For players and fans of US and Canadian soccer existing outside of Major League Soccer, this off-season has been tumultuous. Nearly all other concerns, interests, and possibilities took a backseat to the near dissolution of the North American Soccer League.
The short version, too many teams left the league. Minnesota United was already slated to buy in to MLS, but two teams (Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies) left the league after the 2016 season for the significantly cheaper yet tied into MLS United Soccer League. Two other teams (Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and Rayo OKC) revealed their very much suspected financial insecurity (or incompetence) and ceased to exist. Then the league’s marquee team, New York Cosmos, announced severe financial losses and that it was near folding. The still young club Jacksonville Armada also was floundering looking to be sold or close up shop. That meant the NASL had gone from a competitive and healthy twelve team league to a virtual five team league in the course of a couple of months.
This put the United States Soccer Federation in a bind regarding the maintenance of the quasi-pyramid of US soccer. The NASL clearly no longer met the requirements for being Division II. Meanwhile, the USL’s stability was the spearhead of its push to be granted DII sanctioning. However, although buttressed by the money of MLS, the majority of USL also failed to meet the requirements of DII. There was going to be no way to satisfy everyone, but doing so was always an illusory goal. USSF could’ve merged the two leagues, could have swapped their designations, or allowed NASL to dissolve making USL the de facto DII. Instead, USSF pushed off any decision making until the very last moment then granted DII status to both leagues.
The US and Canada now have a soccer pyramid that is not only closed unlike the vast majority of the rest of the soccer world but with no third division and yet a hodgepodge of semi-pro fourth divisions.
Which, I suppose, is no real problem but continues the slightly askew nature of the American game.
Also part of the slightly askew nature is the near complete lack of player value. US and Canadian athletes who play domestically outside of MLS are guaranteed insecurity, which too often borders on contempt. One of the reasons for this, there are no unions for players outside of MLS.
Every player deserves a union to advocate for the good of them and the benefit of all.
The USSF sanctioning has stabilize (for at least one season and unlikely longer) our soccer landscape. With the sanctioning, NASL was able to salvage New York and Jacksonville while providing an actual entity for the San Francisco Deltas to join in 2017. Going into this season, the NASL will field eight teams and has announced a new commissioner to lead the league in a new direction, presumably that of re-building.
Part of that re-building needs to be an entity solely focused on player rights and advocacy, a union.
The existential crisis the league faced was due in no small part to several organizations failure or refusal to pay its players. Ft. Lauderdale Strikers were perhaps the most egregious example of this. But make no mistake, the Cosmos also did its part. One player, Yasmani Duk pursued legal action. Doing so was probably a factor in why the new owner of New York Cosmos faces the “requirement to pay out any overdue wages to both front office members and players.” Failure by the Cosmos to meet the first and most important obligation of any business did not only affect players but the front office as well.
Let’s be clear here, this is wholly inappropriate. Players, especially, already live precariously attempting to make a career in soccer. No individual deserves a multi-million dollar salary, but no one deserves to live at or below poverty. Neil Hlavaty is a journeyman midfielder having played in NASL since 2010 for four different teams and yet:
This is acceptable if you’re fresh out of high school or college; it is a spit in the face by your employer when you’re an adult. Teams in any league need to be held accountable to the commitments made to players. In order to make sure those commitments are met, to make sure duty isn’t shirked, a union is necessary.
In early 2015, then NASL commissioner Bill Peterson claimed the league didn’t need a union because “Our owners are treating our players very well.” Obviously, this was not the case. Or, rather, because there was no watchdog, no advocate for the players what good treatment team owners deemed acceptable was always contingent on mood. A union, first and foremost, is about securing health insurance and injury protection for players. It is vital to make sure what happened to former New York Cosmos midfielder Sebastian Guenzatti doesn’t happen again.
Make no mistake, there are no ‘bad guys’ here. This isn’t an ‘us vs them’ situation. Nothing about fair representation need be adversarial.
There is no need for a union to be seen as a detriment or an obstacle. Clear, reasonable regulation taking into account not just the wants of teams but the needs of players guarantees vigor. Owners do not have the same interests as players, and without a union, players are vulnerable. This isn’t a hypothetical. We’re seeing our domestic game suffer from lack of representation and advocacy.
Every fully professional league must have the health and well being of its players, its workers, a top priority. Supporters, players, team, league, and association are the parties in soccer and each needs fair representation. For too long players (and supporters) have been given short shrift as leagues bully one another, teams operate opportunistically, and the association confuses being neutered with being neutral.
Going into 2017, there needs to be a push for a players union at every level of professional soccer in the US and Canada. A union that will bargain with the league and teams on behalf of players and controlled by players over all terms and conditions of employment to protect their interests and livelihood. Anything less leaves our domestic game in a feudal state.
Teams rise and fall; players come and go. Yet there should be structures, basic frameworks allowing both to flourish no matter the individual instance.
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