Reconciling the Rivalry Between NASL and USL-Pro?

If you’re new to following soccer in the United States, you may not be aware of the mini soccer war waged in 2009 and 2010 between two camps of clubs from the United States Leagues.  If you have been following minor league soccer in this country for a few years, you are probably all too familiar with this story.  The institutional bickering between the new NASL and USL-Pro has also inspired widespread calls for a centrally led league structure (not just from naive kids like me).

Throughout the history of American soccer, there is a well documented pattern of failure of independently organized leagues. [If you fancy, you can read about the historical “Soccer War” from by clicking this bad boy]  In fact, the only relatively successful national league in American history is Major League Soccer, which is operated in close connection with the United States Soccer Federation and the United States National Team.

It may present as appalling to the American independent entrepreneurial spirit, or some other load of malarkey, but it is very much in the best interests of the soccer in America for one centralized body to operate what are now separate leagues throughout the country.

A Simple Anecdote for a Complex Situation
This past summer, my friends routinely asked me what league the Rochester Rhinos played in and what separated the Rhinos from MLS.  When I spoke about USL-Pro and NASL they just didn’t get it.  Without knowing any of the background information on the TOA owners’ split in 2009-2010, it was simple math for my friends.  Take the 8 teams in NASL and add the 11 teams from USL-Pro and then an expansion team and there is a balanced 20 team league.

I explained the situation to them through the following cute little anecdote.  Imagine the group of USL-1 clubs, which would come to form both of the two leagues, as a marriage.  For a while the owners got along for the benefit of the children (the fans), but after a while the breakaway owners became fed up with the high demands of the USL.  In order to have greater control over their own affairs, the want-away owners filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.  During the custody proceedings, the court recommended marriage counseling for a year while trying to figure out who was going to get the kids.  That counseling came in the form of the 2010 USSF-D2 Pro League.

For one season, the USSF operated second division soccer in this country and did so fairly well.  Despite the relative success of the league and its innovation in scheduling and traveling, this combined effort was scrapped after 2010.  In 2011 the custody of the kids was split as NASL was granted conditional sanctioning for division 2 and USL created their “Professional Division” as division 3 which incorporated the remainder of USL-1 clubs and those from USL-2.

2010’s USSF-D2 Pro League used geographic pods for the scheduling of league matches.    The 12 teams were split into 2 mostly arbitrary conferences for standings but teams were separated into 3 “pods” based on geographic proximity.  For instance, the first pod was the Western teams; Minnesota, Portland, St Louis and Vancouver.  Pod 2 consisted of the Mid Atlantic and Northeast teams; Rochester, Montreal, Baltimore and Carolina.  The third pod was the four Southern and Southeast clubs; Austin, Miami, Puerto Rico and Tampa Bay.  Each team played the other teams in their pod four times, one other team outside their pod four times, and then all the other teams twice.  This added up to 30 games in the season and cut down on potential travel by making teams travel to only one city outside of their pod more than one time.

Making Conclusions from the 2012 Season
It may be fun for fans of NASL to boast the success of their expansion team in San Antonio, both on and off the field.  It may be a consolation for fans of USL-Pro to point out the comparative success of their teams in this year’s U.S. Open Cup.  However, both leagues are currently looking for expansion opportunities in the same cities.  For two years, both leagues were exploring the potential of a professional team in San Antonio.  USL announced their intentions to field a team in Tampa, Florida, which happens to be the home of their national offices but also very close to the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL (which actually plays in St Petersburg).  Last month the NASL listed a few cities on their shortlist including Phoenix, Arizona.  Just a couple days later, USL-Pro announced that they had found an ownership group in Phoenix to field a team in their league in 2013.

As much as they may not want to admit it, the NASL and USL-Pro are still rival leagues.  After Orlando City recently stormed to their second regular season USL-Pro title with three weeks left in the campaign, a lot of people have been talking about the team “self-promoting” to NASL.  It is clear for all to see that Orlando City Soccer Club is far above their competition in USL-Pro, and NASL officials have consistently said they have two more expansion cities to announce before the end of the calendar year.

