The other week, I went with some friends to see Indy XI beat Miami FC 2-1 in what was my first NASL game. The game was pretty fun, with some good attacking football from the home team and a solid crowd of over 7,000. However, unless I make it to another match in the next month or so, that may well have also been my last NASL game.
Recently, news involving several teams in the North American Soccer League has come out. It's been known for some time now that Rayo Oklahoma City was in some trouble. With their major backer, Rayo Vellecano being relegated from the Spanish first division, the club found itself cash strapped. At one point, one of the owners took some of the turf in order to prevent it from being auctioned off. However, Rayo OKC is not the only team in trouble. It's been discovered that the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a club with a long history of mismanagement, has been struggling to pay its players, with some months salaries coming late. Now, the league's owners have announced that they will not fund the team for the remainder of the season. Rumors have also come out that at least two teams may be abandoning ship for the USL, the third division league. First the Ottawa Fury, and then the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Both Ottawa and Tampa are rumored to be upset with the instability and politics of the league and see USL as a better, safer, and cheaper environment (with Tampa also interested in jumping up to MLS.)
All together, the NASL will likely be losing at least 4 teams: Minnesota United to MLS, 2 to the USL, one almost certainly folding from financial distress, as well as a fifth problem in Fort. Lauderdale. Even with the San Francisco Deltas officially joining the league, the NASL will be down to 8 or 9 clubs. USSF requires the NASL to have at least 12 teams, so the league is falling short. There's also the issue of national coverage. The league is required to have teams in at least 3 time zones in the US (sorry Edmonton) for the 2017 season. The addition of San Francisco had made the league meet that requirement, but with Minnesota moving up and Rayo OKC likely disappearing, they will again be noncompliant. All of this means that the second division is potentially in line for a disaster in the coming months.
The NASL came into existence when 6 clubs spun off from the USL over disputes between owners in 2009. While few of the then-owners are still at the clubs, the animosity that came with the original schism is still there. Then, the New York Cosmos and their owners came in with an objective of vaulting (mostly themselves) into a position where they could directly compete with MLS. The New York club instituted a policy of buying expensive players on high contracts. The practice spread to a number of other clubs, even though attendances stagnated or dropped. Only the Carolina Railhawks saw growth in average attendance. The Cosmos and Edmonton dropping over 25% while Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale dropped over 50%. The league also has high travel costs. Most of the clubs are confined to the east coast (there's four teams in just Florida!), which makes traveling out to or from Edmonton, Puerto Rico, or even Minnesota very expensive. In contrast, both USL and MLS are large enough to employ divisions which help limit travel distances and costs. The NASL is not in a position to constrain travel like that, especially with the time zone mandate.
With all of these issues, what can the NASL do to save itself?
Beg USSF to grant it an extension
Good luck with that.
The NASL has not made friends with either MLS or the USL. The league even threatened to sue USSF for granting MLS a monopoly in first division play, though they have since backed off from that ledge. USSF first granted some leniency to the NASL before gradually increasing the requirements for second division status in recent years. The chances of this happening are, well, let's just go with unlikely.
Announce ~ 4 More Expansion Teams for 2017
You've got six months to put together a team. May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor!
With declining attendances, failing markets, high travel costs, high player salaries and acquisition costs, and ill-will from the other leagues and even the federation, the NASL is not looking like the best investment. That said, San Francisco will definitely be coming into the league. The NASL has said that they are working hard to find investors and place teams, with Chicago in particular being close. However, one team is not enough, and if the league tries to expand aggressively to keep numbers up, they may have to take less qualified investors. The NASL obviously has had trouble with finding owners who are financially strong, committed, and willing to won a professional soccer team with two teams struggling so profoundly. If the league cannot vet owners thoroughly enough, more established clubs might leave, or the league may face an even bigger melt down in the future.
League Ownership of Rayo OKC and Ft. Lauderdale
The NASL could take up ownership of the flailing clubs until another owner could be found. This would allow the clubs to keep existing and reduce the need to immediately place expansion teams. However, this would require the league take payments from the other owners in order to keep the clubs afloat. The league did this previously with Minnesota United. That said, it's a very unpopular with the cash-strapped owners and would almost guarantee that Ottawa and Tampa leave, along with potentially other clubs like Edmonton and
Charlotte Carolina Railhawks.
Become the Third Division League
Many of the issues that NASL faces come from their status as DII. If they were willing to drop to the third division, many of their obligations would fade away and the costs would decrease. To compensate, the USL, which has already petitioned for DII status, move up. The problem with this is that clubs like the New York Cosmos are already unsatisfied with the second division status. They argue that they should be allowed to become first division as the second division status hurts their reputation and limits their ability to sign big-name players, find investors and sponsors, attract fans, and make deals for infrastructure. To be fair, this is true. I seriously doubt that someone like Sebastian Giovinco would ever willingly sign for the American second division. But we are talking about clubs that are struggling to bring in attendances of 5,000 fans, so those expectations are a bit misguided.
Merge With USL
Apparently, the USL is open to the idea of taking clubs from the NASL. The league is already doing it, at least if the rumors are true that Ottawa and Tampa are already jumping to USL (and I do indeed think they are true). Those clubs that are willing to curb their ambitions and accept a role as a lower division team with a focus on developing burgeoning talent would likely be welcomed. This would reduce traveling costs and guarantee that the stronger teams would at least always have somewhere to play. Merging would even allow USL to take that DII status they want. There's only one exception. The New York Cosmos are not welcomed. The Cosmos have managed to tick off seemingly everyone outside the NASL and that includes the USL. They don't want the Cosmos messing with the more stable dynamics in the league.
Institute Pro/Rel from USL
This is by far my favorite option. It would immediately give an easy solution to keeping the NASL alive (promotion of the best USL teams). It would encourage good management of the lower leagues. It would even make the pro/rel fanboys delighted. Alas, it's absolutely never going to happen.
The NASL ceases to exist, with some of the stronger clubs dropping to the USL, others folding entirely, and the Cosmos becoming I suppose the soccer equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters (at least until another ownership comes along and actually gets them into MLS.) Suffice it to say, this would be sub-optimal.
So what do you think? Am I blowing these issues out of proportion? Can you think of other solutions for the league? Let me know in the comments.