Several Major League Soccer (MLS) players had a significant impact at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, including Clint Dempsey, Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Kyle Beckerman, and Deadre Yedlin. America’s top-flight soccer league, now in its nineteenth season, is looking to build off of the momentum felt in the United States surrounding the World Cup. Rest assured, the North American Soccer League, (NASL) America’s second division league, is looking to build off of soccer’s rising profile in the same way. The NASL, now entering its fourth year of competition, currently has ten teams in the league and play a split season format where the champion of the spring season faces off against the champion of the fall season in the NASL Soccer Bowl to determine the winner of that year.
NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson spoke to the media on July 10th to discuss the state of NASL as well as the short-term and long-term goals for the league. Peterson opened up by stating that,
Attendance is up over 30% from last year. That leads us to believe that what the coaches are putting out there and the way the championship is being competed for [are the reasons why] the fans are reacting in a positive way.
Peterson also pointed out that facilities for NASL teams are growing as well. Ottawa Fury FC opened a new stadium for the fall season to a record crowd. Tampa Bay Rowdies, FC Edmonton, and Carolina Railhawks all put in new fields in their stadiums, and in Edmonton’s case, they removed American football lines from their field. These facility updates indicate the growing professionalism and the maturity of the fledging league.
MLS is not the only league expanding in North America. Commissioner Peterson took time to address expansion of the NASL. He stated,
There’s significant interest in this league. We’ll continue to add clubs in a manner that makes most sense for the league. I am confident that Oklahoma City will play in 2015. They have a couple of items that need to be finished before we make a public announcement about the ownership group. We have made a decision to delay the start of [a team in] Virginia until 2016. We’re going through ownership reorganization but we’re really happy about the group that’s being put together.
Peterson indicated that while teams in Oklahoma City and Virginia are all but certain, the NASL is not stopping there.
We continue to engage in a number of expansion discussions in America. We’re still on target to get to 18 to 20 teams by 2018. We have multiple conversations going on involving the city of San Francisco, in the Los Angeles area, and we have two other conversations in cities that I can’t mention yet but I would deem as very serious and progressive conversations.
Peterson could not reveal the name of the possible ownership group in the Los Angeles area. It should be noted that MLS already has two teams who share a stadium in Los Angeles: the LA Galaxy, one of MLS’ most successful franchises, and Chivas USA, sister club of Liga MX’s Chivas de Guadalajara. The league is currently acting as owner/operator of Chivas USA after the ownership group sold the failing franchise before the start of the 2014 season. MLS is looking to rebrand and sell the team before the 2015 season.
NASL’s interest in the Los Angeles area indicates that the league is not afraid to compete in the same market as MLS. In fact, MLS recently announced Atlanta will be the league’s twenty-second team, despite the fact that the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks already have their own team and stadium in the Atlanta market.
NASL has found success in expansion, with the recent addition of Indy Eleven in 2014. Indy Eleven sold out their home opening match, drawing 11,000 fans. Their inaugural season has been a resounding success and the club has seen impressive attendance numbers to boot. Peterson had this to say about learning from Indy Eleven’s success:
The fan bases are there. There’s no doubt about it. Once they understand the level of soccer that we’re playing, the excitement of the matches that we have, the atmosphere and type of fans that we have, people really enjoy themselves. With the proper amount of time and thought, you clearly position yourself in the community and clearly explain who you are. You promote that and you market that. Our teams are becoming more organized and working at a higher level.
Finally, Commissioner Peterson directly responded to the impact of the World Cup by saying,
You have much savvier fans. The sport is changing in this country and the following is changing. There’s always opportunity during and after the World Cup to entice new fans to come in under the tent’ and we’ll see that again here. By no means is it a magic wand…but we’re in a great place as a league right now, the way we’re structured, the way we follow the global approach to the game. We think all of these things give us great opportunity in the future to grow this league.
NASL is clearly on the rise in America, with ever-improving facilities and plans for expansion in unique markets. The league operates very differently from MLS and Commissioner Peterson does not shy away from this fact. He believes that the league’s single-table structure and the lack of a salary cap align with leagues around the world and will eventually divert the attention of fans from MLS to NASL.