There’s a fight brewing in American soccer that could change its fundamental structure.
The United States Soccer Federation- or US Soccer- recently proposed changes to their rules on how leagues can attain Division I status. Officials with the North American Soccer League, the country’s growing second division, believe that the proposed changes are aimed explicitly on keeping them out. And now, according to a report from the Financial Times, the NASL is gearing up to challenge US Soccer’s authority.
Under the proposed changes, leagues applying for D1 status would need 16 teams (up from 12 under current rules), with at least three quarters of those teams based in cities with a minimum population of 2 million (up from 1 million currently). All teams in the league would also need to play in stadiums with capacities of at least 15,000.
Unnamed NASL officials quoted in the Financial Times believe that these new rules are specifically aimed at making their league ineligible for D1 status, thus keeping Major League Soccer entrenched at the top of the US soccer pyramid.
In a letter to US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, Jeffrey Kessler, a sports attorney representing the NASL, suggests that the rule changes would amount to a violation of antitrust laws. “Doubling the population criteria now is an anti-competitive bait and switch, with the purpose of entrenching MLS’s monopoly position at the very time when the NASL is threatening to become a significant competitor,” Kessler wrote.
This comes as the latest example in a laundry list of grievances NASL officials have levied at US Soccer. Kessler also told the Financial Times that US Soccer is “... hindering the league’s earnings potential with advertisers, broadcasters and other business partners, who will pay top dollar only for Division I, regardless of the quality of play or passion of the fans.” The league has also previously complained about unequal representation on the board of directors for US Soccer, as well as a perceived conflict of interest in the ongoing business relationship between US Soccer and Soccer United Marketing (which MLS holds a controlling interest in).
It’s unclear how far the NASL are willing to go to challenge US Soccer in their bid to position themselves as legitimate competition for Major League Soccer, or how successful their efforts will be. One thing is for certain— we have not yet heard the last of this story.