I don't think those are missiles flying over the border, just red balloons. About a hundred, I reckon.
I mean, I hate to be the guy to bring ants to the Apocalypse, but in the past couple of days we've really, really, CAPITALIZING AND USING THE RULE OF THREE FOR EXTRA EMPHATIC SINCERITY REALLY got ahead of ourselves with this whole business about the US Soccer Federation deciding what constitutes first and second divisions.
First, let's catch ourselves up a little. Let's start with Square One: the current divisional requirements, courtesy of the one and only Kenn Tomasch. Some of you may be asking why the USSF professional standards are more easily found on Kenn's site than on the USSF site. To that I answer, welcome to American soccer. I hope you have fun.
Because of recent Supreme Court decisions, Rule One is no longer No Poofters. We live in a more enlightened era.
The USSF has proposed some changes to this set-up, and the NASL was less than enthusiastic. Here is the original Financial Times by Kara Scannell article on the subject, which I am linking mostly because, as we will see, The Telephone Game got pretty important as this story grew.
But Scannell planted and watered some of those seeds herself. Some excerpts:
The legal allegations come as football standards globally are under greater scrutiny.
In May the US Department of Justice announced criminal charges alleging corruption and bribes against nine current and former Fifa executives and five sports marketing officials.
Neither US Soccer nor its current members were alleged to have been involved in any wrongdoing.
Last month US Soccer chief executive Dan Flynn was questioned by US lawmakers who asked why the sport had not investigated suspected corruption at Fifa given its ties to Concacaf, the regional governing body for North and Central America, and its former secretary, Chuck Blazer, an American who has pleaded guilty and is a government witness.
Mr Flynn said he had some “discomfort” with certain people in Concacaf and Fifa, but had no direct knowledge of corruption.
NASL, in its letter, alleges US Soccer has protected MLS’s status — including granting MLS members more seats on its professional council — because it stood to benefit from several joint business transactions.
US Soccer declined to comment. MLS did not return a call seeking comment. US Soccer directors and league standards committee members contacted by the FT did not return calls or emails seeking comment or declined to comment and referred calls to US Soccer.
Allegations of conflicts of interest have dogged US Soccer for years.
US Soccer has a marketing agreement with MLS-owned Soccer United Marketing group. In 2014, US Soccer reported revenues of $15.4m from the agreement, including $6.6m in revenue sharing. US Soccer reported total unrestricted revenues of $74.2m for the year. This year, Soccer United Marketing was involved in negotiating the blockbuster eight-year broadcasting deal.
Mr Gulati, president of US Soccer since 2006, rose through the sport’s ranks. He was a deputy commissioner of MLS until 1999. He is also a senior lecturer in economics at Columbia University. Mr Gulati does not receive a salary from US Soccer.
Nathaniel Vinton of The New York Daily News fueled the fire, although he dredged up actual legal actions pending against NASL by name, to go with the vague general allegations against the USSF:
Amid the turmoil of the U.S. government's crackdown on FIFA corruption, American soccer authorities are facing accusations that the nation’s top professional league, Major League Soccer, violates antitrust laws.
The allegations come from the North American Soccer League, a smaller rival to MLS that consists of 11 teams, including the New York Cosmos.
Noted sports attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who represents the NASL, aired his concerns in a July 23 letter obtained by the Daily News. The 13-page letter is addressed to U.S. Soccer Federation leaders Sunil Gulati and Daniel Flynn.
Kessler says in the letter that the USSF creates unlawful hurdles to ensure that MLS soccer remains America’s only “Division I” league.
The Daily News and the Financial Times are currently our only public sources for what the USSF proposals were. They also strongly implicated legal action had been filed, as opposed to threatened.
So, maybe it was understandable that Kartik Krishnaiyer used "NASL pursuing litigation" as his starting point for his World Soccer Talk article...except Krishnaiyer went farther:
Today, I have heard from various sources that NASL might have needed to file this lawsuit because they are finding sponsorships and expansion opportunities to be limited.
I asked Kartik about that - he clarified that "Multiple people who cover the league or work in the league have speculated to me that NASL may need to file this litigation because they have run up against a brick wall regarding sponsorship and meaningful expansion as USL has taken most of the NASL top target cities."
So today the American soccer community is ablaze with speculation about what will happen when Sunil Gulati is finally hauled before a federal judge and told to explain himself.
Small problem. Very busy people were nice enough to return brief e-mails, and some of the answers were illuminating. First, Jeffrey Kessler said "There has been no lawsuit filed. Please contact the NASL for further information."
And Neil Buethe of US Soccer says there's nothing yet to sue over. (For fairness and context, my questions are in bold; his answers are, obviously, not.)
