By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 21, 2016) US Soccer Players – Needless to say, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury timing could be a bit better. Certainly if you’re running a professional soccer league with ambitions of reaching the top of the game in North America.
Tuesday’s announcement that both the Rowdies and Fury will be moving to the United Soccer League in 2017 is a significant blow the the competition they’re exiting, the North American Soccer League. It comes just ahead of the final weekend of the NASL regular season. At a time when focus should be on the field in the NASL, attention shifts to the drama off it. This comes at a time when the league would prefer to have the focus on several success stories and a high quality of play,
The reasons for the dual exodus are economic and pragmatic. The USL represents a chance to continue operating at lower costs in a league with a clearer future in front of it. Rowdies owner Bill Edwards was, once upon a time, happy to help prop up some of the more financially destitute teams in the NASL. Now, with the winds of change blowing in the wrong direction, even a league stalwart like Edwards decided self-relegation was the correct choice.
That’s what it is, self-relegation. A supremely unique phenomenon to American and Canadian soccer, self-relegation is almost always driven by financial concerns. In this case, the level distinctions between lower divisions in this part of the world should have very little bearing on the popularity of a clubs opting to drop down. Logic suggests it would be more difficult to sell soccer fans on supporting a team if they’re in the third division rather than the second. However, the current state of the NASL and the rise of USL is blurring those lines.
The statement issued by Edwards and the Rowdies served as an indictment of the NASL without explicitly pointing out that league’s problems.
“We are excited to join the United Soccer League in 2017,” Edwards said. “I have said from the day I acquired controlling interest in this club that I wanted to make it one of the most successful teams in North America. The USL is a vibrant league, and this move is a necessary and positive step toward reaching the long-term goals and objectives of the club.”
Painting the move as “necessary” sends a clear message that Edwards sees the NASL as a sinking ship. Ok, but how can the Rowdies reconcile their ambition (“…wanted to make it one of the most successful teams in North America”) with a move to a lower division?
An answer to that question lies with the application of the USL for second division status and what seems to be a bet by Edwards the NASL won’t be long for the North American soccer scene. Two teams opting for USL soccer doesn’t help the NASL. Ottawa has been in the NASL family since 2011, two years before they fielded a team. The NASL now will go into 2017 with nine teams, just above the bare minimum needed to field a professional league under the auspices of the US Soccer Federation.
The USL is safe haven for the Rowdies and the Fury. Having a stable, growing league to play in is hardly a given in this country. Their decisions might muddle the lower division picture in the short term, but it makes sense for their futures.
Given the situation, the NASL has little choice but to reconsider how they’re operating. This is no longer a collection of big dreaming owners desperate to step out from the budget conscious approach of the old USL. Instead, it’s now a chastened group of owners desperate to hold their version of the sport in America together.
Ambition has not been the league’s best guide over the course of the last few seasons. The rush to add teams and money ended in disaster in two notable examples. Ft. Lauderdale’s ownership stopped paying the bills, forcing the league to step in. Oklahoma City seems set to lose Rayo OKC, a satellite club with a Spanish parent now playing in that country’s second division.
The conventional wisdom is that the modern day NASL followed the original NASL’s lead. They tied the new NASL to the Cosmos, a stunning bit of irony for a league that chose to embrace nostalgia.
Also in play is a bigger question. What does this mean for the long-term future of American professional soccer?
Stability will always be the white whale of the sport in this part of the world. So on one hand, it’s good to see the USL as a growing competition that looks like it’s going to be around for awhile in the USL. Still, that stability is mainly due to its partnership with MLS. That’s turned the league into a reserve division for the top flight.
Reserves and young players getting a chance to compete is good, but the synergy means there can’t be much pressure from below on MLS. There are other ways to run a professional soccer league in North America, and MLS could use a counterpoint. The NASL represents a way of doing soccer differently. If nothing else, they’re a push for MLS to be progressive and aggressive in its thinking.
This isn’t the NASL’s epitaph. They have games left on the schedule. There’s talk of expansion and meeting the regulations imposed by US Soccer. American soccer as a whole is better off for it. The NASL as a strong league with committed teams focused on local markets with strong support is only upside for pro soccer in this country.
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