The North American Soccer League hates being called a ‘second division’ and so the turn of phrase used by Italy’s venerable daily newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday will have cheered the league’s commission Bill Peterson.
Reporting the announcement that Miami is to have an NASL team from next season – owned by soccer television entrepreneur Riccardo Silva and former AC Milan and Italy defender Paolo Maldini, the famous pink paper described the NASL as “the alternative league to Major League Soccer”.
In a certain sense, NASL is indeed the alternative. The structure of the league, in which clubs are independently owned and face few if any restrictions on their spending, stands in direct contrast to MLS’s ‘single entity’ business model. No salary caps, no limits on spending and no complicated allocation procedures. It is a free market structure that is very familiar to soccer people around the world – the NASL is set-up in the way of leagues almost everywhere.
However the NASL has been careful, most of the time, to avoid setting their league up as a direct competition to MLS. There has long been the sense that they are itching for a fight with Don Garber’s league but generally they have been careful to avoid face-to-face battles. The decision to start a team in Miami, where MLS and David Beckham have been very publicly trying to find a stadium for a new franchise, is however a potentially confrontational move.
I suspect however that the news of the creation of the new Miami FC club was greeted more with a sigh in MLS headquarters rather than a shudder of fear. Because while the NASL is an alternative to MLS it is, in most senses, only an alternative in theory.
A few years ago, one of the NASL’s founding figures enthusiastically explained to me that the absence of salary restrictions meant that there was no limit to what kind of players NASL clubs could sign. In theory, that is true. But in practice, NASL clubs are paying at the lower end of the salary scale in North American soccer. As I put it to the official, “That is all great – let me know when you sign Landon Donovan.”
Players who can’t get contracts in MLS are glad that another league exists but there aren’t many looking to the NASL for a more lucrative future. In practical terms, for MLS players, the NASL is just a solution for if they find themselves without work, which is no bad thing.