Recent events have disabused us of the notion that there will be an “NPSL Pro”, but the silver lining is that there is now a clearer path forward for independent soccer in the USA, if the leagues and clubs are willing to work together and take it.
Over the past year, two groups starting up leagues for independent professional teams jockeyed for position. The Founders Cup, a group of clubs coming out of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), attempted to form a professional league outside of the United States Soccer Federation’s Pro League Standards. The National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) sought sanctioning from the USSF as a Division III professional league. Both efforts ebbed and flowed, one surpassing the other, each teetering on the brink of collapse at times.
Ultimately the Founders Cup was undone by something seemingly mundane – insurance. After struggling to find a way to make sanctioning as part of the NPSL work, the Founders Cup sought sanctioning independently. The United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) and the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) both turned down the opportunity to sanction the Founders Cup because of liability insurance issues around having a mix of professional and amateur players in a league. Sanctioning the Founders Cup would have been a major coup for USSSA and their turning it down demonstrates how big an obstacle this insurance issue became. This is despite the fact that pros and amateurs face off every year in the US Open Cup, and that many USL teams have players on amateur contracts from their academies. Why those things are okay, but the Founders Cup is not, remains mysterious, but it is what it is. As a result, the Founders Cup has been neutered into the one-off Members Cup competition for this Fall, which will not be founding anything.
Although dreams of an “NPSL Pro” have been dashed, the NPSL is very likely to go forward with a full season amateur option for its teams next year. Given their love-hate relationship with the Founders Cup/NPSL Pro project and the sanctioning issues that project faced, the path for NPSL is now clearly focused on adult amateur soccer only. With that being the case, there should be room for an accord between NISA and NPSL, if egos will permit it to happen.
While NISA may seem to have the upper hand at the moment, a closer look shows how much the fledgling pro circuit needed the teams from the Founders Cup to be viable. Of the eight markets announced for sanctioning, only five appeared on the NISA Fall 2019 schedule. Three former Founders Cup teams slotted in instead, Miami FC, Oakland Roots and California United Strikers FC. Their arrival allowed the Connecticut and Providence teams to take more time to get ready. The prospective Baton Rouge club may not happen at all.
With the three ex-Founders Cup clubs in the fold and Detroit City, Chattanooga and a brand new, second Georgia-based team close to joining for the Spring, NISA is growing stronger, but it is best to remember how tenuous the existence of a non-MLS or USL league subject to the USSF’s PLS is until it reaches an unimpeachable quantity of clubs. The bar for a Division III league is substantially lower in several aspects than the Division II requirements that tripped up the North American Soccer League. There are no time zone regulations and the league needs only 8 teams that play in stadia of more than 1,000 seats. NISA appears likely to have 12 clubs for the Spring, but the more that sign up for Spring and Fall 2020 starts, the safer the league will be from USSF intervention since USSF’s lawyers made it clear in the antitrust case that league-level PLS waivers are far more serious concerns than team-level waivers.
While many might be disappointed that there will be no “NPSL Pro”, a full season NPSL amateur league is a great development for that organization and its clubs. The classic NPSL short-season league is good for clubs that are content to provide summer soccer for out of season college players. Like most of USL League Two (formerly PDL), these clubs are providing the soccer equivalent of the Cape Cod wood bat league in baseball. It is also a wonderful place for new teams to get started and test their market viability. However, there are a number of NPSL teams that ready for something more, but not quite ready for professional soccer and/or do not have the ability to meet the arbitrary $10M lead investor threshold of the USSF PLS. The rumored full season NPSL amateur league will be a great next step for them.
The reality is that some NPSL teams will outgrow adult amateur soccer. This is the case for NPSL’s greatest success stories, Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC. If the NPSL’s full season amateur league is successful, the result will be that more clubs will grow beyond it. Since it is pretty clear now that the NPSL will not have a professional division, the logical step for NPSL to take is a partnership with a professional league to make it easier for clubs that graduate to move on. The NPSL already has this ethos for its players, they just need to extend that way of looking at things to the clubs, too. Since the USL directly competes with NPSL, the de facto potential partner where a mutually beneficial relationship could be formed is NISA.
Without a partnership, USL will continue to plunder NPSL’s ranks as it did for the foundation of its Nashville, Birmingham, Lansing and Memphis clubs (let’s not even go into Chattanooga this time). More NPSL clubs have evolved into USL professional clubs than the former PDL thus far. The USL formula here is pretty simple. Find a PLS-level investor, have them replace the NPSL team with a USL League Two team for the next year, (usually) give a job to someone who ran the NPSL team, leave a hole in NPSL and launch the pro team a year or two later. It is smart, if in some cases ethically questionable, business for USL and the individual who gets a full-time job in soccer, but it has not benefited NPSL very much.
