By now we’ve seen a lot of popular reform ideas become compromised or die, and we’ve seen signs that NISA is an unstable business environment as well. Supporter opinion had not necessarily been swayed by this point yet, though. We had walked away with a series of NISA trophies and dominated play, but there was no real movement by supporters to get into the USL Championship for a higher level of play. Sure, NISA had a lot of problems, but most of us were figuring we would finish out the Fall half-season and then play in NISA’s newly realigned Spring-Fall calendar.
I doubt that this was the club’s position going into Fall 2021. Lining up a new investor, working everything out with a new league, getting even just the paperwork and bureaucracy handled- these are not things to be done lightly or on a rapid timetable. Given the timing of the announcement, it’s likely that the move to the Championship was already being worked on. Exactly when would be hard to say.
But then the things that would have already shown that NISA was an unstable business environment are easier to brush off or push out of your mind when you’re not the one in charge. If you’re not the one looking at the spreadsheets trying to calculate how much NISA’s antics could impact your ability to stay solvent, it’s much easier to compartmentalize the problems that are right in front of you and live the rest of your life. This has all just been the part of the iceberg that was above the surface- who knows what was going on behind closed doors that we may learn about someday.
Fall 2021 would make the scope of the issues a little more obvious for the supporters. If everything before this had laid the groundwork for an attitude shift, most of us would lose all of our remaining goodwill for the league over the next few months.
A Personal Note
(CONTENT WARNING: mental health issues, loss of identity, suicidal ideation. If you don’t want/need to read any of this, skip to “1418 Hours Remain”. You won’t miss anything in the narrative itself.)
I’ve mentioned in passing what the effects of the pandemic were on people previously, but never really went in-depth on my own issues. I had started with DCFC in 2017, meaning that when our narrative began I’d been here for a full two years. I had my hands in a lot of different things in life, with DCFC only being one of those things. Had the timeline been slightly different and DCFC had died before the pandemic thanks to a league’s incompetence, it would have been very sad, but I would have mostly continued on with my life. I would find excuses to hang out with some people I knew from there, a few priorities would change, and life would have gone on, my brief time as a soccer supporter eventually becoming a curiosity.
Instead, the pandemic put nearly everything else in my life to a screeching halt, and the added time for introspection had a series of cascading effects on my sense of self until I was cut adrift from any stable identity.
- January 2020, I took over the Southfield chapter of #misec, then tried to keep it as consistent and vibrant as possible through the pandemic as numbers dwindled until I finally resigned in January of 2021. I had several points I regretted during that journey, and it was hard not to feel like I hadn’t failed the group in some big ways and for no gain, even though the pandemic made some of this inevitable.
- Both my remaining grandparents passed as well as my grandfather-in-law, which had been one of my first persistent fears when the lockdown started anyway.
- After reading a post that better explained what non-binary meant, I came out as NB within a week. This led to an initial high period when I felt free from certain gender issues that had plagued me all my life, then progressed into genderfluidity and at times crippling dysphoria which has reared its head as late as last week. It’s one thing to paint your nails, it’s another thing entirely to have periods of time where you feel like you want to completely transition followed by others where the idea seems completely unnecessary.
- Initially I had stopped attending our church because of the pandemic, then I unplugged because I had lost my faith entirely for a period. I never felt liberated by this so much as angry at the evangelical establishment.
- My long-running low grade conflict with my family picked up due to their own irresponsibility during the pandemic, especially as my partner returned to work in the medical field’s frontlines and was placed at a higher risk by how people behave
We had been relatively stringent in our following of the stay-at-home guidance; even with my friends who live across the street, they were mostly unavailable. I would go weeks at a time without having any meaningful face-to-face interactions, left to read in the basement or walk outside in an eerie quiet, standing over freeways gone fallow and morosely wondering if anything in my life would ever return to what I’d had before. At the lowest point- when all of these issues and more had reached their absolute maximum effect on me- I would get to the point of semi-regularly contemplating how I knew I had a relatively fool-proof way of killing myself. There seemed to be no end in sight to any of these issues, and virtually all of them were able to interact with each other to make the whole worse than the sum of its parts- especially my own newlyfound place within the queer community and how that impacted my ability to feel safe in so many other communities.
