Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Whitecaps, Impact leave USL

CBC's John Molinaro has a very interesting story today confirming that both the USL-1 champion Montreal Impact and USL-1 finalist Vancouver Whitecaps are set to break away from the league. Whitecaps' president Bob Lenarduzzi told Molinaro that both teams are looking to join the other teams (the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder, St. Louis Soccer United and Tampa Bay Rowdies) in the Team Owners' Association in a breakaway league for next season. This needs to be approved by the United States Soccer Federation, as it oversees club soccer in the U.S., where most of the teams are based (I'm pretty sure the Canadian Soccer Association will go along with whatever comes out of this).

"We're still pursuing the new league alternative, and by the end of the week, we should have our application into the USSF for them to grant us that status," Lenarduzzi said. "Our belief is that in order for soccer to grow in Canada and the United States, you need viable, professional leagues. The reason we're going the route we're going is because we think that with like-minded owners, we can achieve that, and that would be good for the sport in general."

Brian Quarstad of Inside Minnesota Soccer has confirmation from the USL side that negotiations with Vancouver and Montreal are over, so it does look like their time in USL-1 is finished. It's interesting that the USL hasn't been more willing to accomodate the breakaway teams, though, as they include many of its strongest markets both on and off the field. If all of the TOA teams leave, USL-1 is left with Portland (only for one year before they move to MLS), Puerto Rico, Charleston, Rochester, Austin and Cleveland as the only teams that competed in the top division this year. Many of those teams have attendance issues as well as less-than-great on the field lineups (particularly in Austin and Cleveland), and many of them are in fairly small markets.

If I'm, say, Fox Soccer Channel, I'd be much more interested in televising a league composed of teams in Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay. There's a decent geographical spread there, and those are major sports markets; all of them have NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB teams (exceptions are Carolina, which doesn't have MLB, and St. Louis, which doesn't have the NBA). By contrast, the only remaining USL-1 cities to have any other major sports are Portland (NBA) and Cleveland (NFL, NBA and MLB). That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as there's less competition for sporting dollars in smaller markets, but the remaining USL-1 cities aren't great from a national television perspective (and they also may struggle at the gate). That gives the TOA league a pretty decent chance of success in my mind, and it doesn't bode well for USL-1.

The key question is what this means for the Whitecaps and Impact, though. If the TOA league gets off the ground and they accept both Canadian teams, it probably won't have a massive effect. Both teams will still be playing regular games against familiar opponents, and fans are drawn to the club name, not the league name. The TOA league has every reason to accept the Whitecaps and Impact; they've been heavily involved in the formation of the TOA, they have long and proud histories, solid financial bases, large markets and strong support in those markets. Their membership may be short-term, especially considering the recent announcement of the long-awaited B.C. Place roof deal, which appears to have removed the last obstacle in the Whitecaps' path to MLS. Montreal may be around for a few seasons, but they also seem to be destined for MLS. Still, their involvement in the TOA league would help it get off the ground and give it legitimacy, especially considering that both clubs just played in the USL-1 final. My bet is that the TOA would be happy to have them for as long as they're able to stay.

If the TOA league runs into launching difficulties, though, Vancouver and Montreal could be forced to scramble for whatever games they can. There are plenty of problems that can arise trying to get a league off the ground, which is why it's good that this split is happening now instead of just before the season starts. The involvement of the USSF may make things difficult, though, as I'm sure their focus is more on what's best for soccer in the U.S. in the long run rather than getting a new league off and running quickly. That may involve negotiations with MLS to become a feeder league or affiliated minor league, it may involve USSF-moderated discussions with USL-1, and it may take a considerable amount of time.

For the Whitecaps and Impact, though, urgency is key. Taking a season off to sort things out is not really a viable option, as you lose your supporters, your TV deals and your legitimacy (just look at the issues faced by the Arena Football League in its bid to relaunch after a year on hiatus). A lost year could prove especially disastrous for Vancouver, as they need a solid schedule next year to prepare for the transition to MLS. Various exhibitions and such are all right, but league experience is much better and much more valuable. Let's hope some solution can be found that solidifies professional soccer in North America for both the immediate future and the long term.

Update: Molinaro is now reporting that Lenarduzzi called him back to say the Whitecaps' door isn't officially closed to playing in the USL next year. That doesn't sound likely at the moment, though.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

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