It’s August 2019. The National Independent Soccer Association appears to be pulling back from the brink. The PLS threshold number of teams has been met thanks to NPSL Pro’s near collapse. After the NPSL Members Cup, an infusion of teams from there will fill in the holes and even NISA a small cushion going forward. The league has navigated the death and departure of its core founders, installed a new commissioner, and is about to play its first season.
But some wounds work slowly. The league’s silent years had not been free, using up valuable investment money and ceding ground to the USL. To successfully relaunch and fund the league office, NISA would require more money- and with a business model aimed explicitly at undercutting USL’s expansion fees, it couldn’t hope to pull this in just from new clubs. But NISA did find this funding from an interested party in the end: Bob Friedland of the Los Angeles Force, one of NISA’s founding clubs. Friedland had the money to help NISA get back up and running- all he asked for was some more of the league’s equity. A lot of the league’s equity. Enough to become the board chair
I mentioned before that NISA’s operating agreement stated that 60% of the league was to be owned by the member clubs, and 40% by outside investors. We don’t know the exact percentages involved- people have often assumed that Club 9 had the 40% outside share, and the natural assumption for the club share was that it would be evenly split between the members. The board of governors would run the league with votes amongst themselves, and their 60% ownership would enforce their will. This arrangement was still different from what version 0 had proposed, but it was meant to have the same effect.
But this model seems to have broken down quickly. It was never explicitly spelled out that all clubs would have equal shares- that was just an assumption based on how these things are run elsewhere. A single club could have owned 51% of the league and controlled it, and under the operating agreement, that percentage would have been fine. I don’t believe that LA had that much- although it’s possible. But I do know that their share, if combined with that of Club 9’s, was enough to form the veto. That, plus NISA’s reliance on anyone who was paying their bills, made the interests of the Los Angeles Force unassailable.
At least in theory. As long as the model was respected and board votes were enforced based on equal club representation, this could work. An unfortunate quirk of getting off the ground, to be paid off later as LA sold off their equity to new clubs for a return on investment.
We’ll revisit that thought in a later chapter.
You might think based on the above that the LA Force was also a well-funded club- that its operations were rock-solid, practically another pillar of the league. On the field, that seems to have been true enough. They were regular contenders in NISA, and reached the championship of the 2020-2021 season, ultimately falling 1-0 to Detroit City. Off of an own goal, no less.
But as important as the play on the pitch was, it’s only a fraction of a well-run football club. As pandemic restrictions lifted and fans were allowed to return to stands, LA simply didn’t bother. No tickets would be sold- “guest list only” was the name of the game. There was no attempt at building a fanbase of any kind.
Even proper locker rooms were too spendy. NISA did mandate real facilities with nutrition here (bananas and granola bars), but LA was one of several clubs that was content to put up a few tents and call it a day on many occasions. In the New Amsterdam chapter, I wrote how antics like Laurence Girard’s playing in goal are the kind of thing that gets out to scouts, players, and coaches, and devalues the statistics of anyone who is playing in such an environment. Facilities are a similar kind of deal- the kind of thing that gives an almost semi-professional vibe to everything, making NISA the place you hope to use as a springboard to try to bounce back up somewhere better.
At this point you might wonder why anyone would spend so much money buying enough equity to have this much influence in league affairs if they weren’t going to spend it well on their own football club as well. That answer is simple: the Los Angeles Force was not a brand new club hoping to make its mark on the landscape, but an extension of FC Golden State Force, who currently plays in USL2 and maintained a youth academy. There’s a very real pay-to-play problem in US soccer’s academy system, where talented kids without money fall behind parents who can pay for big programs where the scouts live. With the Force, LA now had a pipeline from the youth to a fully professional squad- an attractive option when canvassing for more kids. There was no need to sell tickets to Force games- the money was in being able to say that sending your kid to their academy was a direct pathway to them having a pro soccer career.
Just don’t ask about the facilities.
Below the NPSL
In 2019, there was a club we hated called AFC Ann Arbor. They made it to the NPSL quarterfinals, choosing to host a game on a field without lights, starting on a late enough kickoff that the sun went down during play. Play was abandoned at the 69’ with no goals scored, with the NPSL declaring that a coin toss would settle the match and determine who advanced. After everyone rightly dismissed this as bush league, the NPSL set up a last-minute resumption of play, where Ann Arbor was defeated and the Rochester Lancers advanced. Ann Arbor faced their karmic retribution for having inadequate facilities at a decisive match. We rolled our eyes. Just NPSL things! Soon we would be out of this amateur league.
Move forward to 2021. The LA Force is playing for the playoff slot that would allow them to challenge first Chattanooga FC, then Detroit City FC for the big trophy. But then, in the second half of the match, it becomes clear that the lights available on the field are useless for keeping the match going once the sun has gone down. The referee puts a halt to the match- and then the league office declares the match abandoned. The final score stands at 2-0, with the remainder of the match unscheduled. LA clinches their playoff spot early courtesy of their own bad facilities.
I highly encourage you to read the linked Protagonist Soccer article on this incident at the end of the post. They go through the applicable parts of the operating agreement in full detail and give timelines on when it began to be too dark. The decision was arguably by the book, as any match abandoned in the second half can be allowed to stand with the current scoreline. However, the manual also specifies that the league office can force the rescheduling of a game, taking into account the fault of either team to require amends to be made. And it’s indisputable that this is LA’s stadium problem that has caused this issue that they benefit from.
But of course, the league standing up to the LA Force would have been an oxymoron- the right hand arguing with the left. This too would blow over, as many things have on the west coast. Hardly anyone knew how LA’s money was influencing the league, and for most that did, it was just a few more annoying sparks amidst the general chaos.
It would take the other club in Michigan to provide the fuel for those sparks to grow into a flame that would expose just how deep the troubles ran.