When US Soccer announced the 103 teams taking part in this year’s U.S. Open Cup there was buzz. The first tournament in two years following pandemic cancellations had a record number of professional teams (71 across five leagues) including three from the state of New York. That wasn’t even including the New York Red Bulls or numerous non-pro teams taking part.
However, one source of buzz wasn’t which teams were in the competition, but which weren’t.
Three teams from the third division National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) were left off the federation’s list of competitors. Stumptown AC (North Carolina), Chicago House AC, and New York-based New Amsterdam FC were all excluded, leaving the association with ten teams officially entered. This was later officially addressed by NISA itself, simply saying the three sides would not take part.
Just over 24 hours have passed since that announcement. In that time New Amsterdam has entered a very public battle against NISA while also trying to get back into the tournament. This includes the team’s official social media calling for the resignation of Commissioner John Prutch.
Speaking with Once A Metro, club founder and owner Laurence Girard is still adamant that his team will compete this year. Not only in its third season in NISA but also in it’s first ever U.S. Open Cup.
“We’re planning to play in NISA this spring and in the Open Cup, as I put on Twitter,” said Girard. “We sent in all of the Open Cup registration information and the bond before the deadline.”
Following our conversation, the team’s Twitter account posted a photo of a check and registration forms addressed to the USSF. These were both, allegedly, sent in December for the U.S. Open Cup. Girard also told OaM that he has sent an email to U.S. Soccer on Wednesday claiming his team will still be taking part in the tournament.
It needs to be noted that Girard also owns another NISA team which also happens to not be currently in the USOC, Chicago House. His wife, Lindsey Morgan Sacks, is the team’s primary owner and both she and her husband are listed on the team’s ownership page. In our talk Girard said multiple times that “he” and “his family” own both teams, using both terms interchangeably.
House’s CEO and founder Peter Wilt has said on Twitter that his team is working with NISA to participate in the upcoming season.
This is unprecedented territory for the tournament. By rule, all professional teams (excluding those outside the United States) “shall be required to enter the Open Cup competition in each year in which they compete in an Outdoor Professional League”. That should mean to play in NISA, New Amsterdam has to play in the Open Cup. If it isn’t, it shouldn’t be able to play professionally. That’s at least how the rule has always been interpreted.
After brief discussions with other members of TheCup.us, there is a working theory for how NISA and the USSF are getting around this. In the subsection of rules regarding pro teams, it states that:
“To enter the Open Cup, a team must be an outdoor soccer team based in the United States and a regular playing member in good standing competing in an ongoing league competition of an Organization Member of the Federation, with said league competition and Organization Member also in good standing with the Federation.”
One interpretation of that rule is that a team could not be in “good standing” at the time of the tournament registration (December 31). However, it could return to good standing later and compete in regular season play. This is by no means official or what is happening, but even Girard is confused by how his team can still potentially play in NISA this year but not the Open Cup.
The fight to get into the tournament is not going to come easily. U.S. Soccer has already announced the teams taking part in the competition and the three NISA withdrawals allowed six more amateur sides to join. Those six teams, including Hartford City FC (Connecticut) and Ocean City Nor’easters (New Jersey), can’t fairly be taken out now. Even if New Amsterdam is allowed back in, the tournament format can’t be changed. The worst case scenario might be a repeat of the 2018 tournament, where a whole new Play-In Round was created after three teams left stranded by the collapse of the North American Soccer League were allowed in at the last minute. That would put more financial burden on the amateur clubs as they would need to play an additional match to cull out the numbers.
When pressed on how he expected the tournament to re-adjust, implying this would even happen, Girard chose his words carefully.
“I mean, I don’t know for sure (what would happen),” After a brief pause, he continued on by saying “It’s possible that we should be in one of those NISA spots instead of another NISA team.”
Based on comments made during the phone conversation, Girard was seemingly indicating some, or all, of the association’s four expansion sides set to start in 2022 were not ready for play. Of the four, two do not have a head coach announced, including Rochester based Flower City Union. Speculation also surrounds the other New York-based side AC Syracuse Pulse, with a source telling me they do not have a head coach on the books either despite announcing one late last year.
Up until this point, it felt as though actually getting the list of tournament teams was going to be the hardest part of this ordeal. The announcement was postponed twice from its original date of January 6th. While there was no official reason given at the time, all signs pointed to NISA being the cause. Every professional league either released a schedule (MLS, USL) or confirmed which teams would play in the cup (MLS Next Pro) except NISA. This led to speculation that the number of teams for 2022 had not been finalized. Girard essentially confirmed this was the case, saying that for the past month he was weighing options on whether or not to field teams in NISA.
