The field came up from the ground in the dark.
The trucks rolled up to Yukon High School in the deepening black of night, and the men set to work. The artificial turf pallets came up one at a time, 40 in sum, and were whisked away in the thick, hot silence of a central Oklahoma summer. When club officials awoke to find 45 percent of their turf panels missing, they filed a police report.
The boondoggle was the brainchild of the NASL’s Rayo OKC minority owner Sean Jones, the result of a protracted series of miscommunications between Rayo’s removed Madrid ownership and the actual boots on the ground in Oklahoma City. Jones, a local healthcare executive, bought the turf himself to lay over the high school football surface before every home game to properly size the field and remove the issue of football lines. He’d heard through a back channel that Rayo’s leadership planned to sell it. So, in the thick of night, he removed it himself to protect his investment.
Rayo, of course, disputes this claim, leading to a standoff that could threaten future home games. It could also affect the high school’s band practice. Professional sports in the U.S.A.
Rayo’s American venture seemed to be on shaky footing anyway. Its relegation to the Spanish second division after the 2015-16 season severely cut into the club’s revenue stream, which cut into OKC’s revenue stream by proxy. While club chairman Raul Martin Presa outwardly said this summer the club did not plan to cut ties with its American satellite, perhaps, it would “lower the sails” a bit.
This is not unexpected yet curious talk, especially considering the lack of communication between Madrid and the club’s minority owner – its broadest and most important face in the U.S. – led to such a devastating breakdown over field surface. Rayo may not have plans to fold its OKC venture, but the clouds are dark overhead. They will almost certainly need more outside investment.
In the meantime, coach Alen Marcina and the club’s operating management group both left the club in August. Marcina cited irreconcilable differences. Sold Out Strategies, which is based in Oklahoma City, said it needed to “focus its attention on other client portfolios.”
These are our present days in the underworld of American professional soccer. While MLS burnishes its window to the world to a high sheen through its carefully manicured social media, an NASL ownership group is openly squabbling over where they will actually play their games.
It all has the look of a reconstructed Old West town. The storefronts are there, the windows and the swinging doors and the askew wooden planks jutting out from the crooked foundations into dust-strewn streets. But behind the veneer and the one tourist building with a miniature reconstruction on how all this looked 150 years ago, there is nothing. Only more dust.
The NASL, it would seem, is in trouble. If you track the league’s history, it has essentially lurched from struggle to struggle, and even the harvest periods were punctuated with harbingers that lean days were afoot. So if you view the league through its spasmodic prism – it contracts and contracts and then expands some – then it seems to thrive on the dramatics. The NASL is our own Kardashian.
So maybe you don’t worry about the NASL so much. But 2016 has not been the league’s year. Certainly not as the USL charges hard at its back.
Rayo OKC is still an operational club for now, and the quality local fan support put Oklahoma City on the map as a soccer map dot of reckoning. But other, darker harbingers stalk the league. Mostly notably, this offseason the league will lose Minnesota United to MLS. The club was the model of lower tier management in the U.S., and NASL will feel its loss deeply. The club raised up young talent like Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra, procured successful international signings like Ibson, cultivated a bonafide fan base and orchestrated a quality product on the field. Not many teams anywhere in the country can do this (note the opponent).
There is more. Perhaps. The Ottawa Fury, which has been in the NASL for a scant two years, might be looking to leave it.
— Neil Morris (@ByNeilMorris) September 1, 2016
Whether or not the Fury actually do defect to the USL, the fact that it’s in the discussion is a telling tale. The USL has expanded in leaps and bounds since announcing a partnership with MLS in 2013 that stationed what essentially amounts to the league’s reserve teams within its borders. In 2015, the USL expanded from 14 teams to 24. This year they added six more, including four with direct MLS affiliations.
The NASL planned to replace Minnesota United with expansion side San Francisco Deltas in 2017. It would not have a plan for the Fury, and certainly not for Rayo OKC if it continues its tottering path. As it stands the league will have 12 teams in 2017. Whether all 12 finish the year is a point of conjecture.
While the USL looks increasingly like the smoothest path for young professionals into MLS, the NASL has the herky-jerky look of a jalopy on rails weaving in and out of traffic. It may eventually arrive at its destination, or perhaps its engine will fall out on the highway. Either way, the ride will be fraught with perils and scares and near-misses and collisions.
Indeed, while Miami FC spends millions on transfer fees and Puerto Rico FC showboats Carmelo Anthony as its owner, checks are bouncing in Fort Lauderdale and the RailHawks are trying to outrun a history of “broken promises, scandal, mismanagement, and shady dealings.”
So perhaps the NASL is in trouble. But maybe this is simply the operational ethos of a league that has contracted under the weight of its own excesses before and simply reorganized with a different face and the same internal machinery. But as the 12-team NASL trundles off toward the horizon, desperately trying to re-fill a glass that continues to leak, it appears to have less bearing on where it’s headed than ever.