USL facing determined challenge from team owners - The Ottawa Citizen


BY RICHARD STARNES

The battle over professional soccer in North America is under way, and it's likely to get messy before it's over.

This week, the Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps and four other United Soccer Leagues First Division teams -- along with St. Louis -- revealed they are preparing to quit the league, which is basically the North American Second Division behind Major League Soccer.

The Team Owners' Association (TOA) intends to form a league of its own, and applied this week to the U.S. Soccer Federation for sanctioning. The USL was quick to shoot back. It spoke of "misrepresentation, interference with USF business operations and substantial debt amongst the membership of the parties applying for certification."

So real trouble could begin next weekend when the soccer federation meets in Seattle while the USL holds its AGM in Tampa, Florida.

On one side of the continent, the new league will be sanctioned and, on the other, the USL will be preparing itself for a survival battle.

Here in Ottawa, Jeff Hunt and his Lansdowne Live chums are lucky enough to be watching "a fascinating story" unfold from a relaxed seat. They have a USL franchise in their back pocket once they find somewhere to play. So they don't have to decide anything right now.

"In six months, we may have to decide which group to align ourselves with," he says. Hunt is being sensibly cagey while he waits, refusing to take sides. Both the USL and the TOA are his allies until he needs to make a choice.

Down the road in his Glebe office, Ottawa Fury owner John Pugh says he's more concerned about getting a stadium at Lansdowne Park than he is about how the USL situation turns out.

The club he built is an integral part of the youth and women's wings of the USL. He has teams in all the junior boys and girls age groups run by the league, and his women's team is always among the best. In fact, five Fury teams play will play in league finals in Tampa and the women's team is being inducted into the USL Hall of Fame next weekend.

With such a close connection, isn't he a little worried? Not at all.

"This will have no impact on junior USL programs," he says. "What's more, there is no indication any teams are contemplating quitting the W-League."

Meanwhile, in Montreal, Impact owner and the TOA's first chairman, Joey Saputo, admits it was a tough decision to break away. His team has been a major player in the league for years. Ironically, it won the league championship last month by beating breakaway cohort Vancouver in the final.

Vancouver goes to the MLS in 2011 and Montreal almost certainly in 2012.

"We could easily have said, 'Why not stay?'" Saputo says. "One year or two years more, what's the difference?"

But in the USL, club owners have no ownership stake, no significant say in how things are run and, for them, that cannot go on.

"It's important to understand we've been investing in the development of the game and, yes, we would like a say in the direction we go in," he told me Friday. "Investments made into the league should be revenue that come back to the ownership group. You see it in all sports -- the NHL, the NBA, the NFL. But we have no share of revenue, franchise revenue, sponsorship sales."

That's a strange way to run a professional league.

Saputo and Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi are strong advocates for the development of the game in Canada and, by extension, the U.S. They want to grow teams and standards that "play a role in helping soccer truly recognize its potential," says Saputo.

That could include twinning with teams in Europe, creating alliances so TOA players can continue to develop by playing in the North American offseason.

It could mean encouraging part-ownership stakes in a team by a European club, maybe in England -- as Stoke City does with the Austin Astics -- or Italy.

This ambitious outlook takes a large sack of cash. So where does it come from?

"All the team owners are actually investing money," Saputo says. "They are putting in $4.5 million to promote the league and to establish a league office."

The Impact owner knows a competing league applying for a sanction could be decidedly disruptive to the game and he says the door remains open "to sit down with the USL to work things out."

But it is pretty clear there is virtually no common ground. Saputo tells me that, since the news broke, TOA has had calls from a variety of potential TOA cities, some already in the USL and some not.

My crystal ball suggests that, when the clouds lift, there will still be one league, but, most probably, it will be called the TOA, not the USL.

Richard Starnes' Beautiful Game column appears Saturdays.

rstarnes@thecitizen.canwest.com

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen