Writing about soccer litigation seems like a full-time job these days. Every time one case gets resolved (SaveTheCrew), another one pops up in its place (Chicago Fire). Some cases have gotten more coverage than others, but they’re all interesting in their own way. In the interests of getting everyone up to speed on the status of these issues, I’ve compiled a guide of sorts to all of the major (and not so major) lawsuits involving soccer in the United States. A couple of caveats: Some of these aren’t “lawsuits” per se, and I’m not going to be talking about petty crimes here, so you’re off the hook, Wayne Rooney.
THE HOLLYWOOD ENDING
- SaveTheCrew (State of Ohio ex rel. Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine, et al. v Precourt Sports Ventures, LLC, et al.,):
Plot: A rag-tag group of supporters team up with government forces to prevent a corporation from uprooting a team to a faraway city.
Synopsis: Sounds like a Hollywood movie, right? Okay, maybe Netflix or ESPN+. Anyway, this case was filed back in March 2018, after Anthony Precourt announced months earlier that he was exploring a relocation of the Columbus Crew to Austin. The litigation had several flashpoints, with Judge Brown granting the plaintiffs a big procedural victory, which led to an appeal by PSV and MLS (and stalled the case for about six weeks). PSV and MLS filed a motion to dismiss the case on constitutional grounds, which was argued in September. That motion was denied, but by then…
Plot Twist: In October 2018, nearly a year to the day Precourt made his announcement, we got word that a deal had been reached to keep the team in Columbus. Additionally, there was a stadium/soccer complex proposal to transform Maple and build a stadium downtown.
Status of case: A happy ending! The team is safely in Columbus, preparing for the 2019 season. The new ownership group, led by Pete Edwards and Jimmy and Dee Haslem has taken over. Anthony Precourt is gone (we’ll get to that later), and I’m sure hopefully forgotten in Columbus.
Epilogue: The lawsuit has been dismissed without prejudice by Columbus and Ohio officials. However, that does still allow them the opportunity to resurrect the case, should the need arise. Talking to a source, it won’t be dismissed with prejudice (meaning they can’t bring it back before the court) until they get proof from MLS that the ownership transfer has officially occurred (signatures on pages), which hasn’t happened as of this publishing. On the stadium front, things continue to progress smoothly, with a source telling me that multiple meetings have been held and documents are being prepared. Groundbreaking is expected in the summer of 2019.
BONUS: There don’t appear to be any lawsuits on the horizon against the stadium development, which is more than we can say elsewhere.
- (Bruce Matheson v. Miami (Overtown site); William Muir v. Miami Commissioners (Miami Freedom Park); David Winker v. Miami Commissioners (Miami Freedom Park)
I’ll say this for David Beckham: The only thing more impressive than his jawline (and soccer skill, and hair, and bank account), is his legal team. No matter how many suits are filed against them, they keep on winning. So taking these in chronological order:
- Bruce Matheson v. Miami (Overtown site, filed 2017):
Matheson, a local Miami resident (and frequent litigant) filed a suit against the City of Miami (and Beckham later joined in) in July 2017, alleging that the city illegally sold the land to Beckham’s group without putting it out for bid. Unfortunately for Matheson, the judge dismissed the complaint upon Beckham and the City’s motion, finding there is statutory language which allows the sale without a bid process for large, unique projects which bring in business (such as sports stadiums). Also, the court found that if Matheson has complaints about the zoning process, he can raise them at a zoning hearing. Matheson then appealed…and lost again.
Status of case: Matheson is now in front of the Florida Supreme Court, trying to get them to hear his case. I’ve reviewed the filings and I don’t think he’ll have much more luck in front of the Supremes than he did at the lower court level. We should see a ruling in about a month.
Of course, Beckham doesn’t even want to build his stadium in Overtown anymore, and he’s trying to negotiate a lease on the Melreese Golf Course to build a stadium and surrounding development. Which leads us to…
- William Muir v. Miami Commissioners (Miami Freedom Park; filed 2018)
Before David Beckham’s group could negotiate a lease with the Miami Commissioners, he had to win a referendum which would allow the Miami Charter to be amended to authorize a non-public bid sale of the land. Beckham and his partner Jorge Mas went before the Miami Commissioners and (after a couple of fits and starts), got the Commissioners to agree to put the proposed change to the City Charter to a referendum. As things go these days, a lawsuit was filed by local resident/attorney Douglas Muir, alleging the process by which the referendum was sent to the voters was invalid. What are the specific complaints?
