When I worked as the communications officer for the second division North American Soccer League, I was often asked by English friends why so many players from the British Isles gravitated to the lower leagues of North American soccer.
To look at this phenomenon, we must first understand that no players are leaving Premier League or Championship sides to come to the North American lower divisions such as NASL or USL-PRO. Quite honestly, even when Major League Soccer brings in players from England, it is usually low-end Championship players at best.
As those of you who follow English football understand, many kids enter local club academies at a young age only to be deemed surplus to requirements or released outright by the time they turn 18. Many of these kids gravitate to the United States for college and end up playing NCAA soccer, PDL or NPSL and then professionally in the USL or NASL. Examples of this are current Fort Lauderdale Strikers midfielder Mark Anderson and Tampa Bay’s Luke Mulholland. Both are top young players at the NASL level and both took a roundabout way to get to play professional soccer in North America.
Orlando City SC brought Lewis Neal to Florida in 2011 after the midfielder had seen a decline in his play back home. The former Stoke and Preston standout used the opportunity to help lead Orlando to the USL-PRO title and then moved on to Major League Soccer’s DC United. Last week, Neal scored the winning goal for DC United in the US Open Cup Final, the equivalent of the FA Cup Final in the United States.
Other recent examples of professional players leaving England’s lower divisions and featuring in the US minor leagues include David Foley, Carl Cort, Terry Dunfield, Martyn Lancaster, Gifton Noel-Williams, Ian Westlake, Eddie Johnson, Steve Guppy and many others.
Speaking to player agents through the years, a few key factors weighed on why so many lower division or fringe players from the British Isles want to come to the United States or Canada.
Quality of life considerations
Some players have spoken of quality of life considerations. Instead of being hassled on the streets of small English cities for bad performances, they can live in relative anonymity.
Fitness regime is comparable to lower divisions in England/Scotland
This is important because in many minor leagues in other English speaking countries, the level of fitness and training drops off substantially from what is available in the British Isles. That is not the case in the United States and Canada.
Paychecks come on time and checks never bounce
Really this is a consideration. The lower divisions in the United States are not necessarily stable just yet from a club consistency perspective, but teams never begin a season with no plan to end it. The league structures of NASL and USL-PRO ensure that players get paid on time.
The ability to do other jobs in the sports
It becomes possible for players from the British Isles, particularly veteran players, to get jobs outside of their playing clubs with youth teams and also work on getting coaching badges or working at other jobs during the off-season.
Living in Canada or the United States
This speaks for itself.
Soccer in England has seen a massive intake of foreign players in the last two decades. What is fascinating to me is that outside of North America, not many British players leave the comfort and security of the home nations. But when they do move, it seems they move to where they can be at ease and thrive. Thus, the lower leagues in North America have seen an influx of British players and that has helped improve the quality of play and interest in both NASL and USL-PRO.