Soccer Maturity, Soccer Progress and Getting to Seven

Since the ratings suggest that I'm not the only one who long ago gave up trying to find entertainment on Saturday Night Live, we're indebted to Houston Dynamo fan (and Most Interesting Man in the World) flippin269 for THIS LINK TO A CLIP FROM LAST NIGHT which includes a reference to Major League Soccer.

Fortunately, we're mostly past feeling the need to respond to perceived slights like this with misplaced anger and BigSoccer threads full of wall-to-wall outrage.

In any case, a few years ago they wouldn't have assumed that most people knew what MLS was, so one could claim this is actually a species of progress. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but I'd wager that Don Garber would respond, as should we, that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Another example of this new found collective maturity would be found in your reaction to this piece of thoughtful intellectual discourse:

[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEkdQBYi9EY"]YouTube- Major League Soccer Is A Major League Bore![/ame]

I can easily recall the days when such ludicrous drivel from some cheap, empty-headed bint would cause legions of American soccer fans to go immediately over to YouTube in order to post juvenile, misogynistic and offensive responses replete with scatological references and comparisons of her face with the rear end of a leprous warthog with diarrhea.

It's a good thing that we're well past that kind of thing, right?

Right? Hello?

In case you missed it last week, what with tree-erecting, egg-nogging and general festivity, United Soccer Leagues L.L.C. has FILED SUIT IN HILLSBOROUGH, FLORIDA against Crystal Palace Baltimore, the Rochester Rhinos and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The specifics have not been made public but in the past NuRock Holdings has claimed that the NASL teams have a contractual obligation to compete in USL1.

Jeff Cooper, the St. Louis attorney who has been trying to bring MLS to the Gateway City for the better part of the decade and who served as the point man for the TOA in their negotiations to buy USL1 from Nike, struck a defiant tone:

“Rochester, Tampa and Baltimore are committed to playing in our league and there is nothing that will stop them from playing in our league this year. They can try to seek any remedy they want to seek, there is no legal theory out there that I know of — I don’t know them all, but I know quite a few — that would keep them from playing in our league..."

Interestingly, KENN.COM, one of the real jewels of the soccer blogosphere, has unearthed evidence that seems to prove that USSF has, according to the USL itself, been willing to sanction more than one minor soccer league:

“The A-League, which operates in the U.S. and Canada with seven teams, is the only other Division II league sanctioned by the USSF, whose rules allow for up to four Division II leagues.”

In addition, the ever-excellent INSIDE MINNESOTA SOCCER reports that the "documentation" the NASL and USL was directed to deliver to the USSF task force consisted of copies of stadium leases for the various teams, thereby providing evidence that a team actually exists.

With that in mind, we can speculate on USSFs' thinking:

Since Federation bylaws prohibit sanctioning any league consisting of fewer than eight teams - although they also allow for a possible waiver allowing only seven - for USSF to even consider sanctioning two leagues they would both have to prove they can field at least seven teams.

It's safe to assume that in the course of the meeting last Sunday each league claimed membership numbers that the other disputed since, particularly in the case of USL, they're presumably counting New York (which appears to be a phantom team at this point), Cleveland (who may or may not have a team in 2010, but who are highly unlikely to have a stadium deal at present) and possibly Edmonton as well.

The easiest - or in any case least traumatic - decision USSF can make would be to agree to let both leagues operate. That way nobody is forced to play in a league they don't want to be in and NuRock still has a Div II entity, albeit shorn of a few limbs.

Indeed, one has to believe that the Two Leagues Solution© is the one Sunil Gulati would prefer if he can find any way to pull it off. Everybody gets at least a piece of the pie and, most importantly, nobody ends up suing USSF.

But it's difficult to see how USL1 gets to at least seven without about three more teams. Coincidentally, they're suing three teams not, as one might expect, all of the defectors, the NASL and everybody else in sight.

As IMS rightly notes, opinion among American soccer fans seems to be running strongly in NASLs' favor. For years USL has been, in many peoples' opinions, running roughshod over minor league soccer in this country, stifling growth and prohibiting real cooperation between the upper divisions in favor of lining it's own pockets.

Furthermore, it's true that FIFA bylaws stipulate that teams own leagues, not corporations or individuals.

On the face of it, USL would seem to be fighting against the flood, against the direction of soccer progress in the US. That doesn't mean that they're going to lay down simply because it's in everyone elses' best interests that they do. They paid Nike good money for USL and they don't intend to see it - and their investment - simply vanish without a fight.

But an awful lot of people would like to see USSF take the position that league ownership is and should be the province of the teams themselves, not some otherwise unconnected corporate entity.

One thing seems certain: if there's someone we don't want deciding the future direction of second division professional soccer in the US, it's some politician/lawyer wearing a black robe. Here's hoping that's not how it turns out.