Don't Hold Your Breath: MLS II and Dueling Microphones

If you've been closely following the convoluted game of chicken currently being played by the new owners of USL and the renegade group of USL1 owners who call themselves the TOA (Ticked-off Owners Association), congratulations. You're certifiable.

For the rest of us, the threats, counter threats, rumors and gross exaggerations leaking (intentionally or not) over the transom from the (most likely cheap) rented hotel meeting rooms where everyone is going to huff and puff at each other is all we need to know for certain that sooner or later one side or the other will cave in, but until the first ball is kicked in anger in the 2010 USL season almost nothing can be said to be permanent.

So getting all worked up about each arcane twist and turn in the long sad saga is, basically, a waste of time.

Still, it has to be said that Alec Papadakis, the public voice of NuRock, the Bedrockian-monickered owners of USL1 (seriously, were they going for the whole Wilma and Betty, Mr. Slate thing or what?) is either a hell of a poker player or an idiot.

We knew it was getting ugly in early October when USL President Tim Holt sent emails to all players currently rostered by TOA member teams, essentially telling them that they were now unemployed.

You can see the entire text of the letter COURTESY OF INSIDE MINNESOTA SOCCER, but the meat of the letter is this blunt statement:

...all Players under Contract with the (Team Name) have been released by USL. The U.S. Soccer Federation has been advised of the same and has also released all Players from their USL Contracts and USSF Registrations.

Now if you're one of the players involved, and you're counting on this job to feed your kids, this would come as a pretty big shock, something which, of course, NuRock was counting on.

Unfortunately, this also came as a shock to USSF, who claimed they had done no such thing and that they had not "released" anyone from anything. Back to you ALex.

Fortunately, this incident convinced the Grand Poobahs of American soccer that this little pissing match wasn't a good thing for anyone and USSF hastily convened a meeting in New York which reportedly included Sunil Gulati and if not Don Garber then someone with decent MLS throw weight, along with Holt, Papadakis and half of the TOA members in attendance and the other half sitting in via teleconference.

The whole thing then went back behind closed doors for a while and it appeared that cooler heads were prevailing.

Unfortunately, this was not so.

Yesterday an interview that Papadakis gave to Montreal radio station CKAC hit the web with a thud. As, again, was certainly Alex' intention.

Among other things, the NuRock exec announced that Montreal and Vancouver were no longer members of USL1:

"The negotiations are finished...We decided to continue our preparation for the season 2010 with the teams which wished to remain with us...."

"I would like to thank the two Canadian teams, the WhiteCaps and the Impact, for all that contributed to the USL for the past few years...They were excellent for our league and I have much admiration for them. Now, I wish them good luck in their future plans. "

Papadakis also stated that there were no hard feelings on either side, which is of course patent nonsense, and continued on to say that "it will be revealed at the press conference next week which Canadian cities will join the USL in the next few years."
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Unmentioned was whether the US-based TOA teams were also being dumped, although one would presume they were since there was no reason to single out Vancouver and Montreal.

However, the thing that set off a good deal of buzz was this line from the CKAC online article:

"TOA owners have two options for 2010: create a brand new league or make a deal with MLS to create a second division for that league."

This set off a flurry of discussion (and blog posts by sites that will repeat anything) of the pending establishment of "MLS II". An astonishingly fast response from MLS dispelled that notion.

Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi, clearly steamed, confirmed to CBCSports that Vancouver would not be competing in USL1 next year and that he and the rest of the TOA guys were applying to USSF for permission to start a new league.

"We're still pursuing the new league alternative, and by the end of the week, we should have our application into the USSF for them to grant us that status,"

Then, a few hours later, USL1 issued a "further explanation" of Papadakis' remarks:

“While the statements made in the earlier interview were accurate in that we have ceased negotiations with the (breakaway) Team Owner’s Association as a group, we remain in dialogue with certain individual TOA teams about their possible participation in USL-1 for 2010. We are open to the return of the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps to USL-1 for 2010; however, we continue to move forward with our preparations for next season.”

At about the same time, Lenarduzzi talked to CBCSports again, saying that the "door hasn't been shut" on Vancouver possibly returning to the USL next year but that it is indeed actively pursuing "other options", including forming its own league with other USL teams.

For his part Montreal Impact President Joey Saputo had this to say through a spokesman:

"Following the press release issued earlier by the USL, I would also like to confirm that there are still ongoing talks between the Montreal Impact and the USL...The negotiations are not over. We continue to work on various options, including the possibility of seeing the Impact in the USL-1 in 2010."

This was followed by a note that said Saputo would have nothing else to say on the matter.

So what does all of this mean?

Who the hell knows?

I think though that we can make some broad assumptions, first among them being that Alex Papadakis is a loose cannon who someone needs to put a muzzle on. Someone also needs to tell him that USSF calls the shots here and his little league is whatever Sunil Gulati says it is.

Second, it seems probable that the USSF and Sunil Gulati reacted to all this grenade lobbing and public posturing and instructed everybody to knock it off. It's almost certainly not a coincidence that all three parties issued "clarification" statements within an hour or so of each other.

Gulati will see that all of these things are resolved the way they always are: behind closed doors, not in the media.

As such, I wouldn't be looking for any more news on this subject for a while now.

There are of course several possibilities going forward.

A new minor soccer league is a possibility, of course, but I'm not sure that anybody really wants that. One second division league is all USSF is likely to allow.

(Just in case you were wondering why the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact are negotiating directly with the USSF to start a league while ignoring their own national federation be advised that the limp, hopelessly incompetent CSA is probably tied up right now putting the finsihing touches on their letter congratulating the Toronto Blizzard on another fine NASL season.)

There are rumors floating around today that MLS is considering re-establishing some kind of reserve league and allowing the TOA members to join, thereby sidestepping the question of what level of league it is.

This would also fit nicely with the kind of setup I suggested a week or so ago, with MLS teams combining their developmental players into a handful of teams. Putting them in a league with five or six USL sides would seem to be ideal.

That way their kids get to play what amounts to second division soccer while they would still have them available for immediate callup since they would bem in fact, their own reserve players. Not loaned out, not temporarily assigned, no messy paperwork or league approvals needed.

That's not to say that I expect something like this. Frankly it's tough to say what to expect. Except that it's probably safe to say that deadlines or no deadlines, this is going to be dragging on for some time to come.

One other note:

Somewhere in Canada there's a sportswriter who I want to buy dinner for.

The precise author of THIS ARTICLE is not identified, but about 2/3rds of the way down he or she proved that at least somebody up there gets it when they wrote this sentence:

Vancouver and Montreal are two of the most successful teams in the USL, which is one level below Major League Soccer, the top pro soccer league in the U.S. and Canada(Emphasis mine)

Finally: someone who doesn't use the insulting and factually incorrect construct "the top professional league in North America". Anyone who's paid any attention at all to the CONCACAF Champions league knows that Mexican League teams regularly kick our ass and that, last I checked, Mexico was still in North America.

So here's to you, sir or madam.