However, it is also clear that the ownership group and front office staff are close associates of the USL staff.  Orlando City currently fields a team in all 5 age levels of the Super Y-league, a team in the Super-20 League, and a team in the Premier Development League.  While the club will also participate in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League for the 2012-2013 season, they are still very much linked to the USL outside of their professional team.

Do you think they would still operate their extensive and recently acquired/developed youth systems under the USL umbrella if they played in the NASL?  Wouldn’t it be just marvelous if Orlando City could play on a broader national stage against stronger opposition without having to forsake or shift their youth infrastructure?

If the United States Soccer Federation governed all the professional (or semi-professional) national leagues the previous scenario would never come into play.  The NASL and USL-Pro could keep their respective commissioners.  The functions that USL has pioneered over the last 10-15-20 years could be applied in other cities, while the new innovations developed by NASL (working streams, highlight videos, strong social media presence) could be utilized by USL clubs.

Benefits Going Forward:
The benefits of this institutional reorganization may not be immediately apparent but walk with me five years down the road.  Continued NASL expansion is going to have a noticeable and negative impact on the development of USL-Pro clubs.  A gulf in class and professionalism has already arisen between the two leagues and this will only get wider in the future.  
NASL teams will be able to offer a higher quality of play and probably higher wages.  As more teams join NASL, there will be a smaller pool of quality players for USL teams to sign.  This in turn will accelerate the decline of USL-Pro as a league because the level of play will decrease with less talented players on its teams.  While a few established clubs in USL-Pro (like Orlando, Rochester, Richmond, Charleston or Wilmington) have the ability to jump into NASL and compete on and off the field, without significant expansion of its own USL-Pro could face dire consequences of NASL success.

Restructuring the leagues or gathering both leagues together under U.S.S.F.’s roof will provide national support for clubs in both USL and NASL.  It would provide a measure of safety for teams, ensuring that a league will still exist year after year in which to compete.  If any of the six or so successful USL-Pro clubs move to NASL or MLS, this proposed structure will allow the other teams a home to play.  Likewise, if Traffic Sports and the NASL commissioner can not find successful independent investors for a number of NASL clubs, the solvent teams won’t be throw out on the street.  The U.S.S.F. would make sure a league continued to operate for the remaining teams in either scenario.

Naive Pipedream or Realistic Optimism for the Future?
It is time to forgive old grudges and move on for the sake of American soccer.  I know that this is not a new call for restructuring U.S. soccer leagues.  But it is still important to voice concerns about the health of minor league soccer and my cautious optimism for the future.

In order to ensure the stability of soccer under MLS, U.S.S.F. instituted a set of guidelines for any league applying for division II sanctioning.  These guidelines include control of home facilities, net worth of team owners, and the size of cities in the league.  But for me stability isn’t enough.  Sure, the federation could do the same exercise by imposing and enforcing a less stringent set of standards for division III, but what would that accomplish?

I want minor league soccer to strive, not merely survive.  In the face of future MLS expansion, which will probably be existing teams in USL-Pro or NASL, the lower leagues need a structure that will allow soccer to flourish.  A combination of best practices from the two current leagues provides the path to admit strong organizations in new cities while upholding the quality of current teams.


5 thoughts on “Reconciling the Rivalry Between NASL and USL-Pro?

  1. Let’s be clear here, the ‘soccer wars’ are political.

    It’s about protectionism and closed leagues versus unlimited clubs and open leagues.

    USSF President Sunil Gulati imposed exhorbitant guidelines for D2 sanctioning because he is in the pay of Robert Kraft, who is an MLS founding partner and supports protectionism having helped design the ‘single-entity’ model.

    USL is also a protectionist league.

    However the international context of the sport means that relative quality can be easily measured by comparison – you can switch on any TV and judge for yourself.

    The two sides will not be reconciled because they have largely opposing economic outlooks.

    The protectionists (usually) seek to protect their investments by controlling costs and eliminating fair competition. The open-leaguers (should, but don’t always) encourage competition in order to attract investment.

