And then there were…very few. The announcement today by the Rochester Rhinos that they were joining America’s Great American Soccer Independence Movement of 2009 by quitting the USL for the newly revived NASL leaves the status of America’s lower league structure in quite the pickle.
On the one hand, we have the previous Division II league, USL-1, down to just four teams confirmed for 2010 (with Portland set to leave by 2011). It’s hard to see how USL-1 is not finished as a Division II league, with rumour already spreading that Puerto Rico will jump ship soon as well. It’s clear that the purchase of the league by nuRock has been a failure in terms of keeping the structure together and the USL-1 team owners who were agitating for change content (as Brian Quarstad said in a comment here, Nike should be ashamed for the role they played in this mess to begin with).
On the other hand, we have the new NASL up to ten members, but they have yet to be approved by the USSF for play as a Division II league for 2010. They have just a few short weeks to get that permission, or April 2010 will be an impossible start-date for the new league. They remain long on worthy ambition and short on the prospect for profitability, but presuming they do get the nod from the USSF, they will have a big opportunity to follow-through.
But while the dispute has become bitter and hardly reflects well on either side of the fence, there is a way for USL to survive and the NASL to exist simulatenously: the former should focus on its core, unusually profitable (in American soccer) business of being the essential development structure at the semi-pro level for men and women, with a still strong enough nucleus for a decent tip of the pyramid in USL-2.
The NASL, meanwhile, can with sensible investment and smart decisions be a successful replacement for USL-1 and perhaps take us to the promised land of something like an MLS-2 in, say, a decade. Or two (let’s not get greedy, folks). It’s a long way off, but there is plenty of room for the growth of a strong Division II if they can survive what are bound to be difficult teething pains (just as MLS went through).
Indeed, some might say two separate entities makes more sense than the previous structure anyway, given that the priorities of the USL’s ownership for their broader umbrella and the elite ambitions of a few USL-1 clubs had long become increasingly difficult to reconcile.
I’m not saying this is going to happen, and it’s far easier to say than do — there are many lawyers with a lot of money they could make out of this mess salivating right now, and egos at stake — but it should be the priority of US Soccer to do whatever they can to facilitate a resolution that protects the existing, essential part of the USL structure and gives us a nationwide second division for 2010 and beyond. And it now looks like the latter has to be the NASL.