- The City didn’t follow the required procedure, and the whole process wasn’t transparent. The ballot language was insufficient and violates the law.
- The ballot language was insufficient and violates the law.
Unfortunately for Mr. Muir, his lawsuit was summarily dismissed, largely on the grounds that Mr. Matheson lost (lack of standing).
Status of case: Pending in the Florida Court of Appeals. He’s got until February to file his brief, at which point Beckham/Miami will file a response, and we’ll wait for the case to go to oral arguments. Probably sometime in the late spring. It’s likely to follow the same path as Matheson’s: If Muir loses, expect him to appeal before the Supremes.
So, we’ve got one case pending before the Florida Supreme Court, and one case before the Court of Appeals. Let’s see what’s happening at the trial court level.
- David Winker v. Miami Commissioners (Miami Freedom Park; Filed 2019)
And people say we don’t have a true soccer pyramid. Our last Miami-based litigation (for now) is a recent entrant. Mr. Winker’s suit focuses more on the circumstances behind the approval of the ballot language. Among the allegations are illegal lobbying.
These allegations resulted in a request from the City not to engage with Beckham or his group, which delayed negotiations with the commissioners to develop a lease/development agreement. That specific issue has now been cleared up, but the suit alleges that due to the alleged illegal lobbying, the referendum should be vacated.
Status of case: Super early. Not sure all of the partis have even been served yet. Expect MLS and/or the City to move to dismiss the case due to a lack of standing, among other things. Interestingly, in clearing up the lobbying issue, MLS had to disclose the ownership structure of the Beckham group, as well as who owns Miami Freedom Park.
As I’ve noted previously, the other issue Beckham and MLS have is that they need four of five commissioners to agree to a lease, and right now two of the commissioners are adamantly opposed. So we’ll see how that goes.
THE UNITED STATES OF LAWSUITS
Perhaps it’s a good thing that U.S. Soccer (Mens) team failed to make the World Cup; it’s allowed them to devote considerable resources to fighting various lawsuits around the country (too soon?).
- NASL v. USSF/MLS (Anti-trust)
The lawsuit is in some ways a proxy battle for what soccer in the United States will (or should) look like for a generation. There are so many intertwined issues here it’s a bit difficult to summarize concisely. I’m going to focus on the lawsuit itself though, in order not to get sucked down the rabbit hole. The NASL, created in part to compete with MLS for division one supremacy, came into existence around the turn of the decade. Over the years, they had ups and downs as they pursued that goal. Around 2015, their fortunes began to take a turn for the worse due to issues with Traffic Sports (indictments) and teams leaving for MLS (Minnesota United) or USL (San Antonio and Ottawa).
Things came to a head in the winter of 2016, when the New York Cosmos (and presumably the league) were a fax away from going out of business. They were saved by Rocco Commisso, who purchased the Cosmos and secured provisional sanctioning for the league for the 2017 season (all professional leagues under the USSF umbrella must apply for sanctioning every year).
Unfortunately for the NASL, in September of 2017, the USSF declined to extend sanctioning to the league for 2018, which led to a lawsuit and a request for an injunction to allow the league to continue playing. Both the preliminary injunction and subsequent appeal of said injunction request were denied, and currently the league exists in name only. The lawsuit itself is very much alive, however.
While the USSF indicated they were going to file a motion to dismiss the case, they ended up doing a 180 and filing a (somewhat catty) response to the suit. In the meantime, the NASL added MLS as a co-defendant, alleging conspiracy along with various other nasty claims. MLS for their part filed a standard response as well (without the snark).
Status of the case: Currently in the discovery phase. The parties are exchanging documents and deposing each other (I have it on good authority that former SUM president and USSF presidential candidate Kathy Carter has already been deposed). Discovery isn’t scheduled to be completed until November, so that means a trial (if there is one) isn’t likely until Winter 2020.
