- Tier 4: NPSL and PDL
It was the USL, a group I described in our last session, that shook the foundations of the USSF's lower tiers to its core just a few years ago. To understand where we are now, allow me to dive into the legal battle between the USL and the current NASL and why the USL Pro league looks the way it does today. And why it's now the third tier and not the second. We're getting into battle mode here today.
The tempest kicked up in earnest when Nike, former owners of what was then known as USL1, sold its controlling stake in the league to NuRock Holdings in 2009. It was a puzzling move for a few reasons, but mostly because it became clear that it was very clearly done without the league's best interests in mind (NuRock ultimately had the same bona fides as the musical Nu Rock movement spearheaded by Creed, but I digress). The previous set-up under Nike involved a USL1 and USL2, the second and third tiers of the USSF pyramid at the time. In the midst of a steady billows effect over its years of existence in this format — an intractable cycle of expansion and contraction that often left the leagues on shaky legs monetarily — the steel conduit between USL1 and USL2 offered America's only real look at a relegation system on our shores; though it should be said that clubs self-relegated themselves and this was not a direct function of league brass. And then NuRock stepped in and the landscape turned slate gray. Fast.
Once NuRock took over, the proverbial lines in the sand emerged. A group of USL1 owners led by now defunct-AC St. Louis owner Jeff Cooper made up a group called the Team Owner's Association (TOA). They assumed Nike would hand over its stake to them. Seeing as the TOA knew the league better than anybody — and they had a fairly defined course of action headed forward — they wanted control. Fair enough, yeah? So when NuRock took over, the earth cleaved and hell vomited out its violent rage on the USSF's lower tiers. After three months of lobbing veiled threats toward NuRock (and NuRock, in rebuttal, defiantly stood its ground in the face of its crumbling authority), the TOA formally lobbied to form a breakaway league out from under NuRock's control. That breakaway league's name? NASL. As of December 4, 2009, USL1 had three confirmed teams in its ranks: Austin, Portland and Puerto Rico. All the rest defected. Or sued to defect, anyway, until withdrawing their suits and agreeing to let the USSF mediate before the 2010 season commenced. The TOA contacted the USSF and FIFA, and this was, as the Brits say, "squeaky bum time" for the league's lower professionalized tiers. As we teetered on the edge, the future of our lower professional rungs in the balance, what the USSF did next was of vital importance.
Imagine for a moment you're the king of a modest but growing empire, and you own two particularly troublesome duchies with two particularly irksome dukes. These two dukes finally come to blows over what appears to be a silly tiff over a disputed barony and as a result invade each other while you look on in frustrated, almost bemused consternation. You (the USSF) can hold these petulant kinsman at arm's length from each other and repair their fractured holdings, but can you make them get along? Thus was the USSF's plight in 2010. They opted to send both dukes into a room together for a season and gave them a stern lecture. Talk it out, gents. Sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with a couple of adolescents, doesn't it?
The dexterity in the USSF's movement here is multifold. What they did was give neither party what it wanted, but rather combined both leagues into one. For a single season, the USSF formed and operated an emergency league called the USSF Division 2 Pro League. There were six existing teams with lingering ties to each league — the term half-baked comes to mind with this breakaway venture — so the USSF formed an NASL Conference and a USL Conference with the promise of figuring out a way forward after the season ended (if you care, the eighth-seeded Puerto Rico Islanders won the only D2 Pro League Cup in history). In the end the manufactured league cut a bizarre figure. USL sides Portland and and Vancouver were already pledged to MLS for the next season, NASL affiliate St. Louis was months away from collapse and the future looked strangely unstable.
As it turns out, there was a way forward, a sliver of hope. The USSF, like a doctor strapped for time, stepped in and scoped out the ripped and unusable cartilage from the bone, and from that emerged USL Pro. Aha! We're finally here.
On Sept. 8, 2010, USL officially announced a massive overhaul of its previous system. Once it came out of the restructured league, which was always just a stop-gap measure intended to buy time, USL condensed USL1 and USL2 — remember, those used to be our D2 and D3 leagues in this country — into a single entity. And there we have USL Pro. In a sign of the true upheaval, the Austin Aztecs were the only former USL1 team left over from the bloodbath. With a more consolidated base from which to work, USL took October to pull a number of clubs into its orbit. But as is expected on this level, things have been anything but easy. President Tim Holt's original plan for "at least" 28 teams by 2015 looks hilariously unfeasible and remote. The league's ill-fated Caribbean Conference collapsed before it was a year old. And when FC New York pulled the plug on its jump from the NPSL before the 2012 season began, USL Pro had just 11 teams. That's where it stands today.
The problem at this level is that the USL Pros and the NASLs lack the institutional control and financial regulatory measures of MLS. A team like Rochester is far out-spending its comrades, and therefore the Rhinos are able to scout better, travel lighter and pay better. The generally accepted range of a USL/NASL budget is in the $1-3 million range, which isn't chump change for an owner at this level with flagging attendance numbers and nonexistent merchandise revenue. Much like leagues with unfettered spending controls (La Liga comes to mind) the league, like silly putty, forms the shape that its denizens create. If you're a San Antonio Scorpions fan, you're golden. If you're a fan of a lesser-attended team, of which there are many, just hope your owner has the temerity to keep up with his built-in challenges, those being an inability to draw fans and thus an inability to draw talent. These tropes are unlikely to change any time soon.
Next time we'll drill into the NASL a bit and trawl for answers to questions left in the ether by the USL. Namely why NASL was given second-tier status and USL Pro, which consolidated two leagues after years as the No. 2, was relegated to third. Sticky situations, these.