No one does soccer drama better in North America better than the North American Soccer League. After a winter of upheaval, change, and roster moves the NASL is back for their 2016 spring campaign
For those that are still learning their way around the North American soccer structure: the North American Soccer is ostensibly the second division for club football in Canada and the United States.
It was founded in 2009 although this incarnation of the league ties itself to the famous league that lasted from 1968 to 1984.
There are a couple of interesting facets to the league. First, like Mexico and leagues in Central and South America the NASL has a split-season structure.
The winners of the fall and spring season are joined by the two best sides from a combined season standings at the end of the season. The four clubs will then play in what is called the Soccer Bowl, a competition that again hearkens back to the heyday of the original NASL.
So now that we have discussed the basics of the NASL and somehow managed to sidestep the tired topics of the MLS-NASL relationship and promotion/relegation let’s talk about 2016! The 2016 season will likely be one of the more interesting seasons in the league’s history.
With the introduction of Rayo Oklahoma City and Miami FC in the spring and Puerto Rico FC in the fall the league is attempting to broaden their horizons or in the case of PRFC finally figure out a market they covet.
The news earlier in the week that the San Francisco Delta will be joining the league in 2017 put a check mark on League Commissioner Bill Peterson’s bucket list: a team on the west coast.
Beyond franchises there were also some fascinating moves on and off of the pitch. Although Raul and Marcos Senna bid adieu to the New York Cosmos and the NASL, the league welcomed in Niko Kranjcar (Cosmos), Georgios Samaras (OKC), Robbie Findley (OKC), Juan Arango (Cosmos), Yasmani Duke (Cosmos), and Wilson Palacios (Miami FC).
Even going beyond those names who are known internationally there were solid pick-ups from MLS sides that should help strengthen the league. Players such Jairo Arrieta (D.C. United/Cosmos,) Marcel De Jong (Sporting Kansas City/Ottawa Fury,) Michel (FC Dallas/ROKC,) Eric Avila (Orlando City SC/Tampa Bay Rowdies,) and Jon Busch (Chicago Fire/Indy Eleven).
Those moves coupled with the influx of young talent like United States under 20 midfielder Luis Fernandes (Ft. Lauderdale Strikers), U.S. under-17 defender Alexis Velela (Cosmos), and Honduran international Darwin Espinal (Tampa Bay Rowdies) give the league balance.
Added to the list of notable names also include Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta who are hoping to crack the nut that is football in Miami.
Considering that they are joined former U.S. international goalkeeper Tony Meola as coach of the Jacksonville Armada and luminaries like Ronaldo (Fort Lauderdale Strikers) and Carmelo Anthony (PRFC).
Barring Ronaldo putting on a uniform none of these individuals will feature for their side. Nonetheless, they represent a level of stability which is important for a league with grand designs to be a bigger league.
Yet for all of the promise of the NASL there are still plenty of issues most of which center around MLS and the competing nature that exists within North American soccer.
With the league losing the Atlanta Silverbacks (the team ceased operations and their reserve side took over the name), the San Antonio Scorpions (who essentially moved to the USL after folding), and with the inevitable move of Minnesota United FC to MLS the league will be losing their 2014 Soccer Bowl Champions (Scorpions) and two sides that have been the backbone of the league since its rebirth.
In general, the league’s structure took a major hit last year with the indictment and prosecution of Traffic Sports (former owners of the Carolina Railhawks) in relation to the FIFA scandal.
Although the league really has spoken much about the issue in public the ripples of that event are still being felt and certainly it is reasonable to expect that the league and their ambitions were stymied quite a bit.
Television is also a big subject that the league is looking to tackle early in the season. The league’s first season on ESPN3 produced plenty of coverage although the quality often left a bit to be desired.
The league was able to secure two independent national television deals this week with One World Sports, beINSPORT, and most importantly CBS Sports.
With the three deals covering 60 NASL matches the league seems to finally be making a dent in terms of improving their footprint on the sporting landscape here in North America.
Now the question is can they improve their Spanish language coverage and the quality of their broadcasts.
But all of the issues off of the pitch cannot take away the quality of play on the pitch and the support that teams receive in the stands. The NASL provides an alternative for those who might not find MLS to be their ideal league.
That they can get moments like the Cosmos defeating NYCFC during the US Open Cup or the Ottawa Fury making a deep run into the Voyageurs Cup just provides some level of vindication that what they are watching is of a certain level and it is not just a second division or a B League.
So who is going to win the Spring season? It would be easy to say that it is there for the Cosmos to take. But given the number of changes in the side it might be a bit early for the top side for Giovanni Savarese’s side.
Minnesota United FC also look like a strong side but one has to wonder where there this teams mind is at early in the season.
Tampa Bay appears to have the right level of experience and returning pieces which should give them the advantage this spring.
Projected finish: Tampa Bay, New York Cosmos, Minnesota United FC, Ottawa Fury FC, Indy Eleven, Rayo OKC, Carolina Railhawks, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, FC Edmonton, Jacksonville Armada, and Miami FC.