By Andrew Morgan
Over the last few weeks, the North American Soccer League has been thrown into full panic mode after a season of ups and downs. The United Soccer League has applied to the United States Soccer Federation for Division 2 league status (as it stands now, MLS is D1, NASL is D2, and USL is D3). This could spell trouble for the increasingly unstable NASL as more teams may look to the USL as both a stable long-term and lower cost option. Expansion fees for the NASL are rumored to be around $9 million compared to about $3 million for the average USL franchise. These developments led to a tumultuous ending to the season for the NASL. As the USL continues to grow, it has created a roller coaster of events for the NASL.
Now that the season is in the books, we can say that the launch of Puerto Rico FC was a success on and off the field. The Carmelo Anthony-backed team had an average attendance of over 3,500 people. This attendance is solidly in the middle of the league even in Puerto Rico’s inaugural season. On the field, despite the team’s absence in the spring season, they showed their strength in the fall season, amassing 24 points and finishing 8th in the league over the course of the 22 game fall season.
The other expansion franchise, Rayo OKC, had legitimate onfield success, tallying 35 points on the season and recording 9 wins, enough to finish fourth in the league and enter the Championship Playoff. They played the top-seeded New York Cosmos in the Championship Semifinal, losing by a score of 2-1. Off the field, this season in Oklahoma has been everything but successful. The parent club of Rayo OKC, Rayo Vallecano of Spain, was relegated from the top league in Spain. This sparked a mass firing of the OKC front office and, in panic, a part-owner based in Oklahoma tore up half of the team’s turf in fear that the Vallecano ownership would sell it. It appears that the NASL is at about .500 on the 2016 expansion teams, especially if OKC goes under.
THE OLD GUARD
As far as the tenured franchises, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers have struggled financially. According to various reports throughout the season, FTL delayed payments to their players and personnel. As of October, the NASL would be at twelve clubs next season due to the addition of San Francisco and the departure of Minnesota United to MLS. However, a major blow was dealt to the league on October 25th when the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC both announced a move to the USL. This puts the current number of teams at ten with potential to drop to eight if both Fort Lauderdale and Rayo OKC fold. As evidenced by the two moves, teams are starting to believe in the USL’s business model partnering with the MLS rather than the NASL’s attempts to be their direct competition. The next few weeks will be critical to both long-term and short-term, and a stable expansion franchise will be a key in proving the league’s sustainability.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP’S REAL LOSER
The league’s championship playoffs were an exact microcosm of how the whole season progressed. The Indy Eleven v FC Edmonton semifinal had a raucous crowd of 9,702 and showcased exactly what the league has the potential to be. The New York Cosmos v Rayo OKC semifinal showed a similarly bright future with a tightly contested match in front of 5,023 supporters. The positives built up in these two games were quickly torn down when it was announced by the Cosmos that the Championship Final would be played at St. John’s University’s Belson Stadium, only seating just over 2,000 people. The on-field product was exciting, as the Cosmos retained their title with a 4-2 PK victory, but the lackluster crowd of 2,150 showed the sad state of the league as it stands. Despite the fantastic game, the shortcomings of what is still a second tier league were on full display, making the real losers of the Championship the NASL executives, who hosted several potential investors at the final game.
The potential is there for the NASL to solidify itself by expanding with a few respected and established franchises. However, whether clubs see the NASL as a viable option for the future remains to be seen. Be on the lookout for announcements in the coming weeks from the NASL as they head into this uncertain time in their renewed existence.