Leaders from the most ambitious clubs in National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) will meet in New York City this week to push forward the long discussed plans to create a professionalized full season competition. The project, which has taken on the codename NPSL Pro, is an essential next step for the successful short season adult amateur soccer league that has seen some of its clubs used as a foundation to create full season professional soccer clubs in the rival United Soccer League (USL).
The USL’s most successful expansion team this year, MLS-bound Nashville SC, has its roots in NPSL. Next year Birmingham and Memphis will debut in USL, both having absorbed aspects of the local NPSL team that played in those towns in years prior. The USL’s Division III has been aggressive in soliciting NPSL clubs to join, with the schism in Chattanooga the most heavy handed example. With USL continuing an aggressive growth strategy, it is clear that NPSL must create an option for its successful clubs to grow into, or it will watch them continue to be absorbed into or displaced by USL franchises.
The fledgling National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) is another professional alternative some NPSL clubs have engaged with. NISA mostly consists of groups that wish to start new pro soccer clubs in markets across the country, currently a combination of former North American Soccer League (NASL) applicants not associated with the NPSL, a handful of the markets initially announced by Peter Wilt when he was running NISA last year and some additional ownership groups that would prefer to be in an USSF sanctioned professional league but not USL. NISA plans to apply for USSF’s Division III sanctioning by September 1st, the deadline for leagues aiming to start in the Fall of 2019. USLD3 applied for a Spring 2019 start on August 14th, a day before the deadline for Spring leagues.
What NPSL Pro and NISA share is that they are options for independent clubs that would prefer not to join USL. The reason for these preferences vary among the different clubs, but include: USL’s partnership with Major League Soccer (MLS) that sees the league host MLS reserve teams and smacks of minor league baseball; USL’s preference for local ownership that impacts a few prospective clubs directly; concerns around provisions in the USL franchise agreement; and past experiences around business dealings with USL either directly or via leagues the clubs participate in. What separates NPSL Pro and NISA are mostly politics around leadership and ownership structure, as well as preferences for and against USSF pro league sanctioning.
Many of the clubs in both NPSL Pro and NISA would like to participate in an open system with merit-based promotion and relegation, and would like to have freedom to structure and operate their clubs in ways not supported by the existing pro league options. If they did not value these things, naturally, they would be looking to join USL.
Another thing both leagues share is an urgent need to act now. The controversial situation in Chattanooga demonstrates that USL will do whatever it takes to capture markets that are proven out by NPSL teams. Successful NPSL clubs in Virginia Beach, Little Rock, New Orleans, Asheville, Grand Rapids and other markets may face this choice soon. With the status quo full season league options, this choice amounts to: Thanks for the free market viability test – now join USL, or get run over.
Chattanooga Situation Demonstrates Why Independent US Soccer Clubs Must Act Now
USL Division III announced that it will be placing a team in Chattanooga, Tennessee for the 2019 season. Chattanooga is the home of the highly successful NPSL club, Chattanooga FC. Chattanooga FC was founded in 2009 and grew into one of the best grassroots success stories in American soccer, drawing over 4000 fans per match. Chattanooga’s success helped inspire Detroit City FC, and together they have further inspired scores of people to found adult amateur soccer teams in their own communities.
Chattanooga FC has been looking at ways to expand from the short season NPSL into a full season for some time. The club has augmented its NPSL season with high profile friendlies in recent years to compensate for the short season. They were one of the first clubs linked with NISA. They looked at USL. They hosted the Summit For American Soccer to try to help chart a better path forward for American clubs. Of late, they have been looking seriously at NPSL Pro.
The Utah-based investor backing this USL D3 team cited the work of Chattanooga FC in priming the market without naming the club directly, “Our goal is to build upon the remarkable soccer history that has been created here, and establish a professional club of which both fans and our community can be proud – one that will make a lasting contribution to what makes this city great.”
