By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 25, 2015) US Soccer Players - It’s totally unfair, what MLS is doing to the NASL. The NASL is just trying to build a strong league here, without the restraints of single-entity (yuck), because America has more than enough soccer-interested cities make a second competition viable. Then the big, bad, MLS comes along and poaches all of the NASL’s best markets, setting the young league back and forcing its leadership to rush to start new teams (with all of the uncertainty that implies) instead of basking in the stability provided by existing clubs.
What’s a second division league to do? Sorry. What is a second division league with designs on co-first division status to do?
Unfortunately, there’s not much NASL 2.0 can do. As long as Major League Soccer is the higher profile, richer, and more stable division, teams and their cities will line up to get a chance to jump into the topflight. It’s not just that MLS has a head start on the NASL, it’s that the older competition positioned itself to be more attractive to both fans and owners. For fans, the allure of MLS revolves around it’s shiny new stadiums, national TV contracts, and better top-end players. For owners, it’s all of those same things plus the warm safety blanket of shared risk and cost controls.
Those factors almost guarantee that the Minnesota United FCs and San Antonio Scorpions of the world will view their current league as a temporary stop on the way to the big league. If MLS is in the expansion business, there will be clubs in NASL chomping at the bit to make their case for whatever spots are on offer.
It’s not necessarily about which league is better for the game, or which business model allows the most freedom to play the best soccer. The casual fan is rarely interested in the structure of a league. Owners, limited by the geographical elements of North American soccer, will prioritize financial sobriety over concerns of quality.
Needless to say, this leaves the NASL in a bind. The stated aim to raise itself level with MLS in the American soccer pyramid is impossible as long as the competition poaches its clubs. Rather than allow the NASL to expand, these lost clubs leave the league rushing to replace them. With US Soccer standards dictating elements of the league’s operation in order for it to maintain second division status, the NASL finds itself pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it come back down again every time MLS dips into its club roster.
Don Garber’s recent admission that MLS is considering the possibility of expanding past 24 teams must have sent a cold chill up the spine of everyone at the NASL’s New York offices, even if they saw it coming. Not only has the league had to stand by while MLS strolled in and occupied the Atlanta market ahead of a 2017 launch, putting the viability of the Silverbacks in doubt, but Wednesday now brings word that Minnesota United will soon defect for MLS. Is there any doubt that if Indianapolis builds a soccer venue for Indy Eleven, MLS will soon be on the minds of fans in the region?
No one could blame NASL leadership if they saw their work as an exercise in futility. No one could blame NASL leadership if they’re not sure where to go from here. No one could blame NASL leadership if they find frustration in sowing seeds only to watch someone else reap the harvest. There might be many cities in America where professional soccer can thrive, but there isn’t an unlimited supply. There is certainly a finite amount that can become home to professional soccer clubs that can then combine to merit the league a higher status than the one they currently occupy.
The NASL can continue to fight it out, working towards the lofty goal of competing directly with Major League Soccer. Or, they can lower their sights and begin to identify possible markets where soccer might work without “major league” credentials. That strategy would help eliminate the poaching by MLS, a league very conscious of market size and market profile. America’s second tier sports cities won’t help NASL reach division one levels, but they might allow the league to grow and stabilize.
On the one hand, the NASL deserves ample credit for what it has done establishing successful soccer clubs in places like San Antonio and Indianapolis. The brand new Armada seems primed to be a hit in Jacksonville. The league still has legacy clubs in Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa, not to mention the supernova that is the Cosmos up in New York.
On the other, the MLS expansion machine is ready and willing to suck up any successful clubs in prominent cities the NASL might create. This Catch-22 shouldn’t just be a matter of concern for the younger league, either. It’s worth asking if MLS is in fact doing the sport in the United States any favors by ballooning up to massive size while grabbing away second division markets and teams.
MLS might not have any compunction about relegating (no pun intended) the NASL to the shadows, forcing it to live off the scraps. If the two leagues are in competition, and with no integration in place or forthcoming, then it’s within the bigger league’s rights to run their competition how they see fit.
It’s never just that simple though. There should be some responsibility to the long-term health of the sport, even if that means passing on what looks to be a golden opportunity because it would hurt the second division. America (and Canada) might not have a system that relies on movement between divisions, but that doesn’t mean the top division should feed off the others with no regard for their well-being.
Is the US big enough to support two strong, independent leagues like MLS and the NASL? Probably, though the way things are going for the NASL, we won’t be finding out anytime soon.
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