By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 23, 2016) US Soccer Players – Depending on just how doom-and-gloom one wants to be about the North American Soccer League, the news swirling around the NASL and its clubs is either “troubling” or “nuclear meltdown disastrous.” Not only is the NASL facing the departure of one of its anchor teams as Minnesota United plays out the string before moving to MLS next season, now SI.com’s Brian Straus is reporting that the Ottawa Fury are considering jumping to the USL for 2017.
Oh, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies may follow suit. That’s a bombshell of a revelation. It says more about the health of the league than of the other worrisome developments. Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is a true believe of the NASL Way. That’s a specific set of free markets ideals that sets the league apart from single-entity Major League Soccer. The NASL built its image on legacy brands like the New York Cosmos and the Rowdies. Both have ownerships committed to the cause.
Meanwhile, Ft Lauderdale’s owners may or may not have already pulled out and left the league holding the financial bag. Rayo OKC’s future is in real jeopardy after their parent club dropped down a division over in Spain. Even an expansion team in San Francisco can’t distract from the reality that life is hard in these second division streets.
In a lot of ways, this is the NASL reaping what it sowed. Getting into relationships with owners who couldn’t commit to long term projects. Taking on markets that were fraught with potential pitfalls. All while trumpeting the growing relevance of the league and pushing teams to invest more in their on-field project. That brought the NASL to this point. There’s no better word than “ironic” for resurrecting the name of a defunct soccer league that collapsed due to over-expansion, over-spending, and fly-by-night ownership, and so we’ll use it.
Straus’s quotes NASL commissioner Bill Peterson about the “unique relationship” between soccer leagues in the United States. In many other countries, leagues operate under the umbrella of a Federation that helps to align their interests. Here, three leagues are operating as competing businesses. They’re making decisions that are only about soccer insofar as they help the business of the league prosper.
In other words, America doesn’t have an integrated pyramid. That’s something the NASL has made soft noises about before. It’s part of their lament over US Soccer’s labeling of leagues “Division 1”, ‘Division 2”, and “Division 3.”
Peterson isn’t wrong here. The sanctioning battle was part of what created both NASL’s, the old one and the new. League always precede franchises in this country. The power dynamics are very different. Leagues are business partnerships in their own right, rather than as the framework in which individual teams operate. With that comes distinct North American soccer problems. It’s not just the current version of the NASL that hasn’t come up with a workable solution.
The future is not written and the NASL may survive this rough patch. If it does not, it’s a strike against the pyramid concept. While it frustrates purists, the only path to an integrated pyramid and the romance of promotion and relegation is multiple strong leagues with a host of well-run teams building infrastructure and becoming relevant a sports entities in their communities. There is no reality in which the people who have invested heavily in the game in the United States choose to hit a hard reset button and institute a system that could see their investment relegated. Only upward pressure could convince those people that there would be more to gain from that system than the one currently in place.
The NASL issued a statement late Thursday night, addressing the news of their travails. It offered no specifics. The five-sentence missive only hints at the turmoil reported by Sports Illustrated. Perhaps most interesting is a casual reference to the league’s “dedicated owners”, a phrase that implies there might be some NASL groups not as dedicated.
Here’s to hoping that the NASL Board, commissioner Bill Peterson, and the group of “dedicated owners” right the ship before it sinks beneath the waves. There, at the bottom, lies a vast graveyard of leagues and clubs that operated in denial of the realities of the American soccer landscape. Each and every one of those dead leagues and clubs represents a calcified piece of failure of the sport in the country. Creating new soccer things is fun and exciting and sometimes surprises. However, it’s important and necessary that things both new and old simply survive so that supporting soccer in America becomes a habit that none of us can shake.
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