U.S. Soccer denies NASL Division 2 status for 2018

The U.S. Soccer Federation has denied the North American Soccer League Division 2 status for 2018, a move that threatens the league's future.

The current NASL started play in 2011 with second-tier status. But in January of this year, the USSF raised the United Soccer League from the third tier to the second and gave both the NASL and USL provisional Division 2 status for 2017.

At the time, the USSF said neither league met all its standards. Those standards dictate the minimum requirements needed to operate at each level, and include the number of teams, the geographic distribution of the teams, and size of the markets for the teams involved, as well as the minimum financial requirements of team owners.

The requirements for Division II call for 12 teams, but the NASL lost four clubs after its 2016 fall season and though it is playing this year with eight, two more have been announced for 2018 in San Diego and Orange County, California. U.S. Soccer has granted numerous waivers to the NASL to meet requirements in the past.

In 2015, NASL protested the guidelines, claiming they violate antitrust laws, though it ultimately decided not to pursue a legal solution. The NASL said they were made to ensure Major League Soccer is the only Division I league in the U.S., hindering its ability to compete.

The league said in a statement on Tuesday it "does not believe that the federation acted in the best interest of the sport," contending the decision harms many stakeholders in soccer -- fans, players, coaches, referees, business partners and the "NASL club owners who have invested tens of millions of dollars promoting the sport."

"The decision also jeopardizes the thousands of jobs created by the NASL and its member clubs," the league said.

The league also took a shot at the U.S. national team, which lost a World Cup qualifier to Costa Rica, saying "the last several days have seen some unfortunate results for U.S. Soccer, both on and off the pitch."

The league faced the possibility of closing its doors last year before its flagship team, the New York Cosmos, found new ownership. Rocco B. Commisso's purchase of the Cosmos was reportedly contingent on the NASL keeping its place in Division II, a status which has now been revoked less than a year later.

NASL's strategy to exist as an alternative to Major League Soccer has also been hampered by the Division 1 league's plans to expand.

Minnesota United left the NASL to move up to MLS after last season, following a similar move by the Montreal Impact in 2011.

Facing new competition in new MLS club Atlanta United, the Atlanta Silverbacks dropped down to the NPSL in the unofficial fourth tier. Miami FC could be in similar situation if David Beckham's group is given a rival MLS team in Miami as expected.

The Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Ottawa Fury both jumped ship to the rival second-tier USL, which enjoys a closer relationship with MLS. Of the 30 USL clubs, 10 are owned by MLS teams and 12 more have affiliations.

In addition, NASL club North Carolina FC has actively been pursuing an MLS expansion slot, two of which are expected to be announced this year. Tampa Bay is also seeking an MLS slot.

In response to the sanctioning decision, NCFC released a statement saying it "remains fully committed to playing at the highest level possible in 2018 and beyond."

In recent months, Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva has pushed MLS to adopt a system of promotion and relegation, an idea that the league has described as a non-starter.

In December, MLS commissioner Don Garber said his league was not responsible for the NASL's financial issues.

Aaron Davidson was the NASL board chairman and president of Traffic Sports USA, an NASL investor, before he was indicted in May 2015 as part of the U.S. Justice Department's investigation into soccer corruption. He pleaded guilty last year to federal racketeering conspiracy and wire-fraud conspiracy charges.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.