The NASL: Your New Favorite American League

Featured / Recent News / USA / April 1, 2016

US Soccer has ridden quite the media rollercoaster the past couple of weeks. There was a World Cup Qualifying scare in Guatemala; “#ProRelForUSA”, “Fire Klinsmann” and “Fire Gulati” banners in Columbus; and for the cherry-on-top, five USWNT players have come forward accusing the federation of wage discrimination.

However, from one corner of the dimming American soccer landscape a light flickers promisingly. The North American Soccer League (NASL), named after the once-revered league that rostered names such as Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff in the 1980s (but carries no affiliation), has penned not one, but four (count ’em! Four!) broadcasting deals recently. These deals were made with One World Sports, ESPN (on ESPN3), beIN Sports, and CBS, as well as a deal with Spanish-publication Marca to cover the NASL and hopefully foster international interest. As problems sprout and fester throughout the US Soccer system, this league is generating hope.

Hope, that is, depending on where you sit within the complex that is American soccer.

Indy Eleven

The Indy Eleven pull crowds. Do you pull? No way.

Today the NASL, which played its inaugural season in 2009, is nestled (un)comfortably between Major League Soccer and the USL as America’s second division. The young league is showing signs of competitive expansion as a growing portion of American soccer fans become exhaustingly disgruntled at their federation and the first division of professional soccer.

While many in the world of soccer have congratulated NASL for their deals, some MLS fans have critiqued the league for independently acquiring and paying for a TV deal. Although it’s true that the NASL did invest to be broadcast on CBS, this is the way broadcasting deals for growing sports leagues are made. In fact, Major League Soccer paid to be on TV during its first nine years. (They don’t anymore, but because they now pair their deal with the US Soccer Federation (USSF) , meaning they package the rights to US national team games with MLS games.)

So with this large broadcast deal and increased visibility, what should we expect from the NASL?

The league has made their intentions within the US system clear. Last year the second division accused US Soccer and Major League Soccer of violating antitrust laws after the federation proposed changes to requirements for a league to qualify for Division I status, thus making it harder for NASL to compete with MLS. While the proposed changes were never made and nothing ever came of the accusation, this situation made two things clear:


Bill Peterson, the NASL’s commissioner. The hero we need.

1. NASL has every intention of competing with MLS for D1 status.

2. US Soccer heavily values MLS’s personal interests within the American soccer structure.

That second point could seem incendiary, so give me a little room to make my argument before getting too heated.

The women’s national team’s fight for equality has brought to light some very troubling facts about the USSF’s practices such as the relationship between MLS, Soccer United Marketing (SUM,”the commercial arm of MLS” ) and the USSF. I won’t dive into these accusations here, but the attached reading confirms, at the very least, that the US federation has formed some suspect associations. It may not be possible to prove illegality, but the picture is becoming clearer and clearer that US Soccer does not always have American soccer’s interest at heart.

The federation’s actions on D1 status make sense, though. Major League Soccer is full of major investors who have poured years of their lives and stupid amounts of money into infrastructure, marketing, and the development of an American soccer league. Not only is it logical to reward your trusted investors with the assurance of D1 status, but it makes a sort of sense to have the people who have invested in creating the longest-lasting American soccer league at the helm as we move forward. I understand this, and although I don’t condone their business practices I still acknowledge their status as the preeminent soccer division in the USA and revel in the prospect of watching a competitive American soccer league.

However, even though MLS’s practices may makes sense, these last week’s developments are showing that US Soccer may not be able to act unbiasedly in regards to the professional system. I mean, just look at how intertwined US Soccer is with MLS, SUM, and Don Garber. You don’t need a degree in investigative journalism to smell something fishy.

But at the end of the day, it’s all speculation. The USSF’s relationship with Major League Soccer can be argued as necessary for the stability of a professional league in America. It’s impossible to legally prove that the USSF is acting with a bias towards MLS. Although Don Garber is the commissioner of MLS, CEO of SUM and on the Board of Directors at the USSF, that does not prove that he acts to restrict competition from other leagues.

Garber Gulati

Two old chums.

Though, to me, it proves a lot. It proves that there is, at least, a fear of competition between leagues among the executives in the soccer business. It proves that there is a massive centralization of power in the American soccer system. It proves that the USSF is surrounded by a layer of mystery that American soccer fans may never see through.