According to him, that hesitation stems from NISA’s inability to provide financial statements to its shareholders, aka the team owners.
“I find it difficult to commit to playing in a league that I don’t know the financial status of, or how much money’s in the bank,” Girard explained. “You can understand why that would be concerning. The clubs are shareholders in the business, the clubs own the business. For the commissioner to not produce the financial statements to shareholders, I mean, that’s a violation of Delaware law (where NISA is registered).”
The past year has been wrought with stories regarding the financial stability of the association. Multiple reports, and a Northern Guard Supporters’ tifo, claimed that that referees were not paying referees in a timely manner or, in some cases, at all. Other reports indicated that the messy divorce after Detroit City FC left for the USL Championship was more necessary than originally thought. The six figure “exit fee” Detroit paid, reported by Protagonist Soccer, was said to be needed in order to keep the league afloat.
This is also combined with the fact that both New Amsterdam and Chicago House were launched during the covid pandemic, something which unsurprisingly was a massive drain on team finances. NAFC played its first two half seasons at Hudson Sports Complex in Warwick behind closed doors. When it finally started to allow fans in Fall 2021 after moving to Hofstra University Soccer Stadium in Hempstead, attendance was only averaging 385 fans over nine games (and those numbers are team reported and suspect).
It also didn’t help that until last Fall, NAFC was one of the worst performing team’s in NISA (taking nearly a full calendar year to win it’s first-ever game). Though, results did improve and they finished with a 7-2-9 record in the fall.
Even with these concerns and hurdles there was still confidence from Girard and his team that they would compete in the NISA and, therefore, the Open Cup. The only way the team was going to get into the tournament was as a member of the association. Last December both teams paid the fees ($1,400 each), and registered all the necessary paperwork (see tweet above).
“We wouldn’t have done that unless we were planning to play in NISA. But we need the league to meet certain conditions, like providing the financial statements and so forth… I would say we’ve always been planning to play assuming that those conditions are met such as.”
What this seemingly has come down to is a game of chicken between NISA and Girard. In our conversation, Girard would not confirm if both NAFC and CHAC finished 2021 in good standing with NISA (such as paying league dues). He and his family seemingly entered the offseason intent on seeing the association’s books before committing to coming back, among other things. However, NISA did not meet these demands.
The deadline to register professional teams for the US Open Cup was on December 31. When that date passed, NISA was still in a gray area stuck between 12 and 10 teams. From there, it was either Girard confirming he’s in the league for 2022 or not. With time running out, NISA eventually went ahead and confirmed the 10 teams that were “in good standing” for 2022 without Chicago or New Amsterdam.
The question now is what happens. Girard made it clear that they want to continue having a professional team, with plans to play games this season at Hofstra University and at Gaelic Park in the Bronx. There are no plans to become fully amateur, though they will continue to field youth teams in EDP and a reserve side in the Eastern Premier Soccer League. The cost of playing in USL is higher, has less power for owners, and includes territorial rights, meaning he wants to remain in NISA. He admits to still liking aspects of the association’s set-up, such as how the teams own part of NISA and they sit on a board of governors that votes on policies.
“We’ve given a lot of financial support to the league over the years and we’ve spent millions of dollars developing both of these two teams and we’re willing to continue doing that. Both clubs are supported by dozens of angel investors as well in addition to my family. But, again, if we don’t have financial statements of a league we can’t even begin to discuss playing in a league when the most basic shareholder right is not being provided to us.”
This also doesn’t include much on the issues between Girard and Commissioner Prutch. Most of NISA’s front office is made up of Prometheus Capital and Club 9 heads, the same companies Prutch controls. Most of the front office also happens to be members of the Prutch family. There is a growing distrust between Girard’s camp and the association.
“The fact of the matter is that in any professional sports league, the commissioner is supposed to serve the owners of the teams. That is the job of the commissioner,” he said. “If the teams do not like what the commissioner is doing in any professional sports league, generally speaking, they can fire the commissioner.
“They may have some convoluted counterargument (for not showing statements), but it really just spits in our face and basically shows no respect for the fact that my family and our investors who have spent millions of dollars developing these brands for the benefit of the league.”
Here’s what is clear as of now. NISA has left the door open for the three teams not taking part in the Open Cup to compete in the league season. The official NISA announcement only mentions them not taking part in the tournament. Comments from both Girard and others make it clear that NISA play is still on the table. Since 2012, no professional US-based soccer team has played a full league season and not competed in the USOC in the same year. The closest example would be the New York Cosmos in 2013, which did not play in the North American Soccer League’s Spring Season but joined for the Fall - going on to win the league title despite not taking part in the tournament.
When reached for comment, a NISA spokesperson declined to comment on this article.