Both Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League are the longest-running top-division soccer leagues in American history for their respective genders. Read about past, failed leagues, though, and both MLS and the NWSL seem less like success stories and more like echoes of the not-so-distant past. It’s worth wondering — could either league still fail?
Some of the similarities between MLS and the 1968-1984 version of the North American Soccer League (think Pelé and the Cosmos) are hard to ignore. The NASL grew quickly through expansion, even as its established teams struggled; several MLS sides have fallen behind, as the league adds new teams virtually every season. Enthusiasm for a few of the NASL’s teams was counterbalanced by apathy among others. Likewise, several MLS sides draw enormous crowds while others, irrespective of the product on the field, struggle to draw fans.
The similarities are even more striking on the women’s side, which saw two leagues close shop in less than a decade. Both the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA, 2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS, 2009-11) began with optimistic visions of being the best women’s league in the world. Both leagues had trouble attracting sponsors, fans and committed ownership. Both had to close down when the money ran out. Even though the NWSL has lasted into a sixth year and is thriving in several cities, the league last offseason lost two franchises that were unwilling to continue losing money.
The biggest difference on the MLS side is the money at stake. NASL teams flitted around the map, folding at the drop of a hat, because their owners had invested so little that folding or moving a team made perfect financial sense. The Minnesota Kicks’ second, less-involved owner famously folded the team over the phone. Today’s MLS owners have franchises worth hundreds of millions of dollars and most have soccer-specific stadiums to host the teams — investments too large to let fail.
The NWSL, though, is more concerning. Costs are more controlled than the WUSA or WPS, which is a positive. The league also has five teams that share ownership with MLS teams, plus the United States and Canadian soccer federations paying salaries for their national-team players. Those are helpful backstops to prevent a sudden end to the league.
But the NWSL is still struggling to attract major sponsors, and its TV deal — one game of the week on Lifetime — is nothing to get excited about. Except in Portland, attendance has flatlined. As the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City showed this offseason, owners have no trouble writing off their investments and closing their doors.
Ultimately, franchise instability doomed other leagues, and it’s the biggest threat to the current ones. Fans, sponsors and broadcasters will have a hard time getting on board when any team might vanish. Stability has to be the main goal for both leagues. MLS, with its ever-rising costs, probably has accomplished that. The NWSL, though, is still searching.
• The opening of Los Angeles FC’s new stadium last week was marred by fans who, in the manner of so many Mexican team fans, hurled a homophobic slur in unison toward the opposing goalkeeper after every goal kick. To LAFC’s credit, the club immediately announced it would eject any fans doing the chant and cancel their season tickets— a zero-tolerance policy that hopefully stands as an example for teams south of the border.
• By any measure, it’s been a bad season for Arsenal, which capped the ugly run by losing in the Europa League semifinals this week. How bad? So bad that Paddy Power Betfair, an Irish bookmaking company, blamed its poor quarterly financial results in part on Arsenal losing so many games that discouraged customers simply gave up betting.
• The relegation battle in the Premier League is heating up, and if you’re looking for a dog in the fight, you could do worse than throwing your support behind Huddersfield Town. The newly promoted side is managed by German-American David Wagner, who played for the U.S. men’s national team in the late 1990s. The only American manager in the league has his team in 16th place, three points out of the relegation zone.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
MLS: New York City at New York, 12:55 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. NYC makes the trip for the first of three Hudson River Derbies this season. Los Angeles vs. LAFC got plenty of press this year as MLS’s second crosstown rivalry, but the cross-river rivalry out East has already established itself as one of the marquee MLS games every season.
NWSL: Seattle at Portland, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. The natural Pacific Northwest rivalry isn’t quite as contentious when it comes to the women’s game, but there’s still no doubt that Portland’s huge crowd will want to see the Thorns put a beating on their neighbors. It should be a showpiece game for a league that’s short on close-together teams.
Liga MX: Morelia at Toluca, noon Sunday, Univision Deportes. Toluca, which won the spring-season title in Mexico, had a run of nine consecutive victories down the stretch. But in the first leg of this playoff quarterfinal, the top seed could register only a 2-2 draw at Morelia. Toluca is favored to go through, but Morelia could spring a shock.
La Liga: Real Madrid at Barcelona, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN. The Spanish league might be the best one in Europe, which makes it even more impressive that Barcelona is undefeated so far this year. Barca has the title wrapped up, but the undefeated streak is on the line — not that El Clásico really needs any extra excitement.