Both the NASL and USL were awarded USSF Provisional Division II status for 2017 in a decision announced last night, giving both leagues and the U.S. Soccer Federation time to map out a sustainable business structure for North American professional soccer.
The decision had been put off for a month, giving Division II NASL and Division III USL time to structure their business operations for the coming season. USSF guidelines require that a Division 2 league have at least 12 teams, but with several NASL teams moving up to MLS (Minnesota), defections to USL (Tampa Bay, Ottawa) or folding (OKC Rayo, Jacksonville), the league was looking at a six-team circuit, and after years of waivers, the writing was certainly on the wall. USL teams meets many USSF Division II requirements and has grown to 30 squads, but not all 30 teams met USSF requirements in terms of stadiums, pitches and financial backing — only two-third (roughly) do. The decision allows both leagues a year to get their houses into shape for a longer-lasting agreement.
“After an exhaustive process working with both leagues, in the best interest of the sport the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors has decided to grant provisional Division II status to the NASL and USL,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “U.S. Soccer will create an internal working group that will work with each league to set a pathway to meet the full requirements for Division II and allow for the larger goal of creating a sustainable future. We look forward to another productive year for professional soccer in this country.”
“The NASL Board of Governors and I support U.S. Soccer’s decision to grant the league provisional Division II status,” said North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik. “We’re excited about beginning play in April, and we look forward to the continued growth of our league and soccer in the U.S.”
“The USL is honored to receive provisional U.S. Soccer Federation Division II status, which provides further validation about our League’s financial sustainability, national footprint, ownership quality, stadium infrastructure and player development,” said Alec Papadakis, USL Chief Executive Officer. “Our teams have invested more than $100 million into stadium development in the last year to enhance the experience for the 1.5 million passionate fans that attended games in 2016, the 1,000-plus players and nearly 100 coaches that have positioned our League as a highly sophisticated competition model that cultivates strong regional rivalries.”
The ideal situation, of course, would be a restructuring of both leagues and a merger of sorts, whether it be a new combined NASL/USL circuit, organized interleague play or the establishment of a new Division III league. And that would seem to be the goal of USSF, given the reference to an internal working group by Gulati.
The move is good news for both leagues. For the NASL, it could mean the return of the New York Cosmos, as businessman Rocco Commisso has been linked to a purchase of the team, contingent on NASL landing Division II standing in 2017. With the Cosmos and possibly new management in Jacksonville, NASL could be at eight teams in 2017 — not great, but better than many anticipated. (Indy Eleven, San Francisco Deltas, North Carolina FC, And with new NASL leadership on the horizon, the future of the league is very much up for grabs.
And, as you might expect, USL club owners were elated with the decision.
“In this sport, we are judged by our actions and not just our intentions. We are proud to be a part of a group that fulfills their commitments and does right by their clubs and fans,” said Sacramento Republic FC President Warren Smith in a statement. “The USL committed to the soccer community they would invest and grow and they have done exactly that. Their vision started at the top and I want to personally thank [USL President] Jake Edwards, [USL Chief Executive Officer] Alec [Papadakis] and the entire USL staff for building one of the most globally recognized second division professional soccer leagues in the world.”
“[Energy FC Co-Owner] Tim [McLaughlin] and I are extremely pleased with the U.S. Soccer Federation’s decision to grant provisional Division 2 status to USL,” said OKC Energy FC co-owner Bob Funk Jr. in a team statement. “This decision is the culmination of dedication and hard work by Alec Papadakis and Jake Edwards and their staff at the USL as well as the other owners of USL franchises across the country. This is another positive step for professional soccer in the United States as well as Oklahoma City.”
Photo of Tampa Bay Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov by Matt May, courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies.