Sunday, January 8, 2017

USSF and the Continuing Path of Least Resistance

Is Sunil Gulati aware of a need for change, and is he the man to bring it?

By: James Cormack

On Friday the 6th of January 2017 the USSF released a long awaited statement that would make clear the immediate future of both the USL and the NASL leagues. The final decision was that the North American Soccer League would retain provisional Division 2 status and United Soccer League would now move from a D3 league to provisional D2.

USSF described the decision as being in the best interests of the sport and to some extent they are correct because neither league has taken a step backwards as a result of this decision. Both divisions can now start the process of scheduling and their respective teams can get on with preparations for their upcoming seasons.

Is it a step forward though? No it is definitely not, lower division soccer in the United States and Canada has been a cluster for some time mainly because the USSF has failed to keep up with the growth of the sport at this level. They have made a decision that keeps the wolves from the door but at the end of the day it has created an even more complex situation. As a federation how they handle this situation going forward is critical because they are now under more intense scrutiny than ever before.

Had the USSF decided to leave NASL at D2 and deny USL a promotion they probably would have faced legal action, the NASL has had so many waivers and chances over the last 6 to 7 years that to not offer the USL the same helping hand would have caused an outcry. This was pretty much the only viable solution could put forth, anything else probably would have meant either legal action from some corner or the death of a league along with it's teams. USSF through years of neglect backed themselves into this corner, it was the only way out.

US Soccer is now without a D3 league, there is one D1 league (MLS), two D2 leagues (NASL/USL) and two D4 leagues (PDL/NPSL). As I have stated in previous blogs having two leagues at the same level is not productive and neither is it in the best interests of the sport. We have already seen evidence of the problems it can cause with reference to the PDL/NPSL issues at D4, two different leagues, albeit amateur, competing for teams and players.

By placing the USL and NASL both at D2 it is akin to taking two guys, giving each one a knife and tying their spare hands together, put them in a small space and see who can slit each others throat the fastest. At this moment in time you would have to favor the USL to win that fight.

The USL and NASL will now be competing at an equal level for sponsor investment, TV and Media deals, new franchise teams and players! It is not good for the evolution of the sport here and if allowed to continue it will come down to a process of natural selection and one of these leagues will ultimately die or be consumed. It's now a Tug-O-War, the league with the most traction will survive the other will die.

What does this mean for NASL?

Bill Peterson has been a quiet man since November 2016, most likely on the way out.

Firstly I am very glad that the NASL will continue in 2017 and I appreciate the efforts of all owners and individuals such as Peter Wilt for the effort they have put in to make that happen. Unfortunately however over the last few months the sheer level of negative press the NASL has received is going to take a long time to repair and it will undoubtedly have knock on effects for the league and for teams.

The NASL has clearly suffered from very poor leadership and it is noticeable in all of the announcements from USSF and NASL that there is no mention of, or quote from, league commissioner Bill Peterson. The league has barely managed to survive with eight teams after taking seven years to finally achieve having twelve before imploding.

Ottawa and Tampa have jumped ship, Rayo OKC and Fort Lauderdale Strikers are most likely dead and the leagues flagship team New York Cosmos went on a spending spree they could not afford which ultimately helped them win three titles in four years and no doubt also influenced the over spending and demise of some of the other current and former teams in the NASL. Jacksonville Armada after only two seasons of play are now supposedly a league owned club. Having seen what happened in Atlanta under league ownership, I don't fancy their chances of survival after 2017, I hope I am wrong.

In the last few years we have seen Atlanta Silverbacks and San Antonio Scorpions disappear, we have brought Miami FC into a market area that directly affects Fort Lauderdale Strikers, we brought a team to Oklahoma that never should have existed and was doomed to fail from day one and we brought back Puerto Rico who had previously failed as an NASL club. Bill Peterson oversaw all of this including a 2016 final played in front of 2500 and the collapse of New York Cosmos. Mr Peterson has to realize now that it is time to step away from NASL, because he has failed.

For the NASL to survive past 2017 it will require an overhaul of NASL leadership, it will need people willing to work hard enough to accomplish a monumental task and have an ability to make clear logical decisions that will both improve the league and ensure it's survival. We did not have that up until 2017 but hopefully it's being worked on immediately.

The profile and the reputation of the NASL has been severely damaged, this is going to affect them in the pursuit of investment and media coverage. It's a 'back to square one' situation and it will be an uphill struggle considering they now have direct competitors at D2.

NASL is now on life support and without doubt will be viewed as the weaker of the two leagues now sitting at Division 2 in the US Soccer Pyramid. Unless there is a master plan to merge independent teams from both USL and NASL into one stable and sensible second tier in this country in the near future, it is very difficult to see how NASL will continue to survive.

