US Soccer’s Club Structure – Bonus: The NASL Situation

US Soccer’s Club Structure: Series Posts
Breakdown of the StructureBehind the StructureInland NW Teams in the StructureIntroduction

What was the NASL Situation?

Well, that is an extremely sticky, complicated mess to explain. If you wanna dive deep into a rabbit hole read on.

The seeds start in 2006 with the launch of Miami FC, a club owned by Traffic Sports USA. The club immediately garnered headlines as Traffic’s relationship with South American stars through its sister and parent companies led to the signing of Brazilian World Cup stars Romario and Zinho, both of whom performed well in the league. A soccer broadcasting and marketing company, Traffic Sports USA (a division of the larger internationally operated Traffic Group) also became partners with USL in broadcasting and marketing ventures.

In 2009, Nike was selling off its ownership of properties that were not a part of its core business. This included USL, which it had acquired as a part of its previous purchase of Umbro (which it also later sold in 2012). How Umbro became USL owners is a long story.

As it turned out, behind the scenes executives of Miami FC / Traffic were discussing plans with several other USL-1 owners to make a run to compete with MLS as a D1 league, as well as other matters. Some owners, having gone through a failed casual attempt at doing so many years prior, were not interested; and of course, friction among all parties rose dramatically over the next few years as contempt and distrust ran rampant. As a part of this internal strife a USL Team Owners Association was created – though it was not comprised of every team. The TOA would become one of the groups bidding to purchase USL from Nike.

When Nike announced USL’s sale in August 2009 to NuRock, operated by Alec Papadakis (a longtime friend of USL founder and president Francisco Marcos), all hell broke loose not surprisingly. Teams began threatening to leave and in November the NASL, its name conveniently acquired long beforehand by Traffic Sports USA, was announced.

USL threatened lawsuits as teams announced their departure, an act that violated franchise agreements law, but never followed up on it to avoid a lengthy and costly court battles. As the fight and disarray continued into the offseason, however, US Soccer was forced to intervene – something the organization traditionally had never done despite the decades-long infighting at the youth level of the game. That’s just how much of a mess it became. One of the steps it took was to force all involved to play one season as the USSF Division II Professional League (12 teams) in 2010 under the competitive management of US Soccer and its staff as everything was sorted out.

Part of that sorting out process included doing a significant update on the Professional League Standards for each tier. Moving forward NASL – owned and operated by its founding teams and Traffic Sports USA – was provissionally sanctioned as D2 (though flirted with losing it several times) and USL was D3. NASL was D2 until 2015 when many could argue karma struck.

Corporate names in sports are not usually well known, but if the name Traffic Sports sounds familiar, you are not mistaken.

In May 2015 the US Justice Department announced indictments for Traffic Sports USA, Traffic Sports International and a number of its executives, including Aaron Davidson. Davidson was the President of Traffic Sports USA and the team it owned – Miami FC (later rebranded Fort Lauderdale Strikers) – as well as the Chairman of the Board of the NASL. In October 2016 Davidson would plead guilty to racketeering, conspiracy and wire-fraud conspiracy for his role in paying millions of dollars in bribes to CONCACAF decision makers to acquire broadcasting and marketing rights to sports events, a model duplicated from the South American arm of the company. Traffic USA, which plead guilty to the same, would eventually sell off its share of the NASL in November 2016.

Though some speculated that the end-goal of taking over USL / creating NASL was the plan from the beginning with the formation of Miami FC and the Traffic-USL partnership, no evidence of that ever publicly surfaced in the media as the FIFA scandal unfolded due to the higher notariety of FIFA and CONCACAF’s involvement compared to what was going on at the club level. Therefore the extent of the criminal involvement beyond the international game and into club competition is unknown.

While all this was going on, the NASL – perhaps in a bullish move to take attention away from the indictment scandal or as a reaction to reports USSF was preparing to increase the D1 standards due to the growth of the game – publicly announced its intent to challenge MLS and acquire D1 status. It was a surprise to many as it was still a provisional D2 league that had never fully met those standards. The league began quarelling with USSF over standards and eligibility, but it did not go well. Despite remaining below standards, NASL was provisional D2 in 2017 with just eight teams and was rejected continued D2 status in September 2017 when the league failed to provide a plan on how it would meet the D2 criteria moving forward. In response the league filed an anti-trust lawsuit against US Soccer (though not all NASL team owners were a part of it). The suit also was accompanied by a motion for a preliminary injunction that would compel USSF to continue designating NASL as D2. That motion was denied in the district court, leading NASL to announce a new Fall-to-Spring competition schedule, and later upheld in February 2018 upon appeal, leading to the cancellation of the 2018 season for a planned return in 2020. That was pretty much the nail in the coffin as all the team owners went their separate ways with other endeavors.

The anti-trust lawsuit against USSF and MLS, however, still lives on and is slated to go to trial in late 2024. A related lawsuit against 15 individual members of the USSF board for Breach of Fiduciary Duty filed in February 2018 was dismissed in January 2019.