TOA and USL, is Everything Exploding or Imploding?
I can’t even begin to report on everything I’ve heard on the record let alone the things I’ve heard off the record in the past 3 days. The rumor of the North American Soccer League (NASL) being used for the proposed TOA league was proven out yesterday with a press release by the organization’s PR firm. At IMS and our partner site, The Kartik Report, we ended up with almost identical numbers in our polls that asked if people liked the name for the proposed league or not. On average, between the two sites, 73% liked or could live with the retro name while only 28% didn’t like it.
Did you know the USL looked at the name NASL five years ago before they changed from A-League to USL First Division? They decided it would be disrespectful to the legacy of the NASL and went with USL First Division instead, which I guess proves yet one more difference between the two organizations.
And if you noticed, I called the TOA a proposed league. Remember this is not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination.
I have been corrected that the USSF did not meet concerning the TOA situation on Friday evening but the meeting was held on Saturday. I have heard stories about the contents of the USSF meeting and the truth is … none of it can be confirmed. For now, there is no story, only speculation.
On Friday, I heard Charleston would be dropping down to USL-2 and reported the possibility on Saturday. Sadly, now we know that this was true. The statement from the Charleston Battery is important to read carefully and absorb. It rings of the fundamental differences in beliefs between the TOA and the USL.
In yesterday’s Battery press release, President Andrew Bell said, “Playing in this division (USL-2) will also substantially reduce our travel costs as we won’t be flying all over the country.”
For a smaller market like Charleston it will be difficult for them to make enough in attendance to pay the costs of flying all over North America to play in a league. As pointed out previously at IMS, with an average attendance of 5,000 per game, most clubs would hardly break even for their travel expenses. For most teams, it takes at least 2 home games to pay for away game travel expenses.
It has been said that the Battery’s management was also concerned with keeping up with the likes of Montreal and Carolina and felt that the league was heading in a bad direction with the escalating players’ salaries.
“The Charleston Battery has never been a part of TOA, not because we disagreed with some of the legitimate complaints they had about how USL1 operated in the past, but because we totally disagreed with their stated vision to be a viable alternative league to Major League Soccer (MLS) and to compete with MLS on and off the field,” said Charleston Battery CEO Tony Bakker. “This made absolutely no sense to us.”
When one of USL’s strongest allies makes a statement like that, it leaves little argument that there have been some fundamental problems with the structure and running of the USL. But that statement was particularly interesting and is perhaps the biggest core difference between the USL and the TOA: the belief that one needs to run the league as if it’s minor league compared to the TOA’s belief that you need to compete with MLS.
Tim Holt, now President of the USL, told Kenn Tomasch in an interview last spring, “The owners of USL-1 teams who are pursuing Major League Soccer is not a desirable situation for us. It doesn’t help us in stability as a league.”
“We can either sit around and say, well, we can let this happen over time or we can continue to try to evolve the business model in USL-1 that it’s such a viable alternative to MLS that certain ownership groups would prefer to stay in USL-1 and be able to run their professional soccer franchise rather than be part of MLS. Our models are very different,” continued Holt.
The TOA has made statements that they feel they should be competing against MLS and not accept themselves as a second tiered league, even though they are asking to be a second tier league to MLS! The application to USSF was as a 2-Division league. Also, Holt has said he is looking at cities that would not be MLS desirable.
Holt further explained, “A market like Austin, Texas is a perfect market for USL-1… somewhere between 20 through 50. That’s not a market that MLS is likely to expand into any time in the near future.”
It is also said that the TOA wants their league to do more marketing where the USL currently believes the league is a minor league and needs to operate as such, being fiscally responsible and not spending exorbitant amounts of money on players and advertising and living within their means.
Currently, the USL only has 4 remaining teams from last year: Rochester, Austin, Puerto Rico and Portland. As reported this weekend at IMS, Rob Clark, owner of the Rochester Rhinos, is playing his cards close to his chest and could go either way. If he walks, the other teams are sure to follow. If Clark walks and the other teams follow then what?
What are the options?
Even with all the clubs sliding into the TOA camp, US Soccer could still reject the TOA. USSF could tell the USL they would have to accept all the teams back into their league. That would make for some very unhappy people on all sides but it is possible. Or perhaps USSF could force them all to return to the USL but demand reform from USL.
Another scenario would be for US Soccer to approve the TOA. If this happens it seems USL would have every right to sue some clubs for breach of contract for this year or any other year they were contracted for. It’s also a sure thing that USL-1 would have to fold. As things stand now, USL-2 look to be a very strong league.
Another scenario is that the TOA application is accepted with the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA). The CSA is Canada’s equivalent to the USSF. If the application is accepted in the CSA, all teams could play within that league just as the other Canadian teams have been playing in the USSF-sanctioned USL.
Yet another scenario would be if FIFA or CONCACAF stepped in and put pressure on USSF to accept or deny the TOA. It is possible FIFA has been paying attention to this mess that is tearing apart this second division league in North America. They could decide the US needs to get away from franchise-run leagues (MLS & USL) and force a change by telling USL they need to allow more power to team owners.
The bottom line is the possibilities are endless and so are the opportunities for lawsuits and counter lawsuits. Someone needs to get hold of this situation and steer it in a direction of resolution. TOA could be seen as an explosion of possibilities, but on the other hand, this whole thing could implode and be tied up for years in court with no good 2nd division league in the US or Canada. This would look ugly to FIFA when making a decision about a US bid for the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. In my opinion, Sunil Gulati has to be concerned.
With so many teams making an exodus from the USL it is telling of big problems, but would a brand new league be the answer or would compromise by all parties be the best solution at this point? Jeff Di Veronica from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle said yesterday, “It”s time to start acting like real businessmen and not spoiled children. Because with every day that passes and this mess isn’t cleaned up, you devalue your product more and last I checked this is STILL minor-league soccer and you need all the HELP you can get, not this nonsense.”
“This breakaway is not good for soccer in the United States,” said Tony Bakker. “Cooler heads should have prevailed with all parties sitting round a table and resolving their differences for the benefit of the sport. This did not happen and we will all have to deal with the consequences.”
Di Veroncia concluded his rant today with a similar statement that was much more direct. “EVERYONE LOSES. So … STOP THE NONSENSE.”
The general managers of all these organizations are desperate for their teams to resolve things and get schedules so they can book their venues, plan their play dates and start to put together the corporate sponsorships that every team desperately needs to allow the organizations to survive. With every passing day of no resolution it hurts every party involved, including you the soccer supporter.
Perhaps it’s time for Sunil Gulati to step up to his role and pull the major players in this mess into a room and tell them no one leaves until this thing is resolved. By they way Sunil, you may want to leave Don Garber at home this time. After all, he does run a competing league.
Come on gentlemen, it’s time to get this thing done!