The U.S. Soccer Federation has decided to grant both the North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer League (USL) provisional Division II status for 2017, the federation announced late Friday.
"After an exhaustive process working with both leagues, in the best interest of the sport the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors has decided to grant provisional Division II status to the NASL and USL," said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "U.S. Soccer will create an internal working group that will work with each league to set a pathway to meet the full requirements for Division II and allow for the larger goal of creating a sustainable future. We look forward to another productive year for professional soccer in this country."
The decision concludes a long, winding process that leaves the USSF with the imperfect and awkward arrangement of having two Division II leagues. Neither league will be happy to have another entity alongside it with the same designation. But ultimately, both leagues got most of what they wanted. The NASL, which had been rumored to be shutting its doors, lives to fight another day, and will begin the 2017 season with eight teams. The USL, which will see 30 teams compete next year, moves up from Division III to Division II, a sanctioning that it has long coveted.
"We would like to thank U.S. Soccer for taking the time to work through this process and provide us with provisional sanctioning for Division II in 2017," said USL CEO Alec Papadakis. "We welcome the opportunity to work closely with U.S. Soccer to meet all the Division II standards in the near future and continue to be part of the impressive growth of the sport in the United States."
North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik, a member of the NASL Board of Governors, added, "The NASL Board of Governors and I support U.S. Soccer's decision to grant the league provisional Division II status. We're excited about beginning play in April, and we look forward to the continued growth of our league and soccer in the U.S."
With Major League Soccer occupying the Division I sanction, both the NASL and USL contended that they should be sanctioned as Division II leagues by the USSF, which had published a set of standards for how leagues should be designated. The NASL has held the Division II sanction since its formation in 2010 when it played a combined season with the USL. But in 2011, the USL became a Division III league, while the NASL stayed at Division II.
Those standards dictate the minimum requirements needed to operate at each level, and include the number of teams, the geographic distribution of the teams, and size of the markets for the teams involved, as well as the minimum financial requirements of team owners. However, there has been considerably flexibility with how the USSF has applied those standards, with it granting numerous waivers to the NASL over the years. It must be said that, at present, the USL doesn't completely comply with Division II standards either.
Now both leagues will have the remainder of 2017 to get their proverbial houses in order. But left unexplained are what steps the USSF will take if one or both leagues fail to meet the standards it has laid down. That apparently will be left to the internal working group that Gulati mentioned.
That the NASL still exists has to be counted as a victory for the league. Its struggles in recent years - which included Traffic Sports, a major investor in the league, having its executives arrested in conjunction with the FIFA corruption scandal - nearly reached a breaking point following the 2016 campaign. Both the Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies recently opted to leave the NASL for the USL, while the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, Rayo OKC, the Jacksonville Armada, and flagship franchise the New York Cosmos were all in financial distress.
Meanwhile the USL has grown with 30 teams set to play in 2017. For that reason, it looked at one point that the NASL and USL would swap roles, with the NASL dropping down to Division III and the USL taking its place as a Division II league. That potential decision appeared to signal the death knell for the NASL.
But the NASL has lived to fight another day. According to a series of tweets by Telegraph reporter Bob Williams, the Cosmos have found life thanks to a potential new owner, Rocco B. Commisso, the CEO of Mediacom Communications Corp. Commisso is reportedly set to buy a majority stake in the club, but the deal is contingent on the NASL retaining its Division II status. That has now been accomplished.
Multiple sources have confirmed to ESPN FC that the NASL will play its spring season with eight teams. In the short term, Jacksonville will continue as a league run team with a new owner hopefully coming on board before the start of the season. In addition to Jacksonville and the Cosmos, the other six teams will be comprised of Indy Eleven, North Carolina FC (formerly the Carolina RailHawks), Puerto Rico FC, Miami FC, FC Edmonton, and expansion side the San Francisco Deltas. The sources confirmed that three more teams in Atlanta, San Diego, and Orange County, Calif. will join the NASL for the fall season.
Without question the decision, while not perfect for the USL, at least allows it to reach its stated goal of Division II sanctioning. It can be argued that in the absence of a system of promotion-relegation, that the designation is arbitrary and has little meaning. But attaining the Division II sanction will give the USL a higher profile, help it attract investors with deeper pockets, increase sponsorship value, and more.
"The division sanctioning absolutely does have an impact, not only on market perception in the U.S. and abroad, it's a perception of quality, " said USL president Jake Edwards. "There is an uplift in revenue streams and there is certainly a difference in franchise valuations."
Now it is up to each league to prove that it is worthy of the designation that the USSF has granted.