by Neil Morris
In a flurry of posts yesterday, Brian Quarstad of Inside Minnesota Soccer broke the news that the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Board of Directors voted Thursday to deny the sanctioning they had provisionally granted the North American Soccer League (NASL) last November to operate as a Division 2 soccer league this season.
In an online and e-mail response sent to the media late Friday, NASL vowed to continue seeking D-2 sanctioning, calling these latest events “a temporary setback.”
NASL has two main alternatives: To reapply for D-2 sanctioning or to operate as a Division 3 league.
The second option, to operate in the less restrictive, less prestigious third division seems to be off the table for NASL. According to the release, the league “will not pursue sanctioning as any other division under the USSF bylaws,” meaning sanctioning as a D-3 league.
Any final decision of sanctioning for this season would have take place at the USSF Annual General Meeting to be held in Las Vegas on Feb. 11—12.
Last August, the USSF approved a new set of heightened standards for D-2 pro leagues. On Friday, Neil Buethe, USSF’s Media Relations Director, told Quarstad that in the time since the Federation granted NASL provisional sanction, “There’s been significant changes in respect to NASL’s application.”
Although Buethe declined to get into specifics, he said that the “biggest hurdle was really some of the financial requirements” of the NASL clubs.
The most significant change in the NASL landscape since last November was the upheaval in ownership of the Carolina RailHawks. Last month, the team’s then-president Brian Wellman confirmed that the club’s “current owners just don’t want to be involved anymore.” He said that the new majority owner would likely be Traffic Sports USA, the American subsidiary of a Brazil-based sports management company.
On Dec. 31, majority owner Selby Wellman filed documents with the N.C. Sec. of State dissolving Triangle Professional Sports, L.L.C. and its subsidiary, Carolina RailHawks, L.L.C.
The dissolution of Triangle Pro. Sports, L.L.C. effectively dissolved the club’s lease with the Town of Cary for the use of WakeMed Soccer Park, according to Danny Hopkins, Director of Parks and Recreation for the town. As of Friday, however, the team continues to use the park facilities as its main office. The first game of the new league was scheduled to be at WakeMed on April 9, to be contested between the RailHawks and the Puerto Rico Islanders.
Triangle Offense has forwarded several requests for updated information to officials for the RailHawks and NASL that remain unanswered. A Jan. 13 e-mail from Hopkins to the town’s mayor and city council, which Triangle Offense obtained via a public information request, states that a press conference had been tentatively planned for Jan. 18 to announce the RailHawks’ new ownership group and front office staff. This press conference was never publicized to the media and did not take place.
However, Triangle Offense has learned from several sources that the sale of the Cary-based soccer team has taken place. As expected, Traffic is the club’s majority owner. Selby Wellman no longer owns a majority stake in the club. Triangle Offense could not confirm the status of minority owners Bob Young and Paul Singh.
Perhaps also of concern to USSF, Traffic commands a significant stake in three other NASL clubs, those in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta and Minnesota.
Sources also told Triangle Offense, prior to the latest developments, that the new owners have already moved to fill front office positions, including placing Curt Johnson, a veteran soccer professional, at the helm. Johnson played soccer at N.C. State before moving to a management career that included stints with the Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer Leagues and the Kansas City Wizards of MLS. After leaving Kansas City, he served in marketing positions with the Carolina Hurricanes and U.S. Club Soccer.
The future of the RailHawks name is also uncertain. In yesterday’s NASL e-mailed press release, all the league members are listed by city and nickname except one team, which is labeled only as “Carolina.”
Sources tell Triangle Offense that Selby Wellman is unwilling to allow transfer of the RailHawks trademark and naming rights as a part of the club’s sale. Although negotiations on this issue seem to be inconclusive, there is a very real chance the RailHawks brand will not continue even if the team and its league does.
Jarrett Campbell, founder of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, the local independent supporters club, won a contest to name the team when the franchise was formed. Before Friday's developments, he told Triangle Offense that he would be disappointed, but not heartbroken, if the name is altered. “I will still have ‘RailHawk’ as my license plate on my car, but the name is not as important at the experience of getting to go out to the soccer park on the weekend and enjoy the game, whether that’s FC Cary or whatever they want to call it.”
Speaking earlier this week, Hopkins said that he looks forward to working with new owners on a new lease agreement for the use of WakeMed Soccer Park.
“We really do enjoy the RailHawks and if there’s going to be a continuation of having them here, within reason and resources, the town is interested in talking to them,” he said, adding that he anticipates holding serious negotiations with the new owners in the near future. “We think it’s good for the community. It’s good for economic impact and it’s just a wonderful experience [watching] RailHawks games.”
Whether there will be any games at all—RailHawks or otherwise—remains in serious question in light of this week’s events.