The Angle

League of Lawsuits: Good Riddance to the NASL

by on 22 September 2017

In the midst of another round of turmoil for the North American Soccer League (NASL), fingers have been pointed by the league and by others to seek a source of blame. But as Alex Schieferdecker writes, there is only one party to blame: the NASL.

In high-profile, public-interest lawsuits, there is such a thing as a “perfect plaintiff”. When a legal advocacy group wishes to challenge a certain law, they are extremely deliberate in choosing the person whose claim they wish to represent. While a law might affect millions of people, those whose last names appear on cases before the Supreme Court are usually highly sympathetic, telegenic, well-spoken, and often affected by the law in an unusual and callous way.

In this sense, the NASL is perhaps best understood as the worst plaintiff imaginable. The league has squandered the sympathy of even some of its strongest proponents, refuses to communicate with the press or fans, speaks only in bombast, and is exactly the kind of shambling nightmare that US Soccer Federation’s (USSF) divisional requirements were instituted to prevent.

The NASL was run terribly for years and some very wealthy people would rather go to court than to admit this.

If the NASL wins its lawsuit against those divisional requirements, it will probably do so posthumously, because there is no saving this playground bully of an organization, at long last bereft of reluctant friends and ignored by its desperately-sought enemies.

Recently, there have been a number of articles put out by the popular soccer press on the NASL’s bombshell. You may have read some of these articles already, which range from legal analysis to reviews of the history that brought us to this suit. I am not a lawyer, nor a journalist. I did at one time work for an NASL club once. But I’m just here to dunk on the NASL.

The divisional categories

Where to begin? This is a league suing to abolish the regulations that were initially created, in the main, to protect it. When the NASL and USL were split from each other in 2010, the second and third division regulations were an attempt to create stability and a clear hierarchy in the lower divisions. The divisions gave the NASL both standards to shoot for and an enormous benefit of the doubt that persisted through seven years of waivers that excused its continued noncompliance. That the NASL failed find stability, to meet the bar set for it, or to improve enough upon its product and solidify its place in the league structure relative to others is its own fault.

It was not Sunil Gulati who suggested hiring an incompetent media company to run the league’s independent streaming service (Perform). Don Garber never told the NASL to focus on expanding to indifferent big cities instead of soccer-less mid-sized markets. Mark Abbott wasn’t the one who thought putting a team in Oklahoma City run by a La Liga club few had heard of to compete with an existing USL team was a good idea.

After 2013, when the USL folded its terrible team in Plant City, Fla. and rebooted its Arizona club, the NASL lost every single battle it fought with the USL over markets, and didn’t compete in most of them. The USL added ambitious ownership groups in under-served markets and grew tremendously. The NASL added some good ambitious owners early on, and then began to focus on shifty malcontents in big markets. The owners of Sacramento Republic reportedly once placed calls to the NASL and USL to gauge interest, and (per Evan Ream) the NASL never returned the call. Was that USSF’s fault? Was that MLS’ fault? No. For all of the praiseworthy vision of the NASL’s early days, the fact is that the NASL has been run terribly especially in the past few years and some very wealthy people would rather go to court than to admit this.

The USL’s challenge

The NASL is trapped in a rhetorical box of its own construction. If the NASL were inclined, it could conceivably argue that the USSF’s regulations for the second division made it difficult for the league to act as nimbly as its growing rival in the third division. But were it to make that argument, it would immediately beg the question of why the division labels are so important to the NASL in the first place. If division sanctioning is as important as the NASL pretends that it is (where being in the third division would mean certain failure), then how was the USL able to so easily overtake it from that very same position of supposedly hopeless weakness?

The NASL often seemed to spend more time insisting that it deserved first division status than it did actually working to be worthy of that distinction.