- NASL v. USSF (New York)
The lawsuit that, as it turned out, was an offshoot of the anti-trust case. While the anti-trust case focus on the actions of the USSF and MLS writ large, the New York case alleged that specific members of the Federation board breached their fiduciary duties in making the decision not to sanction NASL for the 2018 season. Specifically, they alleged that then-president Sunil Gulati improperly exerted influence over the board to get them to vote against sanctioning, and that certain board members didn’t do the basic research before making their decision.
So if the anti-trust case is like suing the business for alleged wrongdoing, the New York case was like suing the employees in a separate case for deciding to engage in wrongdoing. And you can probably see the problem. The USSF then filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that these two lawsuits largely overlapped, and thus was a waste of judicial resources (and attorney’s fees).
Status of the case: Dismissed. The judge sided with the argument from the USSF, agreeing that litigating cases with substantially similar facts would not be in the interests of judicial economy. There were some other hyper-technical rulings made, but no need to get into those here.
- USSF (Foundation) v. USSF
This is an odd one for sure. The US Soccer Foundation was formed out of profits from the 1994 World Cup, but does not have any really affiliation with the US Soccer Federation, aside from both board of directors having some of the same people (which is another issue). The basic story is: The Foundation has used the name US Soccer Foundation for 25 years without any complaints from the Federation, even though the Federation owns the trademarks.
Last summer, the Federation asked the Foundation to stop using the marks, presumably because the Federation wants to use them for their own purposes (though the Federation did not respond when asked what their intentions were, according to the Foundation).
I spoke to the Foundation president, Ed Foster-Simeon shortly after the case was filed. He made it clear that handing over the marks to the Federation would put the Foundation at risk of closing, given the difficulty of building a name/reputation from scratch.
The legal case regarding trademarks is an interesting one: Did the Federation essentially waive any claim due to their alleged inaction? Would the Federation be unfairly enriching themselves by taking control of the Foundation marks (and thereby the good name they’ve developed)?
Status of the case: An extension was granted to the Federation to respond to the lawsuit, and apparently the parties are having conversations, but the nature of those discussions were not disclosed. A joint status report is due February 1, so perhaps cooler heads are going to prevail here.
- Crossfire v. USSF/MLS/Tottenham
Another case which threatens to change the course of soccer in the United States from the youth academies to MLS. I’ve written a ton about the issues here, which center around solidarity payments (sp) and training compensation (tc). SP/TC are a system by which teams are rewarded for developing players who are later sold (solidarity payments) or sign their first professional contracts (training compensation). It’s a system used all over the world…except in the US, where MLS has refused to participate, and the USSF has refused to get involved to make them.
In 2015, Crossfire Premier decided to push the issue after Deandre Yedlin was sold by MLS to Tottenham, and requested the appropriate solidarity payments. MLS refused and kept all of the money, and Crossfire went to the Dispute Resolution Chamber to get relief. Neither MLS nor the USSF ever filed a response. Tottenham did, and basically blamed MLS and the USSF for the whole thing.
Status of the case: The ruling is supposedly imminent, but it’s been that way since about December 2018. That isn’t a long time, but certainly people are anxious to find out if the DRC sides with Crossfire, which could upend youth development in this country given the recent big money transfer of Christian Pulisic.
As for MLS: They’ve mostly changed their mind on the issue. However, the MLS Players Association is just as opposed as ever (I spoke to the head of the MLSPA, Bob Foose, myself last week and confirmed their position). That said, we’ll see what they do if they don’t like what the DRC has to say. I’ve heard conflicting things regarding how the MLSPA will handle things going forward (more on that later).
- Ottawa Fury/USL v. Concacaf:
I’ll have a lot more on this story in the next week or so, but boy this flashed into our consciousness like a shooting star. This has a lot more to do with political machinations than legal maneuverings per se, but since we could be dealing with this again sometime this summer, it feels right to include it. The (brief) background here is that the Ottawa Fury, current residents of the USL Championship, rebuffed a move to the nascent Canadian Premier League for the 2019 season.
