The Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League made a splash on Wednesday by unveiling Brazilian legend Ronaldo as a part-owner and potential player. The Strikers got an international and national publicity bump out of the announcement. Ronaldo himself was well-spoken and thoughtful in his responses to the assembled media. But underlying problems exist in Fort Lauderdale.
The NASL in the last few years has gone from being a rag-tag minor league of sorts to a serious professional competition. Teams have upgraded ownership, player quality has become better, the staffs of the clubs have become more professional and the quality of play has improved. Fort Lauderdale, however, under new ownership that is shooting for the stars with ambitious rhetoric by almost every discernible measure, fallen behind the rest of the league. This comes just two short months after the Strikers played for the NASL title.
This offseason has seen the Strikers’ rival Tampa Bay Rowdies upgrade its playing personnel (partly at the Strikers’ expense) and hire two of the best minds in American soccer in Thomas Rongen and Farrukh Quraishi to run the club. To the north in Jacksonville, new NASL entry Armada FC has impressed with a local marketing campaign that could rival any expansion club MLS has admitted in recent years outside the Pacific Northwest. Good things are happening for the league with newer clubs in Ottawa, Indianapolis and San Antonio, and NASL is poised to add Los Angeles to its ranks in the near future.
But unfortunately the one real question mark hanging over the NASL entering 2015 is Fort Lauderdale and its new owners. The well-financed Brazilian group has gotten a slow start in building a roster, naming a coach and most importantly making the right community connections. Tom Mulroy, who served as President of the club under previous owners Traffic Sports left the team days after the Strikers lost the NASL Championship game to San Antonio, and with him went a great amount of the work the organization had done locally. Mulroy was able to build a club that slowly but surely was connecting to local youth clubs, getting important buy-in from each of them while continuing to work well with supporters groups. On a limited budget, Mulroy and now departed Strikers Head Coach Gunter Kronsteiner built a winning team – a juggernaut of sorts that would likely have been even stronger in 2015 had the core been maintained.
Instead, the new ownership has elected to start over. Stunningly, Kronsteiner — who was considered by some objective experts one of the best coaches at any professional level in North America — was treated indifferently and voiced his displeasure publicly on Facebook. Several players from the 2014 team also took to social media to express their feelings about the ownership situation. Subsequently, many of the 2014 Strikers regulars elected to sign with Tampa Bay or other clubs in both NASL, MLS or in Europe.
Every new ownership group has bumps in its transitions. The last two seasons in the NASL, Minnesota and Tampa Bay both changed owners and had some loose edges as the new management took over. But the Fort Lauderdale transition has been much more messier, sloppier and discouraging than anything that the NASL has seen in recent years. What is worse potentially is that David Beckham’s MLS ambitions down the road 20 miles away in Miami could see a boost if the Strikers do not find their footing soon.
Having said that, the new owners are entitled to do things the way they see fit. The future is bright for NASL and Fort Lauderdale can be a real beacon in that way forward.
Ronaldo becoming part of NASL and the Strikers is a big deal. Hopefully for local fans and soccer aficionados, with Ronaldo’s name and perhaps some hard early lessons learned by the owners, things will change for the better in the very near future.
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