The NASL’s goal, of course, was never to deign itself to compete with USL at all. The league’s leaders were, at least from around 2013 onward, fixated on competing with first-division MLS, and the basis of their claim is that USSF prevented them from doing so. This would be a credible argument had the NASL ever, at any point in time, produced a product that an impartial observer would recognize as first division standard. They did not. The quality of play improved, but largely thanks to players passed by the increasing standard of play in MLS. The quality off the field varied by team, but the NASL’s best stadium, its best attendance, its best broadcast, and its best local marketing never came close to the basic level expected of even the worst MLS clubs. As longtime observers of the NASL know, the league often seemed to spend more time insisting that it deserved first division status than it did actually working to be worthy of that distinction. It gained the most attention not for its product on the field or in the stands, but for its attempts to badger or litigate its way into official parity with MLS. The league’s lawyers were paid more regularly than some of its teams paid their staffs. Such that national media covered the league, they usually covered the recriminations and lawsuits, not its product. Soccer? The NASL was never about soccer.

[This is to say nothing of the fact that the NASL was largely founded and run for many years by a sports media company, Traffic Sports, who were so corrupt that their wrongdoing attracted the attention of the FBI, brought down a number of top FIFA officials, and led to the indictment for racketeering of the NASL’s Chairman of the Board of Governors, Aaron Davidson. We’re not even going to go into that.]

I follow the league infrequently now, but my general sense is that this is the year in which the NASL lost all but its most delusional of defenders. Fans want to see their team play in a stable league, they are tired of the excuses and unsatisfied with the lack of transparency and insulting blame-shifting. The NASL has never really admitted its mistakes and probably never will—certainly not in a court filing. But they are plain to all, and without knowing a jot about the legal issues, don’t count me surprised if the courts ultimately find in USSF’s favor. It would be odd, certainly, to grant the NASL relief for injuries that were mostly self-inflicted.

Either way, the NASL is going to die, but hopefully its clubs do not. Many of them are unwilling participants in the current legal action anyway. There are some tremendously passionate fans in the NASL—you have to put in twice the work to support a lower division side—and nobody deserves to see their local team disappear. I expect that the clubs made exit plans after last year’s near-death experience. I anticipate that we’ll see the clubs put them into practice as soon as their involvement in the current season is over. But good riddance to this prodigal league. The NASL name should be retired, like that of a damaging hurricane. Above all good riddance to the chuckleheads and schemers who brought it all down. Irrespective of the results of this lawsuit, may they make their exit from the scene. U.S. Soccer deserves better, in so many respects.

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  • Randy Swandy

    You’re not wrong on a lot of this, however, it’s impossible to ignore or downplay the collusion that’s occurred between USSF and MLS, via SUM. The conflict of interest with Sunil at the helm is beyond concerning.

    • Kyle Olson

      This is something that I often often repeated, but rarely without much in the way of details. I’ve yet to see an any argument made to support this that isn’t immediately undermined by NASL’s own actions.

      Can you help enlighten me?

      • Dave Benhart

        If you read the lawsuit from the NASL they paint a pretty good picture of collusion between MLS, SUM, and USSF. Especially for the early MLS years in the 90s and early 00s. And it’s true that the USSF kept changing the requirements for Div1 and Div2 sanctioning since 2010.
        Granted the lawsuit leaves out all of the boneheaded decisions made by the new NASL from its inception. And that it’s probable that the NASL couldn’t have meet the first set of Div2 requirements ever. But USSF did keep changing those rules. And those changes appear to favor MLS and its affiliate league USL.

  • Wes

    I tend to be a little more sympathetic to the NASL. However, the most recent lawsuit was put forward by two owners neither of whom was involved with the league before 2016… so if they weren’t fully apprised of what was going on, then that is completely on them.
    It’s like starting up an energy company, building a power plant, and then bitching because you didn’t know utilities were regulated.

    • Nuri abdil

      US soccer is all about that money. That monstrosity of a club called NYCFC got a team in a baseball stadium and the UAE have worst human rights abuses than Qatar. Stuff the “US” soccer press refuses to cover and you guys wonder why you aren’t taken seriously on the global stage.

      • Alex Schieferdecker

        I’m no more sympathetic to the Qataris than you, but Manchester City, which is owned by the same folks, is taken very seriously. As are Chelsea and PSG, who are owned by no less unsavory characters.

        The ownership of that club has actually, and unfortunately, helped MLS gain more visibility.

