The United Soccer Leagues harbored plans to introduce a soccer pyramid based on sporting criteria when Nike Inc. was its owner.
USL retained the right to relegate one or two of its former First Division franchises to the league’s Second Division if the top tier reached 16 teams, according to documents reviewed by The Soccer Observer.
Franchises previously joined the USL’s First or Second Divisions based on financial considerations. Expansion fees for the top tier more than quadrupled the second tier requirement. Minimum operating standards and annual participation fees also varied between the two levels.
Promotion from the Second Division would have been optional, allowing smaller clubs to turn down the opportunity to climb the sporting ladder if travel costs in the continent-wide top tier were prohibitive.
Teams would also have required investment to comply with the enhanced minimum operating standards in the First Division. Additional franchise fees would not have been levied.
Conversely, teams being relegated to the USL’s Second Division would not have been entitled to a refund of any franchise fee previously paid.
FIFA’s statutes prescribe that a club’s entitlement to participate in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. The game’s governing body has referred to “closed” leagues, such as those operating in the United States, as a matter of concern.
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber nixed any notion of sporting merit being introduced in North America in the next decade during an online Q&A session last week.
Nike, the world’s largest sporting-goods company, sold USL to Atlanta-based NuRock Soccer Holdings LLC in August 2009.
“Our vision for USL is to become the most competitive and profitable pyramid of soccer leagues in North America,” NuRock’s chairman Rob Hoskins said in a press release announcing the takeover.
The fallout instead left USL clambering for official sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation. Montreal Impact, Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps were preparing to join MLS while the franchises in Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, Minnesota and Puerto Rico expressed dissatisfaction with the new ownership group. They joined forces as the reformed North American Soccer League to separately apply for Division II status beneath MLS.
A compromise was reached in 2010 for a combined USSF Division 2 Professional League consisting clubs from both sides of the divide as neither organization held the minimum of eight teams required for sanctioning. The NASL received second-tier billing in 2011 with USL slipping to third-division status.
MLS reached an agreement with USL last year to integrate top-tier reserve teams into the USL PRO league schedule. Affiliations between clubs allow USL teams to feature four on-loan MLS players on their rosters at no salary cost to the lower-league team.
This year’s USL PRO Division consists of 14 teams including the Los Angeles Galaxy’s reserve side. Regionalized scheduling has become the focus instead of a league ladder.
USL reached a high of 22 professional teams in 2007 – 12 in its First Division and 10 at the Second Division level.
Montreal defeated Vancouver in the final USL First Division championship series in 2009 before the acrimonious split. Portland finished top of the 11-team regular-season standings that year.
Nine teams from eastern cities comprised the USL’s Second Division at that point.
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