By now, a reader might be feeling as if they were missing something. Why was the independent movement still so invested in NISA? It would have required serious expansion to establish even a flawed plan for promotion and relegation. Rumors were that they had hired somebody to lobby to reform the PLS, but good luck doing that with just a lobbyist. By the time we left, the fact that it wasn’t quite so club-driven anymore was becoming better known Were people really staking so much on a league whose sole remaining reform was a lack of territory rights?

Yes and no. Territory rights were important, and there was still a hope for professional pro/rel one day within NISA. But NISA also had their hands in a few other projects around the amateur game, and flirted with the idea of getting involved with women’s soccer. There were two views on this. The slow-but-steady camp thought NISA needed to fix its division 3 league first and solidify its reputation there before expending resources on the rest of the pyramid. People in this camp tended to be a bit more familiar with USL (especially during the NASL period) and why clubs would choose to pay a much larger expansion fee instead of going to NISA. The other camp, which I’ll call the “startup” camp, advocated for moving forward on these projects quickly as the only way to prevent NISA’s division 3 league from being outflanked. USL was also bringing back its women’s league and had its own amateur competition in League Two, and if NISA fell behind in these areas decisively, USL would become the one-stop shop and compete on scale.

NISA chose the centrist path: they attempted to build out these other efforts, but tried to keep it cheap. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s run a club or two ourselves to keep that PLS cushion up.

This was going to hurt.

The Independent Cup

Remember when NPSL Pro fell apart because the insurance carrier being used for soccer couldn’t possibly figure out how to sanction amateur and professional clubs together? Even though the Open Cup had done exactly that? The Independent Cup was a series of regionalized competitions in 2020 and 2021 that pitted professional and amateur sides against each other. In 2020 this allowed all sides to have a chance to play regardless of league cancellations, and the isolated regions also meant that if one area shut down due to COVID, the rest could continue play.

Note that it was the Independent Cup and not the Independent Cups, which led to a lot of hope that someday this could become a knockout tournament that lower league sides had a better chance of winning. Sure, this would lead to even more fixture congestion than teams already had to deal with, but cut us some slack- there wasn’t any soccer to watch at all during this, so that didn’t sound so bad. What the Independent Cup did give to DCFC was a return of the Rust Belt Derby, a 2012-2016 competition against FC Buffalo and the defunct AFC Cleveland, who would be replaced by Cleveland SC for this iteration. Having arrived in 2017, this was the stuff of legends long past for me, and I finally got to see two of them thanks to the Independent Cup. It wasn’t quite the same as them taking place in league play, especially with us now being professional against them- but you take what you can get.

The other interesting aspect of the Independent Cup was that as NISA signed affiliations with amateur leagues, they agreed that those leagues would receive berths in Cup based on merit. It was generating a real competitive link to the amateur leagues, a reason to pay attention to the standings in your nearest regional league to see who you would be playing next time. NISA expansion sides actually faced struggles in the initial iterations of the Cup when playing established amateur sides, which meant that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion outside of our region.

I would say the Independent Cup went the most smoothly out of the efforts I’m describing today, but with a questionable future. Being a quick set of matches within a region was ideal for COVID, but it’s not as interesting as restrictions have lifted, and NISA has not made a firm commitment cross-region play- assuming that it would even make sense for them to do so. Its main value seems to be in keeping business connections open between NISA and its regional affiliates.

Speaking of that:

Regional affiliates and NISA Nation

The NPSL was the original planned amateur affiliate for NISA, but at some point after version zero, that relationship broke down. NISA filled in the gap with regional affiliations, who would send clubs to participate in the Independent Cup and whose eventual goal was to promote and relegate with NISA Nation, who would in turn connect to NISA Pro. One of the first of these was the Eastern Premier Soccer League, which was a newly formed league that functioned as the top level of of the Maryland Major Soccer League and the Cosmopolitan Soccer League. The Cosmo League already had several layers of promotion and relegation within it, with many clubs that had decades of history and had won the US Open Cup in years past. This looked like a potential path forward to creating a real amateur pyramid while allowing clubs and leagues to maintain autonomy in their operations.

