In early January, the United States Soccer Federation announced the USL and NASL had been granted provisional Division II status for 2017. The decision was rendered after weeks of speculation about the process and its eventual outcome, which ultimately proved to be a step up for the USL. Scratching the Pitch was able to track down USL President Jake Edwards to discuss the experience.
The decision by the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors to sanction both the USL and NASL as Division II professional leagues may have come as a surprise to some, but Edwards expressed no bewilderment.
“The by-laws enable such a decision. We were thrilled with the Federation’s decision to grant USL Division II status,” Ewards said. “We believed we submitted the strongest application in the history of U.S. Soccer for Division II status, and the decision was a validation of all the investment and effort by the league and our clubs.”
That statement exemplifies the confidence that emanated from the USL league offices in Tampa throughout the entire sanctioning process. With such a strong case, securing Division II sanctioning should have been a tap-in for the USL, but it was not quite so easy. It was a protracted selection that carried on well beyond announced deadlines.
When asked for his views on why the USSF took so long to arrive at a decision, Edwards suggested that the federation would be better suited to answer.
The answer may lie in the fact that U.S. Soccer also had to consider the fate of the other league in the running for D2. With three teams departing after the 2016 season, and with others in various states of financial calamity, the NASL was on the precipice of collapse. The loss of Division II status might have been the nudge that sent NASL to its demise. It was certainly a factor that the federation had to take into account.
Two of the teams that left NASL, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC, did so to join the USL. Some reports indicated the USL was also asked to absorb many or all of the remaining NASL teams, deeply discounting or foregoing expansion fees. There was even talk of a merger of the two leagues. Edwards would neither confirm nor deny whether the reports were true in whole, or in part, .
“We won’t discuss specific details of meetings held during the process, nor will we get into speculation of hypotheticals. At this point, we are grateful the Federation granted our request for Division II status, and look forward to a successful 2017,” Edwards said.
He added, “It is important to note, however, that both Tampa and Ottawa followed the proper procedure to initiate their move to the USL.”
Edwards did refute one bit of speculation that circulated on social media the night that D2 sanctioning was announced. It was rumored that members of the U.S. Soccer Board of the Directors with direct ties to the USL were allowed to participate in the vote, setting up a conflict of interest. Edwards assured Scratching the Pitch that any members with potential conflicts were recused.
The saga of Division II sanctioning does not end with the decision rendered by the federation in early January. The USSF was clear that neither team fulfilled all the criteria for D2 status, and additional requirements would be set forth for each league to matriculate from provisional sanctioning to a fully recognized position at the penultimate tier of the American soccer pyramid.
Without getting into specific details, Edwards highlighted some of the items that the USL needs to address. He said, “We are working with the Federation to address a small number of items they identify as part of this ongoing process throughout 2017. Some are facility related, and we are working toward upgrading or securing facilities that meet all Division II standards and properly showcase the sport.”
As the USL and NASL work with the federation to sort out a path forward for professional soccer leagues, they must also work together to determine how dual sanctioning at the Division II level will impact the format of the U.S. Open Cup. Edwards said discussions are ongoing at U.S. Open Cup Committee. More details should be released in the coming weeks.
Why all the hullabaloo over Division II sanctioning in the first place? A segment of the American soccer community argues that division labels are meaningless in a hierarchy that prevents individual teams from progressing up the ladder on the basis of sporting merit. Edwards and others feel otherwise.
“First, receiving Division II is a validation of the investments and efforts by all our clubs to operate at the highest level. Second, it has real tangible benefits to our clubs in the form of greater market awareness, increased revenue opportunities from media and marketing partnerships, heightened competition on the pitch, and greater fan interest,” Edwards said. “It also provides an enhanced platform to launch major league-wide initiatives such as USL Productions, commercial initiatives and additional expansion.”