USSF on trial: Little trust, big money, and a lot of leagues

Leaves fall but no one at the USSF has a rake

It’s been a busy fall already for the US Soccer Federation (USSF). Things started to get messy for the USSF pretty much on August 30th. That day a new men’s league entity dropped into their laps when NISA went online. NISA promotes itself as a Division III league that will begin competition most likely in 2019.

That would place NISA in direct commercial competition at that time with another new league: USLD3. If both keep to their publicized time-schedules, there will be new teams and new competitions in Div III non-stop for the next two years.

During that same two week stretch, the USSF notified NASL that it would no longer certify that league as Division II. NASL and USL had been sharing that slice of the US men’s soccer pie since January of this year. Finally, in the last several days, more than one potential contender has expressed an interest in taking on the job of president of USSF come next February.

And it’s not even November yet.

USSF has trust issues

In retaliation for revoking its Div II status, NASL has filed an anti-trust action in New York. NASL alleges that USSF has acted with prejudice in its decision making process and that it tends to favor certain leagues over others. We can only imagine which leagues NASL means by that allegation.

Okay, we could actually just read the names of those leagues in the filing or even at NASL’s own website: “USL” and “MLS”. Objectively though one could say that USSF has been trying to be hands-off in shaping the US men’s soccer pyramid.

Some (yours truly for example) have even criticized them for over-doing things in that regard. The federation seems mainly to fall on the side of deferring to market forces. Let the leagues decide which clubs to admit. Let the clubs decide which league they’d like to play in. And let the fans decide which clubs they want to support. It all reads very idealistically.

Can a federation be “hands off”?

But sports is a business and business and idealism often don’t mix. “Business” means—as implied by the USSF’s “hands off” policy—that some will swim and others sink on a commercial basis. Some clubs will gain fans and survive. Others will go broke and disappear into the dustier corners of wikipedia.

But if being a viable club at all means being part of a given league then that sink-or-swim reality becomes skewed. In the USA, Major League Baseball was long ago granted a “legal monopoly”. That basically means it is a public trust.

That organization and all of its officers have to be held to a fairly high standard of ethical behavior. They cannot hide behind “economic forces” as an excuse for how they manage the game of baseball. The individual teams and players get to deal with the problems of providing entertainment for profit.

The crucial thing for those who want to operate “professional” baseball teams is to gain the acceptance of MLB. But if your plans are to be a competing pro baseball league…well, see the paragraph above. You can’t.

That’s what the USSF is faced with: a bunch of folks who each wants to operate a pro league. Give any one of them a pass and they can make a lot of money. Deny them certification and they can’t. Not a problem if you as the certifying organization just step back and say, “let the market sort it out”.

But can you?

“S**t rolls down hill”

Unfortunately for the USSF there is no Supreme Court decision from the past century that says only USSF certified leagues can operate on US soil. In principle, anyone who can pay for it could start up a league. But would such a league realistically be able to compete fairly when MLS is already so closely tied to the USMNT, for example. It’s probably not at all difficult to find a lot of court-approved experts who would testify to the impossibility of that.

That’s because the USSF is not like Major League Baseball. It is part of a larger system that governs the game as a game and, implicitly, as a business on a worldwide basis.

USSF derives its authority over the game in the USA from CONCACAF. That organization derives its own authority as a regional representative of FIFA. Though none of those is an organ of government—so the US men’s and women’s teams are not “representatives” of the USA as a nation, they represent the USSF—they often seem to have that level of authority. And both FIFA and CONCACAF have certainly had the attention of at least one important agency of the government recently: the US Dept. of Justice.

“It’s gotta be the shoes, money”

As noted above, the confound with the idealistic approach to just about anything, as no less than the Holy Bible tells us, is money. Right now, that’s exactly what has focussed US government authorities on the governing bodies of world soccer.

FIFA and CONCACAF are being investigated for the influence of money on their decision-making. Money seems to have corrupted the process of determining World Cup Finals host nation designations and possibly even match-outcome manipulation.

Domestically then the question has to be asked: If FIFA’s and CONCACAF’s authority are found to have been illegitimate for the last two decades, can USSF’s conduct during that time have been any different?

Several men’s World Cup Final competitions ago now, the late Uruguayan journalist and “fútbol” aficionado, Eduardo Galeano wrote a very good book about the impact of money on world soccer. He crystallized that influence into a competition between athletic shoe manufacturers. So, when Brazil plays Germany, in Galeano’s view, it’s Nike (Brazil’s national team sponsor) versus adidas (Germany’s sponsor). Either way, the modern World Cup final, the author asserted, has collapsed into a marketing orgy that’s all about money.

Fantasy of leagues

Despite the on-going investigations and controversies USSF’s co-hosting bid with Canada and Mexico is already in for World Cup ’26. And the federation’s presidential election will be conducted in February. Will the freshly (re-)elected USSF president be able to set everything to rights by the time the World Cup Finals in Russia kickoff next summer? Probably not. As detailed elsewhere, the current situation has fairly deep historical roots. A resolution, if any, is going to be a long time coming.

Ironically perhaps, Galeano revised and reissued his book several times. The new edition, coincidentally, was usually released whenever it was time for another World Cup. It was almost like he was doing it, um…for the money?

Yet, regardless of the influence of money, fans continue to love the game and to be captivated by the competition at all levels. I could try to explain, but Eduardo Galeano I am not. So let’s just say instead that fans are somehow able to look past the ridiculous sums that are often involved in the game. Somehow they ignore the corrupting influence of all that money to appreciate the genius of the players on the field.

For the present, the USA seems to be gaining more and more such fields of genius. And yet at the same time it still has more athletic shoe manufacturers than pro soccer leagues.

But just barely.