This rhetoric has been the staple of the NASL’s “appeal” to non-American soccer fans since the breakaway of its teams from USL in late 2009. However, alignment with the global game, lack of restrictions on spending and business in addition to low entry fees has done little to stimulate NASL’s growth to this point in time. While many inside NASL and fans of the league continue to tout ultimate competition with MLS, the real opponent is the third-tier USL, a league NASL’s teams originally broke away from.
The NASL’s on-field quality can be questioned despite O’Brien’s claims of improvement. In seven 2015 US Open Cup matches against the third-tier USL, NASL clubs won zero matches, lost six and drew one (a match that was then lost on penalty kicks). Meanwhile USL has recently announced several new franchises including last week the addition of a well-funded Cincinnati team.
O’Brien’s views about long-term growth in five years were also quite interesting.
“What do I think we will look like in, say, five years’ time?” “I think we will be playing in our own stadium, in a league of 18 to 20 teams, and we will be competing at the highest level in this country.”
While it is noble to have big dreams, and many — myself included — find much in the MLS model that we don’t like, this sort of rhetoric — which is completely and utterly unrealistic — is one of the two reasons (along with the involvement of Traffic Sports) why NASL has become such a polarizing league to many soccer fans in North America. No realistic scenario exists where NASL will become equal to or overtake MLS within five years. On the other hand, several scenarios exist where USL could become equal or overtake NASL within the same time.
NASL has made some much needed changes to the way lower-division soccer operates in the United States. Competition has helped change the way USL itself operates and has made that league more robust as well as accountable to its team owners and fans. The success of NASL is clear, making second division soccer more visible and viable throughout North America.
But the good work of NASL continues to be threatened by the hubris shown at various times by team owners and league officials including O’Brien. Challenging MLS in the next five years is not only unrealistic, but probably unhealthy for the sustained viability of NASL. The league must stabilize itself first and see off the challenge from a resurgent USL before continuing to talk in such grandiose and unrealistic terms. The North American soccer landscape is better with a healthy NASL filling its role in the pyramid. It is now important that the league and its fans focus on that goal and continue to build the best possible lower division product imaginable.