Bad news, fans of the Montreal Impact. And worse news, fans of FC Edmonton. Actually, this is pretty awful news for any Canadian soccer fan with an interest in seeing the game grow in this country. According to the usually-reliable Brian Quarstad of Inside Minnesota Soccer, the United States Soccer Federation has pulled its sanctioning of the North American Soccer League.
I'm not going to say "this isn't a surprise" because of course it is. At the same time, it always seemed certain that the USSF would find some way to screw up their second division. The past two years have seen the Federation sit with thumbs up their butts as the United Soccer Leagues experienced a still-unhealed schism with their most successful franchises, cobbled together a second-rate "USSF Pro Second Division" which ultimately satisfied nobody for the 2010 season, and after somehow fluking their way into a relatively stable second-division NASL and third-division USL PRO, pulling the plug all together. When they sanctioned the NASL, it was a pleasant relief. The fact that they have returned to their usual shortsightedness, gleefully firing their cannon into the hull of their own boat, isn't all that shocking.
It still isn't over. This leaves the NASL with three options: to apply for third division sanctioning, leaving North America without a de jure second division for at least the 2011 season and possibly indefinitely. They could try and sort out whatever issues the USSF has randomly seized upon, which could be difficult with the North American soccer season beginning in only a few scant months. This is, according to a press release earlier today, their preferred option: they aim to get sanctioning at the USSF's annual general meeting in February. Or they could run as a renegade league without USSF sanctioning, opening themselves up to further reprisals from the self-entitled bureaucrats at the USSF and rendering all their players ineligible for international duty at any level as well as voiding a whole heap of contracts.
It's insane. And it's bad news for Canada, as we are once again victimized by hitching our wagon to a horse that has no interest in pulling us. I don't want to say I told you so. But I did.
It's Canada's misfortune that we're caught up in a power struggle south of the border, but it's our own fault for getting ourselves into this miss. Since the Canadian Soccer League folded sixteen years ago, there have been no serious attempts to form an all-Canadian second division that would have freed the Montreal Impact, Vancouver 86ers/Whitecaps, Calgary Mustangs, Edmonton Aviators, and Toronto Lynx from American soccer hegemony. At no point was there enough enterprise or vision to get a Canadian division going, and we decided the Americans were "good enough" even if it left us with no control over our own destiny.
Now, if the USSF has its way, we're once again going to pay the price. The Canadian Soccer Association cannot sanction the NASL on its own: we may have conceded our soccer sovereignty to the United States but the United States will by no means do the same thing. They may be able to offer limited support to FC Edmonton and Montreal, for example by allowing their players to remain in the national programs and permitting them to participate in the Voyageurs Cup, but they can't get the entire league through or protect Montreal and Edmonton from the worst of the USSF's capricious whims.
You may recall that, back in November, the Canadian Soccer Association announced a moratorium on new Canadian teams seeking entry into the American leagues. I was enthusiastic, and ran a series suggesting ways such a league could work. But there were, as ever, an awful lot of people who pooh-poohed the suggestion that Canada could ever stand on its own in the soccer community. And why would we have to try, when our good friends south of the border are ready to take us into their arms? The American soccer federations are not only always competent, but they're also willing to serve Canadian interests as part of their day-to-day operations. Wait. None of those things are true at all. Of course there's no malice here, and the USSF isn't taking aim at Canada with this decision; it's unlikely the fates of Montreal, Edmonton, and someday Ottawa and Hamilton entered their minds for a second. That's the problem. They're looking out for what they perceive as the best interests of American soccer, and those interests often aren't the same as what's best for Canadian soccer.
What issues are threatening the stability of the Canadian second division? Well, the USSF is said to be upset with Traffic Sports's growing stake in the NASL: along with their existing stake in Miami FC, Traffic has recently taken over the Carolina Railhawks after their ownership responded to a playoff finals appearance by bailing out at short notice. They're a large investor in the league in general, although oddly enough the USSF has never seemed particularly worried about Clark Hunt owning two Major League Soccer teams or that league's very... involved management structure. This reeks of yet another power play from the USSF, trying to make sure the American second division dances to their tune whatever the cost. Would they really scuttle their own second division for the sake of such a preposterous principle? Probably.
However this turns out, it's one more indication why Canada needs to control its own destiny on the soccer stage. I'm not going to pretend the Canadian Soccer Association runs a perfect ship and that a Canadian league would never run into any roadblocks. But at least when a Canadian league encounters problems, they'd be our problems and it would be in all our best interests to solve them. We wouldn't sit back and cross our fingers that the Americans could solve them for us.