There were other benefits to being a regional affiliate, as well. NISA promised solidarity payments to clubs that they signed players from- a concept mandated by FIFA in other areas of the world and mostly ignored in the US. These would provide another source of revenue for affiliate clubs and give them some incentive to show their best talent off to NISA sides before pushing them forward to other professional leagues. Chicago House made a public announcement when they made such a payment to a lower-league side. Detroit City had advanced a decent number of players back into the professional ranks during their time in the amateur leagues- it certainly would have been nice to have solidarity payments on the table back then.

NISA Nation’s messaging was mixed, and it took a very long time for people to figure out what it was. NISA stated that the goal was for it to be the final link in pro/rel between the amateur and professional game. As we’ve covered repeatedly, that simply made no sense thanks to the PLS forbidding your average amateur side from coming up. NISA also stated that you would continue to play in your current league, which went against the idea of promoting out of your current league and into NISA Nation. The same page that said this also had a pyramid graphic showing NISA Nation sitting on top of the regional affiliates and being above them. What was NISA Nation, really?

In 2021, it’s a bolt-on competition that added a Fall schedule for clubs that were playing in summer leagues. NISA did not want to cannibalize clubs from their affiliates- that would have immediately soured relations, especially when promoting into division 3 was not actually on the table yet. That bolt-on does have value- it gives clubs a chance to play a full calendar season that they might not otherwise have the chance to, ramping up their operations to be closer to what would be expected if they made a professional move. NN is being sold as an incubator for clubs to prepare this way while seeking investment to move up.

That’s a perfectly fine model if that’s what NISA Nation wants to be. But it doesn’t seem as if it’s the final goal- it seems as if PLS reform is the goal, at which point NISA Nation will have also established itself operationally and would be able to move into its final form as the missing pro/rel link. PLS reform is a moonshot at best, and having a business plan based on it occurring is folly. But if you were going to do it, the most plausible way would be to build a coalition of people looking for reform, get them on board with the same platform, and then force change via a vote at USSF.

But those conversations are not happening. The Independent Cup, the affiliations, and NISA Nation all offer the business connections to get everyone to the same table. If this was to be a basic part of NISA’s model, they could have even written a commitment to a shared platform into the affiliation agreements so that the work of building the NISA system was synonymous with the work of building USSF reform. But they didn’t. And without that, all of NISA’s work within the amateur levels is nothing more than one front of the soccer wars, an attempt to grab their piece of the pie while using the language of reform to drive public support.

The Women’s Soccer Experiment

The women’s game doesn’t have as much development pretty much anywhere in the world. This isn’t a good thing- it means fewer opportunities, less money, more inequity. But the one silver lining is that it means there’s more of a chance to do things right- to avoid the mistakes of the soccer wars that have plagued the men’s game in the US, to build a real foundation. There is only one professional women’s league playing in the US right now: the division 1 NWSL- and below that, only pro-am and amateur leagues for women to develop in.

When DCFC launched their women’s side, they did so in the pro-am United Women’s Soccer (UWS). Michigan Stars and the New Jersey Teamsterz also placed their women’s teams into the UWS- and at the start of 2021, NISA and UWS declared that they would work together to form a new lower league for women. Some felt that NISA had no business working with anyone to help create anything, but the thought of having a place for our women to play professionally was all too tempting- the NWSL was out of DCFC’s reach, and without a new league, we could only field amateur sides. NISA’s Club 9 was listed as heading up the united effort.

This partnership lasted for all of two months, and in March Club 9 pulled out from the relationship, with no reason ever being given. Reportedly, both sides were each continuing to work on their own professional league. The soccer wars were coming to the women’s side at a professional level, assuming that both sides got off the ground. Or worse: maybe this would prevent either side from getting off the ground, neither one having the resources to step up.

