket case had the USSF denied them division-2 status: according to Dave Martinez at Empire of Soccer the reported sale of the New York Cosmos to Rocco Commisso hinged on the NASL being a formal second division[2]. Even the remaining seven teams would have had their exit fee discounted by at least 95% as a third division[3]. There would have been no stranger twist in this unpredictable story than the NASL surviving that.

In short, if the USSF wanted to be fairest to both leagues and ensure the strongest professional soccer environment possible, this is pretty much the obvious decision. The only alternatives would have been to flick a middle finger in USL’s face on poorly-rationalized historic grounds, give up the NASL as a going concern, or to do what they did in 2010 and force both leagues to play a combined second-division schedule, a “compromise” no party expressed even off-the-record interest in. The USL is excited, with enthusiastic press releases and a slightly-ironic “We Are UniteD2” campaign going league-wide. The NASL is less excited with what after all is for them the status quo, but they’re alive. (For now.)

So there are only two questions left. The first: what took the USSF so long? This sanctioning drama started in November and it’s obvious they weren’t planning on putting any horses out of their misery if they could help it. Were they waiting to make sure the NASL could reach the arbitrary number of eight teams (they played with seven in the spring of 2013)? Were they hoping one league would go “surprise, all our teams are suddenly owned by Russian oligarchs and we’re meeting all your standards tomorrow?” Were they just waffling uselessly until the potential Cosmos sale forced them to do something/anything? (Brooks Peck at Howler might endorse that theory[4].) They’re still promising details of what “provisional” means “in the coming weeks.” Whatever the explanation, it’s now of academic interest to the fan until the end of this season when we get to do the whole thing again.

The second question: why does it matter? Okay, the second paragraph of this very article said why, but on a more fundamental level why does it matter? Stop me if this is breaking news but, in Canada and the United States, there’s no such thing as a “soccer pyramid.” There is no promotion or relegation based on squad ability, or organizational quality, or anything beyond a team’s willingness to pay an entry fee and salaries. There have been div-2 NASL teams better than div-1 MLS teams, and div-3 USL teams better than div-2 NASL teams, and I bet there are USL PDL or NPSL teams that could give the Tulsa Roughnecks a run for their money. The business viability of the NASL depended on what number came after the word “division” in their Wikipedia article, and the USL obviously thought it was very important, but it has no inherent meaning. It’s all fake! It’s like basing your business on whether Chris Jericho won on Raw last week! None of it has anything to do with anything! The Orange County Blues are not suddenly a stronger franchise! If the decision had gone the other way, the Indy Eleven would not suddenly be a weaker one! It’s fiction! It’s not even a useful fiction! It’s just an arbitrary number decided by bureaucrats, the most useless concept with the very highest importance.

It’s even worse for us up in Canada. If the NASL had become a third division and shut down as a result we almost certainly would have lost FC Edmonton. 20% of our professional soccer scene up in smoke because Americans quibbled over digits. We would have suffered a serious blow for what amounts to no reason at all.

Eight years ago you could say that the American soccer pyramid, while fake, was nearly rational. There was Major League Soccer on the top, unquestionably comprising almost all of the best-supported and best-financed soccer clubs in the land. Then there was the USL First Division, which was the national second division, then the USL Second Division, which was the third. As the name implies the USL divisions were under the same umbrella, and while there still wasn’t promotion or relegation teams would move up or down depending on their finance and ambition. It wasn’t a working system but it was a coherent one.

Any thin veneer of logic this “pyramid” ever had vanished when the USL-NASL split was finalized in 2011. The USL never pretended to be anything but a second division in temporary exile, with much talk of “the top level of soccer below MLS.” The NASL long wanted to be a first division and justified this on the grounds we’ve just discussed: that the groupings were entirely arbitrary so why shouldn’t a given league be at a given level if it wanted to be? The USSF set increasing standards for a third, a second, and a first division with strict requirements for finance and stadium, then showered waivers every year like a ticker-tape parade because said strict requirements had only a loose relationship with reality. The ostensible rationale was to ensure stability at the sub-MLS level, but this winter’s drama is only the most vivid proof of how that goal has failed.

What is the point of this crap? How does it help the American soccer world, ignoring for the moment the Canadian one? The only thing the current American divisional structure does is encourage investors to act like it matters, and its influence seems entirely malign.

There’s only one solution to this sanctioning question. It’s not USL and NASL sorting out their differences, because that won’t happen and even if it did some second-division team would miss payroll or some third-division team would get a new owner and it would all be irrelevant the next season anyway. The real answer is to say “what the hell are we doing?” and abolish the whole distinction. Set standards for a professional league and let the competitors deal with each other as they will. The free market will decide. MLS is not the top level in the United States because it says “major league” in the name, it’s the top level because it has the best players and the highest calibre of marketing. If the NASL equals them it will not be because a federation said so, but because they invested the cash and did the work.

Let the teams decide which divisions are best, not centralized soccer overlords. Until promotion and relegation come to Canada and the United States, and let us pray every day that it does, that is the only arrangement that makes the slightest amount of sense.


[1] — United States Soccer Federation. “U.S. Soccer Board of Directors Grants Provisional Division II Status to NASL and USL.” U.S. Soccer, January 6, 2017. Accessed January 6, 2017. http://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2017/01/07/02/01/20170106-us-soccer-board-of-directors-grants-provisional-division-ii-status-to-nasl-and-usl.

[2] — Martinez, Dave. “Commisso and the Cosmos, Seamus’ role, back pay and a future home at MCU.” Empire of Soccer, January 6, 2017. Accessed January 6, 2017. http://www.empireofsoccer.com/commisso-and-the-cosmos-seamus-role-back-pay-and-a-future-home-at-mcu-56805/.

[3] — Burdine, Wes. “A Game of Chicken: Steep Price of Exit Fees Dictating NASL’s Future.” FiftyFive.One, December 15, 2016. Accessed January 6, 2017. http://fiftyfive.one/2016/12/game-chicken-steep-price-exit-fees-dictating-nasls-future/.

[4] — Peck, Brooks. “U.S. Soccer’s biggest problem isn’t Jurgen Klinsmann, it’s Sunil Gulati’s indecision.” Howler, November 17, 2016. Accessed January 6, 2017. http://whatahowler.com/u-s-soccers-biggest-problem-isn-t-jurgen-klinsmann-it-s-sunil-gulati-f750cc144030#.je5d86648.

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