For now there is a little breathing space for NASL, but that is all it is, survival for another year. What happens over the course of this year at the leadership and ownership level will go a long way to determine the lifespan of this league. It will take more than 'a few good men".

What does this mean for Indy Eleven?

Mayor Joe Hogsett and Ersal Ozdemir with the NASL 2016 Spring Trophy.

In the right here and now of course it is good news, Indy Eleven remains playing in the NASL and can go about the business of signing players, building a squad, selling tickets and continue to improve on what has been a great year in 2016. Indy is strong and I have no doubt will be stronger in 2017, they will be a favorite to win the league this year.

Indy Eleven have played a large part in helping the NASL survive and must stand by their decision not to exit the league for the USL. Hopefully for us the supporters that decision does not come back to haunt us in the near future. There are no guarantees if the NASL goes belly up after 2017 that we will be readily accepted into the USL. My feeling is with the support we have that the USL would be foolish to not accept Indianapolis, but entry may prove costly at a later date.

Throughout Indy Eleven's short history the need for a dedicated stadium has been an ever present theme for owner Ersal Ozdemir, despite having failed in one attempt already Indy Eleven will continue to try again. The appointment of Jeff Belskus last year was evidence of intent to step up our game.

The reputation of the NASL is now tarnished and despite surviving the league is far from stable or trustworthy. How does this affect our chances of a future stadium bid? In my opinion and it is only my opinion, this is going to be a major hindrance and unless Indy Eleven can build their own stadium using private funding I think we can forget about public funding assistance at any time in the near future.

When it comes to city and state funding it doesn't matter that we and our team know we are worthy of a stadium and we can support it, the naysayers and detractors out there will use every piece of ammunition they can find to knock it down if they feel it necessary to do so.

Indy Eleven will now also face competition from 20+ independent USL teams outside of remaining NASL teams for player signatures, any new player looking to come and play at D2 in the USA will need an explanation as to why the NASL would be a more viable option for him to play in over the USL.

Now more than ever Indy Eleven needs the loyalty of its support, every one of us needs to turn up for our team in the same numbers as before. Indy Eleven needs to continue to show that it is a successful team with an unwavering support, and we need to continue growing. As long as we can do that our team will be able to support itself financially, and any league that would not accept us would do so imprudently.

What needs to happen next?

All things neglected will decay over time.

In the broader scheme of things the USSF needs to start restructuring the game below it's prized MLS, for too long the groundswell of lower division soccer has been ignored and the USSF has failed in managing it. From the outside looking in it appears that the USSF only cares about MLS and USMNT, everything else is a distraction that can be cured with decisions that only provide short term solutions without any future plan.

US Soccer needs one single professional D2 that is stable and matches the structure of D1. Any situation at any divisional level that forces one league entity to compete against another is suicidal and needs to be remedied. It would be impossible to create that for 2017 but the work needs to start now and discussion between the USSF, USL and NASL need to continue regularly with the aim of providing a single D2 consisting of independent teams.

Creating a new D3 league will have to be a part of that and MLS reserve teams need to be returned along with any team not ready to fulfill the requirements of a D2. With USL now being a D2 and MLS reserve teams remaining we have a situation where a D2 championship final can be contested by two MLS reserve teams and that to me is not a good advertisement for the sport in this country.

Likewise a D2 championship final played in a stadium that can only hold 2500 people is neither a good advertisement for its league or the game in this country. The 2016 NASL final at Belson Stadium was the ill fitting crown on top of a pile of impending disaster and should never happen again. This happened one year after the NASL broke it's attendance record for a final since it's rebirth.

D4 PDL/NPSL also needs to be cared for, any suggestion of one league offering money to have a team join them over a competing league must be addressed by the USSF. D4 is predominately an amateur league and there is no reason why both the PDL and NPSL cannot form one organization and remain multi-regional. Soccer at grass roots is extremely important, vital in fact, D4 and D3 are the ideal areas for prospective owners to enter the game and grow their dream.

The ultimate goal for any federation is to maximize the development potential at all levels of it's game, the end result is a much stronger team at international level. US Soccer is still growing in size and popularity and it will continue to grow, but I think it is not close to it's full potential at any level, international or domestic. Of course it takes time to reach that potential but it will take even longer if hurdles and disasters are continually placed in the way.

Soccer is a competition between teams, played on a field with a ball. Soccer should never be a competition between leagues at the same level because it stifles the growth of the game and ultimately anything negative that arises from that affects the most important part of any professional sport, the supporters. Without supporters a professional sport is nothing, and if teams or leagues continue to face extinction people will lose faith and turn away. It is much easier to create an empty seat than it is to fill one.

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