Dispatches from the NASL offensive …

On the heels of Monday’s Commisso-palooza, NASL interim commissioner for life Rishi Sehgal presented a more palatable take on the issues, speaking with Nipun Chopra at SocTakes

Sehgal is not Commisso. He doesn’t have the Trump-style tendency to laud himself in easily refuted terms (e.g., “I’m the only investor in this country who played soccer”). He actually listens when people point out evidence that contradicts his claims. Where Commisso apparently buys whole-hog into the Twitter-troll conspiracy theories that MLS is conspiring with the NFL to limit soccer’s growth in this country, Sehgal gives credit where credit is due. (He says, “Nobody is trying to take away the great things MLS has done,” which isn’t literally true but shows some willingness to work with existing parties.) In short: You can have a reasonable conversation with Sehgal.

And his interview doesn’t have anything I’ve flagged as outright wrong. That’s good. I hate to think that’s the bar we’ve set in sports and sociopolitical discourse in general these days, but that’s a start.

But for the benefit of soccer newbies, including those who are looking to invest (attention, Chattanooga summit participants), let’s put a few things in proper context. Just as Ranting Soccer Dad intends to give soccer parents the information they need to make good decisions about their kids, this space can be used to give soccer investors the information they need to make good decisions with their money — especially when all soccer fans have a stake in seeing things done wisely.

Going through the Sehgal interview …

(T)he end game is to help the NASL and to bring the NASL back to the pitch in 2019. So the investment of $250 million of his own money, and then lead a fundraising effort to raise another $250 million which will be used to support the NASL.

You can make a compelling argument that we as the U.S. soccer community need to preserve and enhance multiple divisions in U.S. pro soccer. (Or we could have 300 pro clubs, all in one division, and decide the champion with an NCAA-style tournament, but that’s another rant.) It’s much more difficult to make a compelling argument that we need to preserve the NASL, a brand name that has never made sense for what 21st century NASL owners have tried to accomplish — even as that group of owners cycled in and out rather quickly.

First, go back and re-read the timeline of the neo-NASL. You can also get another take from former NASL employee Kartik Krishnaiyer. It’ll take time, but I promise it’s worth it. And it’s necessary, if you really want to understand the issues here.

Then ask yourself — why preserve this brand? Why not merge with the NPSL to form a new league structure within which it’ll be easy to do promotion/relegation? Why not work with Peter Wilt’s NISA?

Honestly, the NASL’s intention of building a pro/rel pyramid has often come across as an insincere play to the Twitterati. Just see the hostility that broke out when the NPSL suggested joining forces with the NASL in 2015. And today’s NASL apologists are telling me Commisso’s literally unbelievable suggestion to have pro/rel “no later than the 2020 season” was just a suggestion.

Indeed, that suggestion comes after a list of five bullet points in the letter that sound pretty much like the reform ideas of 6-7 presidential candidates in this year’s USSF election. Aside from an anti-poaching clause that surely wouldn’t survive the slightest legal challenge, they’re somewhat reasonable. It’s just that (A) other people have made the same points and (B) they’re not at all relevant to what Commisso is seeking (10 years to build the NASL without pesky standards in the way).

(Actually, hold up a second. He’s not seeking 10 years to build the NASL. He’s seeking 10 more years on top of the work that’s been done since the Big Split in 2009. Commisso’s account of the USSF-NASL dispute tends to start when Commisso bought the Cosmos less than 16 months ago, but the league has been striving for stability for a long time.)

So on that note, let’s look at another of Sehgal’s statements …

I understand that sometimes people have problems with the way certain people speak. I get that. But pay attention to the message.

Part of the message, again, is general “change” ideology that isn’t unique. Other parts of the message are NFL conspiracy talk, which also isn’t unique (or worth hearing). Or pro/rel, a banner that others (say, Wilt) have made a better case for carrying.

That really leaves the message that the NASL — the brand name — is worth saving. See above.

Sehgal himself actually has more of a message. I’m curious to hear more about modular stadiums. I’m skeptical — if cheap stadiums were such a great thing, the Crew wouldn’t be in danger of moving, and you still have to find suitable land to hold a full-sized field and 20,000 seats (or more, given the conspiracy talk I recently saw suggesting MLS was limiting soccer in this country by building small stadiums). I suppose the cost of converting the Maryland SoccerPlex’s main field to a 20,000-seater would be in the low eight figures at worst, but the neighborhood folks would never let you do it, and you’d be stuck in traffic for eons. All that said, I’d like to hear the advantages of this.

