From the field to the court.
Two weeks after having its second-division status revoked, the North American Soccer League filed a federal anti-trust lawsuit against U.S. Soccer on Tuesday that claims the sport’s national governing body and Major League Soccer have conspired to “destroy” it.
“(U.S. Soccer) has left the NASL no choice except to file this lawsuit,” said New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso, who chairs the league’s board of directors. “The NASL has taken this step to protect not just the league, but also the game, fans, and everyone with a stake in the future success of professional soccer leagues based in this country.”
The future of the league, which planned to include a 2018 expansion in San Diego, now likely rests in the hands of a federal court.
The NASL asked for two things in its 71-page complaint: a temporary injunction that preserves its second-division status; and a permanent injunction preventing U.S. Soccer from sanctioning pro leagues so that “the competitive market and consumer preference” determine which ones “are top tier, second tier or some other competitive level” instead of arbitrary standards set by the federation.
The second demand could take years, dozens of lawyers and millions of dollars. The temporary injunction, though, may be more integral to the league’s immediate survival and the prospects of the fledgling San Diego franchise. Operating in the third division or as an unaffiliated independent league do not seem to be options.
“The commitment of the NASL teams and owners that will compete in the 2018 season,” the lawsuit says, “is dependent on the NASL maintaining at least its Division II status … so that the NASL can maintain its credibility with its fans, sponsors, players and broadcasters.”
At the heart of the lawsuit is the cozy relationship between MLS, sanctioned as the lone top-tier league, and U.S. Soccer, designated as the sport’s national federation by world governing body FIFA. MLS was founded by former U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg with the help of a $5 million federation loan, and current U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was MLS’s former deputy commissioner.
Current MLS commissioner Don Garber sits on the U.S. Soccer board of directors. And Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s in-house marketing arm, negotiated a joint television rights deal shared by the league and U.S. national teams.
The NASL was granted provisional second-division status for the 2017 despite dropping to eight teams, four below U.S. Soccer’s stated minimum. Two weeks ago, U.S. Soccer denied its application for 2018 while appearing to clear the way to the 30-team United Soccer League, closely affiliated with MLS, to be the country’s only second-division league.
“(U.S. Soccer) has promulgated various Divisional regulations,” the complaint alleges, “which have the purpose and effect of protecting the monopoly position of its commercial business partner, Major League Soccer.”
U.S. Soccer did not issue an immediate comment on the lawsuit.
The San Diego team in NASL was unveiled in late June and spoke of plans to build a 10,000-seat stadium in North County, but it has yet to announce a name or hold an introductory news conference. Two weeks ago, when second-division status was denied, club president Bob Watkins said: “It’s not going to deter us. Our investors are committed … We’re just going to move on and bring (pro) soccer to San Diego."