The reasons (and there are many) revolve around the reluctance of an established team leaving an established league for the uncertainty of a new professional soccer league in Canada. There are certain requirements of teams wanting to play outside their domestic league, including establishing “exceptional circumstances” per the FIFA statutes, and getting premising from the domestic soccer federation (the CSA), the foreign soccer federation (USSF), the foreign soccer league (USL) and the confederation (Concacaf).
In December, the Fury were in the process of finalizing those approvals when Concacaf decided to drop the preemptive hammer and refuse permission to the Fury. That would have left them with the choice of trying to get into the CPL, or playing in some other Canadian league, or going on hiatus/folding.
The Fury didn’t take that lying down, going public and filing with the Court of Arbitration for Sport to get an injunction against the Concacaf ruling. In the aftermath, Concacaf backed down, allowing the Fury to play in the USL…for 2019. The legal definition of “exceptional circumstances” is as clear as mud, but either way Concacaf’s decision not to accept the Fury’s application was curious, given they hadn’t received it yet.
Status of the case: To be continued. The sanctioning is only good for 2019, so the Fury will have to go through this again. The former president for the Canadian Soccer Association was instrumental in getting the Canadian Premier League off the ground, and it is a poorly kept secret that he wants the Fury in the CPL. We’ll see what happens this summer after the CPL starts playing games and we get a feel for the quality (and financial viability) of the league.
- Hope Solo v. USSF
This one slipped a bit under my radar, and it really shouldn’t have. Solo’s issues with the USSF are long and varied, and this complaint is the latest in a long line of litigation. Solo first filed a complaint with the EEOC, but after not receiving any meaniful action, decided to purse the instant litigation.The action in this case has picked up in recent weeks, and I’ve not had a chance to review the pleadings in the case. That will change soon, and I’ll dedicate a separate story to the case, as it looks very interesting.
Status of the case: Well, it’s a bit complicated. The USSF has filed a motion to dismiss the case, as well as a motion to transfer venue, which is a bit interesting. I assume the USSF wants to get the case out of Califonia for one reason or another; once I get a chance to read the pleadings, I’ll update. There is a case management conference set for next month, so we’ll see where things are at then.
PUTTING OUT MLS FIRES
- Chicago Fire (Calderon v. Village of Bridgeview, Illinois et al)
Oh what a mess, and I don’t just mean the lawsuit itself. The Fire’s other off-field issues have been…well documented, so I’m not going to get into those here. As to the lawsuit…yeesh. It’s the culmination of a relationship with the supporters groups that has grown toxic. Much like the relationship with Bridgeview. There are a multitude of allegations here, ranging from conspiracy to false arrest to violations of civil rights.
I won’t repeat too much here, but the gyst is that after an incident on May 20, 2018, a Fire supporter was arrested for battery on a police officer, and subsequently banned from Fire games for a year. Except, the battery charge was dismissed when video evidence surfaced that appears to show no assault occured. It’s a wild read, that’s for sure.
Status of the case: We’re just at the beginning. My understanding is that just about everyone has been served and entered appearances. The next step will be for the various defendants (15 in all) to respond to the lawsuit, or file a motion to dismiss. That should be happening in the next several weeks.
- Save our Fairgrounds v. Nashville
These plaintiffs can’t seem to take a hint, at least based on their luck in court thus far. This is the second (third?) bite at the apple for SoF, as they attempted to sue Nashville back in 2017 while the city was getting the deal to build the stadium approved. The group filed suit back then claiming that the stadium deal would damage the existing flea market, which is supposedly protected by City Charter, but it was dismissed when the judge found the suit wasn’t ripe, as the money had not been appropriated. Once the money was approved in September 2018, they sued again.
Actually, it appears there are two lawsuits going on at the same time: One against the City and one against Nashville Metro. Confusing, I know.
Status of the case(s)?: Dismissed. On Thursday, the court entered summary judgment against SoF, ruling in emphatic (even brutal) fashion. Additionally, they awarded costs to the City, which means the suit bordered on the frivolous. The ruling essentially found that the City was doing what they needed to do to comply with the charter. The plaintiffs have vowed to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. Good luck. The remaining lawsuit is unlikely to get much traction either, but we’ll see.
- San Antonio v. MLS (?)