Are those proposed changes published online anywhere? If not, are the descriptions of the proposals given in the Daily News and Financial Times substantially accurate?
Since the standards being revised by the task force are not final or approved by the board, we are not speaking on the specifics at this point.
Would the new amendments take effect after three years, as in previous amendments to divisional standards? Would leagues still be eligible to apply for waivers?
There is no exact timetable. As the revisions are not final, we cannot comment on when they might take effect.
When was the last time the USSF denied a league a one-year waiver for divisional standards?
I am not aware of any waiver requests being denied.
I was struck by Mr. Kessler's willingness to refer nosy Nancies to his client, since I apparently misunderstood what the expression "mouthpiece" meant. But Mr. Kessler informed me that the NASL was handling its own media on this matter.
From my fortunately minor experience, usually attorneys would rather boil their hands than let their clients hold forth, but apparently Kessler's faith in the NASL is very well-placed. Questions along the lines such as "Does the USSF have a timetable to respond before the NASL takes further action? Is it fair to say that if the USSF does not comply with the league's requests, the NASL will file a case in court? Given that the USSF has liberally granted waivers on divisional standards in the past, is there some reason that the NASL feels they would not be granted a waiver in this case? And does the NASL have reason to believe they will not meet the proposed standards after three more years, when the amended standards would take effect?" have so far been studiously ignored by the NASL, at least when posed in e-mail form by me.
The lead story on the news section on nasl.com as of this writing is "Railhawks Aim To Shake Off Tough Stretch Against the Silverbacks," a scoop that definitively addresses whether the Railhawks were hoping their tough stretch would continue. Turns out Carolina would rather play better.
Now, one "no comment" from the people who leaked the Kessler letter (unless you think USSF did it, or Kessler's Winston & Strawn assistants got part of the way through the D's and F's on their distribution list before pulling back the cc's), and some pretty thin answers from Kessler and Buethe, might not seem like much.
Well, forty paragraphs in, it's obvious I disagree. The two sides might not like each other, and it might be their mutual dreams to see the other in ruins. And the NASL might indeed be spoiling for an anti-trust fight. I don't think they'll get their wish.
The leak achieved a few short-term goals for the NASL - galvanizing their MLS-hating fan base, buttressing their underdog status, and portraying the USSF and MLS in collusion to illegally crush a league challenging the status quo. Scanlon and Vinton cheerfully added enough guilt by association color to drive the conversation. In my opinion Vinton at least stuck to allegations that have stuck enough to warrant the attention of authorities, while Scanlon relied on outright smears. And Vinton's reminder of NASL and Traffic's considerable difficulties served the story, arguably - there was still the implication that the USSF was willing to bend rules, but it might be understandable that they'd be leery of giving first division status to Traffic and their ilk. Scanlon simply assumed corruption, an assumption that has found an enthusiastic chorus.
But the merits of either side's position on divisional status don't actually enter in to the larger issue of FIFA corruption.
I also would have liked to see the context of Kessler's threats, if threats they were. Both Scanlon and Vinton, as well as Kessler himself as quoted by Scanlon, show the depth of feeling of NASL's feelings on this issue. Kessler used extremely strong language in describing the proposals.
But we didn't know, at least until Buethe's comments, how informal those proposals were. The NASL considered them unreasonable, perhaps insulting. So insulting, that they felt the public needed to know how onerous some of the conditions were - let alone that the need to give Jeffrey Kessler billable hours for a 13 page letter.
In my opinion, the NASL's action here was an overreaction that backfired - except among its most adoring admirers and/or USSF's most ardent opponents.
The USSF, especially at this stage, has an amazing amount of room to negotiate. Comparing the Financial Times and Daily News articles with Kenn's information, the controversial changes seem to be (1) every team playing in a minimum stadium size of 15,000, and (2) most of the metropolitan area size of the league being over two million, counting suburbs.
The doubling of the population requirement is not particularly defensible - what of our Green Bay Packers? Or Columbus Crew? But it's also easily fixed. "Fine, 1,500,000," the federation could say. And then, tell a court they said it.
As far as complaints about (1), the NASL is screwed. According to Kenn's site, the requirement for every Division I team to have 15,000 [EDIT - seats] is not even a change from February 2014. MLS itself presumably was given a waiver during San Jose's Buck Shaw years, or when Kansas City played in the minor league baseball stadium that for some reason I want to call the Chop House but probably wasn't. If 15,000 was, in Kessler's words, "highly unreasonable," the NASL should have hired someone to say so eighteen months earlier.
