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US Soccer Antitrust Battle Heads to Jury Trial

 |  June 16, 2024

The longstanding antitrust battle at the pinnacle of U.S. soccer is set for a jury trial this September, a pivotal event that could transform professional soccer in the United States and Canada.

The case pits the North American Soccer League (NASL) against U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer (MLS). The NASL, which operated between 2011 and 2017, accuses U.S. Soccer and MLS of illegally conspiring to prevent it from competing on an equal footing with MLS.

On Wednesday, a judge in the Eastern District of New York denied summary judgment motions in the seven-year-old case, allowing it to proceed to trial. The lawsuit centers around U.S. Soccer’s standards for sanctioning Division I, II, and III professional soccer leagues and how these standards have been applied over the years.

U.S. Soccer’s criteria for sanctioning include factors such as minimum stadium seating capacity and the minimum number of teams. Sanctioning is vital for a league’s credibility with fans, sports broadcasters, and sponsors. It also allows leagues to charge higher entry fees for expansion teams and attract superior talent. For players, being part of a sanctioned league is crucial for eligibility to play on the U.S. National Teams and in FIFA-sanctioned events.

The NASL argues that U.S. Soccer and MLS colluded to exclude it from becoming a competitor to MLS. Founded in 2009 by teams that broke away from the United Soccer League (USL), a minor league affiliated with MLS, the NASL aimed to establish itself as a viable alternative to MLS. Although U.S. Soccer recognized NASL as a Division II league, it denied NASL’s bid for Division I status. Furthermore, when NASL applied for Division II status for 2018, U.S. Soccer instead granted that recognition to USL, leading NASL to suspend operations.

NASL contends that U.S. Soccer applied its sanctioning standards inconsistently, favoring MLS while disadvantaging NASL. For instance, U.S. Soccer’s Division I standards require that a team’s home stadium have a seating capacity of at least 15,000. While some MLS stadiums did not meet this requirement, U.S. Soccer granted MLS waivers as new stadiums were built. Conversely, NASL’s requests for waivers were denied, and the league claims it was scrutinized more rigorously.
Source: Sportico