Rocco Holds Court, and then Burns the House Down

Okay then.

NY Cosmos Owner and NASL plaintiff Rocco Commisso just concluded conference call with reporters to discuss all manner of things happening in United States soccer. Commisso pulled absolutely no punches, leaving no doubt about his feelings about soccer in the US (“failed”), MLS (“phony”) or the leadership of USSF (a “dog” of Don Garber). It was certainly a tour-de-force (or performance art, depending on your point of view). Let’s go over the main points.

1. Confirms that language was added which allowed NASL teams to leave for a nominal (no?) fee:

Following up on a discussion from yesterday, there were rumblings that language was added to the NASL franchise agreements (or the Articles of Formation; still not sure on that) which allowed NASL teams to leave the league for a nominal fee. According to Rocco, “existing owners decided among themselves to put a provision in their contracts with then NASL that anybody could skip town whenever they wish as long as that notice was given before September 1st of 2017.” Rocco also added that he should have paid more attention to that provision, but that he trusted the people in the room.

Ignoring that last sentence for a second, I’m not sure if Rocco is laying the ground work for a future legal claim against the other owners, or is just tossing them under the bus for alleged underhandedness and self-dealing. But it is their league, and they can add whatever provisions they want (as long as they were disclosed to Rocco, of course). Let’s also keep in mind that NASL in December 2016 was moments from collapsing, and it’s possible they added that provision in case things imploded. Which, well…

2. Complains that USSF did not give him or the league a specific warning about Division sanctioning being pulled:

Rocco’s next area of concern was over the fact that, when USSF provisionally sanctioned NASL for the 2017 season, that they were not given any specific warning that the USSF would definitely pull Division 2 sanctioning by any particular date. According to Rocco, “Never once did anyone from the USSF come to me and say, ‘well, you better get your act together or we’re gonna de-sanction you.'” The only thing that has been submitted to the court is a letter from USSF after provisional sanctioning was granted, which outlined what USSF required of NASL for 2017. There is no specific threat of losing Division 2 sanctioning, but of course, Rocco had to know that was a potential consequence if those terms weren’t complied with when they applied for 2018 division sanctioning. Again, we have no idea if the NASL had made progress; nothing that they have filed with the court indicates they had.

3. Criticism for NASL owners, especially Steve Malik, owner of now-USL team North Carolina FC:

There was criticism for basically everyone (especially for the other NASL owners inserting that clause allowing NASL teams to leave for free), but some of the harshest comments were aimed at Steve Malik. “Getting out of the NASL with zero exit fees was a big deal played a large part frankly with Edmonton and San Francisco getting out” according to Rocco, but “I did not respect the double-play, the double-work of Steve Malik.”

Rocco then listed out the timeline of Malik’s alleged mis-deeds, including buying the NWSL team from New York and moving it to North Carolina, applying for MLS in January 2017, being appointed to the board by Garber in March of 2017, and an alleged “payout” by USSF giving Malik’s stadium the USMNT game versus Paraguay. This seems to be laying out the legal case for a quid-quo-pro by USSF in exchange for Malik’s “cooperation” in voting against Division 2 sanction for NASL. This of course is just supposition, and there is not yet evidence to substantiate these claims. He also had some criticism for Riccardo Silva and his much-discussed offer to MLS to pay $4 billion in media rights if MLS would institute promotion and relegation. Then he started answering questions.

4. What’s going to happen with the Cosmos:

In response to a Jeff Carlisle question about what is going to happen with the Cosmos and where they’re going to play while the suit continues, Rocco will continue the Cosmos academy, play in the NPSL (some games at Columbia’s stadium), but beyond that, no plans have been made about the senior Cosmos team returning to the field. Regarding the lawsuit, “we’re fully ahead litigating this. That’s with certainty.” Also, according to Rocco, there are six or seven total legal actions that have been filed by either him or others, and those will continue. Finally, Rocco confirms that there were settlement discussion, but that he’s not allowed to comment on that except to say that he was “unhappy” with the outcome of those discussions.

