NASL: What Does it Mean?

The NASL is back, bringing nostalgia crazy American soccer fans into a semi frenzy. In recent polls both at our partner site Inside Minnesota Soccer and at Major League Soccer Talk, the NASL name registered well- almost 75% of respondents in both polls like the name, although a split occurred on whether this name should be used for a second division league.

I want to pay tribute to USL before we go on. In the American soccer press, MLS is everything. A league that consistently violates FIFA rules, and whose bluster does not match the actual product, MLS has in my mind made an effort for years to marginalize USL. This effort has led to USL matches including the final being ignored by soccer writers, and players who come from USL to other league mysteriously having their USL experience omitted in biographical pieces.

While much of the American soccer press was sleeping on USL, the league produced international stars like Charlie Davies, Veden Ibisevic, and Jay DeMerit.  While Don Garber over sold the virtues of MLS to the world, Tim Holt and Francisco Marcos were doing hard work on the grassroots level to keep the game relevant in markets untouched by MLS.

In 2009, two USL sides advanced deep in the CONCACAF Champions League, at the same time as three MLS teams got routed in the tournament. Yet, USL still went barely noticed by many.

It’s clear Marcos and Holt have built a compelling product. But it is also obvious that they have not marketed it well enough to be relevant to those that feed off MLS’ rhetoric. That’s where the new NASL run by the Team Owners Association comes in.

I personally wish these owners had been able to work a deal to stay within the established USL pyramid. But since that seems to be a remote possibility, let me explain why the NASL is necessary.

We need a strong second division that brings high level soccer to big markets throughout the country. We need a league structure that promotes the brand in these big markets. Ultimately, we also need a league that doesn’t violate FIFA rules or operate a bizarre structure in the fashion MLS does.

MLS has for various reasons, either bypassed certain large markets in North America, or shut teams down in big markets. Should these markets be left without top class soccer, that is promoted in an aggressive fashion? Should Kansas City have a top flight team, while the home of American Soccer, St Louis, does not? Columbus, Ohio should be permanently entitled to a top flight team, while Atlanta a city prominent enough to host the Summer Olympics is resigned to “minor league soccer?”

We need a vibrant second division that can play host to some clubs that are top flight caliber in top flight cities as second divisions do throughout the world. Whether that is within USL, or an independent NASL, increased exposure and marketing is essential.

This announcement could be the death knell for the A-League/USL-1. If that is so, we must repspect that these clubs and markets have outgrown the USL model but pay tribute to the USL for keeping the flame of soccer alive in so many markets despite the indifference and in some cases hostility of the national soccer press.