The first week of September, 2015 has been the most profound in American soccer history – since perhaps the one preceding the Great American Soccer War of the 1920s. Within the span of a few days, our soccer history, our soccer present, and our soccer future have entered a period of massive flux.
Where it’s going – nobody knows.
Here’s a recap of Fluxtember, 2015:
• NASL threatened to sue US Soccer over MLS’s D1 sanction if an agreement cannot be reached on amending it.
• MLS announced that Frisco, Texas was the front runner in US Soccer Hall of Fame host bidding.
• Evidence surfaced that US Soccer planned and announced to the press a promotion and relegation system in the late 1980s.
The consequences of each of these actions are serious. Combined, they sum up what is pivotal week in American soccer history this was.
To paraphrase Yogi Berra, we’re at a fork in the American soccer road. Which one should we take?
In the big news, decorated US sports anti-trust attorney Jeffrey Kessler – fresh off his victory over NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the Tom Brady Deflategate case – announced plans to challenge US Soccer’s D1 sanction of MLS on behalf of NASL. As someone who has long argued that this sanction reeks of an anti-trust violation, I couldn’t be more pleased.
It’s plain as day to me that – without the meritocracy of promotion and relegation – MLS’s unique D1 sanction constitutes little more than a stinky little tinpot trust arrangement. In it, an independent US sports federation is deciding which league is major. As such, It is completely unique in American sport, and I argue achingly vulnerable to legal challenge.
As construed in the world of club soccer that more Americans love every day, divisional sanctions depend on the assumption of open leagues. In closed leagues, they amount to a series of anti-competitive advantages – primarily for those in D1. They simply legitimize a caste system. In this challenge, whatever the financial benefit these advantages construe to MLS, those are the damages NASL should claim.
I applaud virtually everything around this effort: A distinguished attorney experienced in the lowest levels of US pro sports fraternity intrigue – and the man who challenged MLS single entity structure in the Fraser case – is running the show. The case itself is practically an admission that D1 carries with it a cash value – something NASL appeared reticent to admit until recently. The very public challenge has driven plenty of supporter interest and discussion on both NASL and the promotion and relegation they oft claim to aspire to.
You feel the “but” coming?
Here it is:
Instead of overturning the pyramid altogether and starting fresh with an open one, some are hoping for this case to resolve itself in a court order – or a resolution – in which both MLS and NASL are given D1 status.
This is one bad hope.
First of all, joining MLS in an anti-competitive trust arrangement leaves the anti-competitive arrangement intact. The only difference will be that two leagues share the cartel benefits of one. Some would argue that a co-D1 situation would be instantly untenable and quickly dissolve into a full upending of the closed soccer pyramid. They say FIFA doesn’t permit two D1s in the same nation. They tell me to trust that NASL will grasp the opportunity to create an open system.
I wonder if instead – suddenly finding themselves in possession of of MLS’s crowning entitlements – NASL owners might suddenly discover reservations to sharing it. It may dawn on some on some of them not to share these prime perk with yet another league by opening into a promotion and relegation system – especially next to a persistently closed MLS still empowered with a D1 sanction of their own.
Most importantly for me, a shared D1 leaves MLS with entirely too much power. I fear it may be the only scenario in which a fully open pyramid could be annihilated. Leaving MLS with that top-flight sanction – and the entire closed league US pro-sports establishment behind them – seems like a cataclysmically bad idea. It seems to me that instead of creating the conditions for open leagues, one is creating a gladiator arena in which leagues fight to the death.
I think it’s fair to say that’s the arena MLS wants. They enter it still armed with a nod from FIFA – and with little or no incentive to avoid a death match with NASL. Add to that the fact that their most powerful owners are all heavily invested in the competition, be it NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and even BPL. So ensconced in this US closed league sports owner fraternity, they’ll be able draw from a raft of top owners that comprise a who’s who of American pro-sports. From there, they can access a raft of politicians, broadcasters and other ancillary businesses – and bring them to bear on the task at hand for every closed US pro sports league:
Eliminating, annihilating, dismembering and cremating the competition.
And let’s be honest – As of September, 2015, neither FIFA nor CONCACAF is in a position to challenge any of this. Sepp may be still able to chime in on events in Armenia. He can’t even set foot if America without risking FBI apprehension.
