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NASL helps own cause in altering playoff format as MLS expansion threatens markets

NASL NASL has altered its playoff format in an effort to improve its credibility and public perception. (Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI)

Now entering its fourth season as the second tier of professional soccer in the U.S. and Canada, the NASL faces still faces several significant challenges. Among them are unresolved ownership issues, the potential domination of the New York Cosmos and MLS’ increasing incursion onto NASL turf.

The last thing the new league needed was to be its own worst enemy.

On Thursday, the 10-team NASL rectified a self-inflicted wrong, revamping its bizarre and unfair 2014 competition format and creating a four-team playoff – which it’s calling “The Championship” – for the league title and Soccer Bowl trophy. The NASL will continue with its separate spring and fall campaigns. The first place teams in each, along with two more clubs that have the best records over the full year, will stage a three-game, single-elimination tournament over consecutive weekends in November.

NASL commissioner Bill Peterson said during a Thursday conference call that, “The vision, the plan, is to never expand it beyond that format … You don’t need to admit half your league into a playoff … it takes away from the regular season and allows the risk of [adding] mediocrity into your championship.”

The new format replaces one that was laughably unfair. Last year, the NASL pitted the first-place teams from the spring (Atlanta Silverbacks) and fall (New York Cosmos) schedule in the final. Atlanta, having clinched a spot in July, won only four of its 14 fall matches. The Cosmos sat out the spring campaign altogether and eventually claimed the title despite playing only half the season. The Carolina Railhawks finished 2013 with the best overall record but had no chance to lift the Soccer Bowl.

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Credibility then was strained to the breaking point when the NASL announced that this year’s format would feature a 1/3-2/3 season split. The leading club after only nine games would advance to -- and host -- the final. After a six-week break for the World Cup, in which none of its players will appear, a full double round-robin would be contested. The winner of that fall season would travel for the title game and face a club that could enter with a losing record. Once again, the team with the best overall regular season mark wouldn't be guaranteed a title shot.

The NASL faced heavy and deserved criticism when that plan was unveiled last summer. Peterson said Thursday that a fan survey was a key component of the revamp, which was finalized this week as the league’s board of governors met in Jacksonville.

The new structure is fair, even though the uneven split will remain in place this year. The new format guarantees that the top two clubs overall book a spot in the playoff. It gives the spring champ an incentive to show up in the autumn, since playoff seeding and hosting rights will remain in play (the spring and fall winners will be the top two seeds). And it maintains the NASL’s unique outlook on competition format, which it believes should further emphasize regular season results and include a summer break that coincides with Europe’s.

“This was something that we see long term as a great way to decide the champion, who wins the Soccer Bowl, who represents us as NASL league champion,” Peterson said. “We felt now was as good a time as any to institute that.”

Indeed, because the backlash that would occur when a losing team hosts the final while the best one sits at home is the last thing the NASL needs. Plenty remains uncertain, and MLS’ shadow looms large.

The top-tier league intends to expand to Miami (near the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers) and Atlanta in the coming years. Conversations with the NASL’s Minnesota United and the Minnesota Vikings are frequent. Officials in San Antonio and Indianapolis, two strong NASL markets, harbor MLS ambitions. The second-division circuit is feeling increasingly cornered.

“Can somebody tell me, is [MLS commissioner Don Garber] going to have 32 teams or 42 teams?” Peterson asked. “How many is he going to have? Every day he announces another city. I’ve got to send him an update of where we’re going so he can announce that next.”

MLS has plans to field 24 clubs by 2020, although it hasn’t promised to stop there. That growth has forced Peterson to re-evaluate the competitive landscape as he targets an NASL with 18 clubs.

“That’s starting to change a little bit now,” he said. “I think every market is a little bit different. In some cities, we feel very comfortable that we can continue doing what we’re doing and growing the way we’re growing and there will be no adverse affect on what we’re trying to accomplish. Other cities, they’re trying to figure that out. It’s a little difficult right now, because they’re not very clear – not that they have to be – on what they’re doing or where they’re going. There seems to be some NFL alignment with teams and stadiums [in Atlanta and potentially Minneapolis]. If that’s the way they’re going, that might not affect us at all. It’s the opposite direction of where we’re going.”

Peterson said he remained confident that Northern Virginia and Oklahoma City would kick off in 2015 despite lingering ownership issues with each. The Jacksonville Armada also are scheduled to start next year, and Peterson claimed that there have been conversations with expansion interests in San Francisco, Orange County and Los Angeles, and San Diego, among others.

“There’s a lot of people approaching us … with interest in joining the league,” he said.

What the NASL is marketing to those potential owners is a league “that’s really aligned with the rest of the world,” according to Peterson. That means more than a summer break. It won't cost at least $70 million to get in. Clubs will be independent rather than part of a single company. They’ll determine their own budgets. They’ll own and negotiate their own player contracts and participate in the global market.

“We’re a free market league, and we’re going to be part of a free market system that exists around the world,” Peterson said. “So when opportunities come to our clubs or are presented to our clubs they’re free to make those choices. And they will. As our clubs start to mature … you’re going to see a lot of action from our guys. It could be with MLS or could be with other leagues around the world.”

Peterson conceded that such stability and traction will take time to develop. Thursday’s unveiling of a fair and sensible competition format was a good start.

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