That’s the backdrop for how I went from being called by my first name by most people to being almost universally known as “taco” as we slowly returned to being in-person. NGS and the rest of the DCFC community was left to pick up the slack as everything else went to shit. Time that had been intended to go into building up other communities according to my big plans became more and more open, redirected into some combination of supporter work and obsessively tracking what was going in, leading into some of the trolls and interactions in prior posts. My work and role within NGS became an anchor, one of the few parts of my identity that could remain a sure thing no matter how much else came into question or fell away.
This eventually went past a healthy coping mechanism, and any perceived threats to the team’s stability became steadily more offensive to me as it progressed. I checked myself into therapy for a few months, but only found it marginally effective- in hindsight, it was a major mismatch between patient and therapist, but rather than risk getting invested and failing again, I tapped out and continued down the road I was on. As 2021 had progressed and I got vaccinated, I slowly began to re-stabilize. But I wasn’t there yet. Everything still felt tenuous by the time the Fall had opened up, and I still had plenty of unanswered issues internally.
Anyone who delivered an existential crisis to what anchors I had left would no longer get treated with kid gloves.
1418 Hours Remain
September 11, 4PM. Roger Beck (@NGS_Tonto) has a long habit of chit-chatting with the refs before matches just to say hi and check how things are going. He does not generally try to pump information out of them, to my knowlege. Just talks. Today’s conversation went a little bit differently, though- and afterwards, he found me and pulled me aside. “I think I have your next online cause,” he tells me.
I chuckle a little. “Yeah?” I’d been thinking lately how nice it was to be getting out more and how I’d need to be more deliberate about stepping down how online I’d gotten during the pandemic, but it was fun to have a reputation. “Whatcha got?”
“I was just talking to the referee over there- says that NISA hasn’t been paying them in months. There’s no fourth official today because they turned it down rather than risk not being paid again.”
I stared at him, barely able to comprehend. I have no idea how the rest of that conversation went- this was already sending my brain into overdrive. Whenever discussions of NISA’s inevitable collapse would come up in some spaces I was in, I would eventually try to dial it back and pull things to safer ground. Whatever scars people had from witnessing the NASL’s collapse, I did not believe that NISA would go down the same road. As long as expansion outpaced contraction, NISA would stay above the 8 team requirement for PLS, and it wouldn’t suffer NASL’s fate. A common rule in NISA discussions was that an expansion team wasn’t real until somebody kicked a ball- I had developed an internal corollary that contraction scenarios also weren’t real until the team ceased to exist.
But failure to pay one of the most basic workers needed to put on your games was a scenario that I had never even considered. It was farcical, really. A referee was working today that hadn’t been paid in two months? And he had to fly out here to referee the game? Why keep taking on that gig? It was just too much to believe.
On the other hand, that would be a very strange lie to tell. Sure, you could do it to mess with people who were yelling at you for 90 minutes, but… why that lie in particular? It could get out of hand really badly. As weird as this scenario was if it was true, the idea that someone would tell that lie just seemed even stranger.
The game started, but my heart wasn’t fully in it. We were playing New Amsterdam, and winning 2-1 was becoming practically a matter of routine in NISA at this point. I was hung up on the potential effects if this was true. If this kept up, a work stoppage had to be inevitable, right? And when would you stop something for maximum effect if you wanted to force someone’s hand? I’d do it on the week where it was possible to clinch a trophy, ideally in the biggest stadium.
The idea that NISA could stabilize and work out if expansion kept pace with contraction seemed less likely when I left the stadium that evening.
1411 Hours Remain
September 11, 11PM. Roger has posted in the NGS Discord about the conversation he’d had with the referees. I ask later if there’s ever been a league that has had a similar issue- the people who know the history of the game in this country better than I do state that as infamous as NASL 2.0’s issues may have been, non-payment of referees was unprecedented. Statements that other contractors haven’t been paid surface during this discussion, such as graphic designers. We pass word to Protagonist Soccer about the issue so that they can dig into it, and I turn in for the evening.
