Since its founding in 2010, the North American Soccer League has sought to compete with MLS. Unlike the single-entity structure of MLS, the NASL is set up more like a traditional world soccer league. Its teams are independently owned, and can succeed or fail on their own merits, rather than depending on strict financial and roster controls like MLS. Unfortunately, like the league’s 1970s-era namesake, the league has seen more failures than successes.
This week, NASL announced that the Atlanta Silverbacks were shutting their doors. Along with San Antonio, which folded earlier this offseason, this gives the the league three defunct franchises in five years. Had the league not stepped in to take over two others, those franchises would have folded as well. Throw in a history of vanishing expansion teams and the generally less-than-professional way in which the league and some of its clubs have been run, and the league does not have an impressive record.
It’s a shame, because NASL’s vision might be the better one for American soccer. Player development in America arguably has been stunted by MLS, which is more concerned with keeping its payroll low than it is with building world-class talent — a problem that can be seen in the plateauing fortunes of the U.S. national teams. Many observers, including men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, have suggested that a league in which the franchises competed, rather than working closely together, would ultimately improve the American player pool.
Even so, MLS has seen a solid decade of growth and smooth, professional management. The league has signed lucrative TV contracts worldwide, is expanding to 24 teams and beyond, and has teams building palatial new stadiums around the country. It’s hard to take NASL seriously as a competitor, given that it’s spinning its wheels on expansion and its marquee team, the New York Cosmos, plays home games at Hofstra University. While MLS has announced games on national broadcast TV next season, NASL is fighting to escape being mired in the bowels of ESPN3, next to indoor lacrosse and the opening rounds of obscure tennis tournaments.
Minnesota United might be an instructive case. The team almost folded in 2011 and 2012, but an influx of resources from a new owner helped turn the Loons into one of NASL’s most successful teams. Yet even as the turnaround took place, Minnesota concluded that the only way to ensure the franchise’s survival was to bid for an MLS franchise — a choice of stability over independence.
American soccer could use an alternative vision, as it tries to find its way to world-class status. The third-division USL has moved toward being a Triple-A baseball-style minor league for MLS, leaving NASL as all that’s left to fight for the traditional world soccer model. First, though, NASL needs some stability, along with a dose of good management, to be taken seriously as a potential MLS competitor.
• As expected, MLS declined to announce a start date for Minnesota United FC at the league’s meetings and draft this week in Baltimore. The best guess is that MLS is waiting for final legislative approval of the team’s planned Midway-area stadium, before giving the official green light for the Loons to join MLS in 2017.
• U.S. Soccer officially announced that the women’s national team will host England, Germany and France in March, bringing together four of the world’s five best teams. The “SheBelieves Cup,” despite its unfortunate name, should provide an excellent test for all four sides ahead of the Summer Olympics — and give us an indication of the probable favorite for gold.
• Despite impressing many at the MLS combine, Minnesota native and St. Louis University standout Tyler David was not selected in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft. The third and fourth rounds will take place via conference call Tuesday; David, ranked as the third-best center back available in the draft by MLS analyst Matthew Doyle, can expect to hear his name called at some point.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Everton at Chelsea, 9 a.m. Saturday, USA. Everton, led by brilliant-but-temperamental winger Gerard Deulofeu and all-conquering striker Romelo Lukaku, might be more fun to watch than any other Premier League team — in part because of goals leaked by the Toffees’ mistake-prone defense. Chelsea will hope to take advantage.
Serie A: Sassuolo at Napoli, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. Sassuolo is coming off a 1-0 road win at Inter Milan, a game that dropped Inter to third place — and moved Napoli into the top spot in Italy. Napoli has gone more than a month without a loss, led by Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuain, who scored a pair of goals in a dominating 5-1 victory last weekend.
Premier League: Arsenal at Stoke City, 10:15 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports. “But can they do it on a rainy night in Stoke?” is the question asked of all of the Premier League’s star-studded, high-maintenance squads — and rain (and snow) are in the forecast for this one. Stoke isn’t the group of menacing lumberjacks it once was. Even a draw would be a good result for first-place Arsenal.
La Liga: Athletic Bilbao at Barcelona, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. Both of these teams had midweek Copa del Rey games to worry about, but Barcelona will benefit from both an extra day of rest and an easier game. The hosts can’t let the grind of the Spanish season catch up to them; they’ve fallen behind Atletico Madrid in the standings, and the calendar won’t get less crowded.