NASL’s near-implosion and USL’s relentless expansion presented US Soccer with a challenge: should it bump USL up from Division 3 to Division 2 on the American pro soccer pyramid, and drive what might be the final nail into NASL’s coffin?
The Federation has been mulling over this question for a while, a question precipitated by USL’s bid for higher station and NASL’s apparent inability to keep its clubs either solvent or affiliated to the league (some have flown north to MLS, others have recently opted to move south to USL, yet others have all but ceased to function). To promote USL to Division 2 status would be a well-deserved honor for a league that has expanded considerably in recent years and seems to have figured out how to survive and thrive in the shadow of MLS. But it would also likely leave US Soccer a division short, since it would presumably spell the end of NASL, which has been having a difficult enough time getting by as the second tier of US pro soccer and might simply disappear if it were to be relegated to the third tier.
Advancing one league at the expense of another wouldn’t be a great solution, and we can assume US Soccer did not want to be cast in the role of NASL-killer. The Federation gave its troubled D2 some time to right itself, and has now decided to give it even more time: NASL will still be D2 in 2017.
But NASL will have company. US Soccer has decided it still wants to accommodate three pro leagues, but it doesn’t have need for three divisions: USL is also getting D2 status for 2017.
“After an exhaustive process working with both leagues, in the best interest of the sport the US Soccer Board of Directors has decided to grant provisional Division II status to the NASL and USL,” said US Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “U.S. Soccer will create an internal working group that will work with each league to set a pathway to meet the full requirements for Division II and allow for the larger goal of creating a sustainable future. We look forward to another productive year for professional soccer in this country.”
The United Soccer League is happy with the decision: “The USL is honored to receive provisional U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 status, which provides further validation about our league’s financial sustainability, national footprint, ownership quality, stadium infrastructure and player development,” said USL CEO Alec Papadakis. “Our teams have invested more than $100 million into stadium development in the last year to enhance the experience for the 1.5 million passionate fans that attended games in 2016, the 1,000-plus players and nearly 100 coaches that have positioned our league as a highly sophisticated competition model that cultivates strong regional rivalries.”
NASL is presumably happy also, at least in the sense that it still exists and is still Division 2. How meaningful that status is now that it is shared is a question that will be debated for as long as the situation remains. US Soccer says its D2x2 arrangement is provisional, basically admitting it is kicking this troublesome can down the road for a while.
The arrangement isn’t presented as long-term, so there isn’t much to be gained from contemplating the long-term implications of US Soccer having two second divisions. If the Federation sticks with it, then it presumably means it’s working. If it doesn’t, it most likely means NASL’s plans for its own revival have not come to fruition, or that some other reason has emerged to make a change.
What is worth contemplating, however, is that the New York Red Bulls II - RBNY’s USL-based reserve team - just got promoted. The 2016 USL Double winner (regular season and USL Cup champion) will defend the titles it won in Division 3 as a D2 club.
NYRB II broke most of the USL records worth having on its way to last season’s Championship. NYRB II’s records still stand, but they’re D2 records now. And the title they’re defending is now the D2 title - which, curiously, is also held by NASL’s New York Cosmos.
If the Cosmos make it back to the field in 2017 (and preserving NASL’s D2 status was reportedly one of the conditions of a now widely anticipated rescue bid for a club that appeared destined for another period of hibernation), maybe their first order of business should be to schedule a match with NYRB II. Start the new season right: let American soccer’s two D2s have one champion.