As its season kicks off, the NASL is now at a crossroads – tied to a “minor league” label it refuses to embrace yet is forced, for now, to accept.
It sounds very much like an off-season at a major club.
The New York Cosmos went on tour, playing before a crowd of more than 20,000 in Sacramento and attracting some 25,000 to a March friendly in San Salvador, El Salvador. They were met by a throng of reporters and fans after landing in the Salvadoran capital. The Cosmos, now entering their third season of competitive play, also hit the headlines with a couple of significant signings. The third-leading goal scorer in UEFA Champions League history was introduced in December. Then this week, they inked a U.S. U-17 national team star considered one of the country’s most promising professional prospects.
At a Manhattan news conference last month, the Cosmos announced plans to be the first American pro team in any sport to compete in Cuba following the restoration of diplomatic relations between the countries. They’ll meet the Cuban national team in Havana on June 2.
These are the things that big clubs do.
“Everything you see us do is part of our plan. It’s not happening by accident,” Cosmos COO Erik Stover told SI.com. “It’s not kind of mad science. We’ve modeled our club, and we’re trying to model our league, after all the other leagues and all the other clubs around the world – to be a top player in the global market and not in a system that’s outside of the global market.”
But the Cosmos must work to achieve that status while operating outside the system that dominates the U.S. and Canadian soccer market. The 43,500-plus fans who filled Yankee Stadium last month for New York City FC’s debut could have, had events gone differently, been welcoming the Cosmos into Major League Soccer. Instead, the Cosmos, who met with MLS before joining the North American Soccer League, will open their home slate on April 18 at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium. It’s a modest facility on Long Island where average crowds lingered below 5,000 last season (the NASL on the whole averaged 5,501).
Stover was the New York Red Bulls managing director in 2008-11 and is a fixture in the area’s volatile pro soccer scene. Yet he didn’t attend NYCFC’s aforementioned home opener. His focus is firmly on the future of his own organization and that of the NASL, which kicked off its fifth season on April 4 with 11 clubs in the U.S. (nine) and Canada (two).
The NASL was born when a group of teams playing under the United Soccer Leagues umbrella chose to break away, in large part so they could exercise more control over their businesses. That yearning for independence is a key part of the NASL’s identity, and its principal point of differentiation from MLS. There’s no salary cap or draft. There’s no centralized ownership or control of player contracts or club branding, no restriction on free agency and the league office doesn’t sign off on acquisitions or transfers.
Having refused to pursue an affiliation or feeder agreement with MLS, the NASL is now at a crossroads—tied to a “minor league” label it refuses to embrace yet is forced, for now, to accept. The Cosmos may be a big club in certain ways. Yet according to the U.S. Soccer Federation, New York and its NASL brethren are stuck in the second tier. Absent the promotion and relegation system that prevails in many other countries, U.S./Canadian leagues are labeled according to a series of membership, stadium, market, investment and operational standards published by U.S. Soccer. MLS is considered Division I and the NASL occupies Division II. There’s nothing in writing that prevents the NASL from moving up to Division I should it meet those standards, but the semantic weight of the “minor league” label can make its product a tougher sell. That, in turn, makes it difficult to build to a Division I standard. It also limits access to international competition, since three of the U.S.’s four berths in the CONCACAF Champions League are guaranteed to MLS teams (the fourth goes to the winner of the U.S. Open Cup, where the NASL has a 10-15-1 record against MLS opposition since first entering in 2012).
Nevertheless, Stover and his colleagues believe in the NASL’s decentralized structure, remain convinced it represents a way forward, and realize the 2015 season affords an unprecedented opportunity to make progress toward their goal.
“We haven’t wavered at all,” Stover said when asked if NYCFC’s early splash produced any MLS regrets. “The [division] designations, particularly when you look at the way soccer’s growing and how some of our markets are doing exceptionally well, those designations to seem arbitrary and even capricious. We’re still very early days in the new NASL and certainly will have an argument about first division sooner rather than later. You can’t look at what’s happening in Indianapolis, in Jacksonville and a few other teams in our league, what we’re doing, what expansion teams will be able to do when they come in, and say there’s a discernible difference.”
Minnesota United represents the reality of the market. Many still see a discernable difference. The club can trace its roots back more than two decades, but was rebranded and reborn in 2012 under owner Bill McGuire. United finished with the NASL’s best regular season record in 2014, ranked third in average attendance and produced the league’s first U.S. national teamer in playmaker Miguel Ibarra. It was doing well. It was on the rise.
