NASL: Strike Two

Last September when NuRock, the Florida outfit which owns the United Soccer Leagues, announced that they had decided not to file the paperwork requesting Division 2 status from the USSF, I offered the opinion that it was A CLEVER MOVE.

By opting to fold all of their affiliated clubs - D2 and D3 - into one single entity called USL Pro they were able to neatly sidestep the stringent - some would say unreasonable - requirements that USSF put into place last Summer in an attempt to establish a stable, permanent second division in American soccer.

Primary among those requirements are a principal owner with a substantial net worth ($20 million), the posting of a hefty performance bond and additional financial guarantees that Gulati, Flynn & Co. felt would stop (or at least slow down) the revolving door "here-today-gone-tomorrow" nature of a division whose history is an ugly litany of vanished teams, broken dreams and unfathomable piles of cash which would have done more good if it had been used to build a cheery Autumn bonfire.

Clearly, USSF's goal is to emerge on the other side of the USL1/NASL chaos with one single, stable second division, something which they made very clear when they included the additional requirement that for a league to be sanctioned they would need to have eight teams in 2011, ten teams in 2012 and a whopping twelve teams in 2012, goals which quickly move from difficult to borderline impossible unless every qualified club in North America is included.

If in the interim one league or the other can actually meet the new requirements, great; they'll have Sunils' blessing to go forth and compete (nobody gives a rats' ass about getting the blessing of the CSA; they're about as relevant to any of this as your Aunt Mildred; maybe more, since Millie might be talked into buying a ticket, while the CSA demands free parking, game passes and a buffet).

But as the pool of viable candidates continues to shrink from defections to MLS (Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal) even if "getting to eight", as I put it last Summer, is somehow feasible, geting to ten and then twelve is almost inconceivable (and yes, I do know what that word means).

Nonetheless, the stubborn strivers of the NASL - many observers believe that at this point it's as much an issue of pure ego as anything else - submitted an application to USSF that envisioned a nine team league and in November USSF granted them "provisional" sanctioning pending the resolution of some outstanding issues.

NASL fans - is there really such a thing? Have we really come down to rooting for competing leagues here? - conveniently ignored the modifier and have been happily anticipating the kickoff of the 2011 Division 2 season with their outfit standing tall since in the land of the Lilliputians a pygmy looks like a giant.

Unfortunately for them a few realities have emerged in recent weeks, primary among them being the final admission that Jeff Cooper in St. Louis has no money, no investors and no plan.

Has anyone in US soccer history ever fallen so far so fast? About 18 months ago the guy was the leader of an MLS bid team, and from there moved on to ownership of a Division 2 club, a WPS franchise and the Busch Soccer Park and was named interim Commissioner of the new, resurgent NASL.

Cooper is now a dead mouse on the soccer community's kitchen floor, his reputation not just tarnished but in ashes and not much of anyone is shedding any tears except perhaps his former partners in NASL, who found themselves down another team.

But their application still had eight teams, which was supposed to be enough.

Unfortunately for them, even the USSF has some well-hidden, seldom demonstrated scruples and last Thursday the NASL was informed that their provisional league sanctioning has been revoked.

And as we all know, without sanctioning from a national federation, no player will play no coach will coach and no referee will set aside his white cane and blow a whistle.

NASL: all dressed up and no place to play.

The problem, apparently, stems from the solution to their original problem, namely their ownership group simply doesn't have the kind of money USSF says it needs to have.

The reason their original approval was termed "provisional" was an uncharacteristically generous gesture on the part of USSF since it was well known that several teams - Minnesota, St. Louis, Atlanta, Puerto Rico and Carolina - did not have the requisite funding and/or principal owner. NASL, however, convinced Gulati and Flynn that they had big fish on the line and it was just a matter of reeling them in, a process which would be injured, maybe irreparably, if they didn't have the USSF seal of approval.

So Federation allowed them to proceed with preparations for 2011, with the caveat that they'd better boat those fish of theirs, and fast.

Unfortunately, the solution which the NASL finally presented to USSF was possibly worse than the original problem, which is by way of reintroducing our old friend Traffic Sports.

As you may know, Traffic (an aptly named company) is a Brazil-based sports management firm whose main business is the third party ownership of player contracts and transfer rights and the buying and selling of same. It's a somewhat seedy, extremely complicated and vastly lucrative business which MLS refuses to participate in but which is common the world over.

Traffic, outright owners of Miami FC, has generously agreed to fund Carolina, Minnesota and Atlanta giving them de facto control of half of the teams in NASL.

(And that's leaving aside the fact that they're already giving them a pass on Puerto Rico because CONCACAF wants it that way, FC Edmonton is, to quote the inestimable Kenn Tomasch "a train wreck" that has roughly zero chance of surviving and Montreal is leaving the whole mess after this season. Other than that, they're really doing swell.)

In the end, all of this was apparently too much for USSF to stomach and they pulled the plug. They have agreed to consider any new circumstances which the league can present in the next few weeks and NASL is busy making all kinds of confident noises about how everything is fine, no problem, minor glitch, nothing to see here.

Except that they're due to kick off in a few weeks and they don't have anything like a legal league.

Some people are pointing out that at one point MLS had one guy owning six teams and claiming that this is no different. But the fact is there's a world of difference:

First of all nobody was ever remotely happy about it and it was never seen as a permanent solution whereas it's difficult to see how the situation in NASL would ever change.

Second - and more importantly - to disallow the Anschutz/Hunt duality would have meant the collapse of first division professional soccer in the US, and there would have been snow on the hills of hell before we got another shot at it.

Third, and this is key, there ARE eight stable well-financed second division outfits in North America. It's just that they're currently divided into the rough equivalent of the Crips and the Bloods and aren't willing to play nice. Gulati made this his own problem in 2010 when he created USSF2, but he refuses to do so in 2011.

In short, the solution to all of this is simple and obvious, and if they refuse to avail themselves of it then it's on them, not USSF.

Some people see this whole thing as a colossal game of chicken. They'll tell you that in the end USSF won't "let D2 soccer collapse" (or "disappear" or "be destroyed", etc.), and that the US "needs" a second division.

My question would be: says who?

Yes, long term, a professional soccer pyramid is highly desirable and we'll get there one day. But USSF has made it clear that it has to be a stable, solid well-financed system or it's only going to end up being the exact same ugly disaster that it's been for the last 30 years and Sunil is simply not interested in more of the same.

And I think that calling his bluff, if that's what they're planning, is a dangerous move that will likely bow up in their faces.

The story isn't yet set in stone. Something may get worked out in the end. Anything is possible, particularly - as we all know - in American soccer where the rules have always been, to quote a great philosopher "more like guidelines, really".

But it appears at the moment that USSF is deadly serious: either it's going to be done right or it's not going to be done at all.