NASL SANCTIONING IS FELT AT ALL LEVELS OF THE NORTH AMERICAN GAME
The North American Soccer League was officially granted Division 2 status by the USSF last week and the ramifications of the designation and the future of the professional game at all levels of the sport on the continent are massive.
The decision affects more than just the NASL. It’s ramifications can be felt in Major League Soccer, the United Soccer Leagues, the USSF, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Caribbean Football Union and it sets the table for the continents major and minor players to begin sorting out what the future of the game will look like on these shores.
The NASL petitioned USSF with a minimum requirement eight-team league for the 2011 season, with teams slotted to enter the league in 2012 and 2013. The last minute addition of the floundering NSC Minnesota franchise and the return of the Atlanta Silverbacks rounded out the NASL bid to eight teams and led to the USSF sanctioning the leagues D-2 status for 2011.
The other franchises competing in the NASL in 2011 include future MLS expansion franchise Montreal Impact and first year Canadian club FC Edmonton. 2010 Champions Puerto Rico Islanders and runners-up Carolina Railhawks also return as do Florida based FC Tampa Bay and Miami Blues FC.
The NASL began last season with a vision. That vision was immediatly tested by a war with the USL and an unsteady, short-term balance between the rival leagues and the USSF. Fans never had a chance to see what the NASL had in mind.
Regardless of the rhetoric and positivity emanating from the leagues press releases last week, the NASL still doesn’t have a commissioner and will have their work cut out for themselves over the short, medium and long term.
With Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers and soon the Montreal Impact all moving to Major League Soccer and long-surviving franchises such as Rochester Rhino’s and Carolina Battery opting to move down to Division 3, the most recognizable franchises to ever compete at the D-2 level are no longer an option for the NASL visibility.
High-profile major players such as Bob Lenerduzzi and Joey Saputo will be moving on and Jeff Cooper disgraced, who will step up to become the continent’s pre-eminent leaders at the D-2 level?
Can the newly sanctioned NASL possibly survive, let alone make Division 2 soccer in North America work? Was the long-term success of D-2 franchises, such as Portland, Vancouver and Montreal a flash in the pan or can that type of stability and growth be fostered in Miami and Atlanta? Can Minnesota possibly survive short-term, let alone thrive long term. Can the league possibly build on non-American markets such as Puerto Rico and Edmonton? Can those teams ever fill the shoes of Vancouver and Montreal?
With the last three D-2 Champions coming from outside the United States and only one of the six finalists being a US based team, the NASL will have to survive the new USSF restrictions on foreign clubs, as well as the CSA’s reaction to those restrictions and the continuing progress toward a pan-Canadian league.
Some of these questions will be addressed in the paragraphs below, but one thing is clear, none can be answered in the short-term.
MOVING FORWARD: RELATIONSHIP BUILDING
NASL CEO Aaron Davidson told Canadian podcast It’s Called Football that the league would need to have relationships with Major League Soccer, the US Soccer Federation and the Canadian Soccer Association.
Montreal and Vancouver, according to Davidson, would continue to have a presence in NASL after they join MLS. What that relationship will be and if it would manifest itself in terms of subsidiary clubs, player development or monetary investment is unclear.
The relationship between the NASL and its former clubs might be the beginnings of a more concrete relationship between all leagues on the continent.
“We look forward to working with Major League Soccer at the first division level and the United Soccer Leagues at the third division level to continue to build on the foundation they have established to grow the beautiful game in North America.” Davidson said after last week’s announcement.
In the It’s Called Football interview, Davidson said he was proud of the fact that the Vancouver and Montreal franchises were able to make the jump to MLS and he hoped that the NASL would be a proving ground for franchises and markets for future consideration by the D-1 league and that a growing relationship between MLS and NASL is essential to the growth of the sport on the continent, stating that the two leagues could now communicate “commissioner to commissioner and owner to owner”.
