How the NASL's antitrust lawsuit against U.S. Soccer could reshape the sport

The NASL is suing the United States Soccer Federation over its divisional designation. (Goal.com)

In just about every nation around, the top tier soccer league is only that because it has been assigned as such by the national soccer federation. Such designations were mostly made a century ago – with the notable exception of the Premier League, created in 1992 when clubs broke away and were then recognized by the Football Association.

And mostly, that has worked just fine. Because in just about all of those countries, soccer leagues are organic things. A bunch of amateur soccer clubs sprouted around the dawn of the 20th century and, soon enough, a league was formed. When there were too many teams for a single league, another league was added below that first league, with mobility between them depending on teams’ performance. And this went on until entire pyramids had been constructed and the top tiers had professionalized.

That’s never been how American sports have operated. Here, the leagues come first, and the teams follow as professional entities. They are conceived as businesses and the entire thing rests on its ability to make investors money. So the notion that the dominant league might be faced with a competitor, seeking to eat into its market share, is uniquely American.

What will soon face a court, therefore, is a problem that could really only exist here.

The North American Soccer League, in its second incarnation and alternately an ostensible competitor to Major League Soccer or on its deathbed, is suing the United States Soccer Federation for violating antitrust laws.

The NASL owners contend that the USSF has no right to dictate which league exists on which tier, as it always has – until now — with the NASL’s tacit recognition. The suit was filed on Sept. 19, and it appears the league very much intends to see it through to a trial.

This came about when U.S. Soccer gave the NASL only temporary Division II sanctioning for its ongoing 2017 season and then, last month, announced that it did not meet the standards for 2018 and would drop down to DIII. Meanwhile, the United Soccer League has been bumped from the third to the second tier, effectively usurping the NASL.

The NASL, for its endless and ongoing troubles maintaining a consistent core of teams and owners, understandably feels ganged up on. The USL is affiliated with MLS, basically serving as a minor league with a slew of MLS reserve teams. And there is no questioning that MLS is deep in bed with U.S. Soccer.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber is on the U.S. Soccer board. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was previously the deputy commissioner of MLS. The cross-pollination goes much further, up to and including the commingling of broadcast rights to the U.S. national teams and Major league Soccer to negotiate collectively.

The NASL feels that it’s being sabotaged and doesn’t think it can survive in the third tier.

But here’s the other side to the story: the NASL has been a mess almost ever since it was resuscitated in 2011. Teams have quickly come and gone, as have owners. The NASL has more former clubs – nine – than current ones – eight. And the league’s mouthpieces have always been loud about its ambitions, but have seldom backed up their boasts.

It’s not inconceivable that the NASL could be down to just half a dozen teams next year, which certainly isn’t helped by the demotion in sanctioning. But U.S. Soccer has drawn up standards for what constitutes a league on every tier. You need 12 teams to be DII. The NASL won’t have a dozen anytime soon. And given its instability, the USSF’s reluctance to sanction it is understandable.

But then so is the NASL’s ire.

“An arbitrary decision by the United States Soccer Federation’s Board of Directors has put everything we’ve built at risk,” said interim commissioner Rishi Seghal in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “Reluctantly, due to the Federation’s decision, we found ourselves with little option other than to a file a lawsuit against USSF.”

The NASL is seeking an immediate injunction against the removal of its DII sanctioning and a permanent injunction against the USSF’s ability to sanction leagues in tiers at all. That would essentially clear the way for the league to declare itself as existing on any tier it liked.

Seghal argues that the NASL has helped broaden the American professional soccer scene, creating jobs for players, coaches and support staff and growing the sport. And he says the DII sanctioning, or lack thereof, is part of the root for its troubles. “Yes, there have been challenges,” he said. “But the reason we’re here today is because of the anti-competitive circumstances that have stifled our ability to grow.”

Rocco Commisso, chairman of the NASL and owner of the iconic New York Cosmos franchise, gave a fiery defense of the league, claiming that the owners had acted in good faith by investing “over $50 million just over the last 12 months” in order to beef up the league.

He, too, would like to see a meritocracy in the American hierarchy, rather than a superimposed structure. “Let the fans, not the Federation bureaucrats, decide whether they think the games are playing major or minor league soccer and whether the league will ultimately succeed or fail,” he said. “In the NASL’s opinion, it has become crystal clear the real reason for the federation’s decision [not to grant DII sanctioning] is its long-lasting, long-standing hostility to the NASL. Simply because we dared to dream of competing with the MLS someday.”

The NASL’s lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, will lay out a case that U.S. Soccer’s standards for division sanctioning — voted on by a body largely stocked by MLS people — are arbitrary and designed specifically to block the NASL’s progress to the top tier.

But what ultimately will matter is less likely to be whether the NASL succeeds and survives than if a legal precedent is set. Because the upstart league has not yet demonstrated a capacity for getting things right and competing with MLS, regardless of its designation. After all, casual fans don’t much care what level a division is arranged in.

In all likelihood, the NASL will remain an irritant to MLS more than an immediate threat.

If, however, a court establishes that U.S. Soccer has no legal authority to designate tiers, there is nothing stopping some other, better-organized and well-heeled group of would-be owners to band together and create a real challenge to MLS. You would even wonder if such a case could have repercussions for other sports leagues in America.

That’s what’s really at stake here. The immediate fate of the NASL, but also the construct of American professional soccer as it currently exists.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.