(by Brian Straus si.com 12-3-16)
While the league at the top of the American (and Canadian) pro soccer pyramid, such as it is, focuses next week on crowning a champion, the battles beneath MLS finally may reach their conclusion.
There have been multiple meetings comprising some combination of NASL owners, NASL and USL executives and U.S. Soccer Federation officials in recent weeks, aimed at addressing the volatility and uncertainty weighing on the sport’s second, third and fourth tiers. And there’s more to come Monday and Tuesday in New York. There, the NASL and its most famous member, the Cosmos, could find themselves on their last legs.
The NASL, which sits one level beneath MLS, originally intended to compete with the older league on equal terms. But now it’s fighting for its survival. Pressure is coming from above and below. Minnesota United, one of the NASL’s most successful clubs, has joined MLS. Meanwhile, the third-division USL, which is affiliated with MLS, is expanding rapidly and will absorb two NASL clubs—the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury. And if the USL has its way, the Rowdies and Fury will be second division again in 2017. The league has filed a formal application with U.S. Soccer to move up the pyramid.
Several sources have told SI.com that they expect that application to be approved.
Absent promotion and relegation, divisions are largely semantic. But those semantics have consequences. The labels can impact investment, sponsorship, budget and prestige. They also indicate the standards to which U.S. Soccer holds a given league. At the moment, the NASL’s original D1 ambitions have faded. The departure of Tampa Bay, Ottawa and Minnesota leaves it with 10 teams—at least in theory.
Rayo OKC isn’t expected to return. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers don’t have an owner and are the subject of a legal complaint filed by Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, who apparently helped keep his rival afloat. The Jacksonville Armada have financial concerns, according to sources. And the Cosmos, the NASL’s three-time champion and flagship club, may be on its way out of business. Tension is high as the NASL tries to attract expansion teams while several existing clubs hunt for investors or eye the exit.
The USL, meanwhile, was at 29 clubs last season and will field at least 30 in 2017. It maintains that it’s already the de facto second division, even though it included 11 MLS-operated reserve teams, and it anticipates acquiring an official designation next week. But U.S. Soccer has no interest in creating a logjam of two leagues at the same tier, nor does it want to see its D2 league fold. NASL clubs considering a move to USL likely will have to pay to do so, and they must decide quickly whether to bet on the NASL’s survival or bolt for the USL and hope it’s raised to D2. A merger isn’t going to happen, and the USL reportedly rejected the NASL’s offer for interleague play. The USL has no interest or reason to alter its structure or ownership and wouldn’t be interested in absorbing every NASL club.
On Monday in New York, U.S. Soccer’s pro league task force will meet to review each circuit’s year-end reports and their requests for division sanctioning and waivers (not every team meets every standard). That task force is comprised of three USSF officials—chief administrative officer Brian Remedi, executive VP Carlos Cordeiro and U.S. Adult Soccer Association president John Motta. They’ll present a report to the full board of directors on Tuesday. USL and NASL officials will be in New York as well. U.S. Soccer could vote Tuesday to grant the NASL the waivers it needs to remain D2, thus maintaining the status quo. It could try to find a way to create one all-encompassing second division. Or it could “promote” the USL and “relegate” the NASL, which very well could result in the movement of some teams and the folding of others.
If one or more NASL teams shuts down or leaves before then, the league could collapse on its own.
The division standards, ironically, were enacted to prevent the sort of chaos that once was all too frequent in the USL and its predecessors. Fly-by-night teams would come and go, players and coaches dealt with sub-par operations and it was difficult to keep track of who was where. U.S. Soccer has wanted to tighten the standards over time, which the NASL objected to last year, and it’s believed the leagues are still operating under those set down in 2014.
NASL commissioner Bill Peterson has been trying to recruit expansion teams and at least four potential groups were present at the league’s meetings last week in Atlanta, according to sources. The NASL’s hope is that it can hang on at D2 long enough to bring new teams aboard in 2018. Los Angeles, San Diego, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and Hartford are among the cities with potential investors, according to sources. The Chicago effort is led by former Chicago Fire president Peter Wilt, who also helped launch NASL finalist Indy Eleven. Wilt also is working to recruit investors in other markets, according to a source.
Indy is one of the healthier NASL clubs. It had MLS ambitions several years ago but a couple of failed stadium efforts put those plans to rest for the time being. Its average attendance of 8,396 was second in the league behind Minnesota (the overall average was 4,734). Tampa Bay and Ottawa were third and fourth, respectively, meaning Indy is the only one of the league’s four most popular teams that might remain in 2017.
Sources say the key to both leagues’ future may be in North Carolina, where the Cary-based Carolina RailHawks believe they are laying the groundwork for entry into MLS. The question is whether they’ll attempt to make the jump from the NASL, where they’ve spent the past six years, or the USL, where they played in 2007-09.
On Tuesday afternoon, presumably while the USSF board is meeting in New York City, the Railhawks will unveil a new name and logo, as well as their intention to finalize a stadium plan and secure an MLS expansion team within the next 12-18 months. The new name, North Carolina FC, and a standard shield logo were leaked early Friday by Raleigh writer Neil Morris.
The RailHawks were purchased last year by local medical software entrepreneur Steve Malik. He once was a proponent of aggressive NASL expansion. But if MLS is his ultimate goal, moving to the affiliated USL might be the ticket. He’d have natural rivals in Richmond and Charlotte (another market with MLS ambitions) and a better spot for his reserve team, which currently competes in the fourth-tier, semi-pro NPSL. The NPSL has a relationship with the NASL while its chief competitor, the PDL, is owned by the USL. It just so happens that two of the Railhawks’ three Carolina-based NPSL rivals, the Myrtle Beach Mutiny and Tobacco Road FC (Durham), moved to the PDL last month.
If Carolina switches leagues, the remaining dominoes may fall. The Cosmos, despite their on-field success and the value of their brand, could fold soon if a new investor isn’t found. Most front-office employees are on furlough and according to Minnesota website FiftyFiveOne, the club has lost more than $30 million since joining the NASL in 2013. The Cosmos had intended to leave Hofstra University and play the 2017 season at MCU Park, a baseball stadium in Brooklyn. A few players and head coach Giovanni Saverese remain under contract. It’s almost impossible to imagine the NASL without the Cosmos, but it’s also difficult to foresee them playing anywhere else. The club's decision to rebuff MLS’s expansion invitation left lingering bitterness that may come back to bite the Cosmos if the USL proves to be the only safe harbor.
And that leaves Miami FC, the ambitious club owned by Italian media rights mogul Riccardo Silva. MLS’s pursuit of a Miami franchise owned by David Beckham could mean the USL won’t be interested in taking Silva aboard. But the USL and Silva have talked, according to a source. Miami FC spent the 2016 season at FIU Stadium, but it was unhappy with the field.
Another source said that Silva has spoken with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross about possibly playing at Hard Rock Stadium (the latest/sixth name for the NFL facility). Ross helped launch the International Champions Cup, the summer friendly tournament that attracts big-name European teams to U.S. shores, and was linked to Beckham several years ago. Minor league soccer doesn’t appear to be Silva’s and Ross’s endgame. The NASL may not even maintain the eight teams required to qualify for D3 next year, although U.S. Soccer might still let it operate at that level for a season as it reorganizes.