A year ago when an outfit nobody had ever heard of before called NuRock Holdings LLC - they apparently build cheap apartments - plunked down actual US dollars in return for ownership of the various entities collectively known as the United Soccer Leagues, most of us assumed that it was either a vanity purchase by some guys with more money than sense or some kind Quixotic mission to save lower division soccer in the US.
The jury probably is still out on that one but this week they demonstrated the kind of outside the box thinking - not to mention killer instinct - that is the hallmark of a bunch of guys who know what they're doing and are playing for keeps, and with one stroke they may have put "paid" as they say across the pond, to the account of the fledgling D2 NASL.
The latter was born largely of frustration over the high handed - some would say under handed - way that the Nike-to-NuRock handoff went down. The TOA (later NASL) group felt that they were in the game and were negotiating in good faith when suddenly it Nike announced that they had sold it to NuRock and then ran for the exits like a bunch of guys who'd just been caught counting cards at a Maria-owned casino.
It then seemed as much a fit of pique as anything else when the TOA owners almost immediately thumbed their noses at NuRock and announced that a number of existing (and pledged) USL1 teams were breaking away to start their own league.
It looked for all the world like the NuRock guys had bought so much nothing since USL, shorn of it's D2 flagship league, largely boils down to not much. Super Y and W League are nice and all, but they aren't what they paid Nike all that money for.
You could hear Frank Marcos laughing all the way from that beach in Portugal.
He had also of course sold NuRock his Chief Assistant, Hatchet Man Tim Holt, along with the office furniture and the domain name but he's so roundly detested that even that turned into a minus. When you've spent a decade or so whacking people with sticks they aren't likely to instantly forgive and forget. "I was only following orders" didn't get Albert Speer very far either.
Put another way, if NuRock was trying to make the point that it was a brand new day at suddenly user-freindly USL HQ, keeping Holt around wasn't the way to do it.
USSF Fixer-in-Chief Dan Flynn, along with part time CEO Sunil "Conflict of Interest" Gulati, who managed to pry his lips from Jack Warners' rear end for the purpose, tried to perform a shotgun wedding on the reluctant couple and when that failed they even got Don Garber to stub out his illegal cigar long enough to join them in a marathon "whack them on the head" session but the two sides wouldn't budge.
They were determined to destroy themselves no matter what.
Which didn't bother much of anybody except that they were about to take D2 soccer in the US down with them.
Eventually, as we all know, Gulati was forced to pull out his big gun: no, not that, I'm talking about the threat of withholding sanctioning, without which no player will play, no referee will referee and no sponsor will write a check.
What he said of course was that he wasn't about to sanction any D2 league that didn't have 8 members, knowing full well that neither group could actually put that many teams on the field.
In the end, in order to salvage the season - and, it should be duly noted, the paychecks of hundreds of players, something you might keep in mind the next time you want to trash the man - Gulati essentially seized control of D2 soccer in the US and Canada (the CSA did it's usual "Bobblehead Doll in the Back Window of a 98 LeSabre" routine, nodding furiously as they waited for the USSF to tell them what it was they were agreeing to) and created his own league, but making clear that he considered it a one-year-and-out kind of a deal.
Many of us doubted whether that would actually be the case, believing that once the USSF grabbed ahold of the huge Tar Baby that is second division soccer that it would prove impossible to toss back.
Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago when USSF announced that there were to be rigid new standards for D2 teams involving money, rich guys and, well, more money, it seemed like all Gulati was doing was getting his own house in order by weeding out the non-hackers in preparation for the inevitable "OK, fine, one more year, but THAT'S IT, I MEAN IT THIS TIME" announcement from the sluggardly PR operatives at Soccer House.
Bloggers and BigSoccer types alike - most of them Hoovering up the work of Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer - spent a lot of time and effort on figuring out who could cut the new rules and who couldn't, who was in financial deep doo-doo (to borrow a technical term from the late Bear, Stearns) and whether USSF would "grandfather in" solid organizations who have track records but lack piles of greenbacks.
The point, as before, was simply "Getting to Eight". If you could you'd have a league. If you couldn't - and it looked a lot like nobody really could - then Gulati was once again going to have to either keep the thing in-house or watch it all go down the drain.
Yesterday, they came up with what can only be described as a brilliant solution: they made getting to eight irrelevant.
They announced that they're not even going to try to put together a D2 league. Rather, they're going to fold all their D2 and D3 teams into one entity. They'll call it D3 to sidestep Sunils' Law, play in four regional divisions so that D3 teams can afford the travel and let the whole D2 thing pound sand.
The eminent scholars of Wharton, Kellogg and the other eminent schools of business need start writing the papers now: this is a classic case of leveraging your assets - in this case, they've got a bunch of D3 teams hanging around - and squeezing the other guy out.
Because of course NASL doesn't have the luxury of changing the game. They can either come up with 8 teams - which they can't do, any more than they can field he required 10 in 2012 and 12 shortly after that - or they can toss in their cards and head for the bar, leaving NuRock/USL as the last man at the table.
It solves the problem of Puerto Rico, a great outfit that was never going to come up with the deep pockets owner Gulati was demanding. New York, which had decided to come into D3 anyway, finds itself not really having to make the decision. Rochester, which was on the fence, will shortly get off of it again. Minnesota, another strong organization which was having trouble meeting the parameters, now has clear sailing. Ditto Crystal Palace Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. etc, etc.
And the fact that Edmonton wants to come in but might have run afoul of the "foreign team" limit? No problem. Montreal leaving next year? No big deal.
Everybody's problems magically vanished and the NASL clubs will have Ben Franklins' choice: Join or Die.
And presuming that most of them chose life, thereby ending up back in the USL fold, then coming up with 8, or even 10 - D2-qualified teams for the 2012 season is a snap.
(And if everyone comes around to the inevitable quickly enough, they could probably still pull it off for 2011; you have to guess that Gulati wouldn't object a bit, seeing as how he'll have gotten literally every last damned thing he wanted.)
And to make it all more palatable, NuRock has promised to have the whole thing operate under the control of a Board of Governors rather than a dictatorial HQ, which was, after all, the main reason the TOA split off in the first place.
One wonders whether Gulati saw this coming. The initial reaction is of course that he's been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Flimflammed.
In fact though, being an undeniably bright guy and an first rate economist, you have to wonder if he saw the solution and consciously set up a situation where this was going to be the result.
The fact that it's truly Machiavellian doesn't mean it's not the case.
The fact that this may mean there isn't going to be a D2 soccer league this year is largely irrelevant. From a fans' perspective, not much is going to change.