By Barry Janoff
UPDATED January 10, 2017: The North American Soccer League, which was re-incarnated in 2009 and began play in 2011 in name and other entities from the original NASL that operated from 1968-1984, finished the 2016 in dire straits.
Now it is seeking another new start to continue to play in 2017 and beyond.
On the heels of the United States Soccer Federation certifying the NASL with provisional Division II status for 2017, the NASL said that Bill Peterson, who has been commissioner since 2012, and the league “have amicably agreed to part ways, effective immediately.”
Rishi Sehgal, director of business development and legal affairs, has been named interim commissioner, but the NASL said that "the process has already begun to find a permanent commissioner."
Some NASL clubs had serious operational problems this past season, including the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, which, according to ESPN and other media outlets, were "in serious financial jeopardy" and Rayo OKC, which "face(d) similar financial trouble."
Rayo OKC was not among the eight clubs the NASL said would operate in 2017.
In addition, the league’s most visible club, the New York Cosmos, has been in danger of folding, a fate that faced but did not happen to Jacksonville Armanda FC when the league itself took control of the club.
The Cosmos on Tuesday said that Rocco Commisso, chairman and CEO for Mediacom Communications Corp., had purchased a majority ownership stake in the club and would become its new chairman.
The future of the NASL was dependent on the Cosmos return, which was secured with Commissio’s acquisition of the club from the previous owners (who remain as minority owners, according to Commisso), which in turn enabled the USSF to grant the NASL with Division II status.
"It wasn’t just a matter if the Cosmos would survive," he said. "It was the entire NASL. That needs to be said up front. Given who the Cosmos are, without the Cosmos the league may not have survived. We had to do a lot of work in a short period of time to save the Cosmos, save the league and convince the USSF to give us the Division II classification to kept the league going forward." (See full story here.)
Last season was also the final NASL campaign for the Minnesota United, which is moving to Major League Soccer in 2017. In October, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury said they would move their franchises from the NASL to the United Soccer League.
The USL was also granted provisional Division II status by the USSF, moving up from Division III as they continue what they envision as prosperous expansion.
The eight NASL clubs are FC Edmonton, Indy Eleven, Jacksonville Armada FC (whose ownership has been taken over by the league), Miami FC, New York Cosmos, North Carolina FC, Puerto Rico FC and the expansion San Francisco Deltas.
The NASL said its club owners "are committed to delivering a new era for the league in which a new direction and vision is essential."
The USSF said that the Division II certification of the NASL came with the provision that it adds more teams (12 is the usual cut-off for the USSF). With the USL, some of whose teams are developmental MLS squads, USSF said that the league had to improve the size of some of its stadiums, licensing of coaches and other "additional criteria."
"The board carefully considered the applications of each league," USSF said in a statement. "While neither league meets all the standards set forth by U.S. Soccer, the board granted provisional Division II status and will work with the leagues on a pathway to full compliance. The board also determined that the leagues will be required to meet additional criteria."
Prior to the NASL title game this past November, won by the Cosmos, then commission Peterson said that it was essential for MLS, the NASL and USL to not only grow but co-exist.
"At the end of the day, it’s going to take three strong leagues (in the U.S.) to really grow the game and be part of the community, be part of the fabric, in this country," said Peterson. "I don’t think you’ve seen the end of it from any of the leagues."
MLS is by far the strongest of the three financial and in marketing, with 20 clubs in 2016.
Atlanta United and Minnesota United FC are joining the league next season. Commissioner Don Garber said MLS is en route to expand to 28 franchises by 2020.
NASL club owners "are committed to delivering a new era for the league in which a new direction and vision is essential."
Between 2014-16, the USL more than doubled in size to 29 teams. The 2017 season will see 30 teams playing an expanded 32-game schedule in a two-conference alignment. Ottawa Fury FC, Reno 1868 FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies are joining as new clubs for next season while Nashville SC will begin play in 2018 with further expansion on the horizon.
"The USL is honored to receive U.S. Soccer Federation Division II status, which provides further validation about our league's financial sustainability, national footprint, ownership quality, stadium infrastructure and player development," Alec Papadakis, the USL CEO, said in a statement
"Our teams have invested more than $100 million into stadium development in the last year to enhance the experience for the 1.5 million passionate fans that attended games in 2016, the 1,000-plus players and nearly 100 coaches that have positioned our league as a highly sophisticated competition model that cultivates strong regional rivalries,” said Papadakis.