By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 22, 2020) US Soccer Players - It took a global pandemic to bring the sport of soccer to a dramatic halt. Around the world, stadiums sit empty as governments work to mitigate the fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. Life is paramount. Professional sports, as important as we sometimes make them, take a back seat to protecting public health.
Rather, it's the game on the field currently suspended. The business of soccer continues, even in these difficult circumstances. That's especially true for the business of expansion, from Major League Soccer down to the newest entry on the pro soccer scene, the National Independent Soccer Association. The business axiom goes that if you're not growing, you're dying. American soccer holds that axiom close to its heart.
NISA's expansion efforts might not exactly fall under that heading. The league is new enough that it hasn't even played a "proper" season. NISA's stop-start launch over the past few years and the timing of the pandemic means the competition is still in its early phase. This Spring was supposed to be NISA's first under the single-table format it plans to use moving forward. The league played a fall season to close 2019 that split the eight teams into two divisions.
Expansion is core to NISA's plan because the barrier for entry is intentionally low. The "independent" in "National Independent Soccer Association" is meant to identify NISA as a competition that takes on any club that can meet its small entry fee.
The latest club to buy into NISA's planned disruption of the professional game in the United States is New Amsterdam FC, a team based in New York City. The league didn't provide much detail when announcing New Amsterdam officially on Tuesday, though the rumor is the club will play its home games at Fordham University in the Bronx.
A new team in New York City joining NISA will create an immediate derby for the league. Both New Amsterdam and the New York Cosmos will begin play with the Fall 2020 season. The Cosmos will move back into professional soccer after spending the last few seasons in the semi-pro ranks of the NPSL.
New York City is filling up with pro soccer outfits. New Amsterdam will join the Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, and a new USL Championship outfit, Queensboro FC, in the market.
Like New Amsterdam, Queensboro hasn't yet played a game. The club, backed by asset management mogul Jonathan Krane and fronted by Spanish legend David Villa, planned to enter the growing second division to start the 2021 season. Krane and Villa envision the club as representing Queens and specifically Queens. It's a concept that seems oddly limiting save for the fact that the borough is home to over 2 million people, more than enough to support a minor league soccer team.
The pandemic might have changed Queensboro's plans. In a Q&A last week, USL president Jake Edwards indicated the club is less sure about it's intended 2021 launch and may need to push back joining the Championship until 2022. It's not difficult to imagine that while expansion is typically a full-throttle endeavor, some groups will adjust in light of the global health crisis.
Queensboro doesn't yet have a head coach but has already hired a technical director. Former Cosmos assistant and Villa compatriot Luis Guttierez joined the team in mid-April. One can only imagine how much more difficult the process of building a coaching staff is when travel and in-person interviews are nearly impossible.
Charlotte starts MLS play in 2021. Investor/operator David Tepper, who became the league's wealthiest club owner when he jumped the line of MLS expansion and convinced MLS to admit the largest city in the Carolinas, is anxious to get his team on the field. So far, the pandemic hasn't slowed down the effort.
The team is currently building out its scouting department to get a jump on its short timeline. The club hired Marc Nicholls as technical director in early January and added scouting director Thomas Schaling. The group now has a sports psychologist, a data and video analyst, and a scout. With a plan to make a few signings in the summer, Charlotte's roster construction could get out ahead of its branding announcement. Despite a few rumors bouncing around, the 2021 MLS entry doesn't yet have a name, badge, or colors.
Charlotte has a long way to go to catch up with its 2021 expansion mates, Austin FC. Anthony Precourt's Texas team is well down its checklist for its first season, with only a playing roster left to acquire. Claudio Reyna is overseeing the soccer operations as sporting director, Josh Wolff is preparing to be the club's first head coach, and the team's 20,500-seat home is under construction.
The pandemic might slow down recruitment and the stadium's progress. A plan to sign the club's first players in June is now more difficult because scouting opportunities and loan options are no longer available. Even the college draft's value to Austin could be affected with no clear notion of how collegiate soccer will proceed this fall.
Austin's stadium construction has been subject to the push-pull of politics in the state of Texas. The City of Austin temporarily shut down all construction projects in the capital, only to be overruled by Governor Greg Abbott. In the intervening two weeks since the whiplash of those decisions, progress resumed with strict social distancing guidelines in place. Those restrictions can only delay the stadium's opening, initially planned for the start of the 2021 season. Add one more complication to the list for MLS to deal with when life returns to normal and soccer resumes.
For Sacramento and St Louis, the timeline is a bit longer. That doesn't mean the pandemic doesn't have an impact on their plans.
Stadium construction is an issue for both. Groundbreakings for the St. Louis stadium on the western end of that city's downtown area and Sacramento's Railyards project planned for Spring are currently and understandably on hold. St Louis also planned to unveil its branding this Spring. Ahead of the launch of the season in February, lead owner Carolyn Kindle Betz indicated the club would announce a name and logo a few weeks into March.
March has now come and gone. St Louis still doesn't have an identity to sell its fans-in-waiting. It's likely the leadership in St Louis is biding its time until the COVID-19 fog lifts and the club can do a proper celebration. Getting a head start on those elements can help lay the groundwork for a successful league launch, but St. Louis might be better off waiting.
Sacramento has an established identity and a USL existence. The Republic has an advantage, but like everything else right now it's one that needs games on the schedule.
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Logo courtesy of New Amsterdam FC