US clubs threaten breakaway league

MIAMI - Leading clubs from the United States' second tier football championship are threatening to form a breakaway league covering areas not in the top flight Major League Soccer.

The United Soccer Leagues (USL), which runs football from the professional division below MLS down to regional youth leagues, faces losing some of its biggest teams due to a row over the sale of the league if the threat is carried out.

The USL, founded in 1986, was owned by Nike until last week when it was sold to Atlanta-based company Nu Rock Soccer Holdings, a move which foiled a bid by a consortium of leading clubs to purchase the league.

Those clubs, including franchises such as Miami and Minnesota, are now threatening to breakaway and form a new league.

A statement from the Team Owners Association, issued with the support of eight current and future franchises stated it was committed to "achieving a team-owner controlled league" and said the group would "pursue all avenues" to do so.

Selby Wellman, owner of the Carolina Railhawks and spokesman for the teams, said a breakaway league was on the agenda.

"It is certainly one of the options," he told Reuters in an interview. "We are clearly at odds with USL, we have been at odds with them for two years over the fact that we are the only league in the world that doesn't have (team) owners controlling it."

The Carolina owner said he expected a decision to be made by the clubs within the next two months before the USL's annual meeting in November.

"We are not willing to play until we get some ownership and control of this thing so they (USL) have a problem too and they have to solve it by November.

"If we are going to do a breakaway league and some of these other things that we have to implement, we have got (to make) a decision and I think it will be within 60 days."

Wellman said the teams, which also includes existing USL franchises in Montreal and Vancouver in Canada and planned franchises in Atlanta, Tampa Bay and St. Louis, would be open to a compromise with the league but he was not optimistic.

"I have to be honest and say that my expectations of it are quite low - if you just bought a league for that money and put it in Nike's pockets you are probably unwilling to turn it over to other people.

"We have been at this for two years. We are not willing to start all over again and drag it out for another year or so. Quite frankly we are tired."

USL CEO Tim Holt said: "We've seen the announcement, which contains several incorrect statements but we don't want to comment right now.

"We would prefer not to get caught up in a war of words."

Although USL teams receive less exposure and have smaller crowds than the 15-team MLS, they are present in markets without top flight teams and Wellman said he hoped MLS would be willing to work together with any new structure.

"If the ultimate goal is to raise the level of pro soccer in North America then there has to be ways that MLS and our group can work together and make that happen," Wellman said.

"We need to take a look at it."