The North American Soccer League (NASL) concluded its fifth season on Nov. 15 with the New York Cosmos’ 3-2 win over the Ottawa Fury in the league’s title game. The title was the Cosmos’ seventh across the league’s two incarnations, with the club currently benefiting from a league model that’s drastically different from Major League Soccer (MLS). NASL’s teams are allowed to spend what they want on players with limited restrictions on contract-length, among other things. While in the past the rhetoric about free markets and unregulated spending by NASL executives were simply theoretical, much of this is now being put into practice by newer clubs with owners that have not been around the North American soccer scene for very long.
What has resulted is a league that has a disproportionate number of players on short-term contracts, as well as a market that has inflated the values of many older journeyman-types who sign on a year-by-year basis with NASL clubs. Though the market dictates prices, the desire of NASL owners to compete is driving a demand that may not be sustainable. It creates an interesting “silly season” for those of us who cover the league, but the system lacks the perspective and controls of the much more centralized MLS model.
This NASL offseason is already rampant with talk about the ambitions of new foreign-owned teams in Miami and Oklahoma City as well as the free-spending Tampa Bay Rowdies, who last season overspent on players and then sacked both the club president and head coach. The Rowdies have reportedly won a bidding war for 28-year-old forward Tom Heinemann, a player who has featured for six different teams over the past six seasons.
Heinemann’s situation is part of the contrast between the two leagues’ systems. While incentive exists to develop younger players within the highly-structured yet controversial MLS model, which allows teams exemptions for home grown players and those in the Generation Adidas program, NASL’s current model does not incentivize patience around development of younger players. Conversely, MLS’s salary cap and arcane rules about player movement does not necessarily treat players who have been loyal servants well after the age of 28, leaving those players to seek opportunities to move to NASL, if they desire. Given the amount of spending by some clubs in the second-tier league, more movement could happen in the near future.