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

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
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Growth and restraint are also goals, at least in the short term, but the idea of a more modest NASL, one that sees MLS and USL as partners in the U.S. Soccer landscape, is something that would have never been authorized under Peterson. The recently-departed boss didn’t even like it when NASL teams acknowledged players who’d moved on to Major League Soccer.

“All soccer stakeholders, we play the same game,” says Sehgal, whose first live game was the famous United States-Switzerland meeting at the 1994 World Cup, when Eric Wynalda’s free kick won a point for the hosts. “Let’s work together. Let’s stop fighting, take the drama from the boardrooms, and let’s put it on the field.”

"If we keep working, if we focus on the issues we can control, then we can get through this. I don’t view it as us being through it. We have a lot of work to do to live up to the promise we want to make - that we have made. And we will do it.""

- Rishi Sehgal

They’re the right words. In the post-Traffic era, they may be the only words that can move the league forward. If Gulati bent over backward to help the league survive, the NASL is going to have to play nice within the landscape. The league only has provisional status, after all, and among the various obstacles the league must traverse before next year’s sanctioning process, the league must also maintain the right pose. There’s no point of granting the NASL a waiver for Division II status if it will just go back to its old ways.

That’s where the Sehgal is particularly interesting, at least symbolically. The interim commissioner has been a part of the NASL ever since its ownership groups broke away from the USL in 2009. Historically, he has close ties with Davidson and Traffic, and in his role leading the league’s business and legal affairs, he’s been on the other end of phone calls enforcing the league’s dogmatic, sometimes aggressive decisions.

He was, to speak to those within the league, an effective soldier for the regime, but now, he’s leading from the front. And he’s having to strike a different tone.

“I don’t understand so much of the negativity around the game in this country. I really don’t,” he says. “I’m really hoping we can change that. I’ll tell you, from our perspective and the owners’ perspectives, they want to change it. That’s part of the mission. We want to be collaborative.”

And, they want to survive. That means expansion, perhaps drastic expansion in 2018. That means finding an owner for the currently league-run Jacksonville Armada and hoping the other existing ownership groups stay on board. It means hoping the league’s new team in San Francisco is a success, and it means finding the right person to assume Sehgal's current role. And, perhaps most importantly, it means continuing to work with U.S. Soccer to make sure the league has the time it needs to grow.

If the NASL can do those things, there’s nothing standing in the way of pursuing its vision: A different option for U.S. soccer. The NASL still firmly believes in a club-owned league – it’s main distinction from USL. The league also believes a more free-market system, like we see elsewhere in the soccer world, has a place in the U.S. landscape, albeit in moderation.

“Our owners have recognized, we need to take some measures to not be so free market,” Sehgal says. “We need some controls. We need to have a sustainable model. Being free market can work if the market forces are perfect in a developed market situation. But in the early stages, you need some controls to adjust for market forces that can skew too heavily in one way or the other.”

Ultimately, it is the owners’ vision that will dictate whether the league succeeds or, again, fails. And whereas in the past those owners elected to hitch their hopes to Peterson, the Cosmos’ brand, and a vision that was too ambitious for the league’s foundations, teams like North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven are the model. Now, the NASL is willing to build.

“Our owners wouldn’t be involved if they didn’t have a deep passion for the game,” Sehgal says. “These are people that realize that although they’re investing in business and starting them up, they’re also caretakers. They very much know that they are also the caretaker of a startup. And they’re doing a tremendous job to build it from the ground up.”

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.