And it is here, in the dark veil of mystery that shrouds US Soccer, that we come full circle. Because in this dim, there is again a light.

What the NASL’s broadcasting deals have offered to American soccer fans is an alternative. After all the drama and mystery that is Major League Soccer and the USSF’s relationship, American soccer fans have finally been offered a competitive domestic league that can compete with MLS.

NASL may not have the payroll of some MLS clubs and Rayo OKC may be no Sporting Kansas City, but the league presents us an opportunity. If you are fed up with US Soccer and MLS (or anything connected to either), you can finally enjoy an American soccer league on TV that’s more your style.

So it’s up to us to decide. The NASL has made bounding strides towards competing with MLS this year. Ask yourself, are you happy with US Soccer?

If you’re like me and you just can’t say that you’re happy, look into the darkness of our system and stoke these growing flames. Find a team to support. Learn the schedule. Watch the games. Realize that your interest can shape the future of American soccer and, together, let’s invest in a better American system.

Noah Toumert
The three loves in life are Cleveland, Algeria and soccer. Looking to bring the world's most beautiful game to the world's most beautiful country.

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on April 4, 2016

The NASL tried and failed to have laissez faire player movement in their first iteration because super teams would ruin it for everybody else. As much as the Cosmos invigorated US Soccer on their own, they destroyed the competitive balance of their own league and was central to its failure. What’s more, the NASL isn’t getting rights fees from CBS, they are doing a time buy during CBS’s down months. They are burning money hoping to compete on a fourth tier cable network against the MLS and its affiliated teams in the USL on ESPN, FS1, and previously on NBCSN.

As for wage discrimination – US Soccer is almost single-handedly holding the NWSL up by paying national team player salaries, even if they don’t give it nearly enough attention publicly. They have made major strides to improve television coverage and playing conditions. It’s not the men yet, and they deserve criticism, but US Soccer is not without any merit for fostering growth in the women’s game.

Also Promotion-Relegation doesn’t work in a country where infrastructure and TV markets vary as widely as the United States. Look at Rochester – a 15,000 seat stadium with room for expansion that was built with MLS in mind in the mid-1990’s and then foreclosed on by the city this offseason. They were in the USL Championship last year and filled half of their stadium. No mid tier city is building a 20,000 seat stadium for a team that could be relegated a year later. What would have happened with NYCFC – with it’s new ownership, superstar appeal and TV marketability – was relegated year one? And no national TV game will get 250,000 viewers for a second division matchup like MLS Soccer Sunday does.

And as to “something fishy?” Look at how MLS began – in order to draw the World Cup to the USA, they needed to create a league in a short amount of time. Three owners owned and operated the entire league to keep it from folding after two seasons. Is the single-entity structure a good thing in the long term? Maybe not. But every attempt at a first tier franchise driven soccer league has failed horrifically. The fact that MLS is finally making good money on a TV contract and expanding their fan base through a grass root supporter movements is a testament to soccer finally taking hold. More people need to move from watching the Premier League on TV to seeing MLS at a stadium for soccer to grow, not divide fans with an unsustainable alternative.

And in terms of competitive balance among leagues – look at the US Open Cup. MLS teams don’t usually field more than 5 or 6 regular starters until the sixth round. Not one NASL team was still in the competition by then. Only two NASL teams reached the final 32, compared to 12 USL teams, and 18 MLS teams. The NASL went 1-7 against the USL, so maybe that’s the comparison that should be made.

Just two cents from a disagreeing patron.

    on April 4, 2016

    Thanks for the comment!

    I agree with your first point, but it’s important to note that this NASL is not the NASL of the 80s. And I’m not just saying “it’s a new age for the NASL!” It’s literally a different league formed by completely different people with different ideas and a completely different system set up. The only shared aspects are the name and that they got some of the original NASL clubs. They piggybacked the history and the notoriety but with most other parts else changed.