Yet when the Minnesota Vikings expressed an interest in fielding an MLS team inside their new $1 billion dome, the equation changed. Realizing they’d have trouble competing in a major league market with a “minor league” product, United met with MLS executives toward the end of 2013 and made their pitch. Backed by several well-heeled investors and pledging to build a downtown, outdoor soccer stadium, United was granted an MLS expansion franchise last month.
United's "club-centric approach," as team president Nick Rogers called it, served it well in an NASL that emphasizes independence. Ironically, it was that same approach that forced the organization's hand.
“We’ve enjoyed our time in the NASL, and we’ll be playing here for at least another two seasons. It’s a great competition and each year you’re seeing teams get stronger and the level of investment from ownership get bigger,” he told SI.com. “But in the final analysis, our club-centric approach led us to the conclusion that, in light of the challenges we face in our market, MLS was the right path for us to take in order to ensure long term success.”
Bill Peterson understands those challenges. It’s his job to overcome them. Now entering his third season as NASL commissioner, the former NFL Europe and AEG executive (he once represented the Chicago Fire on the MLS board of governors), Peterson is charged with helping the NASL grow into a circuit that can keep clubs like United in the fold while attracting more like it. Until it expands its U.S. footprint—the NASL has no American clubs west of San Antonio—it won’t resemble the Division 1 league it eventually hopes to be. With greater investment and more visibility will come the salaries, and then the players and crowds, that will close the gap (one source said NASL teams, apart from New York and Minnesota, might spend roughly half of what an average MLS club puts toward its roster, minus designated players.)
Peterson is eying a 20-team league, wherein each club plays a 38-game regular season schedule split over spring and fall campaigns. With Minnesota set to depart and the future of the league-owned Atlanta Silverbacks in doubt thanks to the 2017 arrival of the city’s new MLS franchise, the NASL has a long way to go.
“I would hope we’re in a position in another year or two where it doesn’t matter who comes or goes—this league is going to continue. This league is built on strong fundamentals. It’s proving itself financially … the fan base is growing and they’re interested and we’re proving we can play great soccer, competitive soccer, at a high level,” Peterson told SI.com.
“We’re getting just a lot of interest from all sorts of different [potential investors]. The conversation has changed so much in the two years I’ve been here. It’s very, very positive,” he continued. “We’ve raised our own standards. The type of groups we’re talking to today are a lot different than the groups who came in in the beginning. The standards are higher and it eliminates a lot of people who may have some interest, but we want to make sure that we have ownership groups that are strong enough to build out top-level clubs.”
Each of the NASL’s 11 clubs has a different owner (including the league-run Silverbacks), which compares quite favorably to MLS in its fifth season, when there were only seven owners for 12 clubs. AEG held four and MLS itself ran FC Dallas and the Tampa Bay Mutiny. The latter was contracted following the 2001 season along with the Miami Fusion, and MLS didn’t reach 12 teams again until 2005, when Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA paid about $7.5 million to get in. An NASL expansion team currently runs around $3 million, according to multiple sources.
“We’ll have more teams playing next year than we do this year,” promised Peterson, who confirmed that negotiations have concluded unsuccessfully with a group hoping to bring an NASL team to Los Angeles.
Markets like Hartford, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Miami and Dallas are among those that have been linked with the NASL, as well as additional locations in Southern California and Canada.
Meanwhile, several existing cities and ownership groups are making progress toward creating a major-league feel around their clubs. Now entering its second season, the Indy Eleven were the first club in U.S. pro soccer history to sell out every home match during its inaugural campaign. Run by former Chicago Fire boss Peter Wilt, the Eleven averaged more than 10,200 fans per game at IUPUI’s Carroll Stadium, despite winning there only once, and are currently working with state officials on a potential plan to construct an 18,500-seat stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards has funded renovations to Al Lang Stadium, including a new field and video board, along with an adjacent Rowdies-branded bar and a new practice facility in St. Petersburg. In December he hired former MLS and U.S. Under-20 national team coach Thomas Rongen as the Rowdies’ manager.
Around two hundred miles to the north, fans in Jacksonville seem to be taking to the expansion Armada rather quickly. Nearly 14,000 showed up for a February preseason game against the Philadelphia Union, and the club was hoping to break the NASL single-game attendance record when it opened Saturday against FC Edmonton. Down in Fort Lauderdale, a new Brazilian ownership group includes three-time FIFA world player of the year Ronaldo. Former Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith, the only foreign manager to win an MLS title, will be on the bench in Atlanta.
The player pool is improving as well. Opening-weekend rosters will feature 45 senior internationals from 25 nations, according to an NASL spokesperson. Two players who don’t fit that bill will be among the most scrutinized. Former Real Madrid legend Raúl González will be the biggest star to wear a Cosmos uniform since the 1970s, and Haji Wright, the aforementioned U-17 national teamer, will get a head start on his pro career after rejecting a multi-year offer to join his hometown LA Galaxy. He signed a one-year deal with New York.
