by Neil Morris
Today was a flurry of activity in the ongoing dispute between USL Soccer and the breakaway Team Owners Association (TOA), which includes the Carolina Railhawks. First came a potentially game-changing press release from the TOA announcing the addition of two franchises to their nascent, still-unsanctioned league. USL-1 newcomer Tampa Bay Rowdies, a charter TOA member who remained slated to make their USL-1 debut next season, and USL-2's Baltimore side Crystal Palace FC both declared their membership in the still unnamed league. This increases declared TOA membership to nine teams. It was less than a month ago that USL trumpeted the attendance of both clubs' ownership groups at a USL organizational soiree in Beaverton, Oregon as part of the future of USL. "There is a change in the air," USL CEO Alec Papadakis declared at the time. Indeed.
Later, the website USL News (not affiliated with the USL soccer league) broke the news that last Monday, Miami FC, a TOA breakaway team, filed claims with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on behalf of North American Soccer League, LLC. Of course, NASL is an iconic name in the annals of American soccer as the professional league that operated from 1968-1984 and featured such aging superstars as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. This could very well forecast the name of the breakaway league, which the TOA says they will formally announce next week.
Then, late today, USL released their own foreboding statement regarding the Tampa and Baltimore defections. USL asserted the two teams' contractual obligation to participate in the 2010 USL-1 season, and it not only promised to pursue breach of contract claims against the two squads, but, more ominously, accused the TOA of participating in "tortuous interference" with USL's contractual relationship with its member teams. It bears mentioning that Papadakis is a franchise attorney, and with USL-1 rapidly losing the public relations and recruiting battle with a still-nonexistent league, legal haranguing remains one of the few (and perhaps effective) arrows they have left in their quiver.
With that in mind, soccer journalist Kartik Krishnaiyer posits that Tampa - who has already paid a $750,000 franchise fee to play in USL-1 next season - may be pledging support for the TOA in order to raise their member squads above an 8-team minimum required for approval by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), who is said to be meeting this weekend to consider the TOA's application for sanction as Division II Men's Outdoor Professional League. As with everything in this ongoing saga, stay tuned.
Below is today's TOA press release:
TAMPA, BALTIMORE TO JOIN NEW PROFESSIONAL SOCCER LEAGUE
Expansion brings new league to nine teams
Nov. 20, 2009 - The Tampa Bay Rowdies<http://www.tbrowdies.com/> and Crystal Palace Baltimore<http://www.crystalpalaceusa.com/> have joined the new professional soccer league announced last week, beginning play in the United States and Canada in April 2010.
The addition of Tampa Bay and Baltimore brings the new league to nine teams, as they join the owners of the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder, Montreal Impact, St. Louis Soccer United and Vancouver Whitecaps.
A name for the new league will be announced next week. The new league is also active in its search for a full-time commissioner and will introduce an extensive marketing campaign in the coming months.
"Tampa and Baltimore joining our efforts is a testament to our game plan, our current ownership strength and our promise for the future. The ownership groups of both teams share our vision for soccer in North America and we are thrilled to welcome them to our new league," said Joey Saputo, Chairman of the Board of Governors and President of the Montreal Impact.
"As we start a new team and build a strong franchise in Tampa, it's important that our group of team owners learn from past mistakes in North American soccer and focus on building a strong league, as well," said Andrew Nestor, owner and president of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. "With this new team-owned and controlled league which consists of some of the most established teams in North American soccer, we are excited about our team and collective future."
"Crystal Palace Baltimore is pleased and honored to join and be a part of what we see as the future of North American soccer. We are particularly excited about the structure of a team-controlled and owned league, especially when you look at the quality of owners that we have in this league and the impressive history of the clubs," said Pete Medd, co-owner of Crystal Palace Baltimore. "We are proud to be one of the founding members and believe it's the right league at the right time for us and for soccer in North America."