USL Breakaway: An American Winter League?

Winter soccer

The dispute between several clubs in the USL’s first division and the league’s administrators has reached the end-game this week, and Triangle Offense is reporting that the breakaway Team Owners Association is submitting its application for recognition as a league to the US Soccer Federation.

The report is based largely on an interview with Brian Wellman, president of the Carolina RailHawks, who says the league will consist of current USL-1 teams Minnesota, Miami FC, Montreal, Vancouver and Carolina and teams from three ownership groups in Atlanta, Tampa Bay and St. Louis.

That is a strong group of teams, and there’s certainly an opportunity for a committed new league to achieve a lot given the marketing failures of the old USL leadership for its top-flight, as successful as USL has been at the grassroots, and it’s about time USL-1 ownership actually controlled their own league, as happens in almost every other league worldwide. They believe there is a space for a national league to share more of the spotlight with MLS at the pinnacle of American soccer.

But there are also a couple of comments from Wellman that remind me that it’s this worthy but adventurous ambition that could be the downfall of the venture. USL was sustainable and grew because of a certain cautiousness that, like MLS’ conservatism with the salary cap, paid a respect to some of the past mistakes of American soccer administrators throughout the twentieth century and their often bat-shit crazy ideas that led to sudden falls.

What particularly caught my eye was this comment from Wellman, suggesting the new league would play through the winter:

Furthermore, Wellman left open the possibility that the new league might follow the FIFA calendar, playing during the winter months.

If the TOA settles on a winter schedule, Wellman said, “It wouldn’t be this winter. It would start sometime in the summer, and prorate as our fiscal year went along.”

Wellman acknowledged the challenge of going up against the entrenched fall-to-spring sports of football and basketball, but cited the upside: “Going on the world calendar opens up opportunities for players to move more freely. There’s a long list of benefits.”

That schedule would be fine for Carolina, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Miami — but it’s hard to imagine winter soccer surviving in Minnesota. Only last week, US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati pointed out the insanity of Sepp Blatter’s continued emphasis on winter play in American soccer:

I told him that Chicago is not London in January. Chicago is Moscow in January. You’re not playing in Moscow in January. He also mentioned domed stadiums. I don’t think that’s going to happen and we can’t take six weeks off.

Minnesota, of course, is even colder than Chicago. The fact that he emphasised it wouldn’t happen this winter means, I hope, he’s not too serious about this. And of course, there isn’t really such a thing as the “world calendar”: there’s a FIFA international calendar that can be followed with or without playing through winter, as Russia manages. Though there would be some benefit to a top league in-step with the Western European football calendar, especially in terms of the player movement Wellman mentions, the downside of winter play is surely obvious.

Wellman is also pushing for the new league’s winner to be given entry to the CONCACAF Champions League, which would seem unlikely to happen: it’s a drum USL has been beating for a while, and the league would have to do a lot to justify CONCACAF giving a direct berth to a league that US Soccer will not consider top-tier.

There’s plenty of justification for the USL clubs to breakaway from a league that hasn’t done a lot to convince its top tier clubs to stay in the past year and from a desire to control their own destiny as owners, and I think there is a great opportunity for them to develop a strong league. At the same time, there’s always been a suspicion that the TOA association’s leadership are reaching a little with their ambitions, especially in a difficult financial climate, and comments such as these from Wellman will add to the concerns. Good luck, but tread carefully.

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