U.S. Soccer, Rocco Commisso in stalemate over offer for revamped NASL
Rocco Commisso's offer to raise $500 million for the funding of a revamped North American Soccer League appears to be going nowhere.
A meeting between Commisso and the U.S. Soccer Federation was scheduled to take place Wednesday in Chicago, but disagreements on the information to be provided and in particular who would be in attendance led to the cancellation of the meeting.
According to Commisso, the owner of the New York Cosmos, time is running out. A May 8 email from Commisso to USSF CEO and secretary general Dan Flynn, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN FC, stated, "if the USSF continues to refuse to promptly engage in sustained, direct negotiations through representatives empowered to make a deal, then we will have no choice but to withdraw our investment proposal on May 21."
Commisso's offer -- which included a pledge of $250 million of his own money -- was first made on April 13 in a letter to USSF president Carlos Cordeiro. It asked for a 10-year "runway" to allow the league to come into compliance with the USSF's Professional League Standards (PLS) -- which specify, among other things, a minimum number of teams -- as well as allow an owner in the revamped league to own multiple teams. Commisso's proposal also requested that the USSF make significant changes to how it governs the sport. Since then, the two sides have traded letters, with the aim of scheduling a meeting, but to no avail.
The USSF insists that it wants a meeting to happen. It's not often that an offer to pump upward of $500 million into the game takes place. But the federation's view is that it wants to see more detail before considering the kind of accommodations that Commisso is asking for.
"We've always been willing to sit down and discuss a comprehensive resolution," a USSF spokesperson said. "We've offered opportunities to do so and even scheduled a meeting, and NASL canceled. We continue to be willing to have a meeting to discuss this."
Commisso and the NASL have expressed concerns that providing additional detail would result in its plans being leaked to MLS and the second-tier USL. In the NASL's view, this would allow the USL to undercut its proposal by moving into the NASL's proposed markets while the NASL awaits approval of its plan. Commisso also said there is no point in revealing the proposal's details if the USSF is unwilling to acquiesce on the 10-year runway and ownership issues.
"It's a chicken and egg," Commisso told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. "I'm not going to go out and embarrass myself with all these teams that we went out and recruited last year, and it becomes public and another failure. I'm not going to go out and publicize the teams that have already called me to be part of this thing. [The USSF], they already know the money, they already qualified me."
The distrust between the two sides has been building over time but has significantly increased in the past eight months. It was last September that the USSF decided to deny the NASL's application to be sanctioned as a Division II league for 2018 due to the fact that it was not complying with the PLS. The NASL wasn't complying with the PLS in the previous years either but was granted provisional Division II status for 2017.
Since then, the NASL has filed two separate lawsuits, one against the USSF alleging anti-trust violations and another against nearly every member of the USSF Board of Directors alleging a breach of fiduciary duties. With its teams either folding or moving to other leagues, the NASL ultimately canceled the 2018 season, with three teams -- Miami FC, Jacksonville Armada and the Cosmos -- fielding sides in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.
Based on letters obtained by ESPN FC, Commisso's plan is detailed in how it wants the USSF to alter its governance of the game. The proposal includes eliminating the alleged conflict of interest between the USSF, MLS and the league's marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing. The plan also asks for equal representation among professional leagues on the USSF Board, implementing a system of promotion/relegation and implementing rules to prevent "poaching" of teams from other leagues.
As far as actual plans for the new league, there isn't much that has been made public beyond asking for the 10-year runway and the relaxing of the ownership issue. A report from Sports Illustrated alluded to a 10-team league, with stadiums seating at least 10,000 fans. The teams would include the three remaining NASL teams as well as others from the NPSL.
Given the mismanagement that plagued the NASL in its later years, the USSF's desire to see more of the fine print is understandable. That skepticism is equaled -- and perhaps exceeded -- by Commisso's distrust of the USSF hierarchy, including elements of the Board with past or present ties to MLS and the USL. This includes MLS commissioner Don Garber, current Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra, former USSF president Sunil Gulati and North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik. Malik in particular has drawn Commisso's ire by moving his team from the NASL to the USL prior to this season.
"We're not going to present, give them hints, whatever, so they can turn around and present it to their friends -- Gulati, Garber, Bocanegra -- and all those other characters," Commisso said.
In a bid to bring the two sides to the table, Commisso requested that a subset of the USSF Board of Directors consisting of those members without ties to MLS or the USL be authorized to negotiate on the Board's behalf. The problem with that approach is the aforementioned lawsuit in which the NASL is currently suing nearly every member of the USSF Board. Commisso insists that shouldn't prevent the USSF Board from considering his proposal.
The USSF has offered to have Flynn and two of the federation's lawyers represent it at any meetings, as well as offering assurances that details of Commisso's plan won't be disseminated. It also offered to have a board member listen in on the meeting via telephone. That wasn't good enough for Commisso, who felt that the USSF was backtracking on a pledge to include multiple board members. Commisso also wanted Cordeiro in attendance, but the USSF president has been preoccupied by the federation's joint bid with Mexico and Canada to win the hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup.
In a bid to get the USSF to come to the table, the NASL sent letters to CONCACAF and its members highlighting how CONCACAF countries benefited from having their players play in the NASL. That appeared to kick-start discussions about when a meeting could take place, only for the latest set of obstacles to present themselves.
Whether Commisso will stick to his self-imposed deadline of May 21 remains to be seen. The USSF spokesman pointed out that Commisso and his investors have until Aug. 15 to apply for sanctioning for the 2019 season. But Commisso is eager to get his plans in motion as quickly as possible. A meeting with the USSF is the first step.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.