No option was ideal and in the end, after weeks of conversation and speculation, the U.S. Soccer Federation found a compromise that should give both the NASL and USL time to figure out their natural and ideal place on the country’s professional pyramid, giving both provisional second-division sanctioning in 2017.
The NASL, the incumbent second-tier league, was bleeding teams and money and heading into 2017 had only six guaranteed members and an uncertain future. The fast-growing USL, which occupied the third tier, applied for second-division status as it surged to 30 teams, some of which are MLS reserve squads. But around one-third didn’t meet Federation standards governing things like stadium size, field dimensions or coach licensing.
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Demotion would kill the NASL. The status quo would infuriate the USL. And attempts at some kind of compromise, from the absorption of the healthy NASL clubs into the USL to a D2/D3 split within the USL itself, went nowhere. So on Friday evening, the U.S. Soccer board of governors conducted a lengthy conference call and reached a decision that should leave both leagues temporarily satisfied while reminding them that there’s a lot more work to do.
That both are provisionally second-division leagues means there will be no third-tier league this year. But there could be one in 2018 if the standards—which also cover the number of member teams, owner net worth and other elements—aren’t met during the next 12 months.
The Federation had been granting waivers to both leagues in recent years. The NASL, for example, was well short of the 12 clubs required for D2 status. The USL meanwhile, had teams that still weren’t playing on regulation fields. U.S. Soccer was worried that additional, permanent passes would rob the standards of their heft. The whole point was to ensure stability and sustainability, and the waivers had started to cause the opposite.
Now both leagues have 12 months to get it right. The Federation will establish a working group that will hash out the benchmarks each circuit must reach in order to maintain its status in 2018. It’s possible the D2 standards could be raised or tightened. A timeline will be determined. And those decisions may be made unilaterally by U.S. Soccer. But it’s also possible that future cooperation or migration between the NASL and USL could be negotiated, especially since it appears almost certain that the former will be operating under new leadership.