U.S. Soccer must face trial over MLS, NASL competition

The antitrust lawsuit filed by the North American Soccer League against the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS can go to trial after a federal judge denied one of the motions for summary judgement filed by the USSF and MLS.

The NASL, the second iteration of a league to use that name, operated from 2011-17, and eventually ceased operations after losing its designation as a Division 2 league from the USSF in September of 2017. The NASL filed its antitrust lawsuit shortly after the USSF's decision.

"It has been seven long years of litigation and the NASL is delighted to finally get its day in court against MLS and USSF," said Jeffrey Kessler, the lead attorney for the NASL, in an email to ESPN.

Neither the U.S. Soccer Federation nor MLS responded to a request for comment. The trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 9.

The NASL's original complaint alleges that the USSF has violated federal antitrust laws through its anticompetitive "Division" structure that divides men's professional soccer for U.S.-based leagues based on what an NASL news release described as "arbitrary criteria that the USSF has manipulated to favor Major League Soccer (MLS), which is the commercial business partner of the USSF."

The division structure, via the application of the USSF's Professional League Standards (PLS), is intended to provide a set of minimum requirements for a league, including number of teams, geographic distribution of teams, market size of a team's city, stadium capacity, as well as the minimum financial requirements for team owners.

The complaint alleges that the USSF selectively applied and waived the PLS criteria to suppress competition from the NASL, and benefit MLS and the United Soccer League (USL).

The USSF granted the NASL provisional Division 2 status for the 2017 season, but in September of that year, the USSF announced it had denied the NASL's application to be sanctioned as a Division 2 league due to the fact that it could not guarantee that it would field at least eight teams in 2018.

MLS is the only Division 1 league to be sanctioned by U.S Soccer. NASL was founded in 2009 as a Division 1 hopeful, but its request was denied in 2016.

Both sides had filed motions for summary judgement, but in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Judge Brian M. Cogan dismissed the motions from the NASL because there were enough questions of fact that a trial was necessary.

As for the motions filed by the USSF and MLS, Cogan granted one of the motions, which challenged the NASL's assertion that the mere existence of the PLS violated antitrust law.

That part of the case can no longer be litigated. But the second motion put forward by the USSF and MLS, which challenged the NASL's assertion that both the USSF and MLS used the PLS to put the NASL out of business was denied due to competing evidence.

"Because the parties' competing evidence has created issues of material fact at every phase of the rule of reason analysis, the issue of whether the [PLS's] enforcement unlawfully restrains trade...will proceed to trial," Cogan said in his ruling.