Chances are you’re one of two types of City fans: someone who has gotten a text from a friend saying “I’ve seen a lot of stuff on twitter, can you explain it to me?” or the person who has sent that text. If you’re the sender, this post is for you. If you’re the receiver: here. Now you don’t have to type the same paragraph again.
For those of us who follow City, the 2019 season has had some amazing highs. But lurking in the background was always the sense that the team’s future plans might not work out in quite the way the fans wanted it to. We knew that we were supposed to participate in the Founder’s Cup later this season, but the western teams were peeling away, and the continued existence of the competition into 2020 seemed uncertain.
Yesterday, the schedule came down from the DCFC website, people noticed that DCFC was no longer on the Founder’s Cup website, and a rumor that DCFC had lined up a major investor was going around. The alphabet soup of the PLS and NISA lit up the lower-league soccer tweetosphere. The most extreme panic subsided pretty quickly, as the NPSL re-announced itself as the “Member’s Cup” (you can’t call it the Founders Cup if it doesn’t end with you founding anything I guess), and City’s fall schedule was settled.
So the questions are: why did this happen, and where do we go from here?
Lower League Soccer and the PLS
While the US doesn’t have a formal pyramid system like most other footballing nations, it does divide its leagues into divisions. The standards for Divisions 1, 2, and 3 are set by US Soccer through a document called the Professional League Standards. This is the PLS you might have heard about. Leagues apply for sanctioning within the division they want, and strictly speaking there is no limit to how many leagues can be in each division. Every team in a league must meet the requirements for that division, though USSF has sometimes granted waivers for things like stadium size when they receive assurances that teams are working on it. Right now, there is one league in each of the top divisions. MLS occupies Division 1. The USL Championship is Division 2, and USL League One is Division 3.
Below that, things get very fuzzy. Technically, there are no divisions below 3. However, many people who follow American soccer refer to the NPSL and USL League Two as Division 4, and the UPSL as Division 5. Divisions 5 and 6 are also dotted with various regional and local leagues. The NPSL, UPSL, and anything smaller than that get their sanctioning from the US Adult Soccer Association, while USL League Two gets sanctioning from the USL itself. (Thank you to anyone who pointed out the original version of this paragraph wasn’t quite right.)
In order for DCFC to expand their footprint, they have to move to a pro league. This much is clear. But they are hamstrung by the PLS, which specifically dictate they need to have an owner with at least a 35% stake whose personal assets are at least $10 million, not including property and their team stake. I differ from many DCFC fans in that I think the PLS having a clause like this isn’t by itself bad. Lower league teams start and fail all the time, and putting up some barriers to entry is good for the overall health of the leagues they are joining. But, the hard rule doesn’t allow for any creativity.
Could the PLS be updated so that the “financial viability” portion can be either the net worth of an owner OR proof of previous club revenue? Could there be a system where D3 teams are just allowed to fall short on one of the PLS criteria? I don’t know, I’m just spitballing, but clearly the PLS is holding back DCFC specifically, and it’d be good if there was a place in the system for clubs with alternative, viable business models to being owned by a rich guy.
The other issue is the close relationship between the various USLs and MLS. Both USL Championship and League One host MLS reserve sides, or sides with roster control agreements with MLS clubs. While many independent teams in both leagues have robust fan bases and cool club cultures, the reserve sides typically don’t have their own fan bases, have players that are indifferent to the league standings, and exist to prop up a league that many DCFC supporters are philosophically against. If you want to own a lower league soccer team, but you don’t want MLS to be involved, there is no where to go, and if you’re a D3 club your predicament is made worse by the rumors that all MLS2 clubs will soon be pushed into USL League One.
So DCFC doesn’t meet the PLS, and doesn’t want to participate in a league populated by MLS reserve sides. The Founders Cup was an attempt to kill two birds with one stone.
The Founders, er, Members Cup
Earlier this year, it was announced that DCFC was one of 11 teams participating in the Founder’s Cup, a fall competition that would eventually lead to a professional league operated by NPSL, starting in 2020. This was exciting, as it created a path for some of the more ambitious NPSL teams to play longer schedules while paying their players. The goal was to establish a fully professional league, get sanctioning through USASA (or something), and skirt the PLS, providing a place for clubs with a different vision.
Slowly but surely, the Founders Cup fell apart. The western teams pulled out one by one. Oakland Roots officially joined NISA (I promise we’ll get to NISA), as did Cal United Strikers FC . Rumors swirled that nothing was guaranteed beyond the Founders Cup in the fall, and that most of the teams were looking to jump somewhere else for 2020. The dream of DCFC playing in an “NPSLPro” seemed to be dwindling by the day. The last straw appeared to be Miami FC officially joining NISA.
Finally, yesterday the Founders Cup rebranded as the Members Cup, with only one western team and the Michigan Stars for some reason. The bright side is it guarantees us matches in the fall. Supporters bought season tickets with the promise of a second, fully professional fall competition, and players (and TMFJ) signed up with that as the vision. The negative is that it put the future entirely up in the air.
What happens to NPSLPro now? No one knows. There are persistent rumors that there will be some sort of long-season division of NPSL, either an annual Member’s Cup-type competition or a full conference of teams playing a longer schedule. But the big rumor that accompanied the Member’s Cup announcement, is that set to join NISA was not only Miami FC, but Chattanooga FC and the Detroit City Football Club.
The National Independent Soccer Association
NISA first was announced in 2017, the new project of long-time soccer executive Peter Wilt. The long term goal included pro/rel, maybe including the NASL (which shut down a short time after). On and off announcements punctuated by long periods of radio silence got us to earlier this year, when current commissioner John Prutch took over, and NISA received sanctioning as a Division 3 league. This was a critical step in launching a fully pro league, and assurance that despite all the struggles in getting started, they could at least make it work on paper. A handful of Founders Cup teams were poached, new teams were announced, and a fall start date was set.
Finally, today a schedule for the NISA Showcase, a competition not unlike the Members Cup, was announced, as well as 8 initial participants. Other clubs have already been announced for 2020’s full league, with rumors of more joining over the offseason. Notably, the NISA Showcase features exhibitions against both Chattanooga and DCFC, both rumored to be joining the league in the 2020.
NISA fills an important hole in the American lower leagues: This is where you play if you want to be a pro league but don’t want to play MLS reserve sides, where you don’t want the away portion of your gate to prop up MLS. It’s an attempt at establishing a league that is truly independent from anything that has been established before. And because it has sanctioning, teams will get automatic Open Cup berths, and get to test their mettle against the other leagues.
One hitch: DCFC still doesn’t meet the PLS, due to the ownership net worth clause. The rumor is that at long last, DCFC has found an investor that meets the criteria. So the question is, is that good?
The answer to that likely remains to be seen. Without knowing who the investor is, it’s hard to know what the impact on our club’s culture will be. With that said, I trust the ownership to only bring on partners that believe in the vision of this club. More concerning for me is that we really don’t know what we’re getting with NISA, and while on paper the league is viable, its history of on-again-off-again… existence is troubling. Hopefully, new leadership, and the anchor of a couple established clubs, are able to give it the stable footing it needs to have time to build something special.
The presence of DCFC and Chattanooga on NISA’s fall schedule, even as exhibitions, indicate to me that this is happening. Detroit City Football Club will likely be putting a professional team in NISA, and possibly maintaining its NPSL franchise to use as a non-pro reserve side. This is going to be an exciting and maybe nerve-wracking time to be a DCFC fan, with a lot of change and uncertainty and hopefully some of our favorites coming back for a full season as professional players.
For us, whether its the Members Cup or NPSLPro or NISA or whatever comes after that the refrain is the same: See you at Keyworth.