Las Vegas is often referred to as Sin City, and last weekend USSF President Sunil Gulati apparently took that as his cue to perform a cynical act of backroom rule flouting that would make his mentor Jack Warner glow with pride.
On Saturday the USSF announced that the neoNASL had been granted "provisional" approval to operate as a Division 2 professional league after a somewhat bumpy road. Unfortunately, virtually everyone reporting on this event, including some guys I very much respect, missed what really happened.
The dirty little secret lies in the meaning of the term "provisional", which writers are assuming means that the USSF Board has come up with some kind of probationary period.
In actuality, a "provisional" approval is enshrined in the USSF Bylaws as part of the sanctioning process, and has a very specific meaning.
When a league makes application to USSF for sanctioning, as neoNASL did last September, an ad hoc committee is formed to examine the application in detail and make a determination as to whether it is in compliance with all applicable Federation standards.
The Board shall submit the application and accompanying documents to the appropriate committee or committees of the Federation for review and report.
This then is the committee which first granted and then withdrew it's approval a couple of weeks ago, which we all know. (I would note that they are not empowered to grant "provisional status" as many people reported. Their only duty is to report their finding to the Board of Directors.)
Less well known is the fact that despite the "additional information" which the neoNASL submitted over the past two weeks, the committee voted unanimously to report to the Board of Directors that the application did not meet the requirements for a Division 2 league.
And here's the first place where things get sticky.
Again, the Bylaws:
"The (examination committee) shall determine whether the applicant complies with the bylaws,.policies and requirements of the Federation for the membership category applied for.
If the applicant does comply, the Board (of Directors) may...." (go on to a vote. More on this in a minute)
If applicant does not comply, the Board shall recommend to the National Council that the applicant not be approved for membership in the Federation.[/i]
(Which presented a problem, but let's put a post it on that point and move along.)
When it is presented to the Board for a vote, again, the rules are clear; the Board has two options. They can either
1) admit the applicant to provisional membership in the Federation until the next meeting of the National Council that the application can be considered and recommend that the applicant be admitted into full membership of the Federation, or
(2) if the National Council has delegated to the Board authority to approve an application, admit theapplicant to full membership in the Federation.
Since we know that #2 does not apply, then the only procedure open to them is #1, ie. granting or denying the applicant provisional membership.
As we know now, the Board, by a 6-5 vote, granted the neoNASL "provisional status" thereby recommending that the National Council sanction them as a league.
This despite the rules being quite clear that they may not do so in the face of a negative report from the committee.
(Note: the BoD consists of 16 members, of which only 13 were present. I have asked USSF to clarify which members were in attendance, but after 24 hours they haven't gotten back to me but then they have never, ever, gotten back to me on anything and I'm not holding my breath.)
And here's where the real skulduggery comes into play.
As noted, the Boards' only power here is to grant provisional status to a league, pending a vote by the National Council at it's next meeting.
And since the Board voted on Friday the 11th and the National Council met on Saturday the 12th, it is very clear what the laws compelled Gulati to do: submit the question to the Council for a vote. Instead, he declared a gag order on all parties and announced that he would tell everyone what the vote was on Saturday afternoon.
That is, after it was too late for it to be put on the Councils' agenda.
Then on Saturday USSF issued a terse statement saying that the Board had granted the neoNASL provisional status for one year. They didn't add "hahahahaha, suckers".
So it's fair to say that in this process Gulati violated both the spirit and the letter of the USSF Bylaws in two ways:
1) The Board voted to approve an application despite the fact that the Bylaws clearly state that they may not do so in the face of a negative committee report.
2) The Board is required to present the results of their vote at the NEXT AGM. They are not permitted to decide to skip it for a year.
Furthermore, both he and MLS Soccer News Topics Commissioner Don Garber abstained from voting, a very curious thing. Several commenters suggested, only partly tongue in cheek, that neither of them wanted to have their fingerprints on the death of neoNASL.
But it has to be said that this is the result they wanted and that it's entirely likely, even probable, that one or both of them arm-twisted 6 Board members into ignoring the rules and voting for the application so that they themselves wouldn't have to make a choice between a) killing the neoNASL or b) being responsible for approving it.
Call it the Pontious Pilate school of leadership.
All of which brings us to the question of why it is that Gulati and Garber engineered this result and were willing to bend/ twist/ break/sidestep - pick your term - the rules to do it.
Despite all the banal mewlings we've been reading for weeks, I believe that, in fact, neither of them would have particularly minded if there was no second division soccer in 2011. One of the most insipid, ridiculous things I've read in months was the "letter" that neoNASL fan groups sent to Gulati last week tlaking about how a no vote would damage the national team, deny little kids their heroes, ruin youth soccer and cause general suffering and despair.
It was hilarious, but it made an unintentional point, namely that there IS no particular reason why it's needed. If all those guys struggled that mightily and all they could come up with in 10000 words or so was "it would be, like, really really bad, dude" then we can really live without it for a season or two.
Rather, I believe that the answer is much more mundane and can be found in the comments of Montreal owner Joey Saputo, as quoted by BRIAN QUARSTAD:
“I’ve spoken with people at the USSF and people at the MLS,” Saputo said. He explained that that his team could not play at a lower level and said it “would put us in a very difficult position moving forward with our MLS plans. USSF understands that, MLS understands that."
Now in fact Saputo is an egotistical arrogant dolt with an enormous sense of entitlement that MLS will deeply regret having him around. He is wont to say stupid stuff and I don't think he's going to stop.
And of course his comment, which he seems to feel is some kind of a threat, ignores the fact that Philadelphia and others have come into the league cold and that he could do the same if he had to.
But he doesn't want to and as Seattle and Portland and Vancouver have shown bringing up a Division 2 side is a really great way to enter the league, both from a footballing standpoint and from a PR position. And MLS - because of course Gulati is an MLS Executive as well - calls the shots at USSF.
I don't think for a minute that anyone honestly believes that the neoNASL can come up with all the new owners and new money that they'll need by next year.
All they did was delay the inevitable for a year. And the sight of Sunil Gulati holding a joint media conference yesterday sitting next to the President of Traffic Sports was nothing less than an embarrassment to American soccer. But then Sunil is a man who regularly sits next to Jack Warner, so clearly he has a strong stomach. And very few scruples.
I think MLS decided that they wanted Montreal playing someplace this year, and that Gulati and Garber twisted 6 Board members arms and ignore USSF rules to make it happen.
Because as well all know by now, in American soccer the rules aren't nearly as important as what the poohbahs in charge want.