The erosion of the North American Soccer League is accelerating.
United Soccer League announced Tuesday that two NASL teams, Tampa Bay and Ottawa, are coming aboard for the 2017 season. USL membership will be 32 teams next season, if all 29 teams that played in 2016 return and, as planned, Reno, Nev. starts up as an expansion team.
Tampa Bay Rowdies, which originally started play in the old North American Soccer League in 1975, joined the current version in 2011. Ottawa has been an NASL member since 2014 and reached the league championship game last year.
“We are excited to join the United Soccer League in 2017,” said Tampa Bay chairman and CEO Bill Edwards, who bought a controlling interest in December, 2013. “I have said from the day I acquired controlling interest in this club that I wanted to make it one of the most successful teams in North America. The USL is a vibrant league, and this move is a necessary and positive step toward reaching the long-term goals and objectives of the club.”
The Fury is operated by Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which also owns teams in the Canadian Football League and Ontario Hockey League, one of three divisions of the Canadian Hockey League for players age 16-21. “The USL’s goal is to be the top second division league in the world and we are thrilled to be part of it,” said Fury FC president John Pugh. “Our growing and loyal fan base deserves and can expect a very high caliber of play and tremendous competition.”
Current plans call for both teams to join the USL Eastern Conference, which would thus consist of 16 teams for the 2017 season. Fifteen Western Conference teams competed this season, so the addition of Reno would provide balance. The schedule for each team will increase from 30 to 32 teams and the 2017 season is tentatively set to start March 24.
Minnesota United will leave the NASL next month to join MLS as a 2017 expansion team. The departures of Tampa Bay and Ottawa, which according to sources have been in motion since the USL meetings in San Jose three months ago, plus that of Minnesota United would reduce NASL membership to nine teams. The league is adding San Francisco Deltas as an expansion franchise next season.
Red Bulls II won the USL Cup championship game last Sunday, 5-1, against Swope Park Rangers, whose coach Mark Dos Santos is leaving to coach San Francisco in the NASL.
The USL announced total attendance for the 2016 season was 1,496,493, a 33 percent increase from 2015. Expansion team FC Cincinnati led the league in average attendance with a league record 17,296 and also set a single-game record of 24,376. League average ifor the regular season was 3,439 (based on published crowd figures).
As of Oct.16, Minnesota United (8,570) led the NASL in average attendance. Indy Eleven (8,362) was second, followed by Tampa Bay (5,820) and Ottawa (5,521). League average: 4,684.
The NASL fall season concludes this weekend with one of four playoff spots to be decided. Already in the playoffs, which start Nov. 5, are spring season champion Indy Eleven, fall season champion New York Cosmos, and overall qualifier Edmonton.