“Plain and simple, we decapitate and do business with what’s left.”
Those were the words of Phil Leotardo before his New York family went to war with what he called a “glorified crew” from New Jersey. While this late series Sopranos episode may have been a dramatic piece of fiction, that quote has been echoing in my mind in regards to this ongoing struggle for power in the American soccer landscape.
Is that not what Major League Soccer and in some ways the United Soccer League are doing to the North American Soccer League, the National Premier Soccer League, and any other league or competition that exists in this country?
It certainly seems as if MLS Commissioner Don Garber and his staff view the NASL and all other leagues without direct ties to MLS as nothing more than glorified crews, lacking the organizational strength you would associate with a powerful family. In many ways, it’s difficult to begrudge anyone for feeling that way.
There has definitely been a real mafia feel to the events of the last couple of months, and even the last couple of years in American soccer. There have been theoretical hits, ample threats from all angles, and the seizing of vital resources. To call it a power struggle might be an understatement. But then again, with the events that have unfolded late on here in 2016, is there really any questioning the power or clout of MLS and the man who is, all too perfectly for this written piece, referred to as The Soccer Don?
The main conflict throughout these so called “Soccer Wars” has been between MLS and NASL. Since the rebranded NASL launched in 2009, it seemed abundantly clear that taking on MLS was at the very least a thought, and at the most a focal point of the league’s existence. At first, it looked like a pathway to coexistence would be paved. Alas, that road took a sharp turn down a very attack minded hill with a nearby sign that reads “pump your breaks”.
Some people may debate the extent to which NASL officials thought they could go with this off field competition, but it most definitely manifested itself into a dicey and dirty game. It’s certainly waning at the moment, as the status of the league and a few of its clubs are in question, some would say in danger of going out of existence.
It really depends on your sources of late. One minute there’s “official word” of a club folding, most notably the New York Cosmos but also smaller outfits like Rayo OKC. The next minute, the Cosmos are fine, the league is fine, and we’re all singing Kumbaya atop purple horned unicorns on our way to an annual owners meeting. At some point, something solid must come out of this soccer sickness.
When I spoke at length with NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson in the Spring of 2015, he repeated one phrase multiple times. At that time, Don Garber had made public comments about how there wasn’t a firm Division 2 in U.S. Soccer, but that USL, officially deemed the third tier, could be that second league in the near to immediate future. Commissioner Peterson repeatedly said to me, “we are an independent, professional, championship based soccer league”, going on to essentially say that he didn’t care what someone wanted to label his league as, Garber or anyone else. He didn’t seem all too mentally occupied by the thought of “second division”. He was quite proud of his complete and utter independence, and the ability of his league’s clubs to work as independent operations in a similar manner to clubs around the world.
That attitude is one I love, and wish that others around our widespread American soccer community could appreciate a bit more, maybe by gaining a little perspective and breaking outside their bubble. Of course, that attitude of encouraging independent decision making and self governing inevitably had some major pitfalls, such as clubs choosing to leave the league on their own accord.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury recently made the decision to jump ship to the USL, technically taking themselves from the second division to the third. We’ve heard of pseudo promotion, teams essentially buying their way into MLS. This self-relegation however was uncharted territory, and symbolized what many saw as the beginning of the end for the NASL. Were Tampa and Ottawa really relegating themselves? Or did they read the writing on the wall, go on the lamb for a bit, and come back to a peaceful neighborhood with different but more stable leadership? (John Sacramoni didn’t like the idea of changing families, but it’s been done.)
The USL is making major moves and doing a lot of things right. There are some fantastic localized cultures that are a part of the organization. Places like Cincinnatti and Sacramento are becoming more and more commonplace, and the league is certainly owed some credit for this. However, places like Detroit, Chattanooga, Portland, Seattle, Louisville, St. Louis, Minnesota and so many more should hammer home the point that a local soccer culture and unbridaled passion for the game goes a lot deeper than any league that currently exists in this country.