Neither Scanlon nor Vinton mention the time zone issue, which currently the NASL does not satisfy for either D1 or D2. I've read speculation that Puerto Rico will be used to satisfy the third US time zone - I don't care to trace back where, because, again, the 2014 rules are explicit, and the words "continental US" feature prominently. The NASL will have to dig up a West Coast team from somewhere. (San Juan's MSA is over two million, though, so that would at least help with one problem.) (Thanks to daylight savings time, however, Arizona is in the Pacific time zone during the summer, so the NASL does have Phoenix available, along with San Francisco, Oakland, the Inland Empire, and San Diego, to satisfy the West Coast and 2 million population requirements.)
But the larger issue is, the USSF could. They have mechanisms to grant waivers, and have done so frequently in the past. The last time divisional standards rocked the soccer world was when WPS fought, and fought hard, for recognition as a Division 1 women's league. As we know, the USSF granted the waiver. The WPS collapsed within the calendar year.
Division 1 standards are not worth suing, or being sued, over. Whatever the NASL believes is holding back their sponsorships, it won't be because the USSF won't give on this issue. If there was blowback to the WPS debacle, it might be a different issue. But even in retrospect, Gulati was correct to give WPS every chance. Imagine if WPS had collapsed and D1 recognition had been withheld. The USSF could easily have been blamed, if not held directly responsible. And the NASL will (probably) be closer to D1 standards than WPS was at the time.
The only tangible perk to come with Division 1 status, for the moment, is entry into the CONCACAF Champions League...which is not written in stone. Canada, obviously, uses a different method to pick its representative than Division 1 champion. If the USSF wanted to keep the NASL out of the CONCACAF Champions League, it could simply rank the leagues based on a coefficient based on results in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. (They could consider doing this anyway. It would certainly wake up some of the teams who currently sleep through the thing, Bruce.)
Kessler and the NASL seem to insist that being granted Division 1 status will make them a Division 1 league. Even with a guaranteed CONCACAF Champions League spot, that would put them on the same level as the top league in, say, Belize. Words are not things, names are not destiny. You can change your name to Debbie, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can do Dallas.
Which is the biggest strategic flaw in this week's actions by the NASL - the confession of weakness. The American Football League did not wait for anyone to call them a major league - they went out and bid for players. So did the American Basketball Association. They found and took advantage of underserved markets, and put on a more exciting product. The USSF is hardly preventing the NASL from doing the same. The party line should be - and was, until this week - that the NASL is just as good as MLS, without being held back by the silly single entity model.
Instead, the NASL cried "No fair! We're not ready!" Along with a side of "You're picking on us, and YOU'RE on HIS side!" I'm building a straw man, sure, but I didn't need that much straw.
Krishnaiyer might be correct, in saying the NASL's best hope to defeat MLS is in a courtroom, after they paint the USSF as being hopelessly compromised.
"Doth not Sepp Blatter wield the hammer?"
Excellent question, Thor, God of Thunder. FIFA's credibility is at an all-time low, so US Soccer's claims to derive Real Ultimate Power from Switzerland is not as safe a claim as it used to be. But it still looms over proceedings such as this.
And it would be nice to see a national court break FIFA's power. But in order for that to happen, the NASL would have to sue FIFA, and CONCACAF, and the USSF, as well as MLS. All of which would get leagues and teams banned, if it looked like the NASL was close to succeeding. Such an act would be proof of collusion - but then again, why should an organization be forced to keep a member that violates one of its central rules?
And why would US Soccer permit such a thing, when a simple "Fine, here's your damn D1 status" stops the whole thing dead in its tracks? The NASL would probably point out that SUM is literally MLS and US Soccer colluding to control soccer...which, coming from literally any other entity on the planet besides Traffic LLC and maybe the Lord's Resistance Army, would be worth a hearing.
None of this will stop the warmonger party from cheering on their sides. But, as we remember from the late Leonard Nimoy in "Civilization IV", victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win. The NASL needs a new strategy. Otherwise, the USSF and MLS will make a desert and call it peace.
EDIT - Kessler IS representing the NASL - sorry for any confusion on that. Some people in the forums were misled. Which I don't think was MY fault, but Kessler's correspondence was unusual. Kessler explicitly told me NASL was his client, but that the NASL was handling its own media.
Which isn't actually true. Kessler did his own media to USA Today yesterday, and, well, Kaja Whitehouse wasn't any more curious or helpful than Scanlon. I mean, for God's sake, it's the NASL who would sue the USSF, if that for some weird reason came to pass - not "Tom Brady's lawyer." Whitehouse also has seen the letter, and also chose to give only tiny excerpts. Whitehouse also only got "no comment" from Neil Buethe.
What the hell, Financial Times, Daily News and USA Today? You only got two words out of the USSF? At least I got four sentences. What did you ask Neil, anyway, "Please comment on the lawsuit"?
But yes, Kessler is definitely representing the NASL. To what end, I can't imagine.