The North American Soccer League (NASL) has spent much of the last year trying to claim some degree of authenticity in its approach to the world’s game. In contrast to the franchise model of Major League Soccer (MLS), which features a majority of new clubs using names that resemble that of older European ones, the NASL has been willing to embrace American soccer history and free market principles.
However, the NASL’s announcement of a new team in Oklahoma City to be affiliated with Rayo Vallecano immediately brought back memories of Crystal Palace Baltimore, a club which — affiliated with the league in 2010 during the season where they shared US Soccer’s second division with USL — folded after one season thanks in large measure to financial troubles with both the parent club and local owners. The club never competed in NASL as an independent league.
Now that La Liga side Rayo Vallecano has announced an agreement to launch a NASL team in Oklahoma City, the best comparisons I can make are to compare the team to (1) Chivas USA, a failed MLS team, (2) Ajax Orlando, which folded after three seasons in the USL’s Premier Development League, and perhaps even the (3) Manchester City-managed New York City FC. It is a departure from the philosophy the NASL has held since 2011, which has been to add new clubs that appeared either connected to the original NASL or were built around strong local connections. Oklahoma City is currently home to a very successful USL team, the OKC Energy, which has largely cornered the local market for pro soccer.
NASL has attempted to chart its own course, and many who support the league have mocked the rival-MLS for “Euro-posing” and adding Sporting, Real, FC, SC or United to virtually every team the league has added since 2005. As the second-tier league which publicly aspires to challenge MLS, the established market leader for division one recognition, the NASL has focused largely on building a strong brand in local markets previously lacking professional soccer.
But earlier this year, when the NASL announced a new franchise in Miami, which is within the same TV market as an existing NASL club, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, the league began going in a different direction. The cities that have been linked with new NASL teams in the last six months either have existing pro teams or are huge markets, such as San Francisco.
Going into Oklahoma City, which already has a successful pro team yet is not a large market, as well as coupling it with a brand linked to Europe, is a risk. But Rayo is a club with a cult following, including hipsters, political leftists and people who want to cheer against the two big Madrid clubs. Thus the club might create a niche following, even if it will be swimming uphill locally to gain market share.
The NASL has been linked with potential new club announcements in Chicago and San Francisco in the coming weeks. The direction of the league, which has its final between the New York Cosmos and Ottawa Fury FC this weekend, has been questioned by many around the game. But now it appears clear that NASL is not going to back off of potential markets that have existing pro teams, nor are they particularly interested in pursuing the types of markets that lack pro soccer that we discussed on this site a few weeks ago.
While many in the NASL believe that challenging MLS is a wise strategy, fans of the league seem divided on this approach. Many fans of existing NASL clubs believe the league should find its niche and continue to build soccer in underserved markets while focusing on player development, while others firmly believe MLS cannot properly grow the sport in North America. Supporters also seem equally divided on this move into Oklahoma City and the Rayo connection.
Time will tell which set of supporters and critics are proven correct.
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