By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 16, 2017) US Soccer Players – We’re nearing the end of the latest round of MLS expansion. Though commissioner Don Garber recently suggested that the next round might face a delay, the league was quick to confirm that they’re set to announce two more teams in mid-December. That’s how the league works right now, adding clubs on a regular schedule.
Cities have been lining up to get a franchise over the past few years. That’s a compliment to MLS, but it’s also the current market for anything that can increase the profile of a city. No municipality wants to take a step back. Certainly not if it happens while watching a rival city get a team, a convention center, a corporate headquarters, or a new development.
Politics remains key to where teams land. While there's excitement over medium-sized markets to get a team, taxpayers and local politicians don't want to be on the hook for building a soccer-specific stadium. It's the type of corporate welfare citizens feel they can do without. As a result, deserving markets such as St Louis may miss out on being in MLS.
Expansion creates excitement and arguments among fans. It all depends whether your city is the one who gets a team. In a country with no promotion and relegation, the expansion sweepstakes is the only way in. It also creates concerns. The expansion story isn’t new in American soccer, pointing back to the bad old days when the original North American Soccer League added too many teams.
MLS learned the hard way that growing would take time. Franchises in Miami and Tampa contracted in 2002. They moved San Jose to Houston following the 2005 season. If not for generous investors such as Phillip Anschutz, it's really anyone's guess if MLS itself would have survived. Though MLS has spent a lot of time especially early in its existence distancing itself from what the NASL did, it’s still worth looking back. Here are five teams during the NASL era that still serve as a lesson for when expansion doesn’t make sense.
Soccer isn’t hockey. Canada has always had a strange relationship with the game. Eastern cities like Toronto and Montreal always had enough of an ethnic base to draw crowds. The same wasn’t true for Calgary. The Memphis Rogues relocated there for the 1981 season, their last. On the field, the club made the playoffs. Off it, they couldn’t figure out their new market quickly enough. Sharing an owner with the National Hockey League’s Flames, another relocated franchise, wasn’t enough. The franchise lost over $2 million before folding.
Nestled between the major markets of New York and Boston, it didn't seem necessary to have another franchise. In a market dominated by the Cosmos, the NASL tried to create demand for a new club in Connecticut. Based in Hartford for 1975, the team moved to New Haven the following season. They changed the name from Hartford to Connecticut with the same issues in their new town. The team relocated to Oakland for the 1978 season, lasting a year there before becoming the Edmonton Drillers.
Like the Boomers, the Drillers were trying to copy the model established by the city’s NHL team. The Oilers were on the brink of a dynasty, but the soccer team wouldn’t last that long. Making that move from Oakland for the ’79 season, they folded in 1982. The name returned in various forms in other leagues by different ownership groups: National Professional Soccer League from 1996 to 2000 and the Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League from 2007-2010.
Frustrated with failing to make the World Cup, the NASL decided to field a team exclusively made up of American citizens and base it in Washington, DC. The team never took off. Having a version of your National Team play in a domestic league doesn't equal success on or off the field. The team averaged just 12,000 fans after finishing with a 10-20 record. It folded after just one season. The team amassed American players from the NASL, ASL and MISL, but couldn’t get several top US-born players such as Rick Davis, Juli Veee, and Winston DuBose to come on board. The city wouldn’t get another pro team until DC United with the start of MLS in 1996.
The state furthest away from the US mainland got a pro soccer team in 1977. Based in Honolulu, it was a bold move and one that required teams to travel thousands of miles to play games. It typified the arrogance and irresponsibly of the league in those days. Hawaii began the season coached by Hubert Vogelsinger, but he became ill halfway through the season. Charlie Mitchell took over and served as player-coach for the remainder of the year. The team finished with 11-15 record and attracted an average of just 5,000 fans at the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium. Even when the Cosmos and Pele came to town, the game drew 12,877 and the stadium still appeared empty. After just one season, the team moved to Tulsa as the Roughnecks.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi: