By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 9, 2020) US Soccer Players - When Peter Wilt returned to the National Independent Soccer Association fold earlier this year after a stint with the rival United Soccer League, he got a noteworthy greeting from the chair and co-founder of Chattanooga FC, one of the leading clubs in the upstart group.
"Tim Kelly actually said, 'welcome back from the dark side,'" recalled Wilt to USSoccerPlayers.com with a chuckle.
That tongue-in-cheek remark ties into a serious backstory. NISA and USL are competing lower-division organizations, not only in terms of their member clubs and business plans but in ideological terms as well. NISA has proudly picked up the baton once carried by the new NASL. It casts itself as alternative, an antidote to the "franchise" model represented by USL and its ally MLS. NISA pushes an "open system" in contrast to what its members consider the established powers in the American version of the sport.
While they prefer to emphasize the "independent" tag instead, there's a hint of "rebel alliance" about NISA and NISA Nation, the network of grassroots pro-am clubs it seeks to cultivate and unify. It aims to lower the barriers of entry, enforcing little in the way of franchise fees, territorial rights, or entangling legal arrangements compared to the complicated processes of MLS and USL. It espouses promotion/relegation and pledges to implement it as soon as possible. Some of those leading the resistance have joined up after lengthy experiences as executives or fans of MLS teams.
The Johnny Appleseed of modern American soccer, Wilt has launched a long list of clubs across several leagues and levels over the past three decades, most prominently the Chicago Fire back in 1998. Now he's leading an effort to bring a NISA club to the Windy City.
Erik Stover once helmed the New York Red Bulls organization and won the 2010 MLS Executive of the Year award. He would later find himself in charge of the New York Cosmos, not only RBNY's crosstown counterpart but the de facto flagship of those resisting MLS's model and its power in American soccer in general.
Michael Hitchcock climbed the MLS ladder via stints at DC United, the Colorado Rapids, and LA Galaxy before becoming the general manager of FC Dallas in 2005. He held that post for four years. He too would depart the single-entity world, founding Playbook Management International, a consulting and management company that has helped several lower-division clubs across several countries. Most recently, he's taken up an advisor position at New Amsterdam FC, the new NISA club in New York City.
"I don't know if I would say [anti-]MLS as much as position as the closed system vs the open system, and certainly MLS and USL are the two biggest practitioners of that," said Wilt. "And because you have those two philosophies or structures or systems, you have opportunity, I think, for people in the business to get roles in either one. Some of it may just be happenstance, and there's a position available, an opportunity, and someone that had experience in MLS at the right place, right time and put them into that role, and then they wear the colors of what they're in. And some of it may be that yeah, they saw what the closed system was about, and they want to do something different."
As many lifelong fans as MLS has made over its 25 years of existence, its distinct quirks have also driven some of them to an actively adversarial stance. A handful of the league's loudest and sharpest critics on social media were once season ticket holders. Even some players in NASL and NISA have become radicalized in a sense, considering how the conflicts between leagues impacted the careers of many.
In some cases, the most dysfunctional MLS situations proved the impetus for people seeking a profoundly different option. Sean Spence became an interested observer of the Chicago Fire in the 2000s and began to write about the team for the Hot Time in Old Town SBNation site. It left him with what he calls "a belly full of frustration watching the way this club was run, and the incompetence and arrogance of the people making decisions for the club," This happened as the Fire slipped from model club to cautionary tale. That included underperforming teams, questionable management, and recurring spats with their supporters.
"I wound up being the editor," Spence explained. "And during that time, we basically went from being just another outlet that covered them to being kind of the voice of the resistance in the Chicago Fire fan cosmology."
Then Spence discovered Detroit City FC, the fan-owned club that's become a beacon of hope for those seeking a more organic option on the US landscape. Le Rouge has risen from the fourth-tier NPSL to NISA and just won the new league's 2020 fall championship, building a fiercely devoted community along the way.
"I stumbled on to Detroit City and found the thing that I was looking for," he explained. Spence, a proud progressive in a political and ethical sense, was enamored. He even worked for the club for a time, a fulfilling but exhausting experience given DCFC's shoestring resources, and confirmation of his suspicions about the way pro soccer operates here.
"I think a lot of us who passionately support City and passionately support the politics of this project would say is that, to the extent that what we're trying to do is not viable in our business environment, that is a trenchant criticism of the business environment, not of what we're trying to do," he said. "The extent to which you can't make a business that tries to be 100% transparent, and give everything to its people and funnel its money into social projects, if you can't do that without the boot coming and stomping you death, I think that's a pretty resounding criticism of the way things are."
He and many others at Detroit City and across NISA believe the deck is stacked against them by design. He points to the US Soccer Federation's Professional League Standards, which he believes place excessively onerous financial and scale requirements on clubs and leagues and effectively bar the supporter-driven model found in Europe.
"They go out of their way to specifically invalidate proven structures for community involvement," said Spence. "You can't have a community trust. You can't have a supporters trust. The only solution that US Soccer will accept is a high net-worth individual. And that's it. That's the rule. There's no getting around it. In America, you've got to have a rich guy in your pocket or you're not in the game."
It's hard to tell just how many of these dissidents are out there. It's easy to get immersed in the fascinating philosophical and structural issues they raise. Others may not want or need to sweat the details so much. USL has built a huge network of teams across three divisions, offering essentially a turnkey operation for a range of different organizations and investors.
"USL has the most impressive centralized league office I've ever seen, in a lot of ways more so than MLS," said Wilt. "They have a breadth that is staggering and even a depth that's tremendous. The quality of their staff is really talented. But some on the team level would say that they are too intrusive. They create standards that are wonderful, that give professionalism to teams that otherwise wouldn't be as professional. But it can be irritating, and take away time and money that individual teams would in some cases rather invest in other aspects of the organization. Then NISA is almost the opposite, as was NASL. Small central league office where the teams themselves took responsibility for their own fate and the team owners owned the league."
Many, especially those on the NISA side, see these competing ideologies as fundamentally at odds. It's a fight for the soul of the sport and a defense of the model that the rest of the world uses. USL has fostered that sense of conflict by poaching clubs like Miami FC and Oakland Roots, and challenging them head-to-head in markets like Chattanooga. MLS's influence within the Federation and its Soccer United Marketing partnership with USSF tend to feed into that.
An optimist by nature, Wilt prefers to view it in less strident terms. He sees an enormous continent with plenty of room for soccer to grow into and believes the contrasting models offer choices for clubs and fans alike.
"There's a group of fans that are believing in the open system enough, and the purity of it, that they'll want to go that direction," he said. "It's a big country, a big tent, and two systems, it'll play out over time. I don't see either of the two systems going away anytime soon."
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
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