Davidson confirmed that the NASL would continue to be ownership and commissioner driven and Davidson mentioned he thought that MLS would continue to move in that direction “year by year”.
MLS refused to take sides in the rivalry between the NASL and USL, but that is now a thing of the past and an open dialogue between the Division I and Division II entities can take place on every level. Davidson also insists that a relationship between the two tiers would not exclude any dialogue between MLS and the Division III USL Pro league or the USL’s Premier Development League.
The Silverbacks return was made possible by Miami based Traffic USA. Atlanta owner Boris Jerkunica said in a statement that “a long term joint venture with Traffic USA” would make up the teams ownership.
Traffic USA, a subsidiary of Brazil’s massive soccer marketing organization and talent agency, Traffic Sports also owns the NASL Miami FC Blues and is a key player in the NASL and their bid to land the D-2 sanctioning as well as long term legitimacy for the league.
The Atlanta franchise returns to the D-2 fold after a three-year absence. Silverback president Michael Oki will hold a press conference next week providing more details involving the new ownership agreement, which is alleged to be a three-year partnership.
MINNESOTA SAVED AND THE CSA
The NASL made it clear that Canadian investment in the league kept the Minnesota franchise viable. The investment is not direct ownership or even indirect ownership of the Minnesota team, but an investment in the league that could help sustain the franchise for the next few seasons until an owner can be found.
This move seems to fly in the face of the Canadian Soccer Association, which has put a moratorium on Canadian teams joining American leagues. The moratorium serves both as a response to the USSF’s new restrictions for non-US based clubs and as a way to move forward in investigating a possible all-Canadian D-2 or D-3 league.
INAUGURAL SEASON: CONTROLING IT’S OWN FATE
The press release announcing the D-2 sanctioning mentioned that, “The NASL will undertake an extensive marketing campaign in the months leading up to its inaugural weekend.”
The league referring to its 2011 campaign as its inaugural season is significant in many ways. What implications might the fact that the NASL has, for the first time, control over it’s own destiny? Last season the league had to be pushed together with the USL First Division to create the USSF Division 2 League, a twelve-team league run by the USSF.
The NASL can now market and promote it’s own game and it’s own franchises without fears of inadvertently promoting a rival USL league. The league has control over it’s own schedule, competition format and playoff structure.
Each team will play a 28-game balanced schedule, playing every other twice at home and twice away. Six teams will make the playoffs with the top two sides getting a bye in the first round.
The league will also be able to negotiate a broadcast deal for the first time. The USL had a deal in place with Fox Soccer Channel to broadcast a match of the week, but all that ended in 2010 when the NASL and the USL had very different approaches and relationships to the direction of their leagues and the USSF’s joint league solution happened as a last resort, too close to the start of the 2010 season to put any kind of TV deal in place. The NASL will now have months to work on broadcast deals for the league and for it’s local markets.
The CSA moratorium notwithstanding, Davidson all but made it clear in the It’s Called Football interview that there will be an Ottawa franchise entering the NASL in 2013 with an announcement in that regard coming as soon as the end of 2010. A San Antonio franchise has already been announced for the 2012 season.
In terms of future expansion, Davidson took a more diplomatic approach. “We are considering the addition of several expansion teams in the coming months. Despite the excitement surrounding this announcement, we intend to carefully consider how, when and where to expand to ensure the stability of the NASL and to put the best possible product on the field for our fans.”
RETURN OF THE STRIKERS?
In terms of individual franchises, Miami FC Blues hopes to embrace its roots via connecting the team with the Miami area’s original NASL team the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. A team press release indicates that the franchise plans on “incorporating the Strikers ethos in 2011”.
“After repeated requests from media, former players and fans including a survey conducted by Miami FC’s commercial department which showed overwhelming support for the Strikers’ name, the club will incorporate the Strikers’ name and ethos starting in the 2011 season.” the release stated. Whether that means a re-branding of the franchise or a more liberal use of throwback jerseys remains to be seen.