By Ridge Mahoney
The past, present and future of the North American Soccer League has been dissected and discussed during three days of meeting in Atlanta scheduled to conclude Wednesday.
Nothing as dramatic as the hiring of former Argentina and Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino by the local MLS team is expected to come out of this first NASL summit, but soon enough should emerge some sort of game plan for 2017 and beyond.
Perhaps that will also lead to some definitive, workable shape of second-tier professional soccer in North America. But I wouldn’t count on it. Atlanta is a former NASL city that has jumped aboard MLS and in that regard is not alone.
The NASL is adding San Francisco Deltas to its lineup for next year but the status of several other teams is unknown. The relegation of parent club Rayo Vallecano has clouded the future for Rayo OKC, Ottawa is expected to join the USL next year, and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers are beset by severe financial problems.
Months of work with consultants prompted the summit, which Deltas chief executive Brian Andres Helmick believes must go far beyond the stages of theorizing and brainstorming.
“I do think you will see a difference in how we operate,” he said in a phone interview prior to the summit. “And I’m excited for that. As a startup, as a very young league, there’s going to be some missteps, and we need to be smart about learning from them and how to operate. And it’s not just talking about aligning visions. That’s great and it’s a good exercise and you can come out with a good vision statement, but what I like about these consultants is they insist you have to be really good about turning this into an actual plan with specific responsibilities, and timelines associated with the plan, and there’s got to be some accountability with that. It sounds kind of simple but you’d be surprised many organizations don’t do that, especially when you have sort of a disparate group [of owners].”
Helmick, a native of Colombia who leads a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that is funding the club, is adamant that the NASL can be a viable business. As one of the new kids on the block he is suggesting ways and means to get there.
Since re-launching five years ago, the NASL has grappled with establishing a cohesive identity. The ambitious and aggressive New York Cosmos have one vision, Indy Eleven has a more modest approach that is working, other teams are all over the map. Miami FC raised some eyebrows by paying a $750,000 transfer fee to New York City FC for attacker Kwadwo Poku and raiding rosters of fellow NASL teams for other players.
Montreal Impact played one NASL season before joining MLS in 2012, and Minnesota United is following a similar path to its MLS launch next year. MLS will field 22 teams in 2017 and 24 in 2018, pending the status of Miami as an expansion partner for Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC).
This season 11 teams played in the NASL Spring Season. Indy Eleven, which is second in average attendance at 8,341 fans per game, won the Spring title. Membership grew to 12 for the Fall Season with the addition of Puerto Rico FC. The Fall Season concludes Oct. 30. Minnesota United tops the attendance chart at 8,545 per game.
A straight swap of San Francisco for Minnesota United would leave NASL at 12 teams but a downsizing seems inevitable, though commissioner Bill Peterson has said the league is in discussions with several groups regarding future expansion. Since its launch, NASL has lost three teams -- Puerto Rico Islanders (2011-12), Atlanta Silverbacks (2011-15), and San Antonio Scorpions (2011-15) -- in addition to Montreal and Minnesota United moving to MLS. San Antonio is among the candidates for the next round of MLS expansion to 28 teams that is in a preliminary phase.
The USL, currently sanctioned as a Division 3 league, fielded 29 teams this season and will add Reno for 2017. Austin Aztex, which sat out the 2016 season after flooding forced the team out of its House Park facility, hasn’t found a viable alternative and won’t play in 2017. After its regular meetings in late July, USL announced teams will play a 32-game schedule in 2017. Teams played 30 games this season.
USL has applied to U.S. Soccer for Division 2 status, which is currently held by NASL. No decision regarding that application or possible realignment has been made by the federation, which in 2010 brokered the creation of a USSF D2 Pro League by which USL and NASL teams played under the same banner for one year.
One other complication to the map of North American soccer is a proposed Canadian league, which could presumably lure current NASL members Ottawa and Edmonton. A planned launch of the Canadian Premier League, which reportedly seeks to be sanctioned by the Canadian Soccer Assocation as a Division I league, has been projected for 2018, and would not include current MLS members Vancouver, Toronto FC, and Montreal.
The interlocking and overlapping elements of North American pro soccer will drive much discussion at the NASL summit, but the league needs to get its internal operations straightened out before it heads back out into the real world. Right now its reputation is somewhere between tarnished and trashed.
“We’re not going to solve everything and figure out everything in just three days,” said Helmick. “This has been a months-long process in the making that will culminate in these three days. I believe it will be the beginning of a chapter of collaboration within the league and working as a common unit."