The decaying underpinnings holding up what’s left of the beleaguered NASL are foundering. The league has been in trouble for the better part of 2016, but things, it seems, are accelerating. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding clubs that haven’t openly defected, many still in the league are faltering. Clubs like Rayo OKC and Fort Lauderdale are riven by internal strife. The pilings crack more quickly every day.
There have been rumors that, alongside the Ottawa Fury, longtime NASL stalwarts Tampa Bay were on their way out of the league. Now it would seem those rumors are closer to fruition than perhaps we previously imagined.
The Rowdies, it should be said, are situated in the same city as the USL’s headquarters. You know. For whatever that’s worth.
The time of the NASL’s demise is most likely at hand. Perhaps not this year, but it is contracting faster than it can possibly hope to expand spread over time. Even if this isn’t the end of the league as a concept, it certainly looks like the end of the league’s current iteration. Like an elderly grandparent nearing the end of the road, this all feels both expected and sad in some equal measure.
In the short term, puncturing the NASL won’t likely do much to impact the American soccer scene. The NASL is currently just 12 teams, and if it contracts like we expect it will that number could be in single digits by the time a proposed 2017 season would start. Many of those teams are already poorly run, have flagging fan support and lack dedicated home stadiums. Players good enough will simply flee to other leagues. Call it a winnowing process.
In the long term, though, the fall of the NASL knocks out the last section of wall keeping the invasion from rolling over the final defensive bastion. The NASL has quietly been at odds with MLS since reforming in 2009, stymieing any broader collaboration between the two on any significant scale. And its possible demise would clear the pathway for the first true promotion-relegation system in U.S. professional soccer.
The U.S. soccer’s pyramid is, at present, a completely theoretical construct. If someone from a country with a connected system asked you to provide it, this is where you’d point him.
But in reality this is an example of looking through a glass darkly. The NASL and USL are beneath MLS in theory, cobbled together off a series of judgments calculating revenue, support, quality, staffing. Everything, really. And it makes sense. MLS is a better league than both. Nobody argues.
But there is no actual mechanism hooking these three into this shape. They are three independent orbs rotating around the same sun but rarely interacting with the gravitational pull of each other. Conventional wisdom has long had the USL and all its previous iterations underneath the more widely known NASL. Not only is that now wrong, but there’s no actual consequence to that conclusion even if it wasn’t. It’s a line on a piece of paper. The leagues never interact, so what, ultimately, does a pyramid matter?
If the NASL does collapse, I think a few things happen. For one, I think the USL and MLS bond strengthens the same way two relatives become stronger by the loss of a third. The primary reason the USL usurped whatever claim the NASL had to the No. 2 spot on our figurative pro ladder is in organization. They’ve frankly been better in every facet, from promotion to media interaction to stadium sites to team building to expansion. It’s folly to not see the MLS tie-in here. The retraction of the NASL means less inhibition. Or it should, anyway.
But the one thing that should happen next not only to solidify the USL’s position but to lay the groundwork for the flowering of American soccer’s next generation? Pro-rel. Today, we are talking about pro-rel. May God watch over us from above.
Whatever your thoughts on the topic, the divisiveness tends to ward off wider discussion. Completely understandable malady. Some ideas become so corrupted by their messengers that the virus is downloaded onto the idea’s hard drive. The loudest (and thereby angriest) pro-rel advocates in this country have done more to damage their cause than they probably understand. By and large they have packaged their message into grenades, not pamphlets. So I understand the recoil. Unfortunately, in the current climate, disclaimers are still necessary in matters of promotion and relegation in the U.S.
But I think to ignore the opportunity facing the USL is to miss the future.
The USL has been expanding at pace for the past three years now, and the vast majority of MLS clubs now have affiliates, if not teams operated by central command, in its ranks. The league is still attached to its regional model, which is understandable. The stated goal has always been to get the league to 36 teams divided between three conferences with 12 in each. It had 28 this season, with Nashville and Reno already announced. You can probably expect more soon – welcoming the most well organized of the NASL defectors will help – meaning 36 is not a distant goal. I’d expect that in the next few years.
Once the USL reaches that benchmark, it is time it embarked on the great promotion-relegation experiment.
The way the USL does this is ultimately up to them, but there’s a fairly tamped-down pathway to follow. Play the, say, 2018 season the way it’s currently arranged; 36 teams, three conferences, one unified postseason. Then in 2019, cut the table in half based on the previous season’s results, 18 and 18. The top 18 go to USL I, the bottom 18 move to USL II. Then incentivize USL I, giving teams some sort of small monetary benefit for staying up to create a bottleneck to the first tier. At first that might be whatever bonuses the league can afford. Just make it something.
Because in the end this is ultimately mimicking global pro-rel. It is a means to a broader goal, but it has to start somewhere. And you have to start at the base. The fact that the USL is already hooked into MLS makes this an even more enticing place to begin. Because down the line it allows MLS, if it is so inclined, to simply attach the USL’s two divisions onto its back hitch. Then, immediately, you have a three-tiered pro-rel system.
The only immediate issue I see, aside from whatever unforeseen back end monetary kerfuffles might arise, is what to do with the Galaxy 2 or Sounders 2 or any second team in the event of a promotion situation. And to that I’d say to simply look to Spain. A club’s second team can’t progress to the same level as the senior team, meaning Barcelona B can never ascend to La Liga so long as Barcelona is in it. This system has worked abroad for years. It can work here too.
There are operational hurdles to implementing this plan because of course there are. This is American soccer, the longing land of single entity. Convincing incumbent MLS owners to get on board won’t be easy. And to be sure, MLS may not be open to pro-rel in large part because there is no currently viable option on their table. All the USL can do is create a sort of closed two-tiered pro-rel (my colleague Travis Clark termed this “faux-rel,” which I think works nicely) and hope the seed germinates. In the meantime, the USL will have a functioning promotion and relegation system which will almost certainly attract new fans simply on the basis of novelty.
My hope is that something grows out of the mounting detritus of the NASL. The USL doesn’t need the NASL’s collapse to attempt this most audacious of plans. But it may need that kick to spur on to something larger than any single club or even any single league. Let it be pro-rel and perhaps we’ll see that American soccer’s capabilities can shock even the most skeptical of us.