It’s 2019. The Trevor James era is dawning for Detroit City FC- though nobody knew it at the time, we were witnessing the birth of a club legend. All of DCFC’s nightmares around an MLS team arriving in 2017 had actually manifested in Chattanooga last year as the Red Wolves, a USL invasion that dismembered Chattanooga FC in its efforts at a full hostile takeover of that club. While the NPSL had engaged in talks with NISA for cooperation and to uplift its clubs, the events of 2018 seemed to indicate that they couldn’t simply afford to wait for them and hope that the devil wouldn’t be in the details. Its most prestigious clubs needed something more, whether for their own growth or to stave off cross-town competition in CFC’s case. The solution they arrived at was the NPSL Founder’s Cup, a fall addendum to the regular season that would serve as the ramp-up for a full season NPSL.
Or as the memes would have it: HELL YEAH, BROTHER! NPSL PROOOOO!
If NISA version zero’s core idea was to be the bridge that would enable promotion and relegation, NPSL Pro’s goal was to buck the US Soccer Federation’s Professional League Standards entirely. USSF demanded that owners have at least $10 million dollars in assets to even come to the table, regardless of whether a team could be sustained out of its own revenues. NPSL Pro sought to bypass this entirely by pursuing sanctioning through the US Amateur Soccer Association (USASA), which sanctioned NPSL to begin with. Even though USASA had amateur in its name, NPSL had always been a semi-pro league, with a very small salary cap of less than $2000 per player per season. So why not simply go through them and open up a league that allowed a mix of better-paid professionals and amateurs?
I was on board with this vision immediately. The nagging hole with NISA’s original vision of pro/rel had always been PLS. It doesn’t do you any good to win the NPSL title if you don’t have an owner that qualifies you to play in a division 3 league. And for that matter, what if you win division 3 but your owner still doesn’t have the net worth to qualify for division 2? We had to bypass the PLS entirely if we were going to make any of this work- and if we couldn’t do that, we had to minimize its impact.
There’s a tendency in the independent movement to see USSF’s shadow across every move. They watch and see all and actively work to undermine anything that isn’t MLS at every turn, turning the game to chaos to benefit their cash cow. Anything that’s reform-minded will be crushed as soon as a legal fiction can be crafted to destroy it. I’m not saying they’re good stewards of the game by any stretch, but I do think the independent movement often forgets that most businesses fail in the end, and that leagues are businesses made of a number of member businesses. Even if USSF cares about the small potatoes and petty cash of some semi-pro leagues, all they would have to do to kill most of them is get out of the way- and that’s exactly what happened to NPSL Pro.
The first problem was that while NPSL’s league office and most ambitious clubs were behind the project, the bulk of NPSL clubs were less enthusiastic. At its core, the NPSL was a summer league that mostly used NCAA talent to give them more playing time under FIFA rules. Its member clubs were comfortable in that niche. If a few clubs felt that they had outgrown it- or those clubs were the New York Cosmos and had always been too big for it- that was their problem, not the rest of the NPSL’s. Why should their resources be spent on this project they didn’t care for?
In the end, it was insurance that would kill the Founder’s Cup. Getting insurance to cover a mix of amateur and professional players proved untenable, as the main provider used for soccer stated that they couldn’t do it. This despite the fact that the same provider had no issues covering US Open Cup games- it seemed that a league was another matter entirely. The NPSL’s support in resolving this would prove half-hearted at best.
The Founder’s Cup schedule was unceremoniously taken down one day, then replaced with the Member’s Cup, a reduced competition with half the number of teams and a single table instead of two regions. In the end one individual would personally guarantee the league for any insurance and worker’s comp needed, which was the only reason the Member’s Cup was allowed to continue at all. Nonetheless, several clubs such as Miami FC would immediately move to NISA, seeing the writing on the wall for NPSL Pro’s ambitions. Filling out the roster after the departures was Michigan Stars FC, or “Sharta” as they were commonly known to NGS. This in and of itself made the move to the Member’s Cup offensive; MSFC was frequently referred to as a disease, one of the clubs we were most happy to leave behind and rot.
The Member’s Cup format was a single table with no playoffs. With only six teams, every game mattered in a tight race to the top. DCFC would beat the New York Cosmos away in an intense, tightly contested match, then defeat Michigan Stars away to clinch the title. The Trevor James era was here with our first piece of silverware, and the core of a roster that would take us to many more trophies. Of the six Member’s Cup teams, four would move to NISA in the Spring of 2020: DCFC, CFC, MSFC, and the Cosmos.
On a personal note, the Member’s Cup was the first time I interacted with any league personnel. The streaming service that NPSL was bringing in, MyCujoo (now Eleven Sports), had a notoriously difficult time keeping up with our streams, often hiccuping or falling over. I had taken it upon myself to experiment with different ways of improving the stream quality and even archiving the videos in case the site disappeared entirely. When NPSL’s Dennis Crowley publicly tweeted asking what problems people had with the service, I was tagged into the thread to discuss my issues with it. This began a more public set of disputes with MyCujoo as they experienced technical issues and blamed clubs for the glitches. It also helped kickstart my habit of getting into trouble with digital things around whatever league DCFC was in.
While City was winning the Member’s Cup, NISA was playing its first competition in the Fall Showcase. Next time, we’ll look at the dawn of NISA 1.0 and the first big sign of trouble: the Philadelphia Fury.
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