Where the situation in Chattanooga goes from an unfortunately run of the mill story typical in the flawed US soccer system, where a pro team buys its way up the ladder in a market that already has a successful lower league team, into a next-level controversy is how it happened. Chattanooga USL D3 team will employ one of Chattanooga FC’s co-founders and its former GM, Sean McDaniel, to lead its launch. McDaniels’ resignation from both Chattanooga FC and the NPSL board came only just before SocTakes broke the story on his involvement with the USLD3’s Chattanooga effort. McDaniel was a highly respected figure in NPSL circles and the reports of his inclusion surprised many in NPSL. Former Chattanooga FC board member Bill Nuttall resigned around the same time.
McDaniel explained his jump from Chattanooga FC to this new USL effort. “I love Chattanooga. I love soccer, and I’m honored to accept this opportunity to advance soccer in our community,” McDaniel said. “Chattanooga’s renaissance and the rise of soccer are lockstep. The future of soccer goes beyond playing more games. It builds community infrastructure. More soccer draws more people, more resources, more businesses and more jobs.” He further explained his position in a video produced by the USL.
Questions remain unanswered as to whether McDaniel’s role with Chattanooga FC and position on the NPSL board meant he was privy to the future plans and competitive strategies of those organizations while collaborating on this USL effort. Chattanooga FC fan Jonathan Hunter asked many of the questions CFC fans want to know answers to in a Twitter post. Ultimately, the timeline of events will tell much of that story.
For now, USL’s Chattanooga effort has gotten off to a bad start with local soccer fans, many of whom perceive it as an attempt to hijack what Chattanooga FC built. The Chattahooligans supporters group has sided with Chattanooga FC. Missteps like tweets from the official team account coming from the location of Tampa, FL, where the USL headquarters are, only reinforce the sense that this is largely a “carpetbagger” effort with McDaniel as the local facade.
Of course, the situation in Chattanooga is not the first time a pro soccer effort has attempted to capitalize on the groundwork laid by a successful amateur team in an ethically questionable way. The MLS Detroit effort, led by NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, has tried to trademark Detroit City SC, without an agreement with the club. Initial Detroit MLS stadium concept renderings also referenced Detroit City, though the architecture firm took the responsibility for that misstep.
Chattanooga FC and Detroit City FC are two excellent examples of soccer clubs grown organically, thriving in their local communities. The US soccer hierarchy seems not to value that or understand how to nurture it even as those clubs inspire scores of others. If Chattanooga FC and Detroit City are stunted rather than replicated, it will be a massive loss for US soccer while leadership remains at best asleep at the wheel and at worst actively hostile to grassroots efforts such as theirs.
The Best Defense Is To Provide A Better Alternative
The idea that NPSL is facing predatory competition is not news to them. NPSL chairman Joe Barone told Dike Anyiwo at Soccer Nation in late 2016, “Recently, a large number of NPSL and clubs have been contacted by a competing league or leagues, and incentivized to move away from our league. Some clubs have accepted these incentives, but the majority have not.
“There is a deliberate destabilization of the infrastructure we are trying to build here,” continued Barone. “It’s organized, structured chaos that is being foisted upon American soccer, with a specific outcome in mind, and we feel like that is dangerous. It is not healthy for the growth of the game at large.”
The Soccer Nation article says Barone cited North County Battalion, Tobacco Road and Myrtle Beach Mutiny, all of whom ended up in the USL’s Premier Development League (PDL) in the following season.
The former NASL clubs aligned with NPSL are not exempt from this pressure, either. USL are looking to put a team in the Jacksonville, Florida market to compete with Jacksonville Armada, according to Kartik Krishnaiyer. It looks increasingly likely that Miami FC will have to deal with the long in the works David Beckham MLS expansion franchise coming to town. The New York Cosmos were just recovering from the impact of New York City FC coming to town when the NASL’s sanction was pulled. If the Long Island Rough Riders were to return to a pro level, as put forward in an article on potential NYCFC USL affiliates, that could cut into the fan base the Cosmos developed while playing at Hofstra. Such an effort would likely be more successful than a potential USL club in Queens, which could once again be lost in the noise of the city (FC New York, Part 2) unless that effort is led by the Mets ownership similar to how the Cubs ownership is leading Chicago USL.