1375 Hours Remain
September 13, 10:39AM. NISA tells Protagonist that the referee payment issues are due to a “ghost in the machine” with no human intervention that had prevented referees from being paid. They had contacted the third-party payment system they used and cleared things up, and the pay issue would be fixed soon. Some are satisfied, citing that these payment systems often have terrible issues holding things up for weeks at a time. Others call into question how it could have persisted for two months and only been fixed due to a sideline conversation. Either way, the crisis seems to be solved.
1080 Hours Remain
September 25, 6:00PM. Referees continue to state to us that the issue has not been solved and that they are being unpaid. Confusion and disbelief proliferate once more. That must be quite the payment system glitch. Maybe it’s just the referees who are here who are having issues, some suggest. But as time goes on, we hear from sources beyond just the refs on the sidelines. It’s not just the ones who are being assigned to Detroit.
All of the referees are behind on their pay.
746 Hours Remain
October 9, 4:00PM. If they’re not being paid, why won’t they go on the record? What are they going to do? Fire you for the work they aren’t paying you for anyway? There are still questions around whether they could just be messing with us at this point. But several different referee crews? And for almost a full month?
This was the first match that the “NISA: PAY THE DAMNED REFS” banner flew at. The hope was to get it in a few shots on TV and bring more attention to this again. Whatever doubts we had from the referees not going on the record, we couldn’t stay silent if the league was failing to pay labor. The mood concerning NISA has become noticeably darker across all of the engaged fanbases, not just NGS. Gallows humor became more and more prevalent.
242 Hours Remain
October 30, 3:30PM. It’s the home match against California United Strikers. If we win, we’ll clinch the fall trophy and add one more to the pile. Roger talks to the referees and asks the same question we’ve been asking for nearly two months: paid yet? No.
The “NISA: PAY THE DAMNED REFEREES” banner flies once more- but this time, NISA had instructed Detroit City to demand that if it showed up again, that they take it down. The league sent over Detroit City FC CEO Sean Mann as their messenger to demand that the banner be taken down- an action that he stressed was not at the club’s behest, but at NISA’s. The “independent” league that valued both club and supporter autonomy had finally founds its red line: no direct criticisms of the league would be allowed.
DCFC wins the match, and more celebrations occur. Sean Spence, watching from the sidelines, is able to see the trophy close up enough to note that it looks very similar to the Spring trophy. “Yeah, it’s the same trophy,” midfield George Chomakov would confirm. At the time, this was taken as a statement that NISA’s bulk purchase of trophies had yielded yet another identical trophy for the pile. But no- this was a simple, literal statement. The trophy maker had also not been paid. The real fall trophy’s whereabouts were unknown- so the Spring trophy had been brought back out for the ceremony. And rumor had it that that trophy was also not paid for and that the trophy maker was demanding its return at the time.
Demanding the banner be taken down was perhaps the worst thing NISA could have done to contain the issue. Protagonist had sat out the issue after their initial tweets because there was nothing verifiable for them to post without anyone going on the record. NISA’s first instance of censoring its largest supporters group, however, did go on the record- and this time, a full article was merited, complete with photos of the banner and footage of NGS chanting “PAY THE REFS!” before the match. NISA’s response to Protagonist included an insistence that they hadn’t been the ones to ask for the banner to be taken down, instead suggesting that perhaps DCFC had asked for it instead- an idea which nobody on our side believed for a minute, given our club’s track record of not doing so on much more controversial issues.
75 Hours Remain
November 6, 3:00PM. Since the day of the banner takedown, NGS has practically made NISA’s payment issues the only topic to be discussed on Twitter. The outrage that this many months could pass with workers being hung out to dry fed into an increased anxiety around what the unpaid bills could mean for clubs that remained within NISA. The past week has been filled with discussions about what’s next. The USL writing seems to be on the wall- for most of us, it’s a matter of when. It’s probably too late to begin the USL move now- and most of us have no idea that such a thing was even being worked on. The rumor mill doesn’t seem to have so much as a whiff. Many feel that we’ll likely be in NISA another year and just have to hope that it survives long enough for us to bounce.
