Independent Soccer’s Future in America: Align out of NISAssity

Matt Coniglio
Dec 20, 2017 · 13 min read

At this time, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled against awarding a mandatory injunction in favor of the North American Soccer League (NASL). But they will, it’s just a question now of when. Despite what some rampant partisans might have you believe (looking at you, Rocco), the court’s ruling against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and reversing the lower court’s previous denial of the injunction was always a fool’s errand. That I’m publishing this before the appeals court has ruled says all you need to know.

It goes without saying that I’ll be genuinely shocked if the appeals court rules in NASL’s favor but even if it does, I still believe it is in their best interest to put their lot in with those that which they share a common bond.

I’m not here to criticize NASL, though I will later. I’m also not here to praise USSF, because they don’t deserve it either. The overall lawsuit proceeding has merits regarding the relationship between USSF, Major League Soccer (MLS) and Soccer United Marketing (SUM). Those merits should be looked at closely in the coming months and years.

The premise of this piece is to make it abundantly clear that American soccer needs a holistic and systemic change in its structure. One that can be achieved without the alleged collusion (or even alleged corruption, according to some) between USSF and MLS.

Current Reality

MLS is a single-entity league. Ownership groups buy into the structure via an expansion fee, as determined by the rest of the owners. There is no other way into MLS. Side note, congrats to Nashville on the awarding of your franchise. I’ll never criticize fans for supporting their local club, no matter what league they belong to. It’s a special day and time for soccer in Nashville. Sacramento fans: if y’all don’t get in, rage against the dying of the light.

Remember the good ole days, you achy fakey frauds? (Source: RIP the old Nashville FC site)

USL is a corporate league. United Soccer Leagues, LLC (which is USL, USLD3, USLPDL, and the Super Y League) is a subsidiary of NuRock Soccer Holdings, LLC. Owners pay money for the right to operate a franchise in a particular market, as determined by USL.

NASL is a closed league which practically makes it single-entity, just with much fewer dollars at stake. Owners pay a smaller expansion fee and are awarded shares in NASL, LLC. The major difference between NASL and MLS is that NASL clubs control the contracts of their players, unlike MLS controlling all contracts.

It’s important to understand that this model isn’t actually what we call “association football,” as is the sport that is played around the world and governed by FIFA. And we know this because of the missing words. The structure of the sport is entirely different than the rest of the footballing world. Was it designed that way out of necessity? Probably. Has the need run its course? Yes.

Association football differs from these models. In association football (again I stress, just like the rest of the world), individual clubs do not belong to leagues — they belong to the association. The association then operates each of the leagues at the different levels.

This is a live stock photo of the current US Soccer pyramid.

How does one set up a pyramid below MLS and expect the system to just magically work? Under current rules, a relegated team would have to pay some sort of withdrawal fee from MLS, then expansion fee into USL and the same for going from USL to NASL. And if a USL club gets promoted into MLS, are we expecting them to fork over $150 million dollars for the right to take their promotion? It’s pure lunacy.

In an ideal world, USSF announces an 8 year plan to merge all professional and amateur leagues and a conversion to the FIFA world calendar, with the new season to begin after the hosting of the 2026 FIFA World Cup by Canada, Mexico and the United States. If I were running for USSF President, that would be the main plank of my campaign platform. League sanctioning would be contingent on acceptance of the plan.

But this isn’t an ideal world. USL is a corporate league, both MLS and NASL (RIP in peace) are single entity structures, the remaining lower leagues are both territorial and generally inept (Editor’s Note: and I am not running for USSF President).

A Radical Restructuring

Then there’s NISA (National Independent Soccer Association), which is best known for existing for over six months and has three accepted teams (one of which doesn’t even exist). NISA, as a concept, has the potential to change the game for American soccer, but it’s going to take all of those in American soccer paying lip service to the ideals of promotion/relegation and the big bad wolf of MLS’s relationship with USSF to set aside their own partisan blinders and focus on the task at hand. That, by the way, is going to require the remaining NASL teams to get off their high horses and get in the trenches instead of just throwing money around and hoping that they can sue their way into relevance.

Source: NISAofficial.com

NASL (sanctioned by USSF as a professional league) and USASA (United States Adult Soccer Association, an affiliate member of USSF, who sanctions UPSL, NPSL, GCPL and a litany of other adult amateur and semi pro leagues in the US) should merge together to form their own association, NISA, keeping USASA’s affiliate membership in USSF, and therefore also FIFA.

Let me say it again in case it was unclear: USASA, NASL, and the proposed NISA should all merge into a separate association building on the current USASA. The new association will then remain an affiliate member of USSF, just as USASA is today*. The NISA name already includes the word association. It’s a sign.

