To an outside observer, it may be hard to believe that the North American Soccer League was able to play at all this season.
Last winter, the league was left for dead. Having just watched two teams fold, another move to MLS, and two more head across the second division landscape to the USL, the six-year-old NASL was left with just eight clubs. News came out that the historic New York Cosmos (linked to the days of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer in brand alone) had lost $30m over their first four years and were likely to fold.
This fall has seen two crucial rulings: one from the US Soccer Federation stripping the NASL of its second division sanctioning, and one from the US District Court denying the NASL’s request for an injunction to reclaim that second division status. As teams across the league plan for 2018, many believe the NASL is all but done. Ahead of the league’s championship match this Sunday, between the Cosmos and San Francisco Deltas, now is a good time to ask: where did it all go wrong?
Completely separate from the national top-flight league that Pele once graced, and with which it shares a name, the NASL was founded after Nike sold its stake in the USL to an independent firm rather than the league itself. This sparked outrage among nine USL teams (whose owners formed the Team Owners Association), uncertain about the direction of this league. Instead, they formed their own second-division, which they named the NASL in order to pay respect to the history of the game in the US.
This was the beginning of an interfederational feud, with the NASL and USL grappling over who was the rightful second division. The NASL was granted sanctioning at this rank, and inaugural commissioner David Downs set out a clear vision: be the best second division possible. The United States had failed to foster a truly successful lower-division at this point, and Downs saw this as a way to crack into markets untapped by MLS. Creating a foothold in these areas would lead to wider national interest.
The first two years of the league went well. Teams in Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Fort Lauderdale thrived, and the NASL was ready to welcome the Cosmos the following season. Then, the league faced its first true test: Downs abruptly stepped down after the 2012 season, citing a desire to return home to New York.
Downs had moved to be stationed at the league’s office in Miami, also home to Brazilian-based sports marketing company Traffic Sports. Traffic invested in four clubs as the NASL kicked off, and the lawyer overseeing their US operations, Aaron Davidson, served as the president of the league’s board of governors. It wasn’t until 2015 that this became particularly damning, as Davidson was arrested on suspicion of giving bribes as part of the Fifa sting (he later pled guilty). It took until late 2016 for the league to cut ties with Traffic, but the mud had stuck.
There appeared to be a fresh start when Bill Peterson took over as league commissioner in 2013. Peterson saw Downs’ “keep it local” mentality as too reserved. He believed that the NASL’s structure (no salary cap and a lower expansion fee to join the league) primed it to one day overthrow Major League Soccer at the top of the pyramid. Peterson joined the league at the same time as the Cosmos, and the NASL became a more brash organization, earning the nickname “US soccer’s wild child” from this very publication.
While the league has almost always been defined by its backroom drama, it’s impossible to deny the role it has served in developing talent. Players that have slipped through the cracks at the top flight have found a chance to forge a professional career at a livable wage. Players like Miguel Ibarra, Fafà Picault, and Haji Wright leveraged their success into international contracts (at Club Leon, FC St Pauli, and Schalke 04, respectively), with Ibarra even cracking Jürgen Klinsmann’s USMNT rosters. Christian Ramirez and Brent Kallman moved with Minnesota into MLS, becoming respected starters. A current wave of talent headlined by Nazmi Albadawi, Stefano Pinho, and Jack Blake seem destined for shots in the top-flight, as well.
That wasn’t enough for Peterson, however. In his eyes, the league needed to keep up with the Beckham Rule and acquire stars of their own. The Cosmos (possibly still the most globally recognizable brand in US soccer) were reborn and played Manchester United in Paul Scholes’ testimonial at Old Trafford in 2011. Launching competitively in 2013, they acquired Spanish midfielder Marcos Senna from Villarreal, and paired him with Real Madrid legend Raúl the next season. The duo were the first marquee attractions for the league, and would later be joined in the NASL by the likes of Joe Cole, Niko Kranjčar, and Georgios Samaras.