The original “PAY THE DAMNED REFEREES” banner returns, as well as several others designed to draw even more attention to the issue. Thankfully for NISA, they did not attempt to take any of these down- online discussions around the league were already beginning to center around this one issue now that the trophy had been won in a foregone conclusion and there was nothing left to play for competitively. By now, the fact that NISA has even failed to pay a hotel for league meetings that took place during the Spring tournament has begun to filter out. Confidence in the league is at an all-time low even amongst ideological hardliners.
72 Hours Remain
November 6, 6:00PM. I tweet “goodbye forever, blues” as I leave Keyworth. I say that at many, if not most partings around people I know and like, just to be clear. It’s mostly taken in stride who have heard it, shocks people the first time, and is simultaneously light-hearted while also a reminder that this could be goodbye forever.
And I said it in that spirit. Maybe one of us will be in a different league next year! Or maybe the league will be dead! But we’ll probably see each other next year, really, and things will work themselves out.
Meanwhile I have a birthday party to get to. We’re going to Barcade Detroit! Time to stop thinking about dumb soccer issues and instead have some beers and crush some high scores. There’s a big chalkboard that already has my name on it, and I’m determined to add another score up there.
71 Hours Remain
November 6, 7:00PM. I’m very hungry- my food order is taking a long time. I’ve played a few games and done a little pinball, but I’m too hungry to actually set any real scores. Then my inbox starts to light up regarding that one-off joke I’d made. DMs welcoming me to “the collective”, stating that my “joke” was the reality and that we’d been working for a very long time on a jump to USL Championship- one which was just around the corner.
Many of us had agreed that this was an inevitable truth. But it was simultaneously an impossible one. I had joked from the day we went to NISA that it was just a longer, more convoluted way of going to USL anyway. And clearly NISA wasn’t stable enough for us to stave that off. But we couldn’t be ready yet. Right? The season wasn’t even over!
The people who were telling me this had never been wrong when it came to news this big before. I knew in my head that if I was hearing it from them, that it was the truth. But it was a truth that was in direct conflict with the ideological issues that had driven so much of the discourse I’d been in. I mentioned it to the others at my table and sent back a few weak “well, I guess we’ll see what happens” messages to the people in my inbox.
29 Hours Remain
November 8, 1:00PM. Detroit City FC sends out an email advising owners of a last minute owners meeting that would take place the next day. This is really happening. I can feel some conflict with the idea, but by now, it’s more like the echo of feelings that had long passed. I didn’t want to be in NISA anymore. I didn’t want to roll the dice on what would happen next year- or if there would even be a next year in NISA.
I’d occasionally think for a minute: shouldn’t I be more upset about this? Wasn’t there a time when I would have had a lot to say as a supporter about where we were headed? There had been, yes. But NISA being synonymous with independent soccer had not been to the benefit of the independent soccer side of that equation. If this was what “independent soccer” meant, maybe independent soccer didn’t deserve to exist. Fighting against territory rights was not worth stiffing workers who had families to feed. Solidarity payments (when they got paid out at all) weren’t worth putting up with owners who would make physical threats against everyone else in the league.
November 9, 6:00PM. The news leaked to the public earlier this afternoon. DCFC had intentionally tried to hold the news so that it would come to the owners and supporters first- and after keeping the news under wraps for so many months, it had been spoiled at the last minute. It was probably better for many that we had been given a chance to adjust to the news before seeing everyone all at once, honestly. DCFC had done things the right way, but some news just needs more time to take in.
In almost every voice you could hear relief. The ride was finally over. We all knew that there was something being lost today- that after ten years of fighting the independent fight across three leagues, we’d exhausted every alternative outside of the system. It hadn’t been that long ago that we were digging into even rumors of USL bids to scare them off- now we were the USL bid. We were in that system now.
But after everything else we’d gone through in these past two years, we were also gaining something. Everyone there could desperately use a little extra stability in our lives- and at least for this offseason, we could take time off from tracking the news just to figure out if we’d even have a place to play next year. With every hug and conversation you could feel one message in your bones: no matter what happens, I know for sure I’m going to see you here again next year.
Today, that could be enough.
Additional reading and sources: