On Friday night, U.S. Soccer announced that both the NASL and USL would be given provisional division two sanctioning for the 2017 season. This decision is nothing short of a cop out. The federation had their chance to put their foot down and establish some sort of hierarchy in the turbulent lower end of the American soccer pyramid. Instead decided to give both the NASL and USL DII sanctioning and put the issue off for yet another year.
NASL and USL DII Sanctioning Only Delays Problems
The key word up there is “provisional.” Neither side meets U.S. Soccer’s standards for a division two league. Because of this, both had to be granted massive waivers and will need to show some sort of progress towards meeting the criteria in order to hold the designation. That means we are going to have this same fight and same debate at this time next winter when everybody reconvenes to reassess how each league has improved.
While this decision does technically make both leagues happy, it does nothing to settle the growing animosity between them. We now have two second tier leagues in an environment that has difficulty supporting one. It also adds to the fact that division assignments in this country are arbitrary. What is the benefit to being division two other than perhaps altering marketing strategies? No promotion/relegation makes the DII designation meaningless enough, what does having two leagues at this tier do to change that? The answer to both questions is the same: absolutely nothing.
NASL Lives On
It’s been a rough winter for the NASL and this decision provides a happy ending for them. They were on the brink of death shortly after the end of their season when the New York Cosmos almost folded. They have seen a couple more franchises go through financial turmoil. While Rayo OKC and Fort Lauderdale Strikers appear to be gone for good, the Cosmos and Jacksonville Armada were able to get things together and have survived into 2017 thanks to late arriving investors and this sanctioning decision.
Eight teams will take the pitch for in the NASL this season. The Cosmos and Armada will be joined by North Carolina FC, FC Edmonton, Puerto Rico FC, Indy Eleven, Miami FC, and the expansion San Francisco Deltas. There have been rumors of potential expansion to 11 teams for the fall with San Diego, Orange County, and Atlanta possibly coming along, but that is nothing more than wishful thinking. A 2018 start would be more realistic for those cities.
Overall, the NASL is getting what it wants. It is going to survive with the second tier designation it has always had. They really couldn’t ask for anything more.
The USL Gets a Boost
The USL also got what it wanted out of this process. They got the DII designation they have wanted from the very beginning. Sure, they have to share the seat with their arch rivals, but they aren’t outwardly complaining about it. In fact, they seem to be brushing the whole provisional thing aside and claiming outright DII status.
— USL (@USL) January 7, 2017
Many of their clubs tweeted out the same message shortly after the decision.
This probably allows some better expansion opportunities for the USL, provided they can provide a better overall plan than the NASL can. However, they will need to start adding some larger markets with independent ownership groups in order to hold their place. There is also the issue of how the “MLS 2” sides will affect their place in the hierarchy. The federation didn’t address that at all during this whole fiasco.
This Decision Solves Nothing
As happy as both leagues are with this outcome, it doesn’t exactly solve anything. It only extends the growing war between the USL and NASL while providing no clear answer to the future. Next year at this time, we will have this exact same argument about where each league belongs. Will the NASL have enough stable teams going into 2018 to maintain their place in the second tier? Will the USL grow into the right markets and hold onto enough franchises to earn their place? These questions could not be answered this winter, but we could have had something a little more decisive that would possibly temper the issue in 12 months.
The Arbitrary Standards are to Blame
The battle for the second division only exists because of U.S. Soccer’s arbitrary standards for a DII league. At the moment, neither the USL nor the NASL has enough teams in the right sized markets distributed properly around the country with stable ownership to constitute a true second division. Neither league has met the criteria from the beginning, in fact. The NASL had been granted waiver after waiver in order to hold their place in the pyramid. This suggests that the leagues themselves aren’t the problem, but the standards are.
U.S. Soccer could have taken the bold, but decisive, step of destroying their arbitrary standards for each division and throwing each league into the place they feel they belong. The way it stands right now, the federation is being held back by it’s own self imposed restrictions. They had the power to take a stand on where these leagues belong and put an end to this silly debate of which league should be the higher division.
Instead, they made their own tier system as useless as it has ever been. If they are going to have two separate leagues as second in the pyramid, what is the point in having a pyramid at all?