Let’s look at Minnesota United, a team from a place with a deep soccer history that is not often talked about by folks outside of the area, a history including things like the crowds of 40,ooo plus that attended Minnesota Kicks games in the old NASL.
Minnesota United got the call from the biggest family. They’ve left the modern fledgling NASL and headed up the ladder. They will begin play in MLS in 2017.
They were a crown jewel of stability floating in a choppy sea. They had to be snatched up. Rest assured, they had to kick up to the bosses quite a bit. Somewhere in the realm of 100 million dollars, plus 150 million in stadium construction costs. (There’s no word as to who gets the no show jobs.)
Of course, Minnesota is promised all sorts of wonderful things in their future as part of the most powerful conglomerate ever seen in American soccer. It may seem like a lot of money to invest, but in many ways, it could be argued to be a fine business decision, long and short term. Books like Soccernomics would argue otherwise. Authors like Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper can tell you all about the economic dangers of the MLS model and its striking similarities to multi-level marketing and pyramid schemes, but let’s look at a different comparison entirely.
Within this whole saga, the relationship of MLS to the NASL looks an awful lot like the NFL to the USFL on the gridiron battlefields of the 1980’s. Don Garber and many of his staff members are former NFL employees. They must all be very well versed in the legal and historical significance of that particular off-field sporting duel and how it relates to this current situation with the football we call soccer. The USFL took a similar gloves off approach when going toe to toe with the NFL. It backfired. Miserably. While the league was always destined to fail, tt didn’t help that the USFL had a few businessmen involved with the league with some less than morally upstanding financial backgrounds. Their shadows loomed over the league, in much the same way that the name Traffic Sports still hovers over the NASL.
The NFL reaped the rewards of patience and superior legal teams. The USFL folded and disappeared. The NASL may do the same. MLS will gladly scoop up whatever players that are the equivalent of Lawrence Taylor and Steve Young, or any franchises that look fit to survive in either MLS or USL. At the current moment, those leagues just have more to offer clubs than a barn that looks to be on fire. It’s a great barn. But it’s up in flames!
This incentive based accumulation that we’ve seen between MLS, USL, and the NASL is, in principle, quite similar to what we’ve seen with the NPSL and the PDL (the “Premier Development League” that is backed by USL and MLS) in recent weeks. Clubs are flocking to and fro, based on premonitions ranging from smart and sensible to ridiculous and delusional.
In some cases, such as the North County Battalion in San Diego, a club is making a wise business move that will also benefit the players on the field and the local community as a whole by moving from the NPSL to the PDL. In some cases however, clubs are taking huge risks sugar coated as major steps forward when switching leagues, no matter the direction. (i.e. Kitsap Pumas)
In a recent interview with Soccer Nation, NPSL Commissioner Joe Barone made his feelings on this matter quite clear.
“We here at the NPSL have worked very hard to create local rivalries, to stimulate local fan bases, and to give soccer fans something to truly care about,” Barone said. “It is really dangerous to destabilize that foundation. We’ve invested time and resources into our clubs and to see them lured away with promises of pastures greener doesn’t leave a good feeling with us. Having been involved with soccer as long as I have, I can honestly say that what is promised isn’t always what is delivered.”
Barone himself may want to look in the mirror when uttering that last sentence, as I personally know quite a few NPSL club owners over the last half dozen years who have been less than happy with the follow through on promises from the league and its overall quality. With that said, there is ample validity to his statements.
There is a clear fundamental fight going on around us, and it seems as if independence is a word on the tip of the argument’s tongue. How long can you really survive as an independent? How long can you make your own way, be successful while doing all the right things ethically for your friends and family, without kicking up part of your weekly collections to the man who runs your neighborhood? You’re not gonna be able to slide under the radar forever. Whether you’re making a killing or committing egregious mistakes, your independent self will be noticed. It’s over for the little guy. You’re pretty much left with two options: start paying the bosses, stay in line, keep your trap shut, and in turn reap the benefits of protection and loyalty, or, challenge authority and go to war. We’re already seeing how both of those decisions can play out.
Photo: The Enquirer/Kareem Elgazzar