So, I advocate a different path: Instead of hoping such a shared D1 arrangement breaks down accordingly into a sustainable open system (and risking another in a long line of US closed soccer league fratricides in the process) why shouldn’t we hope judge throws out the entire US Soccer sanctioned closed pyramid as the sketchy trust arrangement it is argued to be? Wouldn’t that clear the decks to assemble an open one?
MLS aspires to be a closed American league – akin to NFL or NBA. As such it requires no internationally backed D1 sanction of major leagueness. Closed American leagues govern themselves. Let MLS go outside the federation governed pyramid where it belongs.
Overturning the pyramid is the clearest path to an open system – all the way to a single D1 – for those clubs who would like nothing more than to fully fledged participants in the open global market of club soccer. Let MLS be the American closed league of limited soccer outlets it wants to be – without a D1 sanction. Eliminate the risk. Skip the middle man. Ditch the closed one. Install an open one. Don’t leave a string of unresolved maybes between us and our open league destiny.
Of course, some argue that gloves are off right now, and MLS is doing everything they can to annihilate NASL today. They don’t see any difference between now and a D1 roomie situation with MLS. They cite curious blocks to westward expansion, funky barricades to stadium construction, and weird editorial choices from media outlets as proof of MLS meddling. To them, I say – you ‘aint seen nothing yet. If a co-D1 persists for any length of time – the difference in magnitude will be akin to a ladyfinger and a neutron bomb.
I could be wrong. NASL may shock me. They could suddenly garner overwhelming American fan support and massive international investment to counter what will surely be a American soccer war of biblical proportions. It’s just that as a student of American soccer history, I’ve seen too many examples of this kind of fratricide. I’m also old enough to remember the hubris of Donald Trump’s USFL – and I don’t want a replay. NFL made short work of them. I think taking on big 4 US sports leagues, virtually every US broadcaster, a pile of friendly politicians – and an MLS still armed with a D1 sanction seems like a tall order for 3 year old NASL.
Obviously, even without a D1 sanction, MLS is going to come out guns blazing if NASL wins this fight. That being said, history is conclusive on the following point: As long as the initial conflagration ends with MLS outside of D1, there’s virtually nothing they can do kill our fledgling open leagues in a retaliatory strike. Over 100 years and 209 nations, No fully open soccer pyramid with sole possession of divisional sanctions has ever collapsed anywhere in the world. The chances of it happening here are beyond remote.
So let’s not mess with that perfect record by adding the entropy of a shared D1 buddy system with a closed MLS. One is quite literally messing with perfection.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that well placed MLS apologists agree with what I’m saying here. Show me a long time MLS bot who is cool with sharing first division status, and I’ll show you a pundit who wouldn’t be sad if MLS wiped NASL off the map and permanently entombed them a leaden sarcophagus.
So, without the hyperbole: In order to ensure the survival of an open pyramid, the current closed one must be completely overturned for the illegal trust it is. Otherwise, you leave it very vulnerable to MLS retaliation.
I can only hope Esquire Kessler and every NASL owners agree: They are guaranteed valuable properties in a stable open system. They are guaranteed an serious and credible effort from MLS to grind them into dust in in the wormhole that is co-D1.
In the next big news, MLS pronounced Frisco, Texas as the heir apparent to the now shuttered US Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, NY. Of course, they’re not the deciders, and the final decision has not been made, but facts like this have never stopped MLS from trying to pronounce anything before.
Unlike the NASL legal challenge to MLS, this idea is howlingly bad. The complaint about Oneonta location was always remoteness. Frisco makes Oneonta look like a centrally located plumb – a thriving metropolis within easy reach of one of the densest population centers in the US and withing a few hours drive of cradles of the American game.
Apart from being in the middle of nowhere in terms of population and American soccer history – it would be physically attached to the MLS Pizza Hut Park stadium complex. This puts it under the influence of one of the more regressive and tentative MLS ownership groups – Clark Hunt and/or his siblings. Granted their dad Lamar was a progressive stalwart next to them. In fact, I’ve recently heard that he accepted the possibility of promotion and relegation, and indeed agreed to invest in such a system. Unfortunately this generation of Hunts are not only as deeply involved with the NFL as their dad was, they’re also much more outspoken against promotion and relegation.
US soccer history is replete with closed leagues trying to edit and re-edit each other out of history – and I suspect the Hunts are no different. That’s why I support a serious study on placing the Hall in Fall River, Massachusetts. Unlike Frisco, it is an actual hotbed of American soccer history. It is in one of the population centers of the US. Perhaps most importantly, it is independent of any league. Like so many communities in the US, Fall River could sorely use the investment.
