Canales Corner: USSF Brokers Best Of Bad Options

As much as the NASL tried to recall the glory days of the original North American Soccer League, the breakaway entity wasn't ready for prime time.
By Andrea Canales

Whether or not it waited too long by letting an important problem fester before stepping forward to be part of the solution, and even if it was acting to protect the interests of the league which it is more closely aligned with, the U.S. Soccer Federation's decisive action to essentially referee a short-term compromise between the USL an NASL is probably the right move.

Essentially, the strong-arm move by the USSF pushed the warring parties together, and that allows second-division soccer, a crucial, yet oft-overlooked component of game and player development in Canada and the USA to continue for another year.

The shadow of Major League Soccer looms over the whole issue, however. It wasn't just the lawsuits on the break-away teams that crippled the NASL from the start. It was the fact that two key teams on both sides of the USL/NASL battle were already looking past the whole fracas.

The Vancouver Whitecaps couldn't have that much loyalty to the fortunes of the NASL when they were planning to shortly leave to join MLS. Neither could Portland be expected to think long-term with the USL, since they'd also be a part of MLS in 2011.

Sure, a big time owner could swoop in, taking the NASL big-time by utilizing the double-punch combo of team ownership administration and no salary cap, but billionaires usually know better than to entangle themselves with messy litigation and partners who are already looking to greener grass.

Frankly, it's clear that the Seattle Sounders are now the new USL model for success, and they are spelling it as "get-to-MLS".

The Seattle Sounders didn't pull anywhere near the numbers they did as an MLS team back when they were a USL squad. 

Clearly, then, the USL was never a threat to MLS, but an important partner, especially in developing players while on loan. Brian Ching got his scoring mojo back in the USL, and eventually made the USA World Cup squad in 2006.

In a way, splitting the two warring parties into different conferences that retain the names is a move that mimics when the American Football League had its teams all go into the AFC conference in the merger that created the modern NFL.

It's going to certainly make games between the two different USL/NASL conferences have some extra bite.

It's a tacked-together second division, sure, but it's definitely better than none at all.

Sadly, it should never have come to this, and there's still a lot to be worked out to make the compromise even remotely successful.

"The Federation will take a much more direct role than it does in other professional leagues in the United States for this year in our arrangement," said USSF president Sunil Gulati. "We’ll be involved with officiating, scheduling and some of the marketing issues if there are any of those, disciplinary issues, and operational issues in terms of settings and general guidelines."

If anything will encourage the USL/NASL factions to get things worked out and to move forward, either together or seperately, it should be getting saddled with the bureaucratic administration of the USSF. 

Governance by committee is never quick and efficient. Gulati made a passing reference in the media conference call on the situation, mentioning how MLS has grown every year except one. What he didn't detail was the crucial role that new MLS commissioner Don Garber played in helping the league bounce back from that contraction year.

The new USL/NASL combo will have no commissioner at present. Coming to an agreement on such a person could well be one of the biggest hurdles the two sides have to overcome. However, a nudge from the frustration of working with the USSF committees for every league decision could well get that going.

It's more than a bit unprecedented for a federation to have so much control over a domestic league, but the assuming the situation is temporary one, it may function just fine.

Gulati saw the federation's role as one with a time limit.

"I don’t see U.S. Soccer continuing to be involved at the level we’re going to be this year. We’re involved in all of our professional leagues up to a point, most clearly in the regulatory area and in the case of officials and referees. But I don’t see us going beyond those and maybe a couple of other roles with Division 2 or anyone else beyond this year."

Perhaps once of the distrust of the new USL ownership passes and more compromises are reached, the league won't need the Papa Bear treatment from the USSF.

The worst of the crisis, that the two competitors would wound each other so much that neither could go forward, has been averted. Of course, the natural selection of the stronger league beating out the weaker and then absorbing the remnants of the other is gone as well.

Clearly, though, the risk of the first element was more damaging than the reward of the second.

"What were absolutely desperate to do, and got done, was make sure we had a Division 2 in place at the start of the season, in a World Cup year and in a situation where the sport is building; it would be crazy not to be able to get that done," said Gulati of the final negotiations.

Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of North America

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