'Let's stop fighting': NASL shifts tone after surviving near collapse

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Checks and balances, pragmatism: Interim commissioner Rishi Sehgal tells FourFourTwo about the league's plans to move forward.

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LOS ANGELES — On the day he needs to be his loudest, Rishi Sehgal’s voice is hoarse. He can’t project over the clattering dishes of the JW Marriott’s restaurant. There, as he begins a day of selling the U.S. soccer community on the North American Soccer League’s new direction, the league’s interim commissioner is bashful for a moment.

“My voice is a little shot,” he concedes, sliding toward the outer edge of the booth, away from his empty plate and coffee. We indulge a hack premise: new uses for his rasping voice. I offer R&B singer. Gravelled, he one-ups me. “Wrestler.” He’s already engaging.

“I hate to look at my cell phone bills for the last month …” he says, explaining how much talking he’s done since his league went into crisis mode. “If there’s a cell phone sponsor that wants to come on board, we’re open.”

It’s the third day of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s annual convention, one which will be highlighted that afternoon by the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. In that shadow, one cast by the NASL’s avowed rivals, it’s Sehgal’s goal to deliver a message: The NASL is no longer what it was. MLS isn’t even an avowed rival, anymore.

Before, the NASL inverted Theodore Roosevelt’s famous axiom. Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, the league’s now-departed commissioner, Bill Peterson, cast first-division aspirations with no ability to follow through. Committed to supporting its ambitious rhetoric, the league spent and expanded to the brink of a second extinction, collapsing from 13 to eight members over the course of the last 12 months.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and the federation threw the NASL a lifeline on Jan. 6, giving provisional sanctioning to a league that’s still far short of the federation’s Division II standards. The bad news, though? The United Soccer League, a circuit the rebooted league’s original owners broke away from seven years ago, was also provisionally sanctioned at the second level.

Now, after years of casting U.S. and Major League Soccer as adversaries, Sehgal wants to make clear: The NASL needs to worry about itself.

“Fighting, and looking outside of what we need to do, is not going to solve our problems,” Sehgal explains. “To a large extent, we have to solve our own problems. He have to tell our fans — and we have fans —why they should keep coming back, why they should keep supporting our players, our clubs. Why we matter to them.”

"Every league in the country has controls in it. We should be no other, and we’ve started to implement some, and we’re going to implement some others that will be based on our principles."

- Rishi Sehgal

The NASL almost didn’t get a chance to make that case. In the month before U.S. Soccer’s sanctioning decision, the NASL appeared to be down to one option for survival: rapid expansion. Minnesota United was moving to Major League Soccer and the New York Cosmos reportedly were closing their doors. Teams in Fort Lauderdale, Oklahoma City and Jacksonville were on the brink of being dissolved, while Ottawa and, most worryingly, legacy team Tampa Bay moved to rival USL. The only solution seemed to lie at the feet of Peter Wilt, the former Indy Eleven president who, along with the Cloud 9 Sports agency, was trying to push a number of expansion teams over the line – a desperate effort to help the league meet Division II’s minimum.

That approach, however, had been tried before, and it led to embarrassing situations like Rayo OKC, which saw a minority owner, amid a disagreement with the Spain-based majority ownership group, attempt to reclaim the team’s turf field in the middle of the night last season. The story was the perfect symbol of the broken turnstile approach NASL had with its new franchises. There was a vetting process, but often, hope fed ambition, and the league ended up weaker than it was before.

Photo: FC Edmonton/Tony Lewis

Photo: FC Edmonton/Tony Lewis

“We know we need to take a more measured approach to expansion,” Sehgal explains, conceding the previous way of growing the league was not sustainable. “We’re not just going to rush into it, and jump into markets here or there … We’re going to be in the same situation, which is a waste of time and money. It just doesn’t help the sport get to where it needs to be.”

Therein lies a problem, though. As this winter approached, and the league’s remaining owners met outside Atlanta to try and salvage the league, the same dangerous expansion model was still very much on the table, as was anything else that would have saved the league, including a potential merger with USL. “They were looking at all options,” Sehgal admits. “They had to,” but none of the options achieved the two goals the NASL needs to survive: Independence, obviously, and sustainability.

This, according to Sehgal, is where Sunil Gulati’s influence mattered. As December rolled into January, and rumored deadlines to announce a second-division solution passed without explanation, Gulati was tirelessly working with the league to find a viable solution, one that didn’t put the NASL back into an expand-because-we-must conundrum. The solution, apparently, was a very Gulati one – one that harkened back to the 2010 provisional league U.S. Soccer ran at the second level.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Then, instead of throwing a decisive lightning bolt from the top of Chicago’s Soccer House, Gulati administered the tension between the USL and the breakaway NASL-to-be by having them compete in the same league, if only for one season. Over those next 12 months, the leagues sorted themselves out, with NASL claiming Division II while USL entered a regrouping stage in U.S. Soccer’s third tier.

Now, Gulati had brokered a similar solution. To deny NASL second-division sanctioning would kill a league, yet USL had gained enough strength to have its own claim to that sanction. The solution? Provisional status for both leagues, buying the landscape 12 months to sort itself out.

Sehgal, in the face of that solution, is grateful.

“Sunil Gulati spent a lot of time with our owners, coming to multiple meetings, adjusting his schedule,” Sehgal says, citing New Year’s Eve conference calls as an example of the U.S. Soccer president’s unending commitment. “He’s probably the hardest-working man in the sport …

“The commitment he’s made to this game is incredible. The effort he put into helping us work into our issues, incredible.”

"We had two teams leave. Traffic, the ongoing relationship there was a primary factor for them to leave. It was a difficult issue to solve, but we finally solved it. We’ll have no further relations with Traffic Sports"

- Rishi Sehgal

Whether the NASL would have gotten that same level of commitment before, when it was closely linked to the now federally-indicted Traffic Sports, is unlikely. But over the last year, the NASL has fully severed ties with the controversial Brazilian marketing agency, one which, at one time, owned multiple franchises within the league. The agency’s support was vital during the league’s first years. Traffic was also instrumental, through Traffic USA president Aaron Davidson, in moving the league away from the moderate approach of former commissioner David Downs to the more defiant stance of Peterson.

Under Downs, the NASL was closing in on a similar deal to what Major League Soccer struck with USL in January 2013, where MLS would place players in the league as part of a formal partnership. Shortly after the New York Cosmos declined to pay MLS’ expansion fee, joining NASL instead, Davidson broke off negotiations with MLS, with Downs leaving his post shortly after.

“We want to be more collaborative with everybody,” Sehgal says, citing the first of three pillars for the league moving forward.

NEXT: Taking a different path to sustainability