NISA Clubs may be Ineligible for USOC 2020

This fall, NISA launched as the newest sanctioned US men’s pro soccer league and qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Open proper began. But, because NISA is so new, do its teams qualify for the upcoming USOC?

Let’s first start with what teams automatically qualify for the USOC proper. All US-based teams in sanctioned pro leagues must participate in the USOC in the year in which they compete in that league. Team are ineligible if they are owned and/or run by a club that is a member of a higher level league. Basically, most reserve sides in pro leagues are ineligible.

Set aside NISA for now. We can definitely expect all 23 US-based MLS teams (with the additions of Miami and Nashville) in 2020. And, estimate 25 USL Championship plus 8 USL League One teams. That totals an estimated 56 teams that will get automatic entry into USOC. For reference, 52 pro teams automatically qualified for the USOC proper. The deadline for pro teams playing in 2020 leagues to get USOC paperwork and entry fees is December 31. The number of slots for non-professional teams, designated as Open Division teams, that get entry into the USOC proper gets determined by the USSF a week after the pro deadline.

Open Division teams can enter USOC qualification through two tracks: National League and Local Qualifying. A league qualifies as a National League if it has, basically, 50 active US-based teams, in at least 10 states among at least three time zones. A league that meets those requirements can choose the National League track. If it does so, it commits all its teams to that path. In 2019, the NPSL and USL League Two chose the National League track for its teams. The league determines how its teams qualify for entry into the USOC’s First Round proper. Deadline for National Leagues for teams who may qualify for the USOC is December 11.

Local Qualifying is available for all teams outside the National League track. And consists of a single-game, knockout basis. The entry deadline for teams that want to qualify via Local Qualifying was August 12. Finally, one Open Division team, Newtown Pride FC, has qualified for the First Round by winning the 2019 National Amateur Cup.

The number of Open Division slots is determined by a fairly complicated process based on the number of Open Division teams entered into Local Qualifying, the number of teams entered via the National League track and the anticipated number of pro division teams based on when that league’s teams will enter the tournament bracket. The simple answer is that we won’t know anything until early January.

Now, back to NISA. It’s not just curiosity that makes the question of its teams eligibility for USOC important. More important, the number of pro teams that are eligible directly affects the number of Open Division slots available in the First Round proper. In 2019, the six Division III USL League One teams entered the First Round with the 32 Open Division teams that qualified (14 from NPSL, 10 from USL League Two, seven through Local Qualifying, and the 2018 National Amateur Cup champion).

CFC Qualified for the 2019 US Open Cup but chose to not participate.

CFC Qualified for the 2019 US Open Cup but chose to not participate.

We contacted the USSF’s U.S. Open Cup staff to ask if NISA teams will be eligible for the 2020 cup. We also requested clarification if current NISA teams are not eligible, if teams who might be eligible through the National League track, specifically, Atlanta SC, Chattanooga FC, Detroit City FC, and Miami FC. They responded that the U.S. Open Cup Committee will make a decision closer to the December 31 pro team deadline. In addition, they pointed us to the Federation’s U.S. Open Cup Policy for official language of team eligibility

The rules for a team’s USOC eligibility is set forth in Policy 102(4)-1 of the U.S. Soccer Federation Policy Manual. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to that as the USOC Policy.

Section 202 of the USOC Policy covers team eligibility. Subsection 202(a) requires a team be a member of good standing playing in an ongoing competition of USSF. Fairly basic stuff, but the final sentence is important for our question about eligibility of NISA teams.

The league competition must consist of at least four (4) teams, with each playing at least (10) league matches (excluding any pre-season and/or post-season playoff or cup matches) each calendar year.

Here’s where things start to get confusing about NISA and USOC qualification. As far as we know, NISA will run on a traditional fall-winter-spring schedule that spans calendar years. Most modern US pro soccer leagues run on a spring-summer-fall schedule that does not span calendar years. USOC Policy language assumes the latter so it makes determining eligibility of teams in a league that follows a traditional schedule a bit tricky.

Pro teams qualify for that year’s USOC if they play in that same year’s league. And, subsection 202(a) requires that all teams play at least 10 league games “each calendar year”. For NISA, the current fall half is happening in 2019 which is definitely not in the 2020 calendar year. I would assume that NISA’ would need to schedule at least 10 league games in 2020 for its teams to meet that requirement. But, since, again, as far as we know, it runs a traditional schedule will those 10 games need to be in the league’s spring half? Because, it would be practically impossible for any league to offer a 2020-2021 schedule by the end of December 2019.

USOC Policy 202(b) specifically relates to teams in pro leagues. Subsections 202(b)(1)(i) and (ii) state that a team must be a member in good standing from December 31 of the competition year through the USOC final and the team’s league must be in operation for that same time. NISA meets that requirement. NISA clubs taking part in the fall season meet that requirement (as long as they don’t fold before December 31). I would assume future NISA clubs must officially join the league before December 31 to meet that requirement.

USOC Policy 202(b)(2) relates to NISA because it covers teams whose league is starting its first season. Subsections 202(b)(2)(i) and (ii) state that the league must set and announce its schedule to the public by January 31 of the competition year and the first league game is scheduled at least a week before the first scheduled USOC round of competition involving that team’s sanctioned Division.

The latter wouldn’t seem to be an issue but the former, again, causes confusion based on NISA’s competition. NISA can set and announce its spring schedule by January 31, but any schedule for the fall couldn’t practically be considered as “set” because the league runs on that traditional schedule. Does NISA need to have a spring schedule of at least 10 games for its teams to be eligible?

USOC Policy 202(d) states:

For the purpose of this Policy, any team having not played in its league’s regular competition for the full season ending immediately prior to the entry deadline for its respective competition division (e.g. Open Division, Outdoor Professional League) shall be considered a team starting its first season, whether in an existing or new league.

This entire subsection is new language for the 2020 USOC Policy. And, it may have been added knowing NISA would begin play in time for the 2020 USOC. I would assume this language means that the teams joining NISA for the spring 2020 half will have the same eligibility as the teams that played in NISA’s fall half. In addition, I would also assume that voids eligibility that may have been gained through NPSL For example, Miami FC would normally have qualified for the First Round but because they moved to NISA that qualification is gone. But, 202(d) still doesn’t clarify the questions above about how NISA’s traditional schedule conforms with the other requirements such as games per calendar year and having a set schedule by January 31.

The NASL days, still the best kit EVER.

The NASL days, still the best kit EVER.

The last similar situation was in 2011 when the now-defunct Division II NASL launched. In that case, the Federation did not allow NASL teams to enter the USOC because the league’s provisional sanctioning was not settled in time for the teams to be included.

As far as NISA, we’ll know about those teams when the USOC Committee announces the cup schedule and structure in January. NASL and USSF had an antagonistic relationship from the jump which, no doubt, entered into the USOC Committee’s decision-making back in 2011. Whatever conclusion is reached on the NISA teams, it will at least give an indication about the tenor of the relationship between that league and the Federation.

- Dan Creel