Credit: New York Cosmos

After a rare Fall season win in this past Sunday’s match, against Puerto Rico FC (PRFC), you might be forgiven for expecting a familiar ‘win’ speech, with just a bit of emphasis on keeping their heads firmly embedded in preparing to win the next match.  Head Coach Giovanni Savarese held up his part, expressing how important it was to get Sunday’s win; that they had to get back to work this week, as they had last week to garner Sunday’s win; that he was ‘content’ with their on-field performance and that it was ‘a very good week’.

It’s a frequent experience from post-match interviews, regardless of league or country, where the words said often serve this breezy narrative of sports and competition as an abstract plane. As if the game is completely divorced from that grubbier, less pleasant world of dollars, ad sales, TV rights and egos. Much sports commentary pushes this narrative. It keeps things cleaner. It’s easier to fall into, participate in, and maintain. It serves the highest ideals of competitive sport as passed down to us by the ancient Greeks, some might say. It mitigates the risk of conflicts affecting sponsorships, might say others.  Whichever way you lean, we might agree it keeps a disparate group of people ‘on message’. It also can make for unexciting television. Barring a blowout or some sexy off-field drama, watch ten post-match coach/player interviews back to back and chances are they will sound near-identical.

Things were different this time around. Coach Savarese towards the end was asked if the 2018 de-sanction news and subsequent North American Soccer League (NASL) lawsuit proved a distraction to the players. It’s not a question often heard in soccer, but all too often in the USSF’s version of American soccer. Gio took care not to comment specifically on the lawsuit, but spoke a little on the human cost of the uncertainty arising from USSF actions. The club had spoken about events to the players, because “…it’s important for them to know what’s going on. It has to do with their jobs in the future, their families…they need to be aware exactly of the consequences, what is going on. But only to know that, and concentrate on playing and doing their job. For our part, we just have to concentrate on making sure we have a good season. But it’s important for them to understand, to know what’s going on, because it directly affects their future; it’s important for them to be informed about every step that is going on.”

When asked if he thought USSF would re-sanction, Savarese said: “I think this league provides an important part of development in US soccer. I think there is a tier of players that have been able to play in this league, earn a good salary, be able to support their families; people that maybe were not able to find that next team in the MLS but still found a good level in this league. And I believe that it has a purpose. And I believe that this league has allowed all the other leagues to grow, by competition. And so, for the players’ sake, for the club that has such tradition, like the New York Cosmos, I would like to see this to continue. What is going to happen, it’s not on their heads. We have to do our job, we’re soccer people, but I want to see my players have a job next year because they have have families, they have kids, and they depend on us.” 

What’s often missing from closed-league lower-division soccer stories are comments like this. In one view, where MLS capture most tv ads and transmission rights for ‘relevant soccer’, such stories get in the way of a narrative; one of inevitability, and ingratitude; of owing rich MLS stockholders a guarantee in exchange for a stable brand. In this story, there’s  MLS, there’s the affiliated subordinate farm league franchises, and then there’s ‘other’ – all that cute footie happening with no greater stakes than a college scholarship (you’re welcome!) or pub league beer money. The very concept that there could be relevance and competition for eyeballs rightfully belonging to MLS is anathema. Either you take the MLS product, or you will defer to some other sports product that MLS shareholders probably also have a stake in as well. (If you stick with overseas soccer, well, enjoy your 8am Saturday wakeup alarms.)

Soccer-as-differentiated-product-brand business is all that they have time for; there’s no money to be had in supporting an actual sport. Because your dollars are fungible, they don’t care if they get it via MLS, or if you get bored and wander (back?) to American football. Honestly, they probably prefer your dollars as American football dollars. There’s no conflict with a third-party federation or second-party directly competing product; none exist. Whether you want the generic white label or the free range lifestyle brand, they get your dollar.

That’s what makes Division 2, or even Division 3, professional soccer a problem. It’s not that the NASL itself is a threat. The modern-era NASL, reserving judgement on this season for now, has had many shambolic moments and missteps. But those problems to some extent speak to the systemic challenges of operating in the partial vacuum created by the USSF/SUM/MLS soccer universe. The ‘laws of physics’ almost by definition are warped to owners, fan associations and true clubs operating with independence.

Which is what makes the players’ words that followed Gio’s all the more rattling. If one takes a moment to be a human being and listen to Danny Szetela’s nervous, heartfelt words, you will hear a cadence dissonant to the USSF/MLS/SUM tune.

A lot has been said in the past few weeks about the NASL – US Soccer lawsuit. We’ve heard a lot of different opinions from media and executives. The players [though] haven’t heard anything, or any consideration, about the players of the NASL. For me personally, my chance back in professional soccer after I was off for two and a half years, after I got injured with DC United, MLS; when I came back from that injury I wasn’t able to get an opportunity in any MLS club…They were like, ‘the surgery was too big’, and I never had an opportunity. The Cosmos and the NASL gave me an opportunity to continue my professional career, so I’m forever thankful to the Cosmos, to Gio, for giving me that chance, and to the NASL. The fact that US Soccer would make a decision about dropping Division Two status to the NASL, knowing…[it would lead to] costing players hundred of jobs. To me, and I’m sure to others in the NASL, it’s the exact opposite of what I think they should be doing. I think it’s important that NASL stays Division Two that US Soccer joins and gets behind the NASL to help the league grow. Unlike many other players in this league, I have an opportunity to go to Europe and play because I have a Polish passport but not all the players in this league have that opportunity. If the NASL ends up folding or losing its status, it’s costing hundreds and hundreds of jobs for these guys. 

“One thing, I think, about this league, the NASL, is that we have a lot of good players and I think there was something said, that Bruce Arena said some things about in his lifetime there will never be a player from the NASL to play with the national team’. I’m a player who used to play on the national team. I have a few caps. I played throughout my whole youth [for the youth national team]. Andres plays for the national team of El Salvador, he captains that team; and there are other players through the league and on this team. So I think it’s a little heartbreaking when you hear something like that, because you have great young talent that’s in the NASL. They should at least be able to get a look from the national team. You have Eric Calvillo, who’s been playing great this year, and was with the youth national team for a while and is not getting the opportunity. Hopefully in the future he does get that opportunity to go into the first team. That’s it, thank you.”

Danny Szetela puts a face and a name to the machinations ostensibly being performed for the good of US soccer.

There’s a place you go to when you imagine the chaos and pain arising from hundreds of professional players being dumped onto the closed American market. It’s not a pleasant place. The USL couldn’t possibly absorb all the players. Many criticize the NASL (sometimes without much context; not always) for its instability over the years, and MLS fans nervous about their brand relevance may crack wise about specific teams’ problems but in the aggregate it’s not the quality of play that has been a problem. These players have already demonstrated they’re worth their salaries – many of which are competitive with, or near, MLS salary ranges for commensurate roles and performance (excluding the celebrity gets). It’s immediately bad for soccer players everywhere in the US earning a professional living when labor is dumped. But it’s also bad in the long term, as it contracts the borders of the professional American game. That’s not developing the best of the best; that’s shrinking the whole pool and pretending you made them all better.

Carlos Mendes, captain for the New York Cosmos, echoed some of Szetela’s thoughts. “You’d have a lot of guys out of a job,” Mendes said. “It’s been an important league for a lot of young talent. You have guys from all over the world that are playing at a high level, making a good living. I’ve made a good living. This is my fifth season with the club now. For sure it’d be a shame if something like that happens and the NASL doesn’t continue on. It’d be tough to see.”

I agree with Szetela: this is the exact opposite of what the USSF should be doing. It’s not stabilizing American soccer, it’s setting it in concrete. It reflects a priority to make the most money in a preferred league with the least cannibalization of sporting dollars across multiple sports leagues. It’s caring about leagues and subordinate franchise valuations, when we should be caring about clubs. I hope come October 31st we’re able to open the door a crack and see what the new crop of NASL owners can do with some time. At the end of the day, this blog is still Cosmos Country and our goal is to see our club take the field in the years to come. How we get there is still unclear, but I am certain that the USSF has completely lost sight of its purpose and cannot be a willing partner to our club’s success if it doesn’t believe in clubs at all. It’s been subverted. How can the USSF be a part of the future of American soccer when it is so clearly embedded in its past?

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