By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 3, 2013) US Soccer Players - Soccer, for now, the foreseeable future, and probably beyond, is a growth industry. Soccer growth means soccer expansion. Major League Soccer has leveraged rising interest in soccer and the high-level professional game to double the number of franchises in a decade. When MLS kicks off in 2015, twice as many teams will vie for the MLS Cup as participated in the inaugural season of 1996, and more cities are lining up to join the party.
The expansion rush isn’t just an MLS thing. The revived North American Soccer League, launched two years ago after a split between owners of America’s second division, is adding teams on what seems like a monthly basis. USL-PRO, the nominal third division and the other side of the minor league split, is doing its part to fill up the map with franchises. In some cases, the two leagues are battling for the interest of soccer fans in the same city. Whether or not this situation is a sign of the game’s strength or yet another indication that American soccer is incapable of getting out of its own way.
In Oklahoma City, professional soccer is set to return to The Sooner State for the first time since the Tulsa Roughnecks of the original NASL disappeared with the demise of that league in 1984. What team ends up calling OKC home is a competition between leagues, the NASL and USL-Pro.
With low expansions fees and leagues anxious to grow, the likelihood is that the two lower divisions will collide with a fair amount of regularity in the future, in cities across the United States and Canada. The two leagues already go head-to-head in Tampa (the NASL has the Tampa Bay Rowdies, USL-PRO has VSI Tampa Bay FC), and fought it out in San Antonio just a few years ago with the NASL side coming out on top and plans for a USL-PRO team fizzling. Not only are lower division soccer clubs facing an uphill battle for long-term survival simply based on the financial realities, the relationship between organizations continues to complicate the situation.
If there’s a dark lining to all of this expansion, it’s the sport’s sordid here today/gone tomorrow history. While new clubs popping up all over America seems like a positive - why would investors line up to buy in if soccer didn’t have a bright future - the landscape is too littered with questionable intentions and defunct clubs to breed much confidence in the new wave of expansion. Perhaps American soccer has entered a new golden age where outright stability is possible, but until a few years pass without a split, feud, disagreement, or dissolution of a club or clubs, we can’t be certain the cycle of dysfunction is truly over.
The most important aspiration American soccer can have is stability. That will remain true for as long as the sport struggles for mainstream attention and makes most of its money through ticket sales and not TV contracts. Major League Soccer gets stronger by the year in part because the more time passes that the league exists, the less likely it seems it will suffer the same fate as the original NASL. After decades of turmoil, the lower divisions of the sport would do well to simply focus on the task of staying in business. Growth is important, but permanence is essential.
NASL commissioner Bill Petersen took to Twitter on Monday to respond to fan concerns, answer questions about his league, and promote an open dialog about the future. Among his many tweets was one that appeared to “announce” Oklahoma City’s expansion bid without committing to the team entering the league. In another tweet, in response to a question he says he gets more than any other, Petersen said the NASL would be open to promotion and relegation with MLS.
Putting aside the incongruity in financial commitment between NASL owners and their MLS counterparts, a fact that might make pro/rel a non-starter for many years to come, Petersen’s statement illustrates the ambitious nature of his competition and the resolute faith the NASL has in the future of soccer. Promotion and relegation would bring a new element to American soccer that could be transformative in scope. Like other leagues around the world, the intrigue of who will go up and who will go down would heighten the importance of regular season matches and drive interest at levels below the top flight. At the same time, back and forth between leagues would stress a system that does not have a strong record of sustainability.
For now, with pro/rel little more than a pipe dream, American soccer’s boom times will play out through expansion to what appear to be under-served markets across the country. Whether it’s through MLS expansion with fees in the tens of millions of dollars or further down the ladder with minor league soccer’s lower entrance requirements, the game’s growth is staggering.
Between now and 2015, American soccer will welcome six new fully professional clubs to the ranks (a number that does not includes Canadian addition Ottawa to NASL), with the possibility more will be added before that year’s season begins. That’s certainly a good sign that soccer’s future in this part of the world, and it’s difficult not to feel positive about the direction of the sport.
Over time, however, American soccer’s new boom will be - and should be - judged on just how stable all of this heady club proliferation turns out to be. Adding new clubs is great. Adding clubs that celebrate silver and golden anniversaries is better. In order for that permanence to take hold, American soccer will have to solve it’s dysfunction and leave it’s history to the past.
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