In Peter Wilt’s manifesto published on Midfield Press outlining his plan to fix American soccer, he makes the case for a separate pyramid and a separate league structure with NISA 1, 2, and 3 and support from existing lower divisions. I want to take that idea one step further with a full merger. http://midfieldpress.com/2017/10/18/vision-and-plan-to-use-prorel-to-get-us-soccer-on-track/

*It’s worth noting that USASA operates as a national affiliate, which is “an amateur sports organization” according to USSF membership guidelines. NISA would likely need to work something out with USSF to have professional standing as an affiliate, but USSF would likely not mind having to directly regulate and govern over a sudden mass of 500–800 clubs.

But why?

Establishing an association to do governance and actually apply the minimum standards to clubs will inject professionalism into the lower divisions of US soccer, further protect regionalization of leagues in the lower levels, allow for a negotiated media contract to provide an additional source of revenue for clubs to better stay afloat, and drive investment with a standardized avenue of advancement through the soccer pyramid.

This is an actual pyramid. (Source: OpenClipArt)

Without investment, cooperation, and a merger, American professional soccer stands to be closed off to anyone except the millionaires and billionaires. There’s a bit of a Bernie joke in there somewhere but I digress.

The PLS (Pro League Standards) currently in place and used by USSF to sanction professional soccer are seen by many as arbitrary, outdated, and as holding American soccer back. NISA can change that by doing the sanctioning.

The Clubs

Even outside the MLS and USL owned leagues, there are literally hundreds of clubs between just NPSL, UPSL, Gulf Coast Premier League and Premier League of America that can form the base of NISA. When you combine them with the seven remaining teams in NASL, plus the other four NASL applicants and three approved NISA applicants, the lines between professional clubs, clubs that could become professional in the right system, and amateur teams become quite clear. The creation of a first division, regional second divisions, and hyper regional lower divisions all under the sanctioning of NISA, becomes possible and sustainable.

The hundreds of clubs number referenced doesn’t even include teams in existing USASA leagues such as the Cosmopolitan League in New York, Long Island Football League, Michigan Premier League, Florida Suncoast League, and many others. For example, there’s a relatively new club called Indy Saints FC in Indianapolis, IN. I don’t really know anything about them besides the fact that their semi-new to the soccer scene and are active on Twitter. Last summer, they played in a league I’ve never heard of (Champions Soccer League (CSL USA) and this summer will be joining the Ohio Valley Premier League, which is also a league I didn’t know existed and currently doesn’t appear on the first page of a Google search. What if we could bring all of these miscellaneous leagues under one umbrella, one pyramid?

I couldn’t even find a logo (or any information) for the Ohio Valley Premier League, so here’s one for Indy Saints FC. (Source: IndySaintsfc.com)

Now, there’s a legitimate question as to why existing NASL clubs would go along with this. It can be viewed as a de-facto relegation out of the existing US Soccer system and potentially worse than taking division three sanctioning. But here’s the thing: NASL took a really good concept, coupled it with some serious nostalgic name recognition and then proceeded to get into business with some pretty awful figures in soccer (you might even say they were caught in a traffic jam) and make every mistake they could make along the way. Sure, the federation didn’t help very much along the way, may have worked under the table with MLS and then left them to die in the end, but it’s pretty hard to save something that shoots itself in the face repeatedly.

To NASL, I’m going say this more forcefully than I did earlier. It’s time to stop whining and get off the bench. Go ahead and spend your millions on the lawsuit, but soccer is played on a field and you owe it to the fans to play. And if you think that it’s beneath the dignity of the world famous New York Cosmos to play in a weirdly sanctioned, outside the direct system professional league, just remember that in 2017 you played in a barely resuscitated eight team league in a baseball stadium next to Coney Island. You’re the sideshow at the circus and New York City FC lite. If y’all actually cared about anything other than the Cosmos, you’d remember these simple rules about growing the professional game in America:

  • Having a club is better than not having a club
  • Having paid players is better than having non-paid players
  • Having investment in the lower levels of soccer is better than not
  • Having media money is better than not
  • Having actual academies with more professional teams is better than not
  • Having an alternative that allows supporter funded clubs to exist and thrive (shoutout Atlanta Silverbacks FC, MPLS City SC, Detroit City FC, SF City FC)
  • Having soccer open to more than just the top one percent is better than keeping it closed off
  • You might actually realize your dream of being division one
  • US Soccer is better off with the Jacksonville Armada on the field than not.
  • US Soccer is better off with Indy Eleven on the field than not.
  • US Soccer is better off with Miami FC on the field than not.
  • US Soccer is better off with California United FC on the field than not.
  • US Soccer is better off with 1904 FC (San Diego) on the field than not.
  • And yes, you’re a pain sometimes but US Soccer is better off with the New York Cosmos on the field than not.

