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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