With only a handful of games remaining before the playoffs, the Major League Soccer season is nearly at its end. But this year, there was a chance it could have ended before it began.
In March, it was less than a week—hardly more than 48 hours, in fact—before the season was meant to kickoff that the MLS Players Union (MLSPU) and the league came to terms on a Collective Bargaining Agreement. That CBA instituted, for the first time in league history, a limited form of free agency, avoiding a work stoppage and protracted legal battles—a crucial thing for a league still struggling to build support for not only its brand, but also its sport.
Now at season’s end, Major League Soccer faces perhaps an even greater threat to its momentum and its brand, but not from a work stoppage. From a lawsuit.
The North American Soccer League (NASL) has accused US Soccer (the equivalent of England’s Football Association) and MLS of conspiring to assure that MLS have no competitors for top flight football in the United States, a violation of American antitrust law. Among the proposed changes to US Soccer’s requirements for a league to qualify as Division I are increasing the minimum number of clubs from 12 to 16, and requiring all 16 clubs to play in stadia with a capacity of 15,000 or more.
The proposed changes come just as the NASL is poised to exceed the previous 12-team minimum, with new clubs arriving in Miami and Puerto Rico in 2016, and having already met the previous stadium requirements.
Earlier this week, Erik Stover, the chief operating officer for NASL club New York Cosmos, spoke out against the shifting regulation. Simply put, Stover called the change in regulations “crazy,” pointing out that neither the English Premier League nor Spain’s La Liga would qualify as Division I teams according to US Soccer’s new regulations, because both leagues include at least one team that plays in a stadium with less than 15,000 capacity.
“How can we [NASL] ever be first division if you keep changing the rules and your committee is made up of nine people from the MLS, someone from the USL, three from the women’s league and [NASL commissioner] Bill Peterson?” Stover questioned.
The combination of MLS presence on the US Soccer committee, the timing of the changes as NASL is growing, and the particular shifting of regulations to conform to what MLS has already established while assuring that NASL are on the outside looking in—or rather, looking up—at the top division does seem somewhat questionable. But is there really a chance that legal action from the NASL might shake up MLS?
In a letter to US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, one that was subsequently quoted in multiple news sources, the NASL’s lead attorney made it clear that he saw US Soccer and MLS as standing in clear violation of American antitrust law.
“Doubling the [minimum stadium] population criteria now is an anti-competitive bait and switch, with the purpose of entrenching MLS’s monopoly position at the very time when the NASL is threatening to become a significant competitor.”
The name of the attorney who penned that letter is Jeffrey Kessler—the man who just humiliated the NFL. In getting Tom Brady’s deflate-gate suspension overturned, Kessler defeated the nation’s most popular, most powerful and most lucrative sports league in a very dramatic, and a very public fashion.
Do you think he’s afraid of the MLS?
If Don Garber and Major League Soccer aren’t worried, they aren’t paying attention.
Back in March, many were thrilled to see the MLSPU and the league come to an agreement about free agency, even in its watered down form, because it meant the season would carry on and the league would continue to grow. Did the players deserve more? Probably. But the league is growing, and its growth is good not only for clubs within the MLS, but more broadly (and more importantly), it’s good for soccer in the United States.
But in contrast to the CBA, with this impending legal action from NASL against US Soccer and the MLS, it’s hard to say what is best for the sport’s popularity in America, especially given the potential gravity of its consequence.
Much remains to be seen in terms of both how the MLS and US Soccer will respond, and how NASL will choose to play its hand.