Back to Sehgal …

I read the Twitter (laughs), and I see the nonsense out there and much of it is a waste. A lot of people calling this or MP Silva’s previous offer a publicity stunt — that’s nonsense.

Hi, Rishi, thanks for reading. Good to see you in Orlando. Please hit me up to give me more detail on modular stadiums.

But the definitive word on the Silva offer was written not by me or anyone else on Twitter but by Graham Parker, who also wrote about the Commisso offer Monday. (Coincidentally, Parker was writing for the same two publications that are my current freelance clients these days.)

Here’s Parker on the Silva offer:

That assumes this is a good-faith offer in the first place. The timing, outlandish scale and key contingencies of the offer seem more a shot across the bow than genuine desire to work together. …

The dissonance between the proposed scale and the current reality is key here. Glancing from the number $4 billion to the current realities of the NASL puts me in mind of looking at the Photoshop renderings of the New York Cosmos proposed stadium at Belmont while sitting in the cramped press box at Hofstra Stadium. It’s neither an insult to the Cosmos nor a failure of imagination to find it impossible to visualize a path between the suburban, college-astroturfed reality and the gleaming pixelated spaceship being proposed.

(Also noteworthy on the Silva offer — it’s funny that so many people who have a problem with Soccer United Marketing would see nothing wrong with the marketing rights to Major League Soccer being in the hands of one club owner who would want his club to be in the mix. That’s not a conflict of interest? Also — note that Silva’s company handles NFL rights in Europe, which will make the conspiracy theorists’ heads spin. And in that same paragraph, the second-to-last of Parker’s piece, you’ll notice MLS made some international breakthroughs after Silva’s tenure as its international-rights broker ended, something you can also read in Sports Business Daily.)

Here’s Parker on Commisso’s offer:

Like fellow NASL owner Riccardo Silva’s offer of $4bn to MLS provided they adopt a model of promotion and relegation, this tactic could feel like an offer made to be refused. This latest sum targeting NASL is more modest, but just as pointed a symbolic challenge to the existing ecology of soccer in the US. In his latest letter, Commisso cites Anschutz, Hunt and Kraft and claims that “All I am asking is that USSF afford me the same opportunity to help my league grow.”

But his price for investing would come at the cost of Cordeiro acknowledging and addressing what Commisso sees as the wrongful nature of the current structural and financial relationship between US Soccer and MLS – something Commisso must know there is little political will to do from the current regime. So he’s left with his law suits and to paint a public picture of what he thinks could be, in the hope that one or both forces a concession.

So I think the notion that these offers are more about PR than practicality is more than the mere ranting of people on Twitter who haven’t done the heavy lifting on the reporting end.

In this case, I haven’t done the heavy lifting of Parker or Brian Straus, the hardest-working man in soccer media. But this reminds me of a story in which I did the heavy lifting for months. It was another story of a man with a big ego, passion and a lot of money.

Dan Borislow.

Borislow didn’t kill Women’s Professional Soccer, which was teetering on the brink before he got involved. But it’s difficult to imagine, even with benefit of hindsight, how it could’ve survived with him. As with Commisso, it wasn’t just the tone of what he said. It was what he said itself. It was a refusal to work with those in authority, much less abide by their decision.

I’d like to think Commisso is as complex a man as Borislow was. As you can tell from my remembrance, I was ultimately glad that I got to know Borislow, even though part of my job (and I was actually getting paid for this — thanks, ESPN) was to fact-check his accusations. I’ve gotten to know his brother over the years as well, and I always appreciate his take from the grassroots of youth soccer.

Let’s give Commisso the benefit of the doubt here. Let’s say, with the help of Sehgal and some of the others who are keeping the NASL and the Cosmos afloat, we can find a role for him and his money.

Here’s an idea …

Put it in the NPSL. (He can’t buy the NPSL because team owners have equal shares, but perhaps he could put it into seed money for a fully professional top division.)

Again, an NASL-NPSL merger might not be as simple as it sounds, even though Cosmos VP Joe Barone is also the chairman of the NPSL board and VP of the NPSL’s Brooklyn Italians. (And even though all MLS franchise-owned USL teams are ineligible for the Open Cup, no one complains when Cosmos B faces Brooklyn. Go figure.)

But imagine what could be gained here. The NPSL, which already has dozens of teams, could build up into the pro ranks. We could get a clear sign that something new is being built rather than propping up the remains of the twice-failed NASL.

My sense so far, unfortunately, is that Commisso may be quite interested in talking but not so interested in listening. And those conversations never amount to much.


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