    The point of the article wasn’t to show that the NASL is better than MLS, specifically, I didn’t mean to imply that NASL teams could consistently beat MLS teams. That’s years off, if ever possible. But the “fishy” thing may be where we disagree. I agree that MLS was created in the only possible circumstances and that the work that the people at Major League Soccer have done over the past 20 years is amazingly impressive. But I don’t think that that means other leagues structures shouldn’t be allowed the opportunity to compete with our D1 league. MLS has done a tremendous job in fostering soccer interest in America to get us to this point, but just because they got us here doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on our future. I personally believe the MLS model was perfect to generate interest in a country where there was little interest and distrust. But to take America to the next level of soccer dominance there needs to be competition and MLS cannot stand unopposed. And I hope the NASL can offer that competition.

    The deal with CBS isn’t for rights and the NASL is burning money, but people have been framing it as a bad thing. It’s merely the way a growing league has to wrestle for notoriety; MLS did it for their first nine years and only stopped after packaging their right with US soccer’s. That’s wasn’t bad on their part at all, the point was showing that the steps the NASL are taking are the natural steps to compete with MLS for D1 status eventually. I want to make a point that I realize that that will not be happening anytime soon. For the NASL to compete with MLS, on the field or financially, there will be a lot of steps that must be taken. Simply, these TV deals are the first steps. It now offers American soccer fans an alternative to MLS. If an American soccer fan, who may not love MLS (like myself), wanted to watch a domestic soccer game on TV it was essentially MLS or bust.

    Now I can watch every NASL game and invest my time and money into a different league to offer competition. This post was meant to be a call-to-action of sorts for fans like me to readily support the NASL instead of dismissing them.

on April 4, 2016

I’ve just recently started to learn more about NASL largely thanks to a new expansion team being announced from where I’m from (SF Deltas). As a huge soccer fan but more of a casual MLS fan, how is NASL “better” than MLS?/Why should people be supporting NASL over MLS? You say “Realize that your interest can shape the future of American soccer and let’s, together, invest in a better American system.” Why not just invest in MLS?

I hope I don’t come off as contentious, just not as educated as I could be.


    on April 5, 2016

    Don’t worry at all, that doesn’t seem contentious. I love questions and the conversation, so thanks for asking!

    I don’t know if I could or would make that argument that the NASL is “better” than MLS. MLS teams would whoop most NASL right now, and in terms of finances/notoriety/infrastructure MLS takes the cake. There’s already an established league that will offer consistent soccer, so I completely understand how fans would embrace that. Over my personal history with MLS, I’ve been disappointed with how the league and the executives of MLS/US Soccer operate. The shady relationship between MLS’s SUM and US Soccer that’s been exposed through the complaint by the USWNT has been, for me, the final nail in the coffin. As the NASL gain notoriety and give fans the opportunity to watch this season nationwide, I see the perfect moment for American fans of soccer to invest their time and money into the league to hopefully overtake MLS, or at least put a healthy amount of competition on the league to make them take more transparent practices. I don’t want to come off as if I’m condemning fans of MLS; I understand that it’s an established league that many fans love, and that’s great! Ideally, the goal is to have as many Americans as invested in soccer as possible. But as I research the relationships between MLS and US Soccer I’m beginning to think that the best step forward for American soccer is not through MLS as our D1 league, and any help I can give to the NASL in at least making Don Garber sweat, I will.

on April 5, 2016

NASL is as committed to Pro/Rel as MLS, as in not at all. MLS is just more realistic and doesn’t pander to ppl just because it makes them look hipster/cool/millennial. This was quite evident when the ever so pro NASL Guardian newspaper ran an article on the NPSL wanting to merge with the NASL to form a Pro/Rel system and NASL slyly said no thanks. They don’t care about it so don’t drum on about it being one of their qualities.

    on April 5, 2016

    True. That Guardian article pushed pro/rel on the NASL in a way the league never endorsed. I’m not sure that I said one of the qualities I like about the NASL is them embracing pro/rel. If something I wrote came off that way, it’s not what I meant. The NASL’s current push of notoriety offers an alternative to MLS if their practices make you uneasy. Every American fan of soccer has different relationships with the leagues and teams we have. Personally, MLS isn’t my cup of tea, so I’m hoping that the NASL can compete with MLS and either overtake MLS as D1 eventually or, at least, pressure Garber to shore up some of his less glamorous practices.

on April 26, 2016

So it looks like 7,000 people are unhappy with the state of MLS and US Soccer… the silent majority!

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