[During editing, I learned that Puerto Rico has its own federation, is a member of CONCACAF and has its own FIFA membership. Due to geographical constraints, I’m not sure what the proper role is for Puerto Rico FC, but I’m fairly certain that it’s not within the NISA pyramid. The general status of Puerto Rico is a more pressing issue in general and Congress should figure out if the territory itself should be a real state or jettisoned as a separate country, but that’s outside of the scope of this piece.]

Perhaps the best part of a connected pyramid is for potential club owners will no longer have to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of the litany of leagues and the potential for expansion fees. This new system would make American soccer parallel the American dream. Two years from now, a group of five soccer loving individuals in Huntsville, AL may decide that it’s time to bring back Rocket City United. Even without a multi millionaire bankrolling them, they can start their club in the bottom level of the association to keep costs low and build their club’s profile before advancing up the divisions to reclaim their city’s soccer tradition.

A Glimpse Into the South

Let’s take a gander at what we’re looking at after combining all of these leagues together. Between NPSL, UPSL, GCPL, NASL, and two prospective NISA clubs, there are 54 clubs in the South Region, as determined by NPSL’s South Region designation in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

With the mechanics of a first division still needing to be worked out, there could conceivably 8 to 10 clubs from this region playing in a national first division, due to the amount of properly sized markets and available clubs at this point in time. Removing 8 clubs from the 54 still means there would be 46 clubs remaining for the lower divisions. If another 10 were poached for a second division in an East/West setup, there would still be 36. Those 36 could be split in half and form the basis for a regionalized third division.

And we haven’t even accounted for the clubs that will start as a result of this, nor have we accounted for all the small clubs in those leagues you can’t even find on Google. Think of the places across the South that don’t have teams. Tallahassee, FL; Montgomery, AL; Huntsville, AL; Macon, GA;, just for starters. Plus, how many ownership groups currently in the PDL will think about moving to an open system where they could have more control and move up, based on their investment and product on the field?*

Myrtle Beach, SC; Wilmington, NC; Jackson, MS; Johnson City, TN; Peachtree City, GA; Columbia, SC; Greensboro, NC; Durham, NC;, all come to mind.

*I’m not advocating for poaching PDL teams directly, but I do think its important that clubs control their own destiny. Please don’t send the USL hounds after me (but if you do then I will fight you and win because your propaganda machine, while ever present, covers something no one else wants to and is still dumb enough to use words like “synergistic” in press releases).

This is the kind of restructuring that has the potential to produce a renaissance for the American soccer fan in cities that don’t have, and will never be able to have, an MLS or even USL Division 2 team. That grassroots swell will put more eyeballs on soccer in local communities, will help open up fans to watching higher divisions of domestic soccer (hello, MLS) and will increase interest and viewership for our nation’s national team (hello, USSF).

It’s almost as if generating more tangible connections to the sport, even in lower divisions, will benefit all facets of the professional game. Including, and this is crazy you guys, USSF’s TV deals. Which also means SUM. Which also means MLS. Crazy, right?

And if that’s not enough. The entire independent soccer movement coalescing around one association has a future benefit: if promotion and relegation in American soccer is ever to connect MLS with grassroots teams in small and far flung cities, it’ll be way easier for USSF to merge closed divisions into an already existing pyramid.

Players

Bringing teams and leagues under one umbrella has additional benefits. One of the major reasons some of these smaller leagues exist in the first place is to provide a place for players that have slipped through the cracks to have a place to play in hopes of being recognized and picked up at the pro levels. Yet in the case of UPSL, which plays year round (in a major difference with NPSL, which is a short season summer league), it is nearly impossible to find accurate, up to date information about teams, matches, rosters, and even when and where a match will take place. NISA, as an association, can help bridge these off the field performance gaps for all of the lower divisions and drive eyeballs and interest throughout the leagues.

Rectifying some of these shortcomings by having an updated league and club information center will also benefit the existing professional system for MLS and USL. Not only will more players be playing regularly, but they’ll be more visible. Current professional teams will be able to add depth to their rosters and find missing talent that never broke through the traditional system. How many times have coaches and pundits talked about the potential for an American Ronaldo or Messi playing outside the system? An open association, where it’s easy to start up a club and where information is readily available makes this dream much more of a possibility.

Conclusion

Let it be known, I don’t expect this to actually happen. Lower division soccer is full of egos, backstabbing, and the idea that league and sanctioning level is more important than anything else. More steps than just an open system are needed. This piece isn’t the place to talk about solidarity payments, coaching badges and shifting the schedule to the FIFA international calendar, though we should talk about those things at some point. If American soccer is to take the next step, then there must first be a grassroots reckoning and the unification of all teams, both professional and amateur; leagues, regional and national; and fans, causal and ultra whom have a common interest. For one, for all, for soccer.

[Special thanks to Andrew Bresee for editing and to Chattanooga FC for being my local club.]