USSF Seeks Dismissal of NASL Antitrust Case

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

US logoAs calls for the resignation of U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati grow louder and increase in number after the men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying failure, the federation’s legal team is seeking to quash the threat posed by the antitrust case filed last month by the North American Soccer League.

A motion filed by the USSF’s lawyer Larewnce Butterman on Wednesday requests a pre-motion conference in the hopes of persuading Judge Margo Brodie to dismiss the NASL’s case, stemming from the federation’s decision to deny the league’s request to keep its Division II sanctioning last month.

The USSF’s letter attempts to paint the NASL as bitter over its loss of Division II sanctioning and deems the league’s cries of a conspiracy among the federation, Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League as “nonsensical.”

“This case has nothing to do with the antitrust laws. It has to do with a flawed league that does not like USSF’s decision denying it Division II status, and wants this Court to step in and override that decision,” the letter to the court says.

The most basic argument the USSF puts forward to undercut the allegation that it acted to kill off the NASL is that the federation has granted the league multiple waivers every year in hopes that the league would grow. The Cosmos majority owner and NASL Chairman Rocco Commisso said he bought into the league in January under the assumption that the USSF would give him and other owners time to right the ship. The USSF’s letter, however, claims it gave the NASL warning that it needed to comply with standards or come up with a plan to do so by the end of the year.

“USSF gave NASL one final chance to comply with the Division II standards. USSF granted NASL provisional Division II status for 2017, but conditioned that approval on NASL complying or providing a plan for full compliance with the Professional League Standards,” the letter states. “NASL ignored that warning. When NASL applied for Division II status for 2018 earlier this year, it acknowledged once again that it did not meet the standards for such status and needed waivers.”

The letter also alleges the “NASL has not even come up with a plan for eventual compliance with the Division II standards.” This would contradict comments from NASL Interim Commissioner Rishi Sehgal, who told reporters after the suit was filed that the NASL had presented a three-year plan to meet all standards.

Another point raised by the USSF is that division standards were conceived and implemented over a decade before the current incarnation of the NASL existed. There can’t be a conspiracy if no one knew the NASL would ever exist, the USSF contends. Of course, this neglects the fact that the NASL has argued the standards themselves are arbitrary and that the USSF has changed them over the years to keep the league from growing into a threat against MLS.

To the NASL’s argument that it has been boxed out of competing with MLS by the current system, the USSF asserts that it had no motive to do so considering how ill-prepared to jump to the top level the league has appeared. Additionally, the standards could not be part of a conspiratorial effort on the part of USSF and MLS as all revisions to the standards were determined by an independent task force appointed by the USSF and all board of directors members affiliated with leagues did not vote on proposals made by the task force.

“Top-tier professional soccer in the U.S. and Canada is not a market in which NASL currently participates, nor is it a market that NASL alleges it is ready to enter,” the USSF said. “In order to have standing to claim harm in a market, a plaintiff cannot merely assert vaguely that it ‘eventually’ plans to enter that market, but rather must plead that it is ready, willing and able to enter that market.”

Moving for a dismissal is an expected move. A decision on the motion should come soon as a hearing on the NASL’s request for a preliminary injunction to maintain its Division II sanctioning has been scheduled for Oct. 31. Commisso has repeatedly stated the preliminary injunction is necessary for the league to continue in 2018. The USSF offered the NASL a chance to apply for Division III status, but the league declined.

You can read the USSF’s full letter here.