It’s 2017. Detroit City FC is in its second year at Keyworth Stadium, playing in the amateur ranks of the NPSL, which was informally considered a division 4 league. DCFC has been growing consistently, and is currently using that growth to pay back the crowdfunded investment campaign that enabled the stadium move. The club isn’t ready to go professional quite yet- the club was founded by five regular dudes who met playing beer league soccer in the city. Without a rich owner who wants to pump money in, City has to live within its own revenues, and the stadium deal will take a little longer to pay off.

Staying in the amateur leagues isn’t a realistic option forever, though. Detroit is too large of a market to be ignored by the professional leagues forever- leagues who are willing to bet that a slick stadium deal and a well-paid squad would lure the City faithful away. Years of MLS bid rumors have reached their apex, with stadium renderings that used images of NGS and our supporters to prop up the fantasy that if the city spent money to hand over land to the league, that a soccer-specific stadium would arrive.

The professional league closest to DCFC’s values is the North American Soccer League, or NASL. A division 2 league that gave more independence to its clubs and promised that if given a chance, it would eventually institute promotion and relegation, the holy grail for soccer reformers. Thanks to the US Soccer Federation’s (USSF) Professional League Standards (PLS), however, the NASL is not currently an option. The PLS mandates that owners must have a minimum of 8 figures of net worth to operate a professional team- even more in division 2. Beyond this, the NASL is infamously unstable, and many fear that moving into it at the wrong time might materially damage the club even if the money was good.

The other option was the USL. In 2017, USL was merged with the MLS Reserve League, being seen as the junior partner in a cartel seeking to franchise all of the country’s soccer into a set of closed systems. It was considered just as toxic as MLS to most, but without the benefit of being the big league that many outside NGS thought that Detroit deserved. Nobody was seriously considering it as their first option.

It was into this confusing mess that the original iteration of NISA was launched. If NPSL was the independent division 4 league, and NASL was the independent division 2 league, NISA sought to be the division 3 bridge. NISA intended to give team owners more control than USL did, and excited supporters with the promise of promotion and relegation plans. Once NISA reached 24 teams, the goal was to partner with the NASL as its promotion partner to elevate its winner into division 2.

Division 3 was hoped to be the sweet spot for more investors than the NASL’s comparatively high costs. Teams would have a chance to build their fanbases and operations out in NISA, win the league, then be ready for the higher level of play in NASL. The NPSL was also mentioned as a possible partner for promotion and relegation, although how this would actually work was never settled. Because of the above-mentioned PLS issues, many NPSL teams would not have been allowed to play in a division 3 league without reforms.

This immediately set the independent soccer world ablaze, especially in Detroit. For one thing, it was being headed up by Peter Wilt, a serial founder of clubs who had a reputation for successfully engaging fanbases for his new teams and then moving on to the next project. For another, Club 9 Sports was pitched as helping teams get investors, comply with PLS, and qualify to play professionally. The speculation took off. It seemed obvious that DCFC was a prime choice for this setup, as well as other clubs such as Chattanooga FC or New Orleans Jesters. The club seemed to have obviously outgrown the NPSL in size and dignity, and everyone was salivating at the chance to move up.

I call this iteration of NISA “version zero”. It was announced and died without ever kicking a ball. One can recognize the origins of the actual NISA’s vision in here, but the organization and details were very different from what would eventually play.

You won’t find a single mention of territory rights in version zero’s launch, whether in favor or against. In fact, there were plans for an explicit cap of 24 teams that could ever exist in NISA itself. Sure, clubs would promote into NASL once that happened- but what about when NASL filled up? This scarcity was far from an accident- it was a feature designed to increase the value of NISA teams. Once it filled up, you could only get in by promotion, relegation, or buying an existing team. At the time, this wasn’t really remarked on- most supporters probably would have felt that having that many teams in this system would be a nice problem to have.

Version zero was to be supported by a three-legged league office. At the core, Rebel Nest was headed up by Jack Cummins and Peter Wilt. Level 7 Interactive and Club 9 Sports were also on-board as consultants to assist with marketing and raising money. (Followers of NISA will recognize Club 9 and the Prutch family as the main showrunners of the league; at the time, they stated that it would have been a conflict of interest to lead the league themselves.) The league would be majority owned by the member clubs, who would have total control over the league’s governance. Working together, the hope was for a stronger league office than NASL had, providing more services to member clubs in the vein of USL without diverting large amounts of money to league owners who would offer less in return.

For a brief moment, the door to reform and professionalism seemed open. Then tragedy struck, upending all of version zero’s plans. First, the NASL was denied sanctioning for its 2018 seasoning. After years of playing in division 2 on waivers, USSF stripped them of sanctioning for having too few teams to qualify for division 2. Miami FC and the New York Cosmos would be forced to move to the NPSL in their bid to retain independence. California United (Strikers) and San Diego 1904 FC would lose their bids to play in NASL, being forced to wait for NISA in 2019. Without its promotion partner, version zero had lost a major pillar of its strategy.

The second and much larger tragedy was the death of Jack Cummins in 2018. Rebel Nest seemingly went defunct at this stage, as Peter Wilt departed to help found Forward Madison in USL. NISA seemed to go moribund. The league stopped communicating publicly, and most of us returned to focusing on our individual clubs. Version zero faded into the mists of time.

It’s interesting to consider the what-ifs if Jack had lived. Forward Madison was a very successful USL launch and would have been a valuable addition to NISA had the league launched on schedule. We can’t know the counterfactuals of the league’s organization or how it would have handled rockier situations under version zero. I personally believe that the original vision could have had the members of the league office focusing on their strengths. With more people who had experience across several leagues, the core operations might have had stronger written guidelines and kept certain bad behaviors in line.

But it would be several more years before we would even think about any of this again. As radical as version zero’s vision was, our next stop was to an even starker vision for reform. Version zero’s vision of inter-league cooperation had already been battered by the fall of NASL; now, it was time for the NPSL to forge its own path.

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