        • John

          Why unfortunately? Maybe some day NYCFC will become a bigger club than ManCity…dont laugh, but it can, and the ownership can totally help. You need money, lots of it, to build in NYC. The market is huge, the sky is the limit, but you need money. City group has it!

      • kkfla737

        I agree that for whatever reason the US Soccer press won’t cover the Abu Dhabi human rights abuses. But it’s worth noting the New York Cosmos were fronted by Saudi money for years and Saudi Arabia makes the UAE look like a bastion of liberalism.

    • Kyle Olson

      I would be interested in hearing briefly why you are more sympathetic to the league.

      • Wes

        yeah, it’s a bit complicated, but really it’s that I think there were a lot of good and genuine intentions. I think some of things went against them that couldn’t be foreseen and I think the division standards made it more difficult.

        • Kyle Olson

          Sure, that makes sense. Appreciate your reply.

    • kkfla737

      To me Wes that is always one of the great takeaways of NASL’s approach. Owners who have little experience or long-term cred in business of soccer in the US screaming about fairness and outcomes when they plainly haven’t done their time or have the kind of well-founded perspective that comes with time to really understand the nuances of this business. Once owners who have been successful in other lines of business settle in after a few years they either bail completely (Hartman, Frisch) or look to shift leagues (McGuire, Edwards, OSEG). With the exception of the Fath Brothers, NASL’s ownership merry-go-round and helter skelter approach (Can you believe Paul McCartney wrote such a lousy song?) make it impossible for perspectives that come with time and experience to guide the boardroom and thus one bad decision after another is made.

  • spandlegax graggle

    well written piece.

  • LHT

    I was a journalist in Canada for many years. The investors and owners in this league were warned about every problem they faced before the league even started, from the need for a quality product and fan buy-in to the markets that work and those that wouldn’t, to the infrastructure issues, to their grotesquely low expectations of cost and salary, to the need to learn from the mistakes of MSL, the A-League and other ventures. They ignored all of these warnings, and often entirely ignored local soccer communities and those that had gone before them. Many of the people who behaved in a financially and professionally shady manner had existing histories of such behavior before the league started, some in connection with earlier soccer and sport ventures. There was no due diligence, no respect for the sport. The NASL’s demise was inevitable.

  • Troy Kadlec

    What prevents the NASL from creating its own version of USSF and getting sanctioned by FIFA? The problem I have with this type of lawsuit is that they want what others built and they want it for free.

    • Sdflash2006

      “They want what others have built and they want it for free”. That is a great description of the NASL strategy from day 1. IMO most of these NASL owners were sold a bill of goods…that eventually they would be able, through either Pro/Rel or some sort of merger, to bully their way into a D1 US professional league without paying an expansion fee. The pompous bilge coming from the the league office and the Cosmos (after they joined) was a very transparent example of this delusional attitude. It is clear that the Cosmos and Miami FC have captured the league now and will take the league down with them in flames. Good riddance.

  • Jeff Wolter

    Can’t seem to see the two posts I wrote yesterday…

  • JohnMan4

    This was very well written. I do not discount the close relationship between the USSF and MLS, but it’s hard to argue that without that relationship that the MLS would even still be in business. MLS was created so that the US could host a World Cup, and back then who could have predicted that soccer would have become so popular that the US would have competing leagues- but the relationship was already set in stone by then.

    And even though MLS had this advantage, NASL did itself no favors. It made nowhere near the level of investment that MLS clubs made and that even third division independent USL clubs made. NASL kept trying to compete head-to-head with MLS- and still is (the new potential expansion markets they cited included Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit, which are two current and one likely MLS market). NASL kept overlooking smaller open markets like Sacramento, Hartford, Baltimore, etc. and instead chased this ridiculous dream of competing directly with MLS despite having less investment, less-wealthy owners, small metal-bleacher-laden stadiums, less talent, and worse marketing.

    The NASL failed because it tried to implement a business model that works well in Europe without considering unique local cultural factors and the fact that domestic soccer is considerably less popular in the US than in Europe, so that things can’t be done exactly the same way. They say insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. I would also argue insanity is trying to do the same thing in a different situation and expecting a different result.