5. Rocco was extremely unhappy with what he perceived was the lack of investigation into USL and their wages and pay structure:

This was a major grievance expressed by Rocco. After disclosing that he had a player on his payroll for $400,000 for the 2017 season, he then lit into the press for not investigating what USL pays it’s players. “Do you know that a lot of people work on a part-time basis? Do you know that a lot of people work, when they play, they get paid by the hour?” As to Traffic Sports and their partnership, Rocco then points out that that discredited group was originally accepted by USSF. Of course, that doesn’t mean that USSF should continue to work with them, especially after their nefarious dealings came to light, and the indictments started coming down.

6. Rocco thinks that USSF has been dealing with USL with a light touch:

On USSF’s dealings with USL, Rocco was especially aggrieved regarding the timeline USL was given to comply with Division 2. “Why January 18th (for USL)? Why September 1st with us? Why when in October, for instance, when we went to the judge and said ‘hey Judge we have another six teams ready and willing to play in our league if you give us the injunction’ why didn’t the USSF say, ‘you know, we want to make this happen; we want to avoid this lawsuit?'” Now we know there were settlement talks of course and they didn’t go well. Unfortunately without knowing the details of the proposed settlement, we can’t say whether either side was being unreasonable.

7. The relationship between NASL and USSF appears to be on the level of two feuding Mean Girls:

In response to the question of whether USSF had any direct response to NASL regarding the cancellation of their league, Rocco indicated that he received a “snarky” letter that, “I wouldn’t even take it to the bathroom if I ran out of paper.” Okay. In a bit of under the radar news, Rocco confirmed that Lisa Conroy, current Board member and defendant in the New York state suit, was his former banker. Left unsaid is when she became former, though I’ve heard the split happened after the vote to deny NASL Division 2 sanctioning. Following that, Rocco barely acknowledged USSF President Carlos Cordeiro’s existence (“who is he?”).

Further, Rocco had concerns regarding the World Cup bid, expressing surprise that the US/CAN/MEX bid is in jeopardy, but has had no discussions with USSF as to how a World Cup bid could benefit lower-division soccer, and how the lower-divisions could support the bid.

8. SUM major issues:

Not surprisingly, Rocco has a major problem with transparency as it pertains to USSF finances. Specifically, USSF still haven’t released their audited financial statements. “I’d like to see those,” Rocco said. “I’d to see the SUM agreement. I’d like to know why the SUM agreement was finalized after we filed the lawsuit.” This is all stuff that will likely come out through the lawsuit, though. Interestingly, he did concede that SUM was necessary early on to help MLS. Rocco also said that USSF is getting about $25 million out of the $50 million that SUM generates. That’s not a lot to the owners of MLS (who own SUM)? Rocco then asked why USSF doesn’t have an ownership interest in SUM, which I don’t know the answer to. Good question.

9. No interest in lower (lower) division soccer:

In a rather testy exchange with Beau Dure, Rocco made it clear that he has no interest in financing Division 3/4 soccer. “I didn’t buy the Cosmos to be a D4 team.” The antagonistic tone by Rocco towards Beau was unnecessary; Beau’s questions were perfectly reasonable. But in any case Rocco’s position is that he’s not going play at lower than D2, as that was what he bought in at (which sounds a little like the reasoning behind not having pro/rel, but that’s another discussion).

10. No regrets:

On a personal level, Rocco does not regret investing in the Cosmos, or “wasting” $18 million. He also made a not-so-veiled threat, saying that there is much more money to spend in the pursuit of “justice.” Also of interest was his claim that the “entire revenue base of MLS is not more than $800 million per year.” That compares, according to Rocco, to one or two top teams in Europe. “How can they say we’ve done a great job for soccer in America?” He asked. “This is not a league that is successful.”

So those were the major points that I saw from the legal perspective. There were some other issues raised regarding pro/rel and potentially playing in a different country (Canada/Mexico) which were also interesting. The bottom line here is that Rocco shows no signs of putting on the breaks on litigating these issues. These suits will continue apace, which will make attorneys and writers quite happy (hey, I’m both!). Based on my reading of the call, it’d be fair to argue that chances of settlement between NASL and USSF have passed the point of no return, but I’ll keep some semblance of optimism that the parties can ultimately reach some common ground.


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