Fever Pitch

The unexpected demise of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team – it lost to tiny Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night, missing the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years – has created an inordinate amount of finger pointing, from USMNT coach Bruce Arena to the head of U.S. pro soccer’s governing body, the US Soccer Federation’s Sunil Gulati. But the big loser in what ESPN’s Bob Ley called a “gold-plated disaster” could be Major League Soccer, the top tier professional league where most of the members of the USMNF make their living.

According to many soccer pundits, MLS was counting on US participation in the World Cup to help bring needed notice to the league. According to website Soccer America, U.S. viewership for the 2014 World Cup was 10 times the viewership for qualifying games and 100 times more than for most nationally televised MLS games. While viewership for the 2018 Cup may have been lower because of the different time zones – Russia, compared to the eastern time zoned Brazil – U.S. participation also plays a big role in bringing younger viewers into the sport.

“MLS will find itself in an awkward position trying to sell the league next summer,” according to Soccer America. “For all the conflicts the World Cup causes the summer league, that's a small price for not being able to piggy-back on the World Cup.”

Some critics have blasted USSF president Gulati, claiming that US soccer has faltered under his tutelage. Former players turned analysts like Fox Soccer’s Alexi Lalas and ESPN’s Taylor Twellman noting that the latest failure of the men’s soccer team is nothing new – they have failed to qualify for the past two Olympics as well.

“With the amount of money that is in Major League Soccer and in this sport, you can’t get a draw, a tie, against Trinidad? Max, you don’t deserve to go to the World Cup,” Twellman told colleague Max Bretos, according to the Washington Post.

Mediacom Communications founder, chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso, who also owns the NASL New York Cosmos soccer team, has his own bone to pick with Gulati.

Commisso, who stepped in last year to purchase the struggling Cosmos, is in danger of watching that club and others disappear as the NASL’s governing body, the USSF moves to dissolve the league.

The NASL, a second division league to top dog Major League Soccer, lost its Division II status on Sept. 1 after it failed to meet a laundry list of requirements. The NASL filed suit against the USSF on Sept. 19 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn (the borough where the Cosmos play their games) , claiming the USSF violated antitrust rules when it failed to give the league Division II status for 2018. The NASL claims USSF failed to give it a Division II designation in favor of bestowing a second-tier professional soccer monopoly upon MLS’s favored minor league, the USL. A judge has set a hearing date of Oct. 31 on the matter.

In the suit, the NASL claims that Gulati has given preferential treatment to MLS, where he served as deputy commissioner from 1992 to 1999. The suit also claims that Gulati worked as an advisor to the Kraft Sports Group, which owns the New England MLS team, until at least 2012. He was named USSF president in 2006.

The NASL has been on thin ice for years and last year the USSF gave the league a waiver for falling short of its 12-team requirement (it only has 8 teams) in the hopes that it would attract new markets in the interim. According to several reports, the USSF has held meetings with NASL regarding it long-term plan to expand, but apparently wasn’t convinced the league would be able to achieve its goals.

According to Sports Illustrated’s website, SI.com, the NASL has commitments from teams in San Diego and Orange County, California for 2018, but there are some doubts as to whether those teams will be able to meet the deadline. Other teams in the league are on shaky ground, and according to SI, citing sources familiar with the talks, the USSF is not convinced the NASL offered a clear path to 12 teams and the timeline it offered – three years – was unacceptable. 

The NASL has said that without the Division II designation it will likely be unable to continue. And Commisso has said that the main condition to him buying the Cosmos was that the league maintained that status.

In a conference call with reporters the day the NASL filed suit, Commisso accused the USSF of “shenanigans,” and of “huge conflicts of interest,” in favoring the MLS.

“They’re in the business of making money and the only way they can make money is to protect the interests of the MLS,” Commisso said on the call. “Tell me how right it is for the United States [Soccer] Federation to be involved in a business relationship with the league they are sustaining, and never flipped on anything in the last six months to help me carry on for the next year.”