US Soccer has ridden quite the media rollercoaster the past couple of weeks. There was a World Cup Qualifying scare in Guatemala; “#ProRelForUSA”, “Fire Klinsmann” and “Fire Gulati” banners in Columbus; and for the cherry-on-top, five USWNT players have come forward accusing the federation of wage discrimination.
However, from one corner of the dimming American soccer landscape a light flickers promisingly. The North American Soccer League (NASL), named after the once-revered league that rostered names such as Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff in the 1980s (but carries no affiliation), has penned not one, but four (count ’em! Four!) broadcasting deals recently. These deals were made with One World Sports, ESPN (on ESPN3), beIN Sports, and CBS, as well as a deal with Spanish-publication Marca to cover the NASL and hopefully foster international interest. As problems sprout and fester throughout the US Soccer system, this league is generating hope.
Hope, that is, depending on where you sit within the complex that is American soccer.
Today the NASL, which played its inaugural season in 2009, is nestled (un)comfortably between Major League Soccer and the USL as America’s second division. The young league is showing signs of competitive expansion as a growing portion of American soccer fans become exhaustingly disgruntled at their federation and the first division of professional soccer.
While many in the world of soccer have congratulated NASL for their deals, some MLS fans have critiqued the league for independently acquiring and paying for a TV deal. Although it’s true that the NASL did invest to be broadcast on CBS, this is the way broadcasting deals for growing sports leagues are made. In fact, Major League Soccer paid to be on TV during its first nine years. (They don’t anymore, but because they now pair their deal with the US Soccer Federation (USSF) , meaning they package the rights to US national team games with MLS games.)
So with this large broadcast deal and increased visibility, what should we expect from the NASL?
The league has made their intentions within the US system clear. Last year the second division accused US Soccer and Major League Soccer of violating antitrust laws after the federation proposed changes to requirements for a league to qualify for Division I status, thus making it harder for NASL to compete with MLS. While the proposed changes were never made and nothing ever came of the accusation, this situation made two things clear:
1. NASL has every intention of competing with MLS for D1 status.
2. US Soccer heavily values MLS’s personal interests within the American soccer structure.
That second point could seem incendiary, so give me a little room to make my argument before getting too heated.
The women’s national team’s fight for equality has brought to light some very troubling facts about the USSF’s practices such as the relationship between MLS, Soccer United Marketing (SUM,”the commercial arm of MLS” ) and the USSF. I won’t dive into these accusations here, but the attached reading confirms, at the very least, that the US federation has formed some suspect associations. It may not be possible to prove illegality, but the picture is becoming clearer and clearer that US Soccer does not always have American soccer’s interest at heart.
The federation’s actions on D1 status make sense, though. Major League Soccer is full of major investors who have poured years of their lives and stupid amounts of money into infrastructure, marketing, and the development of an American soccer league. Not only is it logical to reward your trusted investors with the assurance of D1 status, but it makes a sort of sense to have the people who have invested in creating the longest-lasting American soccer league at the helm as we move forward. I understand this, and although I don’t condone their business practices I still acknowledge their status as the preeminent soccer division in the USA and revel in the prospect of watching a competitive American soccer league.
However, even though MLS’s practices may makes sense, these last week’s developments are showing that US Soccer may not be able to act unbiasedly in regards to the professional system. I mean, just look at how intertwined US Soccer is with MLS, SUM, and Don Garber. You don’t need a degree in investigative journalism to smell something fishy.
But at the end of the day, it’s all speculation. The USSF’s relationship with Major League Soccer can be argued as necessary for the stability of a professional league in America. It’s impossible to legally prove that the USSF is acting with a bias towards MLS. Although Don Garber is the commissioner of MLS, CEO of SUM and on the Board of Directors at the USSF, that does not prove that he acts to restrict competition from other leagues.
Though, to me, it proves a lot. It proves that there is, at least, a fear of competition between leagues among the executives in the soccer business. It proves that there is a massive centralization of power in the American soccer system. It proves that the USSF is surrounded by a layer of mystery that American soccer fans may never see through.
And it is here, in the dark veil of mystery that shrouds US Soccer, that we come full circle. Because in this dim, there is again a light.
What the NASL’s broadcasting deals have offered to American soccer fans is an alternative. After all the drama and mystery that is Major League Soccer and the USSF’s relationship, American soccer fans have finally been offered a competitive domestic league that can compete with MLS.
NASL may not have the payroll of some MLS clubs and Rayo OKC may be no Sporting Kansas City, but the league presents us an opportunity. If you are fed up with US Soccer and MLS (or anything connected to either), you can finally enjoy an American soccer league on TV that’s more your style.
So it’s up to us to decide. The NASL has made bounding strides towards competing with MLS this year. Ask yourself, are you happy with US Soccer?
If you’re like me and you just can’t say that you’re happy, look into the darkness of our system and stoke these growing flames. Find a team to support. Learn the schedule. Watch the games. Realize that your interest can shape the future of American soccer and, together, let’s invest in a better American system.