If NPSL Pro fails to launch, it doesn’t necessarily mean NPSL’s most successful clubs will all die off or leave for USL-run leagues, but at a minimum they are likely to suffer serious setbacks that stunt their growth for a long period of time. Tulsa Athletic experienced this a few years back, and saw their attendance drop dramatically from a high point of 3,439 fans on average per match after the USL Tulsa Roughnecks moved into the same small market. It is a testament to the Tulsa A’s leadership and fan base that despite the setback, they have proven resilient. Tulsa’s example could be a model for NPSL clubs that have to deal with rival pro teams moving into town. The A’s may yet outlast the USL team in the market, as pro teams tend to lose a lot more money than amateur teams. However, it is a long, drawn out fight in a system that sees once-ambitious clubs like Kitsap Pumas fold and call 10 years a good run. That two or more teams sharing a small market is more of an off-field competition than an on-field rivalry speaks to the flaws of the US soccer system.
Independent Soccer Would Be Stronger Together, But It May Have To Wait
One of the fundamental flaws of the US soccer system is that leagues are competitive with each other rather than serving as a unified platform in which clubs move up and down on the basis of sporting merit. There is a tremendous amount of energy expended on in-fighting due to the poor design of the system by USSF. I have explored this opinion in further depth in other articles, most comprehensively in the “Building A Better Mousetrap” series which includes a recommendation on how to build a united system that all clubs are welcome to participate in, but with the expectation in mind that only the former NASL, potential NISA, current NPSL, current UPSL and other USASA based clubs may want to partake in it.
It is critical for NPSL Pro and NISA that they play in 2019. This means the logical merger between the groups may have to wait. The New York Cosmos, Jacksonville Armada, Miami FC, Chattanooga FC, California United and others share an existential need to play a full season at a pro standard in 2019. The groups need to focus in the short term on solidifying their plans for next year, as there is only so much time you can spend sitting on the sidelines before the game passes you by. Once 2019 plans are firmed up for each group, they should re-examine a merger.
One thing that could expedite merger discussions would be if NISA fails to gain D3 sanctioning from USSF. In that case, a merger with the NPSL Pro teams may make sense immediately. Like their NPSL counterparts, several of the NISA groups intended to kick off in 2018, only to have their plans delayed. While the prospective NISA clubs value pro league sanctioning, if it is not in the offing for 2019, it is better to launch their clubs and compete at a high level rather than continuing to postpone until they get sanctioned.
Combining the groups from NPSL Pro (10-16) with those in deep talks with NISA (8-10) would immediately create a much more impressive national footprint and increase the number of local rivalries. The density of potential teams in the Northeast, Southwest, Southeast and the Great Lakes region would benefit all of the clubs both in terms of travel budgets and fan experience.
A merger between NPSL, NISA and UPSL should be the near term goal even if it is not in the offing for next year. An unified multi-tier open system with promotion and relegation that gets more regionalized as you go down each level would benefit all clubs involved more than each of their respective status quos. You can debate where clubs from each league would sit in such a system, but the beauty of promotion and relegation is that eventually works itself out. It will require leadership from all three groups to set aside what may be in their short term personal best interests to create a platform upon which all parties participating, including those leaders, can achieve greater success in the future.
For the next few months, it may need to be pencils down on the 2019 plans to ensure these entities put themselves in a good position to play at a high level next year. What cannot happen is kicking the can further down the road and doing nothing at that level in 2019. That just invites the competition to prey on clubs waiting for that next step to emerge. The longer independent soccer waits, the more it will be picked apart until there are fewer and fewer pieces left to build with. For those emotionally invested in seeing independent soccer clubs find a space to thrive in this country, that is unacceptable.
The message, loud and clear, from fans of prospective NPSL Pro teams to the leadership figures meeting in New York this week should be “find a way to get it done” and then “find a way to bring all of independent soccer together going forward, not just NPSL.” More than any other group, the people meeting in New York this week have the resources and credibility to lead the way in creating a bigger tent that is inclusive to all of independent pro and adult amateur soccer clubs outside of MLS and USL.