The last year has been quite a ride for the re-born NASL. After spending most of the past year unsure of its fate as the United States' second division league, the NASL finally has official sanctioning and will enter the 2011 season with eight teams.
Those eight teams represent markets that deserve attention from any North American soccer fan. Among them are the seventh (Miami FC), ninth (Atlanta Silverbacks), 15th (Montreal Impact), 17th (NSC Minnesota Stars) and 20th (FC Tampa Bay) biggest markets in the United States and Canada. Those teams also represent four of the eight biggest markets without MLS teams (not including Montreal, which is moving to MLS in 2012). All eight teams represent metropolitan areas that are at least 1 million people, .
If soccer is ever to reach its full potential in this country, markets like these are going to be key. Having a stable league with a clear identity obviously makes this a lot easier.
The NASL is not there yet, but in talking with league CEO Aaron Davidson, it at least appears things are heading in the right direction.
"The big thing is developing the markets," said Davidson, who's also an owner of FC Miami. "We have to help mature some of those markets.
"No one has a looking glass to know where it’s going to be. But South Florida can’t be without first division, Atlanta, even Carolina. If you look at our markets, we have to look at (Vancouver Whitecaps owner) Greg Kerfoot and (Portland Timbers owner) Merritt Paulson to do what they did."
What Kerfoot and Paulson - not to mention Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer and Impact owner Joey Saputo - have done is successfully lead their franchises into MLS. Those owners represent four of the past five teams to join the league, with the one excepting being the Philadelphia Union.
As Davidson sees it, there's as good a chance as any that more owners will come out of the second division. More relevantly, it's hard to deny current second division markets are likely homes for future MLS teams.
For that to happen, though, NASL - and maybe to a lesser degree USL PRO - need to provide a stable enough framework for teams in those leagues to thrive. Owners, fans and players all need to take comfort in knowing that their energy is not going to waste.
So far, it's a work in progress. The NASL has put some faith in what turned out to be questionable ownerships, namely Crystal Palace Baltimore and AC St. Louis. Neither of those teams ultimately survived long enough to actually play NASL matches, but were among the charter ownership groups of the breakaway league.
To the NASL's credit, replacement ownerships haven't really be rushed. FC Edmonton, for instance, was founded prior to the start of last season, but has spent the last year preparing for their launch in the 2011 season. Similarly, a team has already been granted to San Antonio, but they won't start playing until 2012. There's also, supposedly, a team in place for 2013 that has yet to be announced.
"The Edmontons and San Antonios of the world are the teams we’ve really selected," said Davidson, while noting that as disappointing as Crystal Palace and AC St. Louis may have been, they did fund their own way throughout the season. "They are doing things right.
"We’re doing our best under the circumstances. We could have forced maybe a ninth and 10th team to play right away, probably. But it’s not the expansion fee, it’s about building markets. We came out on the right side. Let’s not rush it along. You have to have discipline."
NSC Minnesota Stars and the Atlanta Silverbacks were late adds to the NASL's certification application, but have much organizational frameworks. The Stars actually played in USSF Division 2 last season, but are now under new ownership after announcing they would cease operations at the end of this season. The Silverbacks are back after a two-year hiatus and are still under the ownership of Boris Jerkunica, although they did receive some extra cash from MIami FC ownership group Traffic Sports USA.
"Part of this process was trying to separate men from boys," Davidson said of the break with USL and the subsequent resettling. "We can’t force issues. There are certain shortcuts and exceptions we’re going to make, but overall they have taken their tolls on markets and owners, but part of the benefit was a cleansing."
Davidson now sees some opportunities for NASL teams to work with MLS and start to form a real bridge from first division to rest of the U.S. soccer pyramid. The Vancouver Whitecaps have even retained their membership in NASL despite moving to MLS. That probably won't mean MLS reserve teams literally playing in NASL, but it could lead to competitive matches being played against one another or MLS teams operating second division sides in other markets.
"There’s a politically correct and a market positioning way to do those things," Davidson said. "Are we open to scrimmaging and open to playing their teams for their reserve league standings? We have to talk about it. We want to cooperate. We want to help."
Whether or not this so far unprecedented level of cooperation ever comes to fruition is maybe less important than the fact that at least there's a conversation happening. Soccer in the United States has long been fractured and, as Davidson pointed out, was without a top division just as the other American professional leagues were hitting their growth spurts in the 1980s.
MLS finally seems to be on solid footing. The lower divisions seem to be on their way. As an American soccer fan, this is undeniably good news.