NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies2

Currently, the North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer League (USL) are the two major competitions designated by the United States Soccer Federation (US Soccer) as the next two levels below the top flight competition, Major League Soccer (MLS). Although NASL and USL are assigned “division two” and “division three” status by US Soccer, that doesn’t even remotely imply the two leagues are unworthy of attention. Both leagues are expanding across the country and playing competitive soccer. Markets are coming on board in ways no one expected, with stadiums playing a key role in the planning process.

NASL

In the NASL’s case, the league is named after the original NASL that operated from 1968 to 1985. Officially announced in 2009, the reincarnated league began play in 2011 and now features 12 teams, three of which inaugurate this year. The NASL season splits into two halves, spring and fall, in order to accommodate the FIFA international schedule.

Each new NASL club arrives with a variety of ambitious plans in mind and ownership groups ready for battle. In Miami, world renowned Italian superstar and World Cup veteran Paolo Maldini has teamed with entrepreneur Ricardo Silva to own and operate Miami FC. In Oklahoma, Rayo OKC also begins play this year. Raul Martin Presa, the owner of Rayo Vallecano in the Spanish first division, has a stake in the club, which will initially play its matches at Yukon High School’s Miller Stadium.

Puerto Rico will field a team beginning in the fall half of the season. Owned by NBA star Carmelo Anthony, the team will play at the Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon, a facility recently converted from an aging baseball venue into a soccer-specific facility that seats up to 22,000. Both Anthony and his wife, La La, have Puerto Rican roots.

According to NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson, Anthony brings a refreshing component to league ownership.

“At the first meeting, he runs from start to finish, for two, two-and-a-half-hours,” Peterson said. “He’s got clear vision, he’s got a passion for Puerto Rico, he’s got passion for soccer, he understands what this means to the island, and he’s going to make it happen.”

Peterson was impressed, more so than usual.

“I’ve talked to hundreds of professional athletes before. I was blown away by his command of the details, and the vision,” Peterson said. “And he’s lived up to that every day since then.”

Balancing the expansion clubs are a variety of teams with a variety of histories. Three clubs—Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and the enigmatic New York Cosmos—carry monikers from the original NASL era, which at least partly helps the brand.

When it comes to the Cosmos, even though the current club has no direct bloodline from the original Cosmos, the brand is still globally recognized, so there’s no reason not to build upon everything that Pele, Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and others did for the brand and the sport. The original Cosmos were the first global traveling powerhouse, the first club stocked with multiple international players of high caliber, a phenom people take for granted today. For all practical purposes, the Cosmos built the stage that current clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona walk upon, in the sense of multimillion-dollar international rosters. Ever since the Cosmos reincarnated in 2013, the team has played friendly matches in Cuba, Dubai, England, and Hong Kong, with more on the way.

“The name absolutely resonates,” said Cosmos Chief Operating Officer Erik Stover. “And for us, what we see is this instant recognition, acknowledgement, and interest out of people. But what’s been so important for us over the past few years is that we’ve put a good team together. We have good owners, good management, good coaching staff, and players, that the interest is then sustained.”

Soon after the Cosmos won last year’s NASL championship, a game that also went down in history as the final match for international legends Marcos Senna and Raul, the club went back to work at refining a previous proposal for a privately funded stadium and mixed-use development project. To be located on a parcel of land immediately south of the Hempstead Turnpike and east of the Cross Island Parkway, the project, in addition to a 25,000-capacity soccer stadium, would include a 175-room hotel, plus restaurants and 300,000 square feet of retail and entertainment. The Cosmos are one of four entities that responded to the RFP.

“I think there’s still a belief in what can be accomplished and that the Cosmos could be a global power again,” Stover said. “Whether the fans are in their 50s—and they were around, still go to games, the first generation—or if they’re in their 20s  and they’re with this organization now.”

What’s more, legends from the 1970s still lurk in the shadows, aching for the club’s return to glory. They want to see the Cosmos on top again.

“I think that what’s really helped us with that is people like Pele and Carlos Alberto and even some of the lesser-known players have supported our reboot,” Stover said. “They’ve been there from the beginning and they’re still coming to the offices, they go to our matches, they desperately want to see us succeed, so that helps us with credibility, as well.”

USL

In the USL, expansion dynamics are changing so fast, that it’s hard for some to keep track. The 2016 season will see 30 clubs competing, more than double the number from five years ago. In 2013, the USL formed a partnership with MLS, allowing the latter to loan players to USL teams, so those players could get more game time and further develop their talents.

Although several partnerships between teams immediately prospered, no one expected what came next. By the following year, the LA Galaxy set a precedent by starting its own USL club, LA Galaxy II. After 2014, seven more MLS clubs followed LA’s lead, announcing that they, too, would own and operate new USL teams.

“The affiliation agreement is great, because it helps the MLS clubs, it allows them to nail down some really top talent, even though they might not have room for them on their rosters just yet,” said USL Chief Marketing Officer Tom Veit, adding that the relationship strengthens both leagues. “It helps us because we get great players that can get playing time and help our teams. There’s just so much talent now being developed in the U.S. MLS can’t house all that talent.”

As the 2016 campaign begins, almost every team in the USL is either affiliated with an MLS team or owned by an MLS team. More markets are applying to join. Player movement and development is increasing, with new clubs now fruitfully complimenting older clubs.

One particular USL success story combines the best of all scenarios. Sacramento Republic FC entered the USL as an expansion franchise in 2014, constructing a small stadium, Bonney Field, on the grounds of CalExpo. During its inaugural season, the Republic sold out almost every home game and went on to win the 2014 USL Championship and the 2014 USL Organization of the Year.

Affiliated with the San Jose Earthquakes MLS club, the Republic gets access to Quakes players who can’t get regular playing time. Depending on which players the Quakes decide to loan, the relationship benefits both clubs.

“In year one, we had five different players play for us from San Jose, and they all contributed,” said Sacramento President and Co-founder Warren Smith. “They all made a difference for us. They got significant time, got better at their craft, and were then able to help their first team.”

It doesn’t stop there. After winning the 2014 championship, Bonney Field was expanded to 11,000 capacity, and the club is now in prime contention to join MLS someday. New plans now exist for the Sacramento Railyards, one of the largest urban infill projects in the U.S. Last December, a proposal for a new MLS stadium at the Railyards came to fruition. The club is still contemplating the capacity, but the options run from 18,000 to 25,000.

“We’re in the design phase, and are guided first and foremost by the desire to create the best home pitch advantage in MLS,” Smith said. “We’re trying to be true to Sacramento and trying to be true to the sport, and create an intimate setting that allows us to compete, and really right-size this facility to what the market will bear.”

STILL GROWING

In the end, neither league seems ready to stop growing or even level off. A potential new NASL team in San Francisco will officially stage a kickoff party in April 2016, while schemes are already underway for a Chicago team, potentially named the Chicago Sting, after the original NASL team in the 1970s. In the latter case, veteran club startup guru Peter Wilt is directly involved. Future stadiums, of any sort, are now considered a mandatory component for almost every scenario, going forward.

“All of our teams are exploring different stadium opportunities,” Peterson said. “Everyone is in some phase of exploring, or saying, ‘How do we get our own facility.’”

Veit claims the USL sits mighty fine at the moment.

“We have several cities that have applied for expansion for the years coming up,” he said. “We’re in a great position because we get probably far more expansion requests coming in than we’ll actually accept.” FM

(Image: City of St. Pete/Creative Commons)