Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Return of the NASL

Well, its official--the name of the old North American Soccer League has been resurrected by a new group of investors and soccer entrepreneurs, hoping to capitalize on the illustrious name of the old league.  The rebirth of the NASL began when FC Miami, a Division 1 side in the United Soccer League (USL), formally filed two trademark claims on the NASL name, in coorperation with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Crystal Palace Baltimore of the USL.  Not surprisingly, the parent United Soccer Leagues cited contractual obligations requiring these clubs to play their final USL season, resulting in this years bizarre, compromise First Division playoffs, with two divisions labled 'USL' and 'NASL' respectively.  This one-season affair will soon be over and, beginning next year, something new will emerge in Division 1 soccer in America: two competing Division 1 leagues.

It might be helpful at this point to review the 'American Soccer Pyramid' of leagues.  The whole is presided over (more or less) by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), beneath which Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top level of professional soccer in the United States.  Beneath the MLS, however, there are also regional First Division professional leagues which, until now, have been voluntarily organized under the USL umbrella.  The secession of Miami FC, Tampa, Baltimore, and several other teams from the USL, while apparently perfectly legal, is going to dramatically alter the landscape of American professional soccer, hopefully for the better.

The USL has two problems:  (1) no promotion or relegation system with the MLS; and (2) the USL has never generated any sustained excitement.  This should not be a surprise-- the MLS, with greater resources, struggles to keep up the excitement-- but still, this is a problem.  The reborn NASL should have better luck in the excitement category, with several of the teams carrying names from old NASL sides which at the least should generate some nostalgia dollars. 

But nostalgia will only take you so far.  I can easily see the new NASL staking out the mens First Division role of the USL over the next few years, leaving the USL as the vehicle for women's and U-20 soccer in the United States.  (Not that the USL will roll over for that outcome, but it's not a result that would surprise me).  The reborn NASL potentially has huge marketing advantages over the USL. 

But here is the rub: there is no promotion or relegation system with the MLS, which limits the growth potential of the NASL.  So while it will be great to have some of the old club names back (some of them, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes, and Portland Timbers, are already in MLS), its also going to be frustrating to have team names like the Tampa Bay Rowdies-- once NASL league champions-- permanently relegated to Division 1 status.

And what happens if and when the New York Cosmos are reborn as an NASL side? How weird is it going to be, having the most storied franchise name in American soccer history... as a permanent Division 1 side?

Of course, the whole reason this situation came into being, is because the old NASL spent itself into oblivion.  Bringing Pele, Beckenbauer, Best, Muller and Cruyff to this side of the pond, didn't come cheap.  The new MLS corrected this fault by making the teams at least partially league-owned, the better to control expenses.  By and large this system has worked, and American professional soccer has prospered.  I'm not saying we should change this.

So I don't know how this will all shake out in the next few years, but it will be fun to watch.  I'm thinking that a promotion or relegation system is the ticket, with the NASL as the Division 1 league, feeding its top 1 or 2 teams into MLS and accepting 1 or 2 MLS relegation sides, and the USL filling its destined role as the league for womens soccer and U-20.  This would give Division 1 teams with storied names, a clear route to the top.  Of course, how to reconcile movement and control issues between a league-centric organization like the MLS, and an owner-centric organization like the new NASL, I can't say; but perhaps the new guiding hands behind the NASL will wisely and consciously decide to emulate the MLS model, thus rendering their operation more compatible with the senior league.

So, best of luck to the new NASL.  I've also read that Miami FC, in tribute to the deep sympathies for the Strikers name in South Florida, will begin playing next season as the South Florida Strikers.  If so, the return of Strikers Soccer to South Florida, will certainly please me very much.  Perhaps I'll write about their fortunes.

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