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NASL Cancels 2018-19 Season

This could mean the end of the league.

Soccer: Carolina Railhawks at New York Cosmos
We’ve used this photo and photos like it quite a few times for our NASL stories. You aren’t going to see this picture very much after this.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time coming, but it seems like the NASL is just about done. The league announced Tuesday that it will not play its 2018 season in any capacity. Previously, the league had announced that they had cancelled the spring season, though this was framed as a move towards a European-style Fall-Spring calendar and away from the Clausura/Apertura model that the league had been using. Instead, the league says that they will focus on getting prepared for a 2019 season.

This announcement comes less than a week after the NASL received news that their appeal in their antitrust lawsuit had been denied. The league filed a lawsuit back in September against USSF and MLS, alleging that they had conspired to undermine the NASL and block them from becoming a DI league, and that the DII standards were unfair and anticompetitive. The NASL went and filed their suit, hoping to get an injunction from the court that would allow them to keep their DII status after USSF had decided not to grant the league a waiver. In November, the district court decided that there wasn’t enough there for the court to block USSF’s decision not to certify the league and ruled against the NASL. In response, the league appealed. The appellate court agreed with the district court and denied the injunction. The NASL basically needed the injunction in order to play this fall.

At this point, the lawsuit technically is not over. The appeal was just for the initial injunction and the lawsuit is back at the district level. There are still court proceedings looking into the matter. However, it is very unlikely that the court will change its mind and rule in favor of the NASL. In any case, the injunction was what the NASL was really after, with the court decision, and the following cancellation of the fall season, striking a rather devastating blow to the already-weak league.

However, even as this lawsuit winds down, the league has filed another piece of litigation. This time, the NASL has chosen specifically to go after USSF leadership, suing former USSF president Sunil Gulati, new president Carlos Cordeiro, CEO Daniel Flynn, and board members Valerie Ackerman, Chris Ahrens, Carlos Bocanegra, Lisa Carnoy, John Collins, Don Garber, Jesse Harrell, Angela Hucles, Stephen Malik, Richard Moeller, Donna Shalala and Timothy Turney. The league is essentially arguing the same thing as in the other suit, alleging “that the board members, motivated by conflicts of interest and economic considerations, breached their fiduciary duties to the NASL by ‘arbitrarily refusing to sanction the NASL as a Division II league for the 2018 season.’” Given how similar the claim is to the earlier suit, I don’t think we should expect this to go anywhere.

The season cancellation looks to be one of the final breaths in what has been a protracted apparent death of the NASL. The league has been hemorrhaging clubs, with teams in Tampa, Ottawa, Raleigh, and Indianapolis all joining the USL, while 4 teams folded entirely, all just in the last two years. In addition, expected NASL expansion team, San Diego 1904 FC has announced that they will be joining the USL in 2019. That leaves the NASL with the New York Cosmos, Miami FC, and Jacksonville Armada. Those three teams will drop down to the 4th division, the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The status of the other expected expansion team, California United, of Orange County California, is unclear. Similarly, it is unclear what will happen to Puerto Rico FC. The Puerto Rican club had significant problems in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. With so few clubs left, with no plan for professional soccer at the DII or DIII level for the calendar year, and with a history of exits and collapses, with a set of owners embroiled in losing court cases, it doesn’t seem likely that the NASL will ever make a real comeback.

I have mixed feelings about the demise of the NASL. On one hand, it’s a belligerent league that used manipulative language for self-serving purposes, all while completely botching their business model. It’s hard to look at the end of a league that has been so irresponsible and incompetent, that was founded and supported by an organization as corrupt as Traffic Sports, and feel much in the way of sorrow. But this is also a blow to a lot of soccer fans in this country. It’s professional soccer jobs going away. It’s a repeat of the old NASL and a sign that US Soccer isn’t as stable as we all want it to be. And I can’t be happy about that. In any case, there’s been organization and investment elsewhere. Hopefully, the time and energy spent in the NASL is redirected there, into more stable projects.