Laidig Speaks on the NASL: Recent History & Near Future Contributor Dave Laidig is back with Part I of his look at the NASL.   For more on Dave, and to look at a small sample of his always excellent work, click on the “Contributors” tab on the top of the page.

The second incarnation of the North American Soccer League (NASL), the second-tier of the soccer pyramid in the United States and Canada, has just completed its second season of competition. Given the league’s dramatic and tenuous start, the NASL had a year of noteworthy accomplishments as it focuses on enhancing the financial viability of the league.

For context, the NASL was conceived in controversy, due to the acrimonious split with the previous second division league, the USL-1.  Prior to the 2010 season, several teams in the USL decided to leave the league, leading to threatened litigation. Ultimately, with the existence of the lower divisions in peril, the USSF presided over a shotgun-wedding-type of season combining all of the teams.  This combined league contained both USL and NASL teams, along with future MLS teams such as the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact.  In 2011, the NASL began its first season as its own eight-team league, with provisional sanctioning by USSF.  Eventually, remnants of the USL-1 league would become the USL-Pro league.  During this period, the USSF set up conditions required to remove the “provisional” label; such as criteria for a diversity of time-zones covered by league markets, ownership criteria, and the number of teams.  In 2012, the NASL obtained USSF sanctioning by unanimous vote and was eligible to compete in the US Open Cup. Out of this controversial start, the league has stabilized, and set its path for growth of the league and professional soccer in its markets.

One of the pressing business issues with the USL, and with the previous NASL in the 70’s and 80’s was the transient nature of the teams.  The second division in the last ten years has been assigned to three different leagues, and 30 different teams.   However, between the USSF guidelines and NASL governance, this issue appears to be under control. The NASL did lose the Montreal Impact to MLS after just one season (2011), but has offset that loss with deliberate expansion efforts. The San Antonio Scorpions began play in 2012; and the NY Cosmos, Ottawa and a yet-to-be-named NASL team in Virginia (outside DC) are set to begin play in 2013, 2014 and 2014 respectively.  Further, the NASL Commissioner has indicated that talks are underway for the addition of other markets, but that all parties are not rushing the process to ensure the teams’ success.  The expansion efforts have yielded fees in excess of $1 Million, which is important when team budgets operate below MLS levels.  And with the USSF imposing much stricter guidelines for team ownership, such as a requiring owners to have a net-worth of $20 million and committing to play (i.e., lose money if necessary) for three years, the stability of the league is greatly improved.

In addition to the league’s expansion, the financial health of the NASL improved by finding a local owner for the Minnesota Stars FC in Bill McGuire (former CEO of UnitedHealth).  For the first two years, the league ran the team at a loss in order to meet the 8 team minimum requirement for a league, with the other teams required to contribute to its expenses.  In a matter that I am close to, as a season ticket holder for the Stars, the team’s prospects immediately look brighter with a local, business-savvy advocate for the team, and the ability to commit more resources to marketing. Local fans, such as myself, expressed relief that the danger of contracting the previously league-owned team has passed. And we can instead turn our attention to growing the sport in the state, with the team being able to express and execute a long-term vision as it enters its 24th year of existence.

Part II of Dave’s look at the NASL should run tomorrow.