All who know me understand that when I hear the phrase “alternative league,” my spider senses start to tingle.
My sports memories date back to being a young kid who was a much bigger fan of the American Football League than the National Football League. As painful as it is, I still cheer for the New York Jets.
My favorite basketball team?
I gave me heart to the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association.
I was a proud supporter of the World Hockey Association’s Birmingham Bulls.
And even though the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League were the primary object of my association football affections, I also tried to keep track of the American Soccer League.
Sure, the ASL was much older than the NASL so you can’t really assign it “alternative status,” but once the league that featured the likes of Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff and Rodney Marsh became a sensation for a few remarkable years, the ASL was an afterthought.
Not to me, though. While teams came and went at a sometimes alarming pace, I did my best to follow such lost-to-history franchises as the New York Eagles, Carolina Lightnin’ and Los Angeles Skyhawks.
(Fun fact: Basketball legend Bob Cousy was ASL commissioner from 1974 to 1979).
So naturally, when Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer dangled the carrot of an “unsanctioned professional league,” well, that got me really, really interested.
The Armada, of course, are part of the modern NASL, which is on life support since the United States Soccer Federation refused to grant it second division status for 2018. The league is hoping for relief from the courts, but failing that, the NASL might never host another competitive match.
In the interim, Jacksonville will compete in the National Premier Soccer League, a fourth-tier circuit that bills itself as a “national league with regional focus.”
And while Palmer released a statement assuring fans that his club is “engaged in discussions with other start-up leagues that intend to seek sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation,” this was the part that caught my eye:
“For the future security of the Armada, I have put together a task force comprised of the brightest minds across my companies and soccer experts. This task force is exploring the possibility of funding and operating an unsanctioned professional league. It would be an option if the other leagues are not able to successfully navigate the political landscape of the USSF.”
Translation: In the current landscape of the USSF, it’s Major League Soccer’s world and only the United Soccer League (and its amateur Premier Development League) truly get to breathe the same air.
I had really hoped that the new NASL would survive and thrive and eventually provide MLS with some competition, because competition is healthy. That, however, now seems unlikely.
But let’s be extremely optimistic for a moment – or at least indulge me as I immerse myself in a soccer fantasy world.
What if Palmer’s task force comes up with the audacious idea of building a top-tier league from the ground up? And what if that American soccer alternative featured a promotion/relegation system? And what if the future USSF leaders decided it was ultimately worthy of sanction?
I’d get behind such a league in a heartbeat.
I’m already smitten with the fledgling third division National Independent Soccer Association, which will be built around pro/rel. It features fan ownership, has a forward-thinking business model, and checks all the boxes when it comes to how play-for-pay soccer leagues can grow and thrive.
Imagine that model applied to a “major league” that isn’t afraid to be part of a system that has helped make soccer the world’s most popular sport.
Let’s face it … MLS is a closed system and will almost certainly always be a closed system. Once an ownership group buys a franchise they know that win, lose or draw, that franchise will always be part of the first division.
(When Forbes looked at the value of MLS clubs in 2016, it determined they are worth $185 million on average).
In the current environment, about the best pro/rel proponents can hope for is a pyramid with a second division ceiling.
USL president Jake Edwards told the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News last month that his league, which will feature USL D3 starting in 2019, is taking a hard look at the model.
“I think it would be very interesting to look at pro/rel between those two divisions,” Edwards told the paper. “We certainly could do it now and I think there’s an interest to do it among our board.
“We are going to experiment with precursors, such as maybe some sort of inter-league competition, an inter-league cup. We’re going to look at options like that to see if that works.”
Maybe that’s what America’s current soccer overlords see as a compromise. They can say, “See, we have promotion/relegation!” even though it stops short of its ultimate purpose.
If I could work my will with a “renegade” league, it would start in August, end in May, crown a champion based on best record through 38 matches, send teams up, and send teams down.
The 24 flagship clubs (aside from Jacksonville, of course) would be in hotbed soccer markets large and small as well as cities that, to date, have been snubbed by MLS. San Francisco, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Antonio, Charlotte, Detroit, and Phoenix come to mind immediately.
It would all be part of a real pyramid that includes some of the great lower division leagues already in existence, and built on the same foundation that has been the tried and true soccer blueprint used – with great success – across the world.
And every single club in that pyramid could dream of moving up.
Did I read too much into Palmer’s “funding and operating an unsanctioned professional league” remark?
Are there too many obstacles to clear?
Probably. If you don’t get USSF sanctioning, you don’t get access to current and future United States Men’s National Team players or the governing body’s resources. Plus, I just don’t know if there are enough people (with enough cash and patience) willing to step into the ring and fight for the soul of U.S. soccer.
But I could be wrong. And if such a league is ever formed, I’ll be solidly in its corner.