On January 6, the United States Soccer Federation’s (USSF) board of directors announced the granting of provisional status to both the USL and NASL as Division II leagues.
While neither league currently meets the full standards for Division II status, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, in a USSF press release, argued that it is “in the best interest of the sport” to grant provisional status to both. Currently, US Soccer regulations adopted in 2008 require Division II leagues to have a minimum of 12 teams beyond their sixth year, and for all stadiums to have a minimum capacity of 5,000. The NASL does not meet the former rule, having only eight confirmed teams for the 2017 season, while the USL is not compliant with the latter, with several stadiums below the 5,000 threshold.
The board of directors stipulated that provisional status is also contingent on both leagues fulfilling additional criteria, which, along with a timeline for compliance, have yet to be released. The creation of a working group to aid both leagues in complying with USSF regulations was also announced.
Background: a tale of two leagues
To help better understand the decision, a little context: before the USSF’s decision, the NASL had been the sole Division II league in the American soccer pyramid. The USL, on the other hand, was classified as a Division III league and had been pushing for Division II status for over two years.
And for good reason: it has been more successful than the NASL.
In the past three years, the USL has grown from 13 teams to 30. In 2013, MLS and USL reached an agreement to phase MLS development squads into the USL, including Toronto FC II. This has given the USL access to teams with top coaching and talent development capabilities and afforded the league a certain level of stability, as MLS clubs are better able to support teams when compared to standalone clubs in either the USL or NASL.
Franchises like FC Cincinnati, meanwhile, have shown the potential for success in smaller, focused markets. Despite the difference in divisions, the USL has the better record against NASL teams in US Open Cup play over the last five years at 10-8-2.
The NASL’s continued stability, on the other hand, is in serious doubt. Five teams are set to exit the league, with Minnesota United joining MLS and the Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies switching to USL. Given that, until Friday, the USL was a division below the NASL, Ottawa and Tampa’s voluntary move to a lower league was a blow to the NASL (and a boon for USL). These are not the only problems faced by the NASL: Rayo OKC will not be playing in the upcoming season, and as of September 2016 four teams hadn’t paid their league bonds for 2017. Of the eight teams remaining, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers are facing serious financial issues and the New York Cosmos, the league’s current champion and most storied franchise, were on the financial brink until Mediacom stepped in and purchased a majority share of the club last week.
After much initial excitement, the NASL’s TV deal with beIN Sports and CBS did not give the league the televised ratings it wanted, further casting a cloud of doubt over its relevance and financial health.
Why it matters
What does this all mean for MLS, Canadian and American soccer and Toronto FC? With no system of promotion and relegation, this move may seem like an exercise in semantics, but there are a number of reasons why it matters.
First, it solidifies and protects professional soccer in the US and Canada (Canadian clubs play in both the NASL and the USL) below the MLS level. The move means the USL, given its relative success, gets what it rightly wanted. It could also help drive the continued growth of the league, with a rumoured broadcast deal in the works reported to be with ESPN and Sirius XM FC.
At the same time, by retaining the NASL’s Division II status, it prevents what could have been the death knell for that league. Division status matters; revenue, club and sponsorship value and media coverage are all impacted by a club’s division status. The USSF’s decision could also be a precursor to a merger between the two leagues; with all of its problems, it wouldn’t be hard to see the NASL combining with the USL. If that was the case, a merger could not be imposed by the USSF and would have to be agreed to by both leagues. The restructuring could be the USSF paving the way for unification.
The Canadian clubs
This is also positive for the Canadian teams operating in both leagues. The Ottawa Fury, TFC II and Vancouver Whitecaps II could all potentially benefit from USL’s raised profile. FC Edmonton, the NASL’s only Canadian team, can continue to build on its recent successes without worrying about the league’s collapse.
The main concern for MLS is academy teams currently playing in the USL. With the league committing itself to the USSF’s rules, will MLS clubs be willing to play ball with its academy teams? Specifically, the 5,000 capacity stadium rule comes to mind. Would MLS clubs be willing to upgrade current facilities just so their teams can play in the USL?
Jake Edwards, USL president, said in an interview that MLS reserve teams were very supportive of the USL’s application for Division II status. However, it’s unclear exactly what MLS, and its clubs, think. MLS did issue a press release, but it didn’t reveal much. According to FourFourTwo, there were reports that MLS actively tried to block USL’s ‘promotion’ to Division II status. The lack of initial public support means that there could be questions being asked within MLS and its clubs.
This also raises a big question for Toronto FC. The Ontario Soccer Centre, home of TFC II, has a capacity of 2,000, well short of the 5,000 minimum that will eventually be required by the USSF. Other than a brief mention in a press release on league alignment, Toronto FC has not made any public statements on the move that I could find.
Much like MLS, the lack of public statements could indicate questioning within the club about the TFC II’s future within the league.
Canadian Premier League
And of course, swirling over all of this is the coming of the Canadian Premier League, with its launch set for 2018. Could it be possible for teams like TFC II to switch to the CPL if they are unwilling to meet the USSF’s rules? Possibly - though perhaps unlikely, as reports indicate that MLS teams will not be permitted to have reserve teams participate.
Additionally, if deep-pocketed owners are secured for the CPL, it is difficult to see how a developmental team could compete. Regardless, with little in the way of confirmed details about the nature and makeup of the CPL available, it is next to impossible to know how the CPL will affect Canadian teams in the USL and NASL.
What are your thoughts on the USSF’s decision? How will it influence Toronto FC, MLS and the professional game in North America?