Wednesday, December 30, 2009 |
We waited, and waited and waited (those of us that care) for the United States Soccer Federation to make some kind of ruling on the sanctioning of either USL-1 or the newly rebooted NASL. In the interim, clubs switched sides, new clubs emerged, and no one really knew if there would be a second division in the United States or Canada in 2010.
USSF finally made some kind of ruling today, it just wasn't the type for which most had hoped. Instead of sanctioning either of the battling leagues, US Soccer's leadership chose to summarily reject both, impose a seven day deadline for a compromise to be reached, and leave us all still hanging.
Except that now we have something to debate. It happened almost immediately, via Twitter, the blogosphere, and established professional writers. It seems everyone has an opinion on what the "decision" means, why it was made, and what could possibly come next. For all intents and purposes, all the USSF announcement today did was bring heat to bear on the organization itself, because it made almost no one happy.
And I'm certainly not happy, because the immediate future of second division soccer in the US and Canada will still be undetermined come the new year. With only a few months in which to prepare themselves to put on a professional sports league, a task that involves a mountain of the administrative, marketing, and operational planning, both the NASL and USL are facing an uphill battle just to play. MLS may have the television contracts, the fading European stars, and the roster of big money backers, but make no mistake; a second division of soccer in this part of the world is a crucial part of the growth of the game.
But I've come to grips with the decision, putting it squarely in the "necessary evil" category. I'm certainly not alone in my view, though there are other valid viewpoints as to why USSF did what they did. The timeline is a mess, and there's little explanation that will satisfy me as to why this process has taken as long as it has. I'm sure any discussions had to this point have been tense, led to little progress, and required cooling off periods. There's no doubt that it takes time to gather the information USSF requested from each of the leagues and their member clubs. I have an appreciation, simply from personal experience of trying to get more than a few people to do what they're supposed to in a timely fashion, of how difficult coordinating multiple organizations, often made up of busy people with varied priorities, can be.
Still, it shouldn't have come to this. We shouldn't be staring down the barrel of 2010 with no idea if there will be second division soccer. Forget the larger ramifications, or any broader idea that American and Canadian soccer with suffer generally; this is really about all of the fans of the clubs involved, many of whom have woven their sides' seasons into the rhythms of their lives, who are panicked at the thought of a year without live and local soccer. After being told all month that something would be decided, and with most of the soccer community assuming someone would be sanctioned, they're left right where the rest of us more general observers are, only with the prospect of getting no return on their emotional investment in 2010 and potentially beyond. For any supporter, big club or small, first or second division, that's a pretty big deal.
I find it difficult to believe, however, that USSF would avoid sanctioning a properly prepared and administrated league, no matter who they were or what form they took (i.e., USL's sole private ownership, or NASL's team-owned setup), if one existed. I can draw no other conclusion that that neither the USL, with paltry handful of remaining clubs, nor NASL, with its requisite number of teams but organizational questions and new club issues, are ready to play, and therefore meet sanctioning requirements, in 2010. Without all of the pertinent information, which is in many cases confidential, none of can truly know the really "why" behind today's decision. The simplest, and most logical, conclusion is that USSF applied their standards and no one involved this little footy soap opera could live up to them.
So we'll wait for seven days while the two sides attempt to work something out. USSF is forcing them together to come to an agreement, using today's press release as a sort of public reprimand, and sending a clear message that no other outcome will be accepted. Either shape up, get along, and agree on an approach for 2010 that meets Federation standards, or there will be no sanctioning. What seems like a dodge is more appropriately viewed as a responsible use of the power they possess.
There are alternate takes, of course, and they range from viewing today's announcement and failure to sanction the the seemingly solid NASL as a calculated and insidious choice on the part of USSF, to more mundane appraisals like simple cowardice and ineffectual leadership. One potential NASL club's owner colored the decision to push for compromise as against the American way and preventing the new league from doing business. A noted soccer writer outlined an elaborate scenario where USSF directors, wary of a new league without spending restrictions, refused to sanction NASL because one of its clubs might one day embarrass MLS on the field.
Even those that haven't attempted to analyze the actions of US Soccer are frustrated by the lack of a resolution and are resorting to raking America's soccer leaders over the coals.
Many NASL adherents (generally those whose clubs are lined up to play in the new league) are calling for the new league to play anyway, sanctioning be damned. Why do they need USSF's okay when they have players (or can sign some) to send out, stadiums to play in, and fans ready to fill the stands? Stick it to USSF, go rogue, and give the people what they want.
Even if you hold the the opinion that USSF sanctioning is just window dressing, and the inability to play in CONCACAF competitions is worth the sacrifice, there could be serious detrimental results to playing outside the traditional structure. Per FIFA rules, players can be banned for life from playing in any sanctioned league if they participate in an unsanctioned one. Players who hope to one day (or already do) represent their countries on the international stage could be banned from their national teams. For everyone involved, including owners, coaches, and players, the risk of burning the bridge that connects them with the greater soccer world could be too much to ask. There would be players, mainly because there would be money, but would the quality of the league and their ability to do business be hampered by their rogue status?
It's almost impossible to see the answer to that question as being anything other than "Yes". With that answer in mind, I'm not so sure NASL would be smart to take such a drastic step. Better to play by the USSF's rules, even if they seem arbitrary and unfair at the moment, and works towards full inclusion in the structure that, for better or worse, is the reality of American soccer..
As for USL, their trump card is an established administrative system, with all of the necessary processes and typical red tape, that make a soccer league run. They have few clubs on their side, and they seemed frustratingly resolute in their believe that they, and they alone, should be running things on the lower levels of soccer. Of course, when we say "USL" these days, what we really mean is NuRock; it was the sale of the USL structure to the Atlanta-based concern by Nike that set this drama in motion in the first place. I've defended NuRock's right to protect their investment, including the lawsuit they've brought against defecting clubs, in the past, and while I understand why they've acted as they have, that doesn't mean I think it's right.
Sports, unlike almost any other business, involves a responsibility to the public trust. Fans aren't just customers whose business shows up on the bottom line. They give themselves over to their teams in many cases, and collectively have significant influence in shaping its image and ultimate success. For that reason, arguing for USL to throw in the towel on the second division and step aside for the greater good is justifiable; but because NuRock's raison d'être, as with any company, is to make money, I see no resolution that involves them quietly bowing out unless they can satisfactorily recoup the value their asset will lose without a flagship top division.
The bigwigs at USSF know this. They also know that the NASL owners have valid concerns about the direction of their league, and that it would be unfair make them accept USL control again. Compromise is the only way out. 2010 should be played under the auspices of USL with the understanding that the NASL clubs will pull out of the league officially following the season; the two sides can negotiate, quietly and behind closed doors while the play on field is the rightful public focus, towards a reasonable agreement.
While neither side will be completely happy, we'll have a stable second division setup, a sated national federation, and fans with teams who will be playing without any undo drama hanging over everything.
Step one is this season. I'm beyond caring who "wins" anymore, and I'm not interested in examining the machinations of USSF; I just want to know, both for American and Canadian soccers' as well as the fans' sake, that second division soccer will be happening in 2010.