In Division 3 battle, Initially USL D3 looks stronger than NISA

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Image Credit: NISA

On Wednesday, the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) an aspiring third division in the US Soccer landscape announced its initial eight cities for competition. NISA is competing with USL’s 2019 Division three startup (USL D3) in the marketplace. USL currently operates a 30-team second division that competes with NISA’s tacit ally, NASL at that level. Peter Wilt, the face of NISA is one of the best-known and well-liked soccer professionals in the country, having previously served in numerous roles, most notably as the President of the Chicago Fire from 1997 to 2005.

Interestingly, the first set of NISA locales will be mostly in larger urban areas, four of which (Charlotte, Miami, Phoenix and St Louis) already have a higher level pro club. All four of these markets have current MLS expansion bids in place, with one city, Miami virtually ensured of having a team in the US’ current top division. Of the other four initial NISA markets, two (Connecticut and Milwaukee) represent medium-sized locales that could support upwards of a Division 2 team. The other two announced markets (Chattanooga and Omaha) are logical for Division 3, with Chattanooga FC representing of the great success stories in American soccer and Omaha a market that has long been thought to be viable if the right opportunity and investment group came along.

How NISA’s clubs would be structured financially varies. Midfield Press reported on Thursday about Charlotte FC’s  effort to have fan ownership as part of its investment portfolio. Putting together a supporters-based club or trust is neat idea but as we’ve seen with past efforts here in the United States it sounds easier than it actually is. It is also unprecedented for a professional team not associated with an established MLS team to depend on a Supporters Trust in this country. The Seattle Sounders 2 example of supporter involvement is different though perhaps inspiring for Charlotte and other potential NISA sides who want to build this type of model.

NISA plans to begin play in 2018 and has a challenge to try and bring clubs up to a pro level quickly while maintaining economic viability. This is far simpler than it sounds – as NISA’s ideological ally and potential long-term promotion and relegation partner the NASL has proven, startup professional teams, particularly those with a rushed timeline have a far greater fail rate than those who are established. NASL has a current example of this in the San Francisco Delta’s a first year club that was touted by many proponents of the league as a new model for success, but has fallen well short of the mark even by its owner’s admission.

While NISA proponents will rightly state that most of the initial batch of clubs in the league are established amatuer and semipro clubs, the jump to the professional ranks is steep. Like NASL and unlike USL, NISA proposes to have a limited league staff and rely on consultants, widely believed according to multiple sources to be Club Nine Sports an entity which employs Wilt.

Unlike NASL at its startup in 2010 and 2011 every team in NISA will be new to the pro ranks and while NASL had a shortfall in terms of league front office staffing they had clubs that had left USL’s second division and were accustomed to operating professionally, NISA lacks that.

USL unlike NISA is concentrating on markets between 150,000 and one million in size and isn’t rushing its start for 2018, instead opting to gets things right-sized and launch play in 2019. Like NISA, USL is looking at high performing amatuer clubs as a guide to markets and to the viability of teams.

But unlike NISA, USL D3 is not actively pursuing multiple markets with existing higher-level pro clubs or even more oddly with pending bids to join Major League Soccer, the established market leader in this country. But part of Wilt and NISA’s thinking might be they need Division 2 ready markets to meet the published arbitrary US Soccer Federation (USSF) Division 2 standards should the league eventually implement PRO/REL with NASL. That will limit the types of markets NISA can enter, potentially leaving USL with almost a free run at what would logically be good Division 3 markets.

A commitment to build a league along regional lines to maximize rivalries and minimize travel costs is a stated goal of both leagues, but based on the initial NISA announcements that premise at least in the short-term is not being applied.

It’s also worth noting in Tampa-based USL has a fully professional staff with experienced soccer minds to guide the startup of the league, while NISA appears to be a work in progress and heavily reliant on consultants and good will from ideological soccer warriors in the blogosphere and on Twitter.

While NISA has the experience and brilliantly engaging personality of Wilt, USL has the stronger vision, expertise and infrastructure to make Division three viable within the current closed structure of US Soccer.

To make NISA successful, Wilt will need to employ his fill bag of tricks which have helped to establish successful pro clubs across the midwest in MLS, NASL and USL. He and his NISA partners will also have to avoid the obvious mistakes that the NASL has made including poor vetting of potential owners, a reliance on foreign  or questionable monetary sources  that can create ill will with league members.

Within the peculiar closed league structure of American soccer it’s imperative to have ways to minimize costs and to create a mechanism for owners to survive long-term.

For some who follow and cover the lower divisions, ideology rather than economic viability drives thinking. For these individuals, NISA and NASL represent a rebellious child standing up to misplaced authority who must be backed at all costs. Wilt, like the leadership of NASL has appealed to this sentiment among some individuals, team owners and other soccer observers that critiques any entity associated with Major League Soccer as tainted and unworthy of support.

While it may not fit the personal preferences of many soccer fans accustomed to the global game, myself included it’s difficult given the playing field in the United States and the difficulty of making a go in the sport to see USL not winning any and all battles at the lower division level. The league has through the years adjusted its approach, which at one time led to massive club failures and the defection of many of its top sides to the NASL.

Today, USL seems to have found the right balance at the Division 2 level between team autonomy, cost offsets, professional league staffing and reasonable travel. No reason exists based on the first few months of the Division 3 competition to believe this level will yield results any differently. USL sits poised to have at least initially the more viable third division league.

This does not mean some NISA clubs will operate on an extremely high level and bring affordable, family-friendly entertainment to soccer-starved markets. But it does mean that in a battle between ideologies and ideas, USL at least based on how soccer is currently structured in the US will likely emerge victorious, though like all aspects of the domestic soccer scene, this remains a fluid situation worth watching closely.

 

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