Supporters cried foul immediately. What was the reason for the break-up? There is a history in women’s soccer of men’s teams ignoring it until they feel that there is money to be made, then displacing existing women’s teams (many of which had been run by women to begin with) for their own advantage. Was NISA doing the same? They were the ones who pulled out, after all.

The end of the partnership created a wave of skepticism around NISA’s structure and some deeper investigation into who was running it. This was the day that people really began to dig into the Prutch family’s other businesses and found that Club 9 was the sporting entity of a company called Prometheus Capital. Per their own website, their specialty was in taking over companies and turning them around with drastic cost-cutting measures. The name “Club 9” was hardly spoken of after this in NISA circles- when referring to the influence of the Prutch family, their business would be referred to as Prometheus from now on. All the skepticism of USL’s ownership by the Papadakis family skimming off the top was now complemented by skepticism of what the Prutches wanted out of NISA- and now women’s soccer.

In April 2021, NISA declared their new pro league: WISL, the Women’s Independent Soccer League, which would be a division 2 women’s league. One week later, the Los Angeles Force announced that they would be a founding club. Then Carrie Taylor, who had been involved in NISA’s women’s soccer efforts the entire time, left Club 9 and management of WISL in May. Again, no reason was cited- and nothing was heard from WISL ever again after this. Nothing has been heard from UWS regarding their new pro league, either.

In September of 2021, USL announced their own plan for the USL Super League, a division 2 women’s league that is scheduled to play in 2023. The usual anti-USL crowd was livid at them becoming involved in the women’s game once again, potentially shutting out independents yet again. The S-League was exactly why I had argued that NISA and UWS needed to be partners to launch something while the market was open.

But Club 9 did not see their own plan through. It’s entirely possible that if they had, the independent movement for the women’s game might be able to match USL’s new effort- it wouldn’t be ideal, it would still be soccer wars, but if you strongly believe in the independent movement, it still could have been done. Now the moment might have passed forever, and meanwhile it’s USL that’s actually doing the work to give women more opportunities to play professionally, “independent” or not. Of NISA’s side projects, their foray into the women’s game is the biggest missed opportunity of them all.

Stumptown AC

A little-remembered club named Stumptown Athletic played in the original NISA season. Its market of Charlotte was a busy one, with USL Championship side Charlotte Independence already playing with an established supporter base and incoming MLS side Charlotte FC threatening to lure many away. Stumptown played in the Fall 2019 season and started Spring 2020, then went on hiatus before ultimately folding.

But Taco!, you object. I remember us playing Stumptown after this! They came back from hiatus in 2021! No, they didn’t. Stumptown AC was formed by NISA to take the place of Stumptown Athletic. These were legally distinct entities, with many people who had done work for Stumptown Athletic never being paid with Stumptown AC’s return.

NISA itself ran Stumptown AC, paying for it out of pocket. It’s not clear why they made that choice. Attendance was very low for a new team in that saturated market, picking up slightly when Charlotte Independence owner Dan DiMicco’s racist conspiracy theories drove away his existing supporter base. Sure, having another team helped keep NISA above the PLS requirement, but why Charlotte? NISA’s habit of splicing the haves rather than delivering to the have-nots was continuing. They would talk of how there were over 100 metro areas with no pro soccer, then target their efforts at the places that already had options for pro soccer.

Stumptown 2.0 performed reasonably well for an expansion side, and rumor has it that they’re very close to selling the team to an interested owner. In fact, I think the rumor is that for the past six months they’ve been very close to selling the team to an interested owner. Not entirely sure what the hold-up is, or what “close” means, or even what “owner” means. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be announced that the team has been sold. Maybe the league will run it forever. There’s just no way to be sure!

Hopefully this has given you some idea of why NISA was perceived as such a big deal within the independent movement. Not every idea was congruent with every other idea, but NISA appeared to be trying to build something bigger than just another professional men’s side. But running all of these other things was not free, and the league’s resources would be stretched to the limit trying to handle all of these efforts simultaneously.

Perhaps even past the limit.

Additional reading and sources: