The U.S. Soccer Board of Directors has engaged in a reverse Solomonic decision that's akin to ordering Humpty Dumpty to put himself back together again.
To recap, the USL First Division (USL-1) has been the second-tier of American and Canadian professional soccer for as long as Major League Soccer has existed as the top level. It was at times under a different name, but it actually has a long history that dwarfs that of MLS.
But when the league was sold earlier this year to a new corporate entity, things got acrimonious as the member teams chafed under league restrictions. A nasty divorce of sorts followed, with a number of teams banding together to form a new league, the NASL. They applied for sanction to the US Soccer Federation.
They were denied.
Yet strangely, the USSF didn't stop there. They also refused to sanction the remaining teams in USL-1 as a league, either.
The federation has instead ordered both parties back to the negotiating table. Or rather, all but locked them into the same room and thrown away the key for a week.
In a release, the USSF had a more politically correct wording for the situation.
"The U.S. Soccer Board of Directors has given both organizations seven days to try to work out an interim solution for the 2010 season."
The only clear reason for such a drastic strongarm move on the part of the USSF given was that the teams in both leagues could not field "eight viable teams".
Technically, the proposed North American Soccer League has ten clubs, though perhaps the USSF isn't counting the Vancouver Whitecaps as a true member, since that organization is scheduled to join MLS in another year. Or perhaps the pending litigation the USL has levied on a few teams breaking away makes their NASL membership untenable.
Still, without any stated evidence of those issues as the main problem, and even with the Whitecaps' departure, that would leave nine teams in the league. I've always been poor with math, but even I know nine is more than eight. With the USSF not making clear why they consider certain NASL teams "viable", or not, the designation seems arbitrary.
Similarly, the rationale for forcing the USL-1 to accept back the runaway teams is another head-scratcher.
“There are still too many uncertainties for both organizations, which would be extremely difficult to resolve in a timely fashion that would allow them to prepare for the 2010 season,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati in a statement.
I simply don't understand how it's not more "extremely difficult" to force disagreeing parties to work together in a timely manner. If they'd been able to do that, they wouldn't have split in the first place.
“In the best interest of soccer in the United States, we decided to not sanction either league at this point," Gualti said.
Let me rephrase Gulati's statement so that it makes more sense.
"In the best interest of MLS, we decided to shut down the possibility of competition."
The logic of the USSF power move against the NASL makes sense when one realizes that all it would take to topple the slow, steady and incremental progress of MLS would be for one enthusiastic, big-pocketed owner to decide to join the NASL, and take advantage of the greater flexibility of the organization.
Then this owner - we'll call him, for purposes of the illustration, Lark Tuban - who wouldn't be limited by the MLS salary cap, could bring in a number of excellent players and a quality coach.
Not only could such a team kick the stuffing out of the other NASL squads, but it could easily set its sight on bigger prey - MLS teams.
The Open Cup, the USA equivalent of the FA Cup, would provide the perfect venue. With MLS teams being limited by league rules to only a few top-drawer players, and often unable to field these top players, due to fixture congestion, in the Open Cup, Tuban and his millions could make the tournament their playground and lift the trophy high.
The USSF runs the Open Cup tournament, so they would essentially be providing Tuban the stage on which to humiliate the country's top flight league.
Would having one great team make the NASL better than MLS?
Objectively, perhaps not. But leagues aren't judged as a whole by any outside audience. People evaluate the upper tier. La Liga is known for Barcelona and Real Madrid - not Xerez.
Maybe the NASL wouldn't be as quality as MLS from top to bottom, but that one team of Tuban's could be better than the MLS average - and in MLS, the high isn't very far up from the average.
There are plenty of people who would decide that because Tuban's NASL team beat all the MLS teams for the Open Cup title, NASL is clearly better than MLS.
Tuban would ride the wave of that logic with publicity to hype up all of his big-name signings, with smack-talk deriding MLS, and an exclusive contract to show all of his team's games on HDNet, where the visual appeal of the matches would put most MLS broadcasts to shame.
The USSF is playing hardball with the warring leagues, but also with their own tournament, the Open Cup. If neither league is sanctioned, the trophy might as well be handed to an MLS team, who would easily take out the rec-league competition that would be offered in the place of USL or NASL teams.
Clearly, the federation has abdicated their responsibility to the Open Cup, as a NASL ringer would make the tournament the most exciting domestic competition in years.
"Join or die," is the simple message the USSF is sending now.
The USL, with its rules and limits, was always a safe, non-threatening league that MLS never had to worry about.
Not so the NASL. Any billionaire could swoop in and laugh at the lack of a designated player rule and buy great players for his team. Even the name of the league taps into the nostalgia for top-down soccer success. Screw the "slow, steady" MLS progress. Remember the Cosmos.
Given the chance, Tuban might pull it all off, just for kicks and to have a winner. Yet such brash leadership, even with selfish motivation, might also serve to goose MLS into loosening up the control strings they have on the league.
Now it won't happen, though. The USSF has headed off the threat before it fully germinated, keeping MLS in a competitive incubator and revealing itself as implicitly supportive of the monopoly the current league has on the professional game at present.
Of course, such zealous protection of MLS might reveal more about the fragility of the league than anything else.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
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