By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Aug 15, 2018) US Soccer Players - As deadlines go in American soccer, the one that comes Wednesday isn’t like to get much attention outside of a very small cadre of nerdy soccer wonks. It’s not a transfer deadline. It won’t deliver immediate clarification on a rule or roster. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t even apply to roughly 50 professional soccer clubs in the United States.
Wednesday, August 15 is the deadline for applications to US Soccer for sanctioning as a professional American soccer league for the 2019 season. MLS and USL’s top division will certainly remain as the Division I and Division II leagues under the US Soccer umbrella, respectively, with both receiving the usual handful of waivers for items like field size in a small number of venues.
It’s at the currently unoccupied third division level where the sanctioning deadline really matters. It should come as no surprise, based on the messy, chaotic, and rife with in-fighting and turf wars history of American soccer that two different applicants are aiming for third division sanctioning for 2019.
We know a little about one and almost nothing about the other. Assessing the likelihood for success for each is therefore difficult. Only US Soccer will have full information on the structure of the leagues, the teams involved, and where they’ll play. US Soccer’s Professional League Standards Task Force will review the applications before presenting their findings to the Board of Directors, who will vote on the applications.
For reference, US Soccer announced the sanctioning of MLS, USL, and the National Women’s Soccer League in mid-January of 2018 for the 2018 season. It will be a few months before the two startup leagues will know their fates.
With USL’s Division II league humming along and adding teams at a rapid clip, the organization has decided to launch a third division operation as well. The USL itself moved from the third division to the second just two years ago, so opening up a new third division is a natural extension of its growth.
All professional leagues under the US Soccer sanctioning standards need at least eight teams. The Division III standards do not mandate the league possess teams in multiple time zones as do the Division I and Division II requirements, conceivably making it easier to meet the minimum number of teams.
USL D3 has six confirmed teams. The announced clubs are South Georgia Tormenta FC, a club based in Statesboro, GA who has played in the PDL for the past three seasons. FC Tucson, a team with seven years of history in the PDL. Greenville Triumph SC, a brand new club in South Carolina. A club in Madison, WI led by noted club builder Peter Wilt. Toronto FC II, the Canadian MLS clubs reserve club moving down from DII. And a new club in Chattanooga, TN.
The Chattanooga club is carrying a bit of controversy into the application process, as USL is infiltrating a market with a remarkably successful NPSL club. The former general manager of Chattanooga FC, the NPSL club, has taken a role with the USL D3 project. That's ruffled more than a few feathers among Chattanooga FC’s ardent fan base.
The USL has four more clubs to announce. They used the words “at least 10” in reference to the number of founding members. Speculation is that at least one and possibly more MLS reserve sides will follow Toronto FC’s lead and drop down a division. The lower requirements for Division III, namely the minimum stadium capacity of 1,000 rather than 5,000), makes the USLD3 project attractive to some MLS clubs. Any other coming additions are still shrouded in secrecy.
With the infrastructure already in place via the USL and the relationships that organization has with the USSF, it seems very likely USL D3 will receive sanctioning for a 2019 inaugural season.
The other effort to launch a third division is the National Independent Soccer Association, or NISA. The brainchild of Peter Wilt, he designed NISA as a lower cost path to professional soccer for owners who did not want to engage in a system dominated by MLS and the USL.
The “independent” in “National Independent Soccer Association” was consciously chosen to convey that member clubs would not be beholden to a relationship with MLS. Pointedly, Wilt planned for NISA to become part of a promotion and relegation system with the NASL, the better to encourage investment at the relatively minor league level of the third division. Clubs would have the opportunity to build and grow into a higher league via results on the field.
When US Soccer denied the NASL sanctioning for 2018 and that league went on hiatus, NISA no longer had a league to promote into. Just a few months later, Wilt’s partner in the firm behind NISA, Jack Cummins, passed away unexpectedly. Wilt then left to lead the effort to establish the USL D3 team in Madison.
Updates stopped appearing on the NISA website, suggesting that the league was dead-in-the-water. There was very little to suggest that NISA would submit an application for Division III sanctioning by the deadline. The surprising word that NISA is, in fact, applying, as reported by Kartik Krishnaiyer and Nipun Chopra, did not come with any clarity about the teams involved.
Rumors linked Chattanooga FC as a candidate but they would need an investor to step in to meet the USSF standard that the principal owner have a net worth of at least $10,000,000. Detroit City FC has champed at their amateur bit for the better part of the last year but is also short of the Division III requirements for investment. Mentions of something called “NPSL Pro”, a full-season league that would be more semi-pro than fully professional are also part of the current rumors.
It’s also unclear who is in charge at NISA. We don’t know anything about the league’s application or even if it has the requisite number of clubs, it’s impossible to handicap its chances.
Assuming that NISA does have eight teams with the correct financials and stadium plans, USSF should sanction it regardless of USLD3’s simultaneous application. There’s no proscription against multiple leagues at any level.
It can’t be bad, exactly, that there are plans to launch third division soccer in the United States and give medium-sized American cities a chance to start professional clubs. There will always be trepidation about new teams, especially in the lower divisions, because of the old churn of clubs at those levels. That doesn’t mean that clubs shouldn’t try.
Whether or not two third division leagues is a good thing is a different question. If both USL D3 and NISA receive sanctioning for 2018, American soccer will be richer for the at least 16 professional team who take the field. Considering the history of lower division soccer and some of the players involved, recent and otherwise, dual-Division IIIs might lead to the kind of turf wars that brought so much turmoil to the second division.
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