With bigger stars, the league believed their usual size of 10-12 teams wasn’t enough. Citing the low entry fees (it cost around $10m to get a franchise into the NASL as opposed to $150m for MLS) Peterson boasted frequently of the possibility of rapid expansion. Infamously, he told Sports Illustrated that there were “40 groups” in talks to join the league last summer, in the midst of two sides jumping ship for USL. This desire for rapid expansion sometimes meant less-than-watertight vetting for ownership groups.
The league saw three teams join its ranks ahead of the 2016 season. One, Puerto Rico FC, was fronted by NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony, joining in the second half of the league’s split-season schedule. The second, Rayo OKC, was a puzzling case. Owned by then-La Liga side Rayo Vallecano as a brand-placement in the US, the side joined a relatively small market in Oklahoma, which already housed the USL’s OKC Energy. The Spanish ownership seldom focused on Rayo OKC, leaving the local ownership to revolt, with one member taking 60% of their stadium’s turf with him on the way out. Not only did OKC fold after one year, but Vallecano were relegated that very season.
The third, however, proved to be the biggest wild card in league history. Miami FC became the fourth Florida side in the 12-team league, and floundered in the first half of the year. Coached by Alessandro Nesta, owners Paolo Maldini and Riccardo Silva were unimpressed by the club’s early results. They opened their pockets, spending $750,000 to bring in NASL Best XI midfielder Richie Ryan and $700,000 to lure Kwadwo Poku from NYC FC. The spending continued, and Miami FC became the second big-budget franchise in the league, rivaling the Cosmos.
Very few clubs existed in the league without upheaval. The San Antonio Scorpions were purchased by the local Spurs’ owners and reassigned to USL. The Atlanta Silverbacks folded after 2015, with the city on the brink of hosting MLS’ Atlanta United. The once-stable Strikers were purchased by a Brazilian group led by Ronaldo, but by 2016 were caught failing to pay their players on time and folded that same season. The San Francisco Deltas are likely to have come and gone in one season, with owners calling out fans publicly to increase attendance in the face of ticket prices ranging from $34-$124.
Still, the sporting side of the league continued to produce promising talent. On the sidelines, the Cosmos were led to three titles (and a possible fourth this weekend) by Giovanni Savarese. The manager has been linked to former MLS vacancies in Houston, Minnesota, and New England and seems poised to get a chance sometime soon. Likewise, his rival this weekend, Marc Dos Santos, is seen as a rising star in the US coaching ranks, having led Ottawa Fury side to the final in 2015 and the Deltas to the championship game despite their off-field troubles.
The most notable successes come from some of the league’s least revered cities. North Carolina FC (née the RailHawks) formed a successful academy that hosted Albadawi and Nick Taitague, who now plays for Schalke. They put in a bid for MLS expansion alongside league rivals Indy Eleven. Indy was founded by Peter Wilt, who took a market known for a love of the NFL and racing and created a fanatic supporters’ culture. 2015 expansion side Jacksonville Armada are now led by president Nathan Walter (a former West Brom academy coach and scout) and Mark Lowry, a fellow Brit. In a league that boasts Savarese and Dos Santos, it’s Lowry who may be the best among the ranks.
Still, the recent court rulings have stripped the NASL of its second-division sanctioning, and many clubs are poised to leave the league in its grave. North Carolina has agreed to head to USL, while the rest are set to decide between USL and Wilt’s forthcoming new league, NISA. The Cosmos and Miami FC appear too pricey to join the USL’s relatively-tight pocketed structure, and would be wise to try and continue their relevance in major markets in a more open league.
Whatever the fate may be for these sides, the past seven years have provided not only tantalizing football, but some remarkable backroom dealings for club and league alike. As the league’s two most successful managers take the helm on Sunday, they may be dealing with more than X’s and O’s. They very well may create the final image of the short, but memorable existence of the NASL.