By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 21, 2015) US Soccer Players – A grand tradition pervades American soccer. In this tradition, the game’s leading figures freely ignore reality when talking about the growth of the sport in the United States. When there is no cap on the possibilities, and the environment is one of wild, rampant investment, there’s no reason to avoid hyperbole.
Depending on where you sit, such rhetoric might not even constitute hyperbole. Take the words of New York Cosmos chairman Seamus O’Brien in an interview with The Guardian.
“What do I think we will look like in, say, five years’ time?” O’Brien asked The Guardian’s Jack Williams. “I think we will be playing in our own stadium, in a league of 18 to 20 teams, and we will be competing at the highest level in this country.”
O’Brien’s vision is quite the leap from the current position of both his team and its league. The Cosmos stadium situation is a long, drawn out affair that remains without a resolution. To imagine that the club will get something done, built, and opened in five years is more than enough to strain the imagination. Maybe O’Brien is just being optimistic that a major black eye for his team, the inability to get a stadium built despite all of their bluster about placing a glittering soccer palace in Elmont, New York, can be resolved in the shortest possible timeline.
It’s the rest of O’Brien’s dream of the future that reopens the can of worms the NASL is intent on keeping ajar for all of American soccer to deal with. O’Brien is restating the aggressive NASL position that the nascent league intends to challenge MLS for professional supremacy in the United States. He sounds very much like the usual mouthpiece of the league, commissioner Bill Peterson, as he casually conjures a time when the NASL is fully built out (or as built out as it would need to be to be considered a “legitimate” challenger for first division status) and playing a brand of soccer indistinguishable from, or better than, what Major League Soccer offers.
On its own and stripped of the context of the moment on the website of The Guardian, O’Brien’s dream is provocative enough. Peterson’s repeated statements in this vein keep the NASL ante high, though they are beginning to take on the hiss of white noise because of their repetitive nature. To hear the man in charge of the NASL’s most famous club – a man with ample resources at his disposal – outline the goal so clearly feels new and notable, especially with the timeframe element.
Five years is not a lot of time. For the NASL to get to 18 to 20 teams in that span, the league will have to add at least seven new franchises. That task more difficult by the defection of NASL teams for MLS and MLS moving into NASL markets, putting the future of teams there in question. The NASL is straining against a set of boulders that includes more than the simple task of selling soccer in America. It’s also fighting against the desire of its own teams to leave for the League it wants to face off against for first division status.
It’s also doubtful O’Brien speaks for the rest of the NASL owners. Some might have his sense of ambition, but there’s bound to be a portion of the investors who aren’t keen on spending the money necessary to compete with MLS on an even footing. Even if more than enough of the league’s owners are willing to follow Peterson and the Cosmos into the breach, willingness doesn’t equal ability. American soccer has a long history of big-eyed investors going overboard and spending their clubs into oblivion. MLS and the new NASL both trade on 40-year old history that speaks to the folly of out-of-control growth.
O’Brien laid out the reality of the MLS vs NASL battle, if there is to be one, by framing it as one of philosophy. If these were two leagues operating in the same arena with similar ideas as to how to sell both the game and their product, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
“The difference between the NASL and MLS is actually a business story – it’s not necessarily a sporting story. At the end of the day, the market is going to decide.”
It’s undeniable that NASL wants to pit itself against MLS not only on the field, but in the minds of soccer fans around the country. The NASL is fostering the perception it is a league that hews closer to the international norm. It’s doing so through the words of its commissioner who flogs the promotion/relegation debate for cheap heat without ever needing to follow through thanks to MLS intransigence as well as the statements of the man in charge of its leading franchise.
O’Brien knows as well as anyone that the NASL he envisions in five years is still a long way from coming to fruition. The NASL expansion model allows for much easier entry than MLS, but there are serious hurdles to selling soccer in any market at a second division level. Talking up the league, and it’s future, is a bid to cut into those disadvantages. It almost doesn’t matter for now whether the NASL will ever compete directly with Major League Soccer.
Can the Cosmos and MLS reach the milestones O’Brien outlined? Maybe, though it seems unlikely. That’s the amazing thing about getting involved in American soccer. All things are possible and “reality” is in the eye of the beholder.
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