Yesterday, in a hastily arranged press conference the United States Soccer Federation announced a compromise between the United Soccer Leagues and the North American Soccer League for Division 2 professional soccer in America. The details of the dispute are many, but it breaks down like this for those of you who don't follow the story.
1. The United Soccer Leagues (USL) were previously owned by Nike, who had bought the league as part of a much larger deal, but never were really interested in sponsoring or running the league. Early in 2009, Nike announced it was selling the league.
2. A group of team owners (who would become known as the Team Owners Association (TOA) were operating under the belief that they were the leading bidders to buy the league.
3. However, in a massive surprise move, the league was sold to Nu-Rock Soccer Holdings which sparked a revolt.
4. As tensions between Nu-Rock and the TOA escalated, the TOA began talking of a breakaway league, a league which in the fall resuscitated the old North American Soccer League brand. Teams that apparently had commited to play in the USL next year, started bolting for the new league. Law suits followed.
5. Both the USL and the NASL applied for sanctioning by the USSF as a second division league. Sanctioning is important for soccer leagues since it allows players and teams to take part in international compeititions as well as permitting the league to use official resources, such as referees and other matters.
6. On December 30, 2009 the USSF announces that it will not sanction either league and essentially orders the two sides to get into a room and hash out a deal in seven days.
7. Yesterday, it was announced that they had a deal.
For more information on the USL/NASL/TOA/USSF dispute, I suggest reading Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer and Kartik Krishnaier at The Kartik Report. Additionally, Set Piece Analysts has both podcasts and written summaries and opinions.
So what is so important about second division soccer, particularly in a nation in which soccer is a "second tier" sport? There are a lot of reasons, but simply put--development of the game.
With Major League Soccer occupying, for the most part, large metropolitan areas, and coming to the end point of their legitimate size, second division soccer serves the usually smaller markets, but markets with a massive soccer following. Some examples would include Cary, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Atlanta, Tampa, Miami, and so on. To be sure, places like Miami, Minneapolis and Atlanta could hardly be considered small cities, but outside of the second division, you could look at a map of the U.S. and draw a line from DC to Columubus, OH, to Kansas City to Houston and everything in the Southeast would be without professional soccer, including all or part of 13 states, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Even now, MLS is not in any of those states.
But it is not just about serving fans, but second division soccer is also about serving teh development of the game. The new composite league will apparently have a provision that either requires or rewards in some fashion having a certain number of roster positions being filled by U.S. U23 players and younger. This is an important move as it is apparently the first true realization by USSF that if it wants to develop the U.S. Player pool, more players have to develop some professional experience or at least have the option to do so, prior to their leaving college.
The number of slots I have seen is four, which I would like to see as high as six or seven, but even at four, you would have 48 USL/NASL roster slots being occupied by the U.S. U23 player pool. Some of these players will make the jump to the MLS and maybe even other leagues, which improves player development and improves both the U.S. national teams, but also the MLS and U.S. professional soccer in the eyes of the world.
But Division 2 also serves as a place where CONCACAF players can come and play professional soccer exposing not only those nations to American soccer, but helping to increase the level of play.
Division 2 soccer is not big news outside of the immediate soccer world, but this move eliminates one big hurdle for American soccer's development in this crucial World Cup year. Having a staple second division puts more pressure on MLS and the MLS Players Union to come to an agreement that will further benefit American soccer moving forward.