A better option for NPSL would be a partnership with NISA in which NISA teams place development squads in full season amateur NPSL. The additional teams would help bolster NPSL full season in the same way that the MLS partnership benefited USL by increasing the number of clubs, which in turn allows for greater regionalization and a reduction in travel costs for the independent teams. In addition to developing their own players, NISA teams would benefit from a closer look at talent in the NPSL that could be signed to a pro contract with the club’s NISA squad.
A partnership would also provide NISA teams an option in case their time as a professional club does not work out. Instead of folding entirely, the club could live on at a lower cost basis (and potentially with new local but less deep-pocketed ownership) in the NPSL system. Pro clubs fail in the closed USSF system all of the time, so you may as well plan for a more graceful landing than currently exists. Ideally, they could figure out a way for a failed pro club to carry on in the amateur ranks with fan ownership, if no new investor can be found to keep the team up at the pro level. Imagine if there was a mechanism in place that facilitated Fort Lauderdale Strikers fans purchasing the club’s IP with a fundraising process similar to the one used by Chattanooga FC, for example.
As part of their partnership, the two leagues could offer each others’ teams discounted fees to incentivize staying within the overall system. NISA could discount its league dues for a period of time to help an NPSL team transition to pro, and NPSL could waive its expansion fee for NISA teams placing a development squad in the league.
Alternatively, NISA could make this type of partnership with the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL). The advantage the NPSL has over the UPSL is that appears to have more clubs that are better positioned to evolve into the professional ranks. While it may not have been a willing participant, NPSL has a stronger track record of clubs who have evolved into the pro ranks with USL. An advantage of working with UPSL instead of NPSL is that UPSL already lacks territory rights, which is one of the foundational issues of building a merit-based system instead of a franchise system. Ideally, the three leagues would find a way to work together. It is easy to see how NISA may fit with NPSL or UPSL as professional and amateur partners, it is less clear to see how NPSL and UPSL might find a complementing way to slot into a system together. That said, with UPSL under legal attack from USL, it has more incentive to work with the other independent leagues than ever.
Instead of leagues fighting over clubs, the disappointment around “NPSL Pro” not materializing creates the opportunity to put the framework of an interconnected league system without exclusive territory rights to any club in place, which can benefit clubs in the short run by making movement between aligned leagues easier, and translate into merit-based movement between leagues in the future.
“What About the Cosmos?”
As a fan of the New York Cosmos, people often ask me what will happen next with the club. I don’t know for sure, but it seems likely the Cosmos will continue to stay out of sanctioned pro leagues for the duration of the USSF lawsuit.
The New York Cosmos have been a major factor in finding a potential path forward up to this point, whether it is the allure of the Cosmos brand and the credibility it brings to a start-up league effort, or the specter of a potential cash infusion into a new league from the team’s wealthy owner Rocco Commisso.
The rest of the clubs need to make their decisions to do what is right for independent soccer without factoring in what the Cosmos are going to do. The antitrust lawsuit appears to have the Cosmos tied up in an awkward place where they need to play outside of the Pro League Standards either until it is resolved or until their attorneys decide playing in a PLS sanctioned league would not undermine the case.
The rest of the teams should not build a new model going forward around the Cosmos’ temporary, complex situation. Their leaders should work together to build a great, aligned model for all independent pro and amateur soccer clubs with the idea that the Cosmos may never join it. If the Cosmos want to join it once they are out of the antitrust mire, that is great. If they want to buy the New York Red Bulls and try to reform the MLS from within or if they choose to join USL, that should not impact the plans for the aligned independent system either. The independent clubs in NISA, NPSL and UPSL should focus on building an interconnected model that benefits clubs like theirs without stalling over what the Cosmos will or won’t add to it.
My best guess is that, until the antitrust case is resolved, the Cosmos may just hang out in the potential NPSL full season amateur league for the time being, paying for an expensive insurance policy to cover the liability of having pro players in an amateur league, as they did this year. The club is a misfit in NPSL, with its professional roster that would be likely to make the playoffs in the USL Championship, but giving them a place to play seems a relatively minor courtesy considering the potential major positive impact the expensive antitrust lawsuit being funded by Commisso could have for all clubs outside of MLS. In the end, the lawsuit being funded by the Cosmos owner may be the only way to break Soccer United Marketing’s stranglehold over the sport in this country since FIFA does not seem willing to do anything about it.