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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Gulati and USSF step in: D2 soccer saved for 2010; outlook for 2011 still unclear

Posted by on Thu, Jan 7, 2010 at 5:20 PM

There will be soccer in Cary this season after all.

After months of uncertainty surrounding the status of second-division soccer in the United States, officials with the United States Soccer Federation and representatives of two contending organizations announced today that the United Soccer Leagues and the nascent North American Soccer League would soldier through a provisional season under an unusual compromise arrangement. As part of this temporary resolution, all pending claims between the leagues and its parties will be dropped.

The two leagues will play a season divided into two conferences, the USL Conference and the NASL Conference. Each conference will have six teams, with the Carolina RailHawks falling into the NASL Conference.

Rochester Montreal
Portland Vancouver
Puerto Rico Crystal Palace (Baltimore)
Minnesota St. Louis
Austin Carolina
Tampa Bay Miami

A few things to notice about this provisional arrangement:

  • One is that the divisions clearly weren't devised along geographical lines. Instead, it seems that division was made along league affiliations as much as possible: While the NASL Conference is dominated by teams identified with the Team Owners Assocation and are otherwise aligned with the NASL, the USL conference also contains NASL clubs Minnesota, Rochester and Tampa Bay.
  • Unsurprisingly, two clubs that are also party to the ongoing dispute, FCNY and Atlanta, are unrepresented in this 2010 alignment. The mysterious FCNY is aligned with the USL, while Atlanta is part of the NASL bloc. Questions about these clubs at the conference call were sidestepped: Reporters were told that both clubs indicated early in the process that they were not prepared to play in 2010.

More than 100 reporters tuned in for the 3 p.m. conference call out of Chicago, so many that Sunil Gulati, president of US Soccer, expressed surprise at the level of interest.

The main points were these:

  • Gulati said that US Soccer's involvement would be for this season only, and that the federation would be setting forth guidelines for guiding the establishment of a second division in 2011 and beyond. "The teams are playing as independent members of a league we're setting up. The federation will take a much more direct role than it does in other professional leagues in the United States. In this year-long arrangement, the federation will be involved intimately in some of the scheduling (as we are in all the leagues), some of the marketing issues if there are some of those, disciplinary issues, operational issues in terms of setting general guidelines. We will rely quite heavily on the existing resources within the teams."
  • There will be a board of directors consisting of 12 members, with each team represented. There will also be a executive committee that will consist of five people, Gulati said, including a representative of US Soccer. "That executive committee will handle any issues that may come up before a normal board for any professional league," thus operating as an office of the commissioner. "We're not going to be naming a commissioner or anything like that," Gulati said.
  • "Our goal is to have a stable professional soccer environment in the U.S.," Gulati said. "I think we've been able to accomplish that with MLS over the last 14 years, with the exception of one year where two teams were dropped—which frankly made us more stable—there's been steady growth in teams, in terms of interest and so on. We want to be sure we can accomplish that in all our professional leagues.... In the next few months, we'll be laying out regulations and rules and standards that will put a little more substance to our current standards about what a second division or a third division should look like." (Gulati, in addition to being the president of US Soccer, is also president of Kraft Soccer of the MLS' New England Revolution.)
  • Reflecting the provisional nature of the arrangement, Gulati said that the league would bear a generic name along the lines of US Soccer D2, although he left open the possibility (perhaps facetiously) that a corporate sponsor could be found that would have naming rights for the league. (Already on the USL site, the two conferences are represented under a banner that says Division II.)
  • Gulati declared that achieving stability was the No. 1 priority for the federation, with growth coming after that. "What we've achieved today is a short-term solution," he said.
  • A schedule has not been compiled, but Gulati said to expect play to begin at the normal time, perhaps as early as late March.
  • Gulati had no details on whether or how US Soccer D2 games could be televised, and pointedly avoided specifying Fox Soccer Channel as a potential broadcast partner.

Right now, I can think of two major things that were not addressed in the conference call:

  • The ongoing labor dispute in the MLS, and how the potential for a lockout influences the thinking of US Soccer and its obvious interest in the health of the first division.
  • The fact that USL appears to be operating a six-team third division in 2010. The federation's stated threshold for a league is eight teams, at least for DI and D2. The six teams in USL-2 are Charleston, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Real Maryland and Charlotte. (Bermuda appears to have dropped from the USL-2 while everyone's attention was otherwise diverted. Wilmington has also folded, while Crystal Palace Baltimore has joined what is now "Division II.")

Also participating in the call were Dan Flynn, U.S. Soccer Federation CEO/Secretary General; Alek Papadakis, CEO of USL, CEO of NuRock Soccer Holdings, which purchased the USL in September, the event that precipitated the crisis; and Jeff Cooper, acting commissioner of NASL, principal owner of AC St. Louis, which plans to participate in NASL.

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