U.S. Soccer faces suit from Relevent Sports over planned match in Miami

Multimedia sports and entertainment company Relevent, a promoter of international soccer matches, has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation and its secretary general, Dan Flynn, after the USSF refused to sanction the playing of an Ecuadorian league match in Miami.

According to the filing, Relevent was attempting to stage a match between Ecuadorian sides Barcelona SC and Guayaquil City FC, to be held May 5 at Miami's Hard Rock Stadium. As the national governing body for soccer, the USSF is charged with sanctioning all applications for international soccer matches held in the U.S.

The suit alleges that the USSF's decision to deny permission for the match violated its stated purpose "to promote, govern, coordinate, and administer the growth and development of soccer in all its recognized forms in the United States for all persons of all ages and abilities, including national teams and international games and tournaments" and that the USSF is required to sanction a match unless "the Federation decides by clear and convincing evidence that staging the match would be detrimental to the sport of soccer."

The suit goes on to contend the reason for the USSF's decision is that it "is economically conflicted and is abusing its authority, in order to protect Major League Soccer ["MLS"], a for-profit entity with which USSF has extremely close financial and personal ties."

Relevent competes against MLS' marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), to promote soccer matches in the U.S, and it is in this area that the suit could have a broader impact.

The lawsuit, which was filed in New York, seeks to have the USSF's decision annulled and vacated, and asks the USSF to sanction the match as well as not denying any future applications made by Relevent without lawful reasons.

The lawsuit is one of several the USSF is facing, including a gender discrimination filing by the U.S. women's national team players, as well as an antitrust lawsuit filed by the NASL.

The USSF and a Relevent spokesman declined to comment when contacted by ESPN FC.

Relevent first applied to have the match sanctioned on March 29, 2019. Documents obtained by ESPN FC showed that Relevent applied for and received approval to put on the match from LigaPro Ecuador -- the league in which both Barcelona and Guayaquil play -- the Ecuador Football Association, and CONMEBOL, the governing body for the sport in South America.

A source familiar with the suit said CONCACAF approval wasn't needed and the only required approval that remained to be obtained was from the USSF.

On April 5, 2019, Relevent submitted its application fee and performance bond totaling $9,700. The USSF initially said Relevent's application was incomplete, on the grounds that Relevent chairman Charlie Stillitano, who was referenced as the FIFA match agent for the event, wasn't listed on FIFA's website as being eligible to fulfill that role. It was alleged that Stillitano's match agent insurance was in the process of being renewed.

Relevent, with the help of FIFA, soon provided documentation that Stillitano was indeed eligible to serve as the event's match agent, but the USSF wasn't satisfied. On April 12, the USSF wrote a letter to Relevent stating that until Stillitano's name appeared on FIFA's website, the issue would remain unresolved.

The suit also alleges that the USSF, in the same letter, referenced "the absence of 'exceptional circumstances'" from Relevent's application and that the USSF "threatened to penalize Relevent if it were to advertise the Match without formal USSF sanction, with penalties including fines, withholding of approval of matches, and 'any other penalty or combination of penalties that the Federation deems appropriate in its sole discretion.'"

The suit goes on to detail how the economic interests of the USSF and MLS are intertwined, with MLS commissioner Don Garber and Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra both sitting on the USSF board. It also highlights the fact that the league's marketing arm, SUM, has a contract to control the USSF's commercial rights.

"In refusing to sanction Relevent's application, USSF has thus elevated the economic interest of a select group of its members over its statutorily mandated purpose," the suit reads. "The decision is as arbitrary [it cannot be supported by a rational factual basis] as it is capricious [it represents a willful disservice to American soccer in the name of profit]. It is also [sic] represents a failure to perform a duty enjoined on it by law. USSF's decision to ignore or deny Relevent's application must be annulled, and the Match must be allowed to proceed."

This isn't the first time that Relevent and the USSF have been at odds over the staging of international matches on U.S. soil. After fan violence forced the postponement of the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final between River Plate and Boca Juniors last year, Relevent offered to stage the game in Miami, but was rebuffed by the USSF and its president, Carlos Cordeiro. The match was eventually held in Madrid.

Relevent also tried to schedule a La Liga match involving Girona and Spanish giants Barcelona, only for the Royal Spanish Football Federation to refuse to sanction the event.

This is also not the first time that a Stillitano-led company has been involved in litigation with the USSF. Back in 2006, Stillitano's previous company, ChampionsWorld LLC, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the USSF, alleging that the Federation and MLS conspired to drive the company out of business. In 2012, the case was decided in favor of the USSF, before the ruling was appealed and the two sides eventually settled.