On Monday, the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League (NASL) officially suspended operations for the 2016 season, and likely beyond. The Silverbacks’ suspension continues a pattern of instability in the US and Canada’s second tier. For this coming season, the NASL will have dropped two teams, Atlanta and San Antonio ,while adding teams in Miami and Oklahoma City. Puerto Rico will join the league the following season, which begins in July 2016.
The Silverbacks, which the league assumed control in late 2014, faced an uncertain future after Major League Soccer (MLS) announced plans to place an expansion team in the market. Following this announcement, the Silverbacks’ owners backed out of managing the club, which dates its history to 1995, leaving the league’s other owners to pick up the pieces.
The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) has sat by while the three professional leagues in the US and Canada have engaged in predatory practices for their own survival. While some critics of the North American soccer market claim it is the most tightly controlled and regulated on the planet, the opposite is in fact true. With no vertical integration in the pyramid and divisional designations largely meaningless, the leagues have engaged in a war against each other. Today a detente in terms of marketing relationships exists between the first-division MLS and third-division United Soccer League (USL), but the two leagues once had a similar arrangement that broke down over a decade ago. That breakdown ushered in an era of animosity, with MLS raiding the USL of some of its marque clubs.
Following this period, several USL clubs split of and created the NASL in 2009. At the time, the USSF tilted toward the NASL, as thanks to the generous financial backing of since disgraced Brazilian marketing giant Traffic Sports, they were looking to invest more heavily in Division 2 soccer. A brief detente between all parties existed in 2010 during the US’s 2022 World Cup bid, and NASL was promoted by the USSF as an example of the growing game in the country. When the US World Cup bid was defeated under suspicious circumstances by Qatar in Dec. 2010, all gloves were off, and the leagues resumed feuding.
At the time new standards were put in place to force the USL, which had been a Division 2 league, to move down to Division 3, leaving the NASL as the sole Division 2. Yet for the next two years, the USL’s official league boilerplate language referred to it being “the strongest and most experienced league below Major League Soccer,” implying the USL was a second division when it was not. The USSF choose to do nothing about this false claim.
In 2013, USL choose to pick a fight with the NASL in the Tampa-St. Petersburg media market. The USL startup club, which was much ballyhooed at the time and backed at least publicly by Premier League legends Ian Wright and Mark Hughes, flopped badly in competition with the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies and, just 60 miles down the road, the USL’s own Orlando City club, who were preparing to make a move to MLS. When the USL invaded the NASL’s turf, the USSF sat silently by.
More recently, MLS has invaded an established NASL market in Atlanta without working with the existing Silverbacks ownership and attempted to put a team in Miami without working with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. But this is a two-way street. Yesterday, it was announced former Chicago Fire President Peter Wilt was leaving his current team, NASL’s Indy Eleven to pursue the start up of a team in that league for the Chicago market.
By most objective standards, the Chicago Fire are a blight on a growing MLS. The club may have enjoyed too much success, too soon in its early years, but since the move to the southern suburb of Bridgeview, the club has become an afterthought in the local sporting landscape. Now the NASL wants to invade what is a shaky market for MLS. US Soccer’s own hometown will become the latest frontier in this growing soccer war.
Still, the NASL’s Chicago team likely has no prospects of getting a stadium deal done within the city limits anytime soon, meaning the club is likely to play in rented facilities for years to come. The same can be said of the NASL’s efforts to put a team in various California markets where MLS already resides as well as Oklahoma City, where a quixotic startup associated with La Liga club Rayo Vallecano will play this spring in a rented facility outside of town, putting together a team at the last possible minute. Oklahoma City is the home of one USL’s more successful independent franchises, the OKC Energy, and this week around the MLS Combine the general sense among soccer people at all levels was the NASL was engaging in a mad pursuit by placing a team in a strong existing USL market.
Yet the USSF again seems to not have any interest in keeping the NASL out of a market where they are unlikely to succeed. In addition, the USL continues to play a similar game, having effectively flipped San Antonio from successful NASL market to USL startup this offseason, albeit in a roundabout way. Long-term ,this likely works out for the market, as the new San Antonio USL team has MLS ambitions. Still, the competition between leagues again fueled unnatural movement in the market.
Similar comments are being made about the new NASL team in Miami, though in fairness, it was MLS who initially invaded NASL’s turf in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market. Now the NASL appears to be doubling down ,trying to create a “derby” locally before David Beckham’s proposed MLS team gets rolling.
All of this drama leads back to the USSF; the unwillingness of the federation to do anything that creates harmony or integration between the leagues. NASL’s pursuit of clubs in MLS markets when a number of strong open markets exist is mind-blowing, yet on a league-level, it makes sense. In a world without proper oversight, a league whose entire ownership pool save one has flipped since 2012 might be anxious to move into a large media market.
But what is best for the business of MLS or NASL is not necessarily in the best interests of American soccer. Unfortunately, the USSF — the designated safeguard of those interests — has been asleep at the wheel for years.