There needs to be more giant octopuses in football.
On Saturday night the North American Soccer League began their fifth season of existence (well, actually their fortieth. But let’s not get into the crazy history of American soccer) with every single match being shown live on ESPN3.
For a soccer journalist/nerd this is kind of like the grocery store of football because one can surf between games like one goes between aisles.
While some aisles are more attractive than others (Raul and the New York Cosmos versus slightly paunchy Ronaldo and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers) there is always that one surprise match/aisle where you uncover a hidden gem.
That match on Saturday featured the fastest goal in NASL history and a giant octopus named the Kraken. That match was the Jacksonville Armada versus FC Edmonton.
Although there was an MLS match going on (a snooze-fest between the New England Revolution and the Colorado Rapids,) there was no way that I was not going to watch the NASL.
There is a certain coolness factor that the NASL carries here in North America. It is seen as the counter-culture league, the league where “traditional football” is played.
For as much as the MLS is seen by the hardcore soccer supporters in Canada and USA as a corporate sellout, the NASL is the hip, cool league that tries crazy things like a two season schedule and respecting U.S. soccer history.
Perhaps what was most astonishing about the game itself was the level of play. Although I have watched many NASL matches over the past two to three years, I had my reservations about the quality of both teams.
For the Armada, this would be their first-ever regular season match. Although they did feature the likes of Keita (who has played for Mallorca and FC Zurich) and Jemal Johnson (Manchester United Youth Academy Product, former MK Dons striker) this is an expansion team.
Meanwhile, FC Edmonton had an uneven 2014 campaign (ninth in the spring season and third in the fall season) and had rebuilt their roster in the off-season.
It is amazing what a goal can do to change one’s perception. Even before I could crack open the first beer of the night (Yuengling Black and Tan, for those who want to know) Johnson had split the defenders to score the first goal. The crowd went completely bonkers. The cannons went off at Community First Park and the Flagship Fleet, the Armada’s supporters group, went bananas.
There is a certain level of relief that an expansion team has when they score their first goal ever in team history. It is almost a relief that the team belongs, that this thing that had been talked about months and years finally is real and its happening.
While sometimes that relief can make teams slip up, other times it can embolden them. The Armada used that energy to score twice more before the half, first on a goal by Keita then another by former Adelaide United midfielder Marcos Flores.
— JacksonvilleArmadaFC (@JaxArmadaFC) April 5, 2015
The level of fun was not just limited to Jacksonville, Florida. While Raul did not score in his first match for the Cosmos, Leo Fernandes did off of a corner kick taken by Walter Restrepo. Looking on was Haji Wright, the United States under-17 prodigy who shirked MLS to come to the Cosmos.
Meanwhile. in San Antonio, the Tampa Bay Rowdies spoiled the championship party for the Scorpions only after both teams accrued nine yellow cards and a red card in the 90th minute.
A weekend of fun was certainly something that the NASL needed. While the league’s major television agreement with ESPN certainly provided a shot in the arm losing one of their top clubs, Minnesota United FC, to MLS hurts.
Since the NASL do not consider themselves a second division league they put themselves in direct competition with not just MLS, but the United Soccer League (who are informally the third division of USA/Canada club soccer) as well.
In March, the USL announced that they will be seeking second division sanctioning from US Soccer, putting them in direct competition with the NASL.
While the politics are certainly interesting, the quality of play that was shown on Saturday night was the far more captivating story. For years, American soccer supporters have wondered when the quality of play will improve and when interest in the game will permeate through the other divisions.
At least on one night the NASL and the Kraken proved that they could do it.
(Author’s Update: It should be noted that it was the Section 909 supporters group in the stands celebrating after the goal, not the Flagship Fleet. The author regrets the error.)