The North American Soccer League is in deep trouble.
The second division league, which is similar only in name to the earlier, Division I soccer league in the 70s and 80s, will start next year with a maximum on 10 teams. Minnesota is headed to bigger and better things in MLS in 2017. Tampa Bay and Ottawa are officially on their way to the third division United Soccer League. And all signs point towards Rayo OKC on the way out.
Oh, and there are reportedly more teams that are at least thinking about jumping ship.
— Nipun Chopra, PhD (@NipunChopra7) October 25, 2016
So yeah, things aren’t looking peachy at all for the NASL. Anyone who’d try to tell you otherwise is also trying to sell you ocean-front property in Arizona.
And with the NASL’s ship sinking at an alarming rate, it might just be better to abandon ship than make hasty fixes and hoping for the best.
Now, before we get too far along, I do want to note that I’m not celebrating the demise of the NASL in any way. I know it’s a contentious issue on the MLS subreddit, but I’m not doing it at all. The only thing better than soccer is more soccer. Ideally, I would love for all three of the top leagues in the U.S. to work together to grow the sport here (maybe even promotion/relegation). Instead, this is a pragmatic approach to a struggling league.
The biggest issue that the NASL is now facing is a loss of Division II status with the U.S. Soccer Federation. USSF’s standards for second division status say that a league must have eight teams when it applies, 10 teams in year three and 12 teams in year six. I honestly don’t know where the NASL stands within that, although considering the league was founded in 2010, I would assume it would need 12 teams to keep its status.
The NASL will likely get a waiver from the USSF to keep it in Division II for 2017, but the league will no doubt need to add more teams for 2018, and that will create issues of its own. A desperate league will make desperate moves, like adding a team like Rayo OKC. The league very well could add enough teams just for the sake of adding teams and then could easily fail and then the process starts all over again. And then the quality of the league suffers heavily in a vicious cycle.
Also, the NASL has real competition with the more stable and rising USL. Ironically, it was a dispute amongst teams in the USL in 2009 that led to the new NASL while the USL seemed to teeter on the edge. Now, whether you agree with MLS reserve teams playing in the league or not, the USL is the more viable league at the moment. In fact, the USL has applied for Division II status, which will likely hinge on the viability of the NASL. And I can’t help but think that investors, both potential owners and sponsors, might see the more stable USL and want to go there than risk their money on a flailing league.
And then there’s the relationship (read: political) side of things that go along with this too. It’s no secret that the relationship between the NASL and the USSF/MLS/USL has not been good at all. The NASL has accused of the USSF of helping MLS but not NASL. Maybe some of that’s true, maybe it’s not. I’m not here to judge sides in that argument.
But it certainly doesn’t help the growth of the sport to have infighting within the soccer structure in the U.S. Without the NASL, the remaining three parties at the top all have positive relationships with each other, which hopefully would lead to growth and maybe (all of the emphasis on maybe) promotion and relegation is on the far horizon.
Of course, the NASL could still pull off a miracle and turn the ship around. Maybe commissioner Bill Peterson’s words come true and the league is able to add enough (relatively) financially-stable teams to keep the league going. In that, case I will certainly eat these words.
But I honestly don’t see that happening. It’s so hard to turn momentum around with a failing league in a sport that’s not at the top of the nation’s consciousness. I’ve seen it with both iterations of the AFL and I’m seeing the similarities with NASL right now.
And at some point, it’s in the best interest of the parties involved to lead the league out to pasture and let it go gently into the night.