Those who argue for Frisco say money is the only issue – and that this situation addresses it. I say American soccer history is too important to simply hold out a cup for someone to fill with cash and editorial. Instead, we should act as responsible custodians of an American soccer history that spans dozens of leagues and more than a century. We shouldn’t leave it vulnerable to those who might choose limit it’s size and scope for the marketing of any one league.
As a former fundraising pro who raised tens of millions of dollars – I know of plenty of alternatives to secure the funding for a such an important project – alternatives that don’t threaten to take independent editorial captive. Holding out a cup for the first MLS consortium to fill it does not accomplish that.
If you want a remote US soccer Hall of Fame editorially neutered by MLS and more rarely visited than it’s predecessor, you’ll be happy with Frisco. If you want a vital and independent Hall unencumbered by the narrative of any one US league – in a cradle of American soccer and in one of the biggest population centers in the nation – let’s explore Fall River.
Speaking of history, here’s the third big thing to happen in American soccer this week: It was revealed that US Soccer announced a three-tier open league system – with promotion and relegation – in the late 1980s.
As with so many pieces of US soccer history, I knew the abridged version. I heard US Soccer President Werner Fricker was deposed in a coup. I was told he was an amateur when it came to setting up sports leagues. From all the information out there, I understood that he wasn’t bringing the kind of investment to the table that would be required to set up a US top-flight league – per FIFA mandates around hosting the World Cup in 1994.
I also heard that promotion and relegation was being discussed during this period, but never knew the full extent of it. I assumed a little chit chat on open leagues. Maybe a few spats in board meetings.
I was wrong. Instead, Fricker’s US Soccer decided on open leagues with promotion and relegation. It’s impossible to overstate it: The entire pro/rel narrative took a crazy turn this week when Daniel Salvatore stumbled across what appears to be part of an official US Soccer press packet for the 199o World Cup – one that quite literally screams out across the decades:
It’s impossible to overemphasize the significance of this find: US Soccer under President Werner Fricker not only discussed promotion and relegation. They planned it. In 1989, promotion and relegation was far from unconsidered, utterly alien and culturally incompatible in the United States. In fact – it was decided on, and released to the press.
This story gets even better when inserted into the established timeline. Just a few months later, former LA Clippers executive Alan Rothenberg deposed him – apparently with FIFA and Sepp Blatter’s blessing – and began to assemble the pile of cash from US closed league sports owners that would become single entity MLS.
Instead of series of three open leagues, we got a totally unique closed league system so controlling – Rothenberg himself admitted that it’s only corollary was then known as the World Wrestling Federation.
First of all, I’m proud of Werner. He stood up for promotion and relegation in a way that seemed almost impossible in the American soccer landscape of the late 80s, and paid the price. Like me, he wanted to give every American community a shot at producing a top flight soccer club. Think about it this way – If Sunil Gulati’s US Soccer made this statement, MLS owners would be devouring his head for happy hour today – with mango chutney and a craft IPA.
I knew Fricker was a true American soccer icon. He was a member of USMNT in the early 1960s, when it was far from fashionable. He played for one of the grand old American clubs – United German Hungarians – who trace their roots back to 1925. He embodies virtually everything authentic about the American game. If he would have gotten his way, we’d have a thriving open system today – anchored by some of the oldest and most legacy laden clubs in the United States. That’s exactly what I call for today.
Fricker’s promotion and relegation plan may have been thwarted by an unholy alliance of the NBA, NFL and US Soccer, but his insistence on the revitalization of the US Open Cup may be the only reason that tournament is still with us. It was part of his plan then, and it is still with us now. We owe him bigtime.
Obviously, this blog post is barely scratching the surface of all of these stories. I look forward to watching each one unfold. Like so many others in American soccer history – they’re related.
• Will MLS have the opportunity to disembowel NASL in a Co-D1 grudge match?
• Will MLS then be able to capture the narrative of American soccer history in a Hall of Fame attached to their outlet in Frisco, Texas?
• Will MLS use that editorial control over American soccer history to blot out stories like the one about Werner Fricker trying to bring fully fledged soccer clubs to the US in a fully opened system of promotion and relegation?
One thing I’ve learned about MLS over the years: If you don’t stand up against them – the answer is always:
Yes, they will.