    So the MLS-USL link-up was always likely, as USL’s expansion strategy of seeking entry into the same ‘markets’ was obvious, but that this has precipitated so soon after the sale of USL and the internal split with TOA should be an indication that it came from a deteriorating position of weakness.

    I like the argument expressed here:

    but the question is how reconciliation is possible, and whether it will be possible without a fresh crisis.

    I see three scenarios:
    1)this week’s Easton Report into the future of Canadian pro-soccer and questions of transparency raised by match-fixing in CSL could force Don Garber’s hand into publishing standardized criteria for MLS expansion to mitigate against Canadian repatriation along Fifa guidelines for ‘national’ leagues, which will gradually lead to the abolition of fees and franchising.
    2)lower level integration, either between NASL-NPSL, USL-PDL or NPSL-PDL, which will lead to a route for growth and the natural development of amateur clubs (eg Chatanooga, Fresno, Des Moines).
    3)defection of a significant USL club, like Rochester – figures suggest attendance halved due to the uncertainty and has not rebounded. Though I don’t know the details of the lawsuit dropped because Rochester didn’t join TOA the facility and club history are deserving of D2 status and ownership would find marketing easier at that level. Kraft was obviously very strategic in immediately affiliating his NE Revs, though I think this won’t help attendance, and MISL Lancers are already benefitting as a consequence.

    • Firstly, thanks for reading and commenting.

      But I’m afraid you may have lose yourself with your own argument. You say at one point, “The two sides will not be reconciled because they have largely opposing economic outlooks,” before suggesting how to do exactly that.

      I’m not going to address Teddy. I’m sorry if you really wanted to discuss him, but I’m not going to.

      With regard to the Easton Report, when I read it I did not take away anything like that.

      How would an integration of NASL and NPSL allow for the natural development of amateur clubs, not mirror the developmental designation attributed to USL-Pro after its affiliation with MLS?

      Are you suggesting the Lancers are benefiting from the NE Revs deal with the Rhinos?

      And while it might make sense to you superficially, the Rhinos would not benefit much from a switch to NASL at this time. The closest team for the upcoming season is in Carolina. The tag “Division II” won’t due much to draw the fans back to the Rhinos. The Rhinos grew up in a unique situation at a particular time that likely won’t be able to be replicated. Perhaps it might be more appealing after the success of NASL’s 2014 expansion teams.
      I’m guessing you just used Rochester as an example, but neither league is in a state bad enough to encourage a bail-out of its clubs.

      • The qualifying word in that line is ‘largely’. Because the two sides choose to view themsleves as opponents they resist decisions that are obvious to outsiders and therefore reach conclusions only where they are unavoidable. It’s a matter of perception, and that’s a matter of choice. It’s indicative of a lack of leadership direction.

        When I wrote that the Easton Report hadn’t been published yet, but I wasn’t optimistic about the prospects of Canadas big three clubs to suddenly jump ship considering the relative hardship this would involve and the emphasis on bottom-line economics.

        Equallly the point about travel costs continues to be raised, but it is largely a red herring based on a passive defensive position that the sport is in survival mode, rather than a bullish position that the sport must grow and can grow faster.

        Integration based on the static model adopted in the MLS-USLPro relationship is not a way to garner new fans, it is a way to satisfy protectionist owners. Yet it is not the only form of integration possible, so why would a different group automatically assume it is the correct direction for them?

        I think you’ve forgotten that USLPro and PDL are the same organisation with the same philosophy. Look at the announcements of teams returning this season further down the chain – PDL has lost 13, including, significantly, several names which were the among the most stable and secure at that level. By comparison NPSL is an attractive alternate option because it doesn’t impose the same restrictions.

        NASL in comparison to USLPro is the same, and is therefore more compatible with NPSL.

        Speaking to several friends from Chatanooga who love their soccer, they are frustrated that their team cannot progress based on merit, and explained this was a big reason for the demise of Nashville, just down the road, where fans gave up because the club was going nowhere and was structurally prevented from doing growing.

        I didn’t use Rochester as any old example, rather I’m interested as to the reasons why the Rhinos initially sided with TOA only to backtrack later, and I think this may indicate some sympathy with the means and aims of the group – in other words the ownership is sufficiently experienced to understand the causes and consequences of an structural split, and may be in a position to see how to move to a business model which doesn’t suffocate club development or require excessive unsustainable investment levels. It’s also why I specifically came to your blog to comment.