Minnesota bolstered a squad already featuring Ibarra and NASL golden boot winner Christian Ramirez with Ibson Barreto da Silva, a 31-year-old midfielder who has featured at clubs like Flamengo, FC Porto, Corinthians and Bologna. His compatriot, Flamengo legend Léo Moura, has signed with Fort Lauderdale. Several well-known MLS players have moved to the NASL as well. Honduran international Marvin Chávez joined the champion San Antonio Scorpions, Maicon Santos and Marcelo Saragosa are in Tampa Bay, Adam Moffatt signed with the Cosmos and Jaime Castrillón will play for Jacksonville. Julian de Guzman, who’s played in the Bundesliga and La Liga and is the fifth most-capped Canadian, has joined the Ottawa Fury.
They’ll all be available to watch on ESPN3, which will stream at least 120 NASL games live to 75 countries, as well as the Cosmos’ ONE World Sports Network and on local channels in the home markets of eight additional clubs. But there’s no guarantee people will watch.
“The NASL needs to earn its way above second-division status. It’s semantics, sure, and I think it’s a valid ambition and goal to be first division. Right now, I don’t think any neutral party or unbiased party would say we’re first division. We need to improve on the field and off the field,” said Wilt, the Eleven’s president and general manager.
“The standards that are in place are fair and I think if our goal as a club is to operate at a first division level, that means having a bigger, better stadium. It means selling more sponsorships, having a better broadcast deal and having a more competitive team on the field. We’re not first division, arguably, in any of those categories. But we’re headed in the right direction,” he continued. “This is a first division market for sure. Where that ends up, I don’t have a crystal ball. I think it would be a really good thing for the sport in this country to have 10, 12, 16 more teams under the NASL model operating at a first division level.”
That level isn’t a stationary target, however. It now costs more than $100 million to get into MLS, whose owners are investing in their rosters and stadiums as well. If the NASL hopes to garner more recognition from U.S./Canadian soccer fans and media it will have to sign players MLS wants, connect with their markets on an MLS level and beat MLS teams in the Open Cup.
The NASL also will have to keep its current membership intact while pursuing additional teams. It’s no secret that San Antonio, which trailed only Indy in attendance last year, has courted MLS. Last month Scorpions owner Gordon Hartman partnered with Citigroup in an effort to identify new investors, according to the Sports Business Journal. Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir has met with MLS executives as well.
“If you make the league stronger, they’ll want to stay,” Wilt said, using Minnesota as an example. “If the NASL had teams that were at first division standards and United felt like, ‘We can stay in the NASL and we can compete head-to-head with the Vikings. Screw them. This is a better model. We’ve got 15,000 people coming to our games. We have good relationships with fans, sponsors and broadcast. We’ll take them on if MLS wants to come to Minnesota.’ But they didn’t have that because the [NASL] isn’t there yet and individual teams aren’t there yet.”
Even the Cosmos, the league’s flagship club, isn’t there yet. Despite the brand and the history and Raúl and the trip to Cuba, they’ll still likely spend 2015 playing third fiddle to the Red Bulls and NYCFC in a crowded and competitive market. Hofstra isn’t easy to get to from the five boroughs and feels too collegiate — too minor league — once you’re there. The Cosmos are striving to change that. The club will bring Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer to its home opener, but that won’t be enough in the long run. Major league teams require major league venues.
The club’s interest building what Stover called “the best soccer stadium in the United States” at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, remains high. It submitted its proposal, which includes a privately-financed, 25,000-seat stadium, to state authorities two years ago. The Cosmos are still awaiting a response.
“This is a year of reckoning, I think. If we don’t get an answer soon, then we’ll go look at other options. Some of them we like just as much as Belmont, but Belmont is clearly the first choice,” Stover said. “There are a couple on Long Island that we’re considering. There’s a couple in the five boroughs and there are a couple of viable options in New Jersey and Westchester.”
So this season, for the Cosmos and much of the rest of the league, will be played on the cusp. The NASL is growing, but perhaps not fast enough. It’s model is intriguing, but at least in the U.S.and Canada, it remains unproven. It’s now five years in, and everyone’s waiting to see how it’s all going to turn out.
“There’s a lot of support for the Cosmos. It’s not necessarily translating to the attendance numbers we want, but just have to keep working hard,” Stover said. “There’s not that much different with our core product. Look at what’s happening on the field, the team the Cosmos have, I’d line them up against anybody in MLS and we’ve been at this for only two years. When we really get going at this, to say that we’re ‘second division’ is going to be a hard conversation.”