    And all of this never even deals with the most fundamental question: How did NASL envision Pro/Rel to begin with? Did it expect USSF to institute the “silver bullet” of Pro/Rel and then USSF would make NASL the top division? MLS would always be the top division. Even if NASL clubs were promoted, they would then be known as MLS clubs. NASL would always be the second division. NASL’s lawsuit would be like the Championship suing the EPL because it can’t be D1 too.

    I feel sympathy for many NASL clubs that just wanted to grow the game and give communities pro soccer. But for the largest guiding owners in the league, the main ingredient in their business model was Delusion.

  • Jeff Wolter

    Let’s not forget that MLS also had it share of teams that have folded:

    Tampa Bay Mutiny 1996-2001
    Maimi Fusion 1998-2001
    Chivas USA 2005-2014

    • Lenny

      USL as well has had more failed clubs than NASL. USL chose to become MLS’s minor league in the AAA style and it helped them well expand at a time when NASL needed to so there’s the reason USL expanded and stabalized quickly the last few years. USL is limited to being MLS’s minor league though whereas the Independent NASL has a higher ceiling.

  • Jeff Wolter

    A very good reason for the NASL to exists.
    It provides another path to professional success that our D1 league does not.

    2015 Dom Badji signed a three year deal with the Colorado Rapids after being selected by the Rapids as the 67 player selected in the 2015 SuperDraft.
    Badji -MLS pay $65,000 (league min) *his 3rd season starting games for a D1 team
    2017 MLS stats
    GP 28
    Min 2139
    S 48
    SOG 26
    G 9

    2016 MLS stats
    GP 27
    Min 1571
    S 47
    SOG 19
    G 6
    -was loaned out to Charlotte Ind USL D3 for a few games

    2015 MLS stats
    GP 15
    Min 812
    S 18
    SOG 7
    G 2
    -was loaned out to Charlotte Ind USL D3 for a few games.

    Christian Ramirez -MLS pay $392,504
    2017 MLS stats
    GP 25
    Min 2091
    S 55
    SOG 30
    G 13

    *In 2012 or 13 I watched Christian play for the Charlotte Eagles USL D3 team. He was a good but not outstanding player in D3 season in Charlotte.
    -He did not get paid anywhere near the MLS league min of $55,000 during that first season out of college.

    2016 MLS stats

    Miguel Ibarra -MLS pay $322,326
    2017 MLS stats
    GP 21
    Min 1558
    S 20
    SOG 11

    2016 MLS stats

    The NASL is an alternative for player development for players that don’t get selected and signed through the D1 draft process.

    We need a independent D2 league.

    MLS player rules/draft procedures keep a lot of good players from ever sticking it out through the first lean years.

    Provides another choice for developing young talented players.
    The player entry process is very restrictive and takes away choices for player development.

  • kkfla737

    This is a brilliant piece by Alex. One point I neglected to make when this was posted on Friday was that NASL has had one team total build a SSS which creates a more sustainable long-term model. That team, San Antonio defected to USL though not directly. Two other clubs that did defect to USL directly Ottawa and Tampa Bay have good stadium situations relative to other lower division teams. It seems the more sustainable a club was long-term the less likely they were to stay in NASL once they saw how the business of soccer in the US operated and the types of cost overruns that get you into trouble.

  • Ryan Christoffersen

    I’m one of those former NASL proponents that fell off the bandwagon after years of mismanagement. This article hit home, well done.

  • Lenny

    NASL has made its fair share of mistakes but USL has clearly been favorited by the USSF this year.

    NASL will likely get the injunction and continue as D2 for a couple more years at least giving them time to add clubs now that MLS and USL are hitting their ceiling for teams in they’re league. With the positive changes NASL has made this year in they’re rebirth from last years troubled offseason hope they move forward and are successful in the end. NISA’s plan to help populate the NASL will have the time it needs and NASL the breathing room. The US pyramid needs independent professional league’s like NASL, NPSL, and the coming NISA and the 3 level pro/rel system they will initiate among themselves.

    • Gerson22

      Given your track record at predicting sh**, Dennis, I would not put money on what you’re thinking will happen.