Sooooo, this is an interesting one. There isn’t a lawsuit that has been filed in this case, but a little background: When MLS announced they were expanding to 28 teams, 12 cities threw their names in the hat to try to land a franchise. One of those was San Antonio, who were finishing up an ownership transition whereby the San Antonio Spurs assumed control over the soccer team with the City and County owning the stadium. There were certain conditions attached to the sale, including a provision that the Spurs would have to pay $5 million to the county if they didn’t land a MLS franchise within 10 years.
So, off the Spurs went to try to win approval for a team. Except… Enter Anthony Precourt, now the owner of Austin FC. Unbeknownst to the Spurs and Bexar County, Mr. Precourt in 2013 had a clause inserted into his purchase of the Crew that would allow him to relocate to Austin, should the “business metrics” in Columbus not work out.
Mr. Precourt of course attempted to exercise that clause in 2017 to relocate the Crew. And he would have gotten away with it, had it not been for those pesky kids (see above). Apparently MLS was dead set on getting to Austin, because instead of just paying Mr. Precourt out and sending on his way (which is allowed per MLS rules), they worked to get him a stadium deal in Austin.
And, they did it! The stadium deal was finalized, and Mr. Precourt is set to start his MLS franchise in 2021. Circling back to Mr. Precourt’s announcement in October 2017 about relocating the Crew to Austin: It didn’t sit well with Bexar County officials. Specifically, one Judge Nelson Wolff, who requested his attorneys analyze whether MLS had committed fraud in inducing a San Antonio purchase of the stadium and bid, while knowing they where hot for Austin and unlikely to have two teams within such a short distance (we’ll ignore the Red Bulls and NYCFC, and LA/LAFC, and Columbus and Cincinnati for that matter).
Status of the case: It’s complicated. The findings from the investigation found that while MLS behavior was “unfair, unethical and duplicitous” (ouch!), there didn’t appear to be a cause of action due to San Antonio withdrawing from consideration from teams 25 and 26, which were what MLS was considering at the time (Nashville and Cincinnati). That said, the ruling did not foreclose future litigation, should MLS conduct a future round of expansion (and we know they’re going to).
So, those in Bexar County with dreams of Don Garber being frogmarched through the streets of San Antonio can keep hope alive. Though I suspect MLS awards San Antonio a team before that happens. Rough way to start a relationship though.
- Friends of McKalla/Indy Austin/Bill Aleshire v. Austin (?)
Might as well finish up with another potential Austin lawsuit. With the completion of the lease/development and awarding of the team, the time would seem to be ripe for Bill Aleshire, local attorney to decide what he wants to do regarding his threatened lawsuit. Back in June 2018, I did an interview with him regarding his concerns over the proposed deal. At the time Mr. Aleshire indicated that any lawsuit that he may file would be dependent on when the deal between MLS and Austin was finalized.
Well, we’re at that point now. Austin FC is planning to break ground in September 2019. Given that timeline, it would seem that a suit would need to be filed in the next couple of months, assuming he intends to seek an injunction to prevent construction. Once construction is under way, it’ll be substantially more difficult to stop.
I spoke the Mr. Aleshire after the announcement in January, and he was still reviewing the lease agreement, so no decision has been made on a lawsuit. Regarding the referendum(s): Friends of McKalla have filed the required signatures to force a referendum, but there is a debate as to whether it can be held in May or November.
Status of the case(s): Up in the air. The City claims the referendum must be in November, claiming a rule that prevents elections from being held within six months of each other. On that point, Mr. Aleshire told me if the City tries to push it off until November, they’ll be sued. “The city charter prohibits ‘special’ elections within 6 months of each other, but the November election was a ‘general’ election.” Aleshire said. “This Mayor and Council majority already lost one lawsuit thinking they could block such an election.”
As for IndyAustin, it looks like they’re not pursuing their efforts anymore, after some controversy.
So there you go: Every major litigation in the United States related to soccer. There is actually one more: The petition before the Court of Arbitration for Sport attempting to force U.S. Soccer to implement promotion/relegation, filed by Miami FC and Kingston Stockade. However, there is next to no information available on that case, beyond the petition that was filed. I’ve reached out seeking comment, but have yet to hear back. If I do, I’ll be sure to update this space.