Tuesday, February 9, 2010

After mentioning all the wrangling about the USL and NASL in yesterday's Vancouver Whitecaps fixtures article, a couple of you were intrigued by what I meant and also the resurfacing of a blast from the past in the NASL name. Well let's take this opportunity to try and explain a little for everyone outside of North America who reads this blog - and that's most of you!!!

We all complain about the league our team is in. A lot of fans think there is a lot of fault with the Scottish Football League and improvements need to be made from the top to the bottom of the set up. I’m sure even SPL and Premiership fans have reason to criticise those leagues.

We complain about a lot. The fixtures, the repetitiveness of teams we play, the lack of competition, the gulf between rich and poor, the stifling of young talent. I could go on and I’m sure you could to.

What can you do it about though? You can’t exactly say “stuff that, let’s just set up our own league and run things for ourselves”. Well….it turns out you can and that’s exactly what eight USL clubs in North America have done (under their Team Owners Association guise).

For those unfamiliar with the North American football set-up (have you not read this blog over the last year?!), the MLS is the main league (Major League Soccer, Beckham and all that razzamatazz). There is a second tier though, the USL (United Soccer League), who have no connection with the MLS and run/ran their own two league system along with an excellent under 23 league and a woman’s league.

Teams from both the MLS and USL can compete against each other in the US Open Cup and the Canadian Voyageurs Cup. The winners of both can represent their country in the Concacaf Champions League. Confused? Well you haven’t even read the half of it!

The USL was recently sold and the new owners didn’t please a number of the team owners, who had also tried to buy the league themselves. To many, myself included, the USL had been the better of the two leagues and run more akin to the kind of proper league we’re used to in Scotland and Europe.

The MLS has too many stupid Americanisms like salary caps, no single league table but divisions, lack of opportunities for clubs to develop their own young players and the fact that the League own the players contracts.

The USL wasn’t faultless, far from it. The fixtures were a joke with clubs sometimes playing three matches in four days and going weeks without a home game. The refereeing was questionable at times, there was no relegation and promotion between USL1 and USL2 and nearly every club seemed to make the end of season playoffs.

It seemed like the TOA had had enough and decided that the new league ownership was the chance to start afresh, quitting the USL and setting up their own league, setting their own rules and structure based on what the clubs themselves wanted and not league bigwigs. It was very much a fan pleasing move.

In a masterstroke of publicity, the TOA christened their new league the North American Soccer League, bringing back all the memories and glamour from North America’s first attempt at a proper league with the NASL in the 1970’s. A time which saw the likes of Pele, Beckenbauer and our own Willie Johnston gracing pitches all across the continent.

The new NASL soon had 9 members, including Vancouver Whitecaps who want to keep a development team playing competitively when they join the MLS next year. There was even talk that the MLS would recognise the new league as their second division but this seems to have just been idle speculation. The USL looked like a spent force but then came the legal action.

The disharmony between the two factions had been brewing for months. After the new USL owners took over, the TOA stated they wanted more say on how the league was run. This was refused. The TOA teams announced their decision to quit and the USL responded by terminating the contracts of the players in teams that wanted to leave and that weren’t in the still continuing season’s playoffs. They had to reverse this action when told they weren’t allowed to do that!

After the season finished, an ever increasingly hostile war of words continued, with the USL saying that some clubs joining the NASL were still under contract with them.

For the new NASL to become a working reality though, they had to be sanctioned by a FIFA recognised governing body and at the end of last year the United States Soccer Federation announced that they wouldn’t do that with the NASL. Furthermore, they also refused to sanction the USL saying that neither league had what they considered to be a minimum of 8 "viable" teams and cities and ordered both parties to get together and sort something out or there would be no sanctioned league for any of the teams to play in for the 2010 season.

The result has been a compromise clearly worked out through gritted teeth. For this coming season only there will be two 6 team divisions - a NASL one and an USL one, with some NASL teams being lent to the USL side for this season only. There will be interleague play and playoffs featuring the top teams from each division. The USSF will oversee everything and at first all other details were very sketchy. So much so in fact that the Whitecaps press release stated that "League details including rules, match schedule, television rights, and other important operational issues will be announced in the near future". You know the vital stuff!

What it all means is that at least the teams have some meaningful games to play in next season and the fans have some football to watch. It’s all been a bit of a mess though and I was sure that the two factions wouldn't be able to agree on the operational issues either, but they did and the fixtures list was published yesterday.

So next time you’re complaining about the SFL, remember you can do something about it and branch out on your own. It’s just a very messy process but one which will only benefit football, your team and your footballing season as the end result.

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