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The North American Second Division Gets Even Weirder

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I'm coming in late to the party, but what a party it is. First comes the United Soccer Leagues' announcement that they are merging the First and Second Divisions, independent for twenty years, into something called USL PRO that advertises second division soccer without actually delivering more than a regional third division. What this amounts to is "the USL Second Division plus the Austin Aztex": the only other USL-1 holdouts are Portland (who don't count) and Puerto Rico (who almost immediately leaped into the arms of the North American Soccer League). The Austin Aztex are very, very good, but the Islanders are good, prestigious, and successful, which is a much better combination.

So the confirmed North American Soccer League roster for 2011, assuming there is a North American Soccer League in 2011, is AC St. Louis, Crystal Palace Baltimore, the Carolina Railhawks, FC Tampa Bay, Miami FC, the Montreal Impact, the NSC Minnesota Stars, the Rochester Rhinos, the Atlanta Silverbacks, the Puerto Rico Islanders, and FC Edmonton. But some of those teams don't meet the new USSF requirements for second division teams designed to strangle the life out of their own second division ensure that the two or three teams they'll have left are in no danger of folding. AC St. Louis and the sketchy Jeff Cooper, for example, would seem to be a sure cut. There are rumours of potential buyers for the club, but nothing that's yet held up.

Only if Minnesota, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Atlanta all fail would the NASL fall below the FIFA-mandated eight teams in the USSF-mandated three time zones for a professional second division. With expansion and new ownership rumours constantly flying it's safe to say there's enough interest to keep the second division alive another year. Presuming the USSF doesn't torpedo their own battleship and stand smugly on the sinking bridge proud of how they saved their dead second division from Canadians and the middle classes. The only thing that can stop the Americans from a successful, if not exactly a verdant, second division is their own soccer federation.

You can't rule that out, of course.

The NASL will face two major problems in getting USSF sanctioning as a second division league for next year. The first is that, even if all four of their questionable teams stay in the fold, three out of eleven teams would be based outside the United States (well, one would be in Puerto Rico but that's outside the United States for soccer purposes). This would only be a problem until 2012, when the Montreal Impact move to MLS and the NASL would drop to two out of nine teams outside the United States. But it would be a problem all the same, as the USSF has decreed that at most 25% of the teams in the second division may be foreign-based.

The easy solution would be for the USSF to pretend the Islanders don't count. Since Puerto Rico is owned by a local consortium and not a majority owner with a net worth over $20 million, they're already in need of a waiver. Nobody seems to expect a problem: for all the USSF's issues, forcing one of the four most all-round successful clubs in the second division to fold or leave the league because it doesn't meet some new criteria would be a bad move. I think every second division fan in the continent has to be fervently hoping Puerto Rico stays alive: with Vancouver and Portland moving up and scuttling the longest road trip in sports the Islanders will actually be significantly more viable in 2011, not less.

The other idea being bandied about is suspending FC Edmonton for 2011 until the Impact move to MLS. FC Edmonton owner Tom Fath has reportedly lost over a million dollars building a team in a 2010 exhibition season ready to complete in 2011. If I was in that position and was forced to sit a season out by a foreign soccer federation (and probably lose at least another million dollars if I could keep my team together at all), I'd probably sue the USSF, the NASL, and everybody in both of their Rolodexes until the Americans were selling off the furniture. I would be an avenging angel of legal fury and I wouldn't stop until I not only had my million bucks back with interest but Sunil Gulati was living in a refrigerator box beneath an overpass. I'd be the worst sort of enemy: a rich one with a grudge. I'm not saying Tom Fath feels the same way as me but I am saying that most self-made millionaires don't get there because they like wasting millions of dollars while waiting on the whims of a soccer bureaucracy. Suspending FC Edmonton (one of those well-capitalized teams the USSF is so paranoid about attracting, remember?) seems like a bad move.

Of course, if FC Edmonton was so piqued that they found some like-minded investors worried about the same issue (hello, Hamilton!) and spearheaded the creation of a Canadian second division, I'd be pretty much fine with that. But that's a long shot at best.

There's been some argument about how important a nation-wide second division is to the development of soccer in the United States (and by extension, Canada). Even in their primes the A-League, the USL First Division, and all those short-lived entities were niche products in a variety of unstable markets that were supported by immense popularity in cities like Rochester and Montreal. Of those called to the most recent American national team, only Edson Buddle (with the Long Island Rough Riders in 2000) had any North American second division experience. Even the Canadian national team for the Honduras friendly boasted only Terry Dunfield, Patrice Bernier, Lars Hirschfeld, and Paul Stalteri with the second division in their history. For both countries, the best players have tended to either go straight into MLS from the amateur ranks or move to Europe at a young age.

Ultimately, the North American second divisions provide depth both in terms of fan support and in terms of player development. It's far more important in Canada, but even here the Houston Dynamo have produced more regulars for the national team in recent years than the Vancouver Whitecaps or the Montreal Impact. The second division doesn't matter beacuse it makes Canada and the United States hugely more competitive on its own; it matters because it exposes more young Canadians and Americans to professional soccer, inspires them to follow the game and maybe one day to support their national teams or play it at a high level themselves.

Of course, that happens to be the game's greatest weakness in this country, and therefore very important indeed.