        Econometric arguments about market size or marketing appeal to demographic groups are completely wrongheaded for the development of soccer. They miss the point that soccer isn’t an exercise in marketing, where datapoints can be broken down and manipulated for competitive advantage, it is an exercise in democratic engagement where individuals can make a difference because the play is fluid and the ball is in constant motion. Players aren’t ‘owned’ by their clubs, they ‘represent’ them.

        I can probably guess your opinion of Sepp Blatter, but his constant criticism of the lack of open leagues in the US as the reason why soccer consistently fails to become the new big thing and overtake NFL, MLB and NBA is remarkable for the supporting evidence stacking up in every different culture around the world.

        The concept of ‘open leagues’ is universally successful. America is only exceptional in that it chooses to deny the rest of the universe and it’s own history – every instance of past failure in US soccer can be ascribed to a lack of openness. So why do various interests continue to defend protectionism?

        The very basic premise of open competition is that fans don’t only follow their own team, because if they want their team to win it becomes necessary to follow the teams they may play against in future – by definition the best teams have the best fans. This is the mechanism for drawing in regular investment from a much wider pool. With the USOC and promotion/relegation this means every fan eventually follows every team, and the existence of small teams in lower leagues actually supports bigger teams in higher leagues.

        In the ‘closed league’ equation this process is reversed, as rewards aggregate unfairly and not in proportion to participation. Which leads to owners complaining that a bigger league just means a smaller slice of the cake.

        An open league means bigger slices all round because the cake is that much bigger.

        I think Pele said it best: “soccer is a metaphor for life.”

  2. The solution is simple….NLS purchases. All NASL and USL Pro clubs combining them into a 24-32 team league known as MLS2….the MLS reserve clubs make up MLS3 aka the rez division and the MLS2 reserve clubs make up MLS4…..relegation/promotion would exisit between MLS and MLS2 as well as between MLS3 and MLS4… the MLS clubs would own all the clubs…with the salary cap and revenue sharing teams would have financial and adminsitrative support….grow each league to 32 clubs and voila…..128 teams to chose MNT, open cups from….the NPSL and PDL would feed these clubs. If the will is there the revenues are there.

  3. The USL, the MLS and the United States Soccer Federation are essentially the Mafia of soccer in America. How what they have done is not against the law is beyond me. Certainly it is great that the MLS has become a success. However, the way the have accomplished it is Un-America. I was dumb enough to own a USISL Team in 1993 and 1994. I was blinded by the excitment of owning a professional team and the potential of soccer in the US. I neglected to understand and see what was coming. We as owners of the USISL owned only territory. FM (owner of the USL) and the USL could sell as many territories as possible and they did. The players were owned by the USL and the USL was owned by one man. We as owners of the clubs had no rights to our players. If you did not live up to their finanical standards, they could declare you insolvent and sell you territory to the next stooge. They did not need or wait for a judge to declare you backrupt or give you any breathing room. Most USISL owners lost typically $250,000 per year. If you fell behind finanically they took the territory from you and essentially your club. When the World Cup came we all got excited. What we did not know is that the profit from the World Cup would go to starting the MLS which the USSF immediately decided was Division I. Funny how one of the principle owners a MLS team was also President of the USSF. 113 players from the USL were taken by the MLS. No compenstation to the owners of the USISL, none. They took our best players, came into our marketplaces, made themselves Division I and the USISL stayed as Division III and basically buried us. I attended a meeeting immediately prior to the MLS forming where the Eastern Conference of the USISL was going to merge with the A League and apply for Division I status. We held the meeting in a conference room and on the table was a phone. Half way through the meeting the phone rang. It was FM owner of the USISL and he was on speaker phone. He told all of us that anyone who went forward with the plan would be banned from the USISL and that they would sue all of us. Anyway, that is just one story in a long line of many. The USSF and the MLS is a monopoly and they won’t give it up anytime soon.

Let me know what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s