Has MLS Really Learned the Lessons of the NASL?
While I am pleased for Philadelphia and particularly for the Sons of Ben that the league has chosen to add a 16th team in 2010, I have serious concerns about the rapid expansion of the league and the seeming desire to make a different set of rules for each potential expansion city. Philadelphia probably deserved a team, but did Seattle really deserve one? How about a return to San Jose so quickly when the public threshold set by Commissioner Garber was never met for the Earthquakes to resume play in MLS?
For years MLS shied away from any resemblance to the old NASL: in many cases to its own detriment and causing failure in some markets that had embraced the NASL. Now the MLS seems to be racing to replicate the NASL in some odd ways while continuing to shun the legacy of that league in others. The NASL was a renegade league. For many years the league openly defied FIFA and the USSF. At the time the United States National Team was a weak sister and generally could not get out of the first round of World Cup Qualifying. The NASL also had a strange set of rules, some that the MLS originally adopted. Remember the 35 yard line for offsides, the one on one shootout, and the clock stopping and counting down to zero? But the NASL had its bright spots. An incredible fan base in certain cities and thus the ability of those cities to embrace second and third division teams of the same name into the future. The league also spurred the growth in youth soccer nationally from which MLS and the US National Team has now long benefited. In addition, the league was able to penetrate the mainstream sports media in a fashion that MLS is still attempting to: sure Pele, Cryuff, Best and Marsh all helped, but so did the aggressiveness of certain teams and the understand of marketing by many of the clubs.
Take Tampa, Florida for instance. The Rowdies generally had the second highest average attendance in the NASL from 1975 thru 1984. (Behind the New York Cosmos). The Rowdies reared an entire generation of young people on the game to the point that when I would often travel to Tampa in the early 1990s, and try and talk about soccer in a crowd of sports fans I would not be met with the hostility I faced almost everywhere else in the country. In fact at that point the Rowdies name was still alive and well in the form of the A-League Rowdies and the Tampa Bay area had developed the nation’s second biggest youth soccer network, and an immense number of soccer specific retail stores that unlike many shops today did not specialize in selling Real Madrid or Manchester United jerseys, but soccer equipment and soccer related videos.
When MLS began in 1996, I was initially shocked by the cities selected. Los Angeles (The Aztecs) had flopped in the NASL while San Diego (The Soccers) had been super successful. Boston (like Philadelphia) had two teams fold, and one move to Jacksonville, FL. of all places (I went to a Jacksonville Tea Men game against my beloved Strikers at the Gator Bowl in 1982, and my chief memory of the game was shock that so few people could attend a professional sporting event), while Chicago had always been a staple of the dearly departed league but was passed over for Columbus of all places. Kansas City instead of St Louis seemed beyond bizarre to me. Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, Chicago and Houston had all been left out despite a thriving long term soccer fan base in those cities. (obviously now all four have had their stab at MLS, but none were awarded franchises in 1996 while Columbus and Kansas City were.) Truthfully beyond the obvious selections of New York, Dallas and Washington, only San Jose and Tampa Bay made perfect sense based on the support the NASL made there. But in both markets the league made a critical mistake. Rather than embrace the legacy and ready made fan base from the NASL they ran from it. Instead of naming the respective teams the Earthquakes and Rowdies, two very amateurish sounding names, the Clash and Mutiny were given with even more amateurish looking logos and uniforms.
The mistake was corrected in San Jose after three terrible seasons as the Clash, but was never corrected in Tampa, and now one of the best soccer markets in US history has been relegated to seeking a USL-1 franchise owned by an English Premier League team. Fort Lauderdale was a market that began to embrace the MLS just as the league pulled the plug: the name “Fusion” didn’t tap into all the Striker sentiment locally that still existed. At times Fort Lauderdale could get upwards of 5,000 fans for A-League Striker matches that included some of the former NASL Strikers like Thomas Rongen, Nene Cubillias, and Ray Hudson. The NASL Strikers had consistently averaged between 12,000 and 15,000 a game. But when the MLS arrived with much fan fare crowds were flat for the first three seasons (after the opener) but then spiked to close to 12,000 a game the Fusion’s final season when finally a product worth watching was on the field. This average attendance was not spiked by a single doubleheader (which has for many years been cleverly used by New England and the Metrostars to pad their crowd numbers) and incorporated many midweek games were the attendance was under 10,000.
Seattle has now been awarded an expansion team without a stadium plan in place, and with an attendance average in USL-1 which is the lowest of the three clubs in the Pacific Northwest. Philadelphia on the other hand, despite the efforts of the Sons of Ben were forced to wait until funding for a state of the art stadium were approved before getting the go ahead for a team.
While many of the MLS initial franchise choices were outstanding like Los Angeles and Washington, others like Boston and New York have struggled to make any sort of impact in the local mainstream sports scene or with generating consistent crowds. In the case of New York this was certainly not the case in the NASL, and knowing the Cosmos name was off the table thanks to Pepe Pinton eccentric behavior some attempt to link the Metrostars with the Cosmos would have been wise rather than the futile attempt of New York’s original ownership to link the team with AC Milan via kit colors and the signing of Roberto Donadoni.
Major League Soccer was initially formed to help develop young, internationally savvy American footballers. The league has for many years succeeded in doing just that. However, as I pointed out in my post this past Sunday, fewer and fewer young MLS players are working their way into the full national team player pool as time goes on. As MLS gets on the foreign player gravy train and refuses to address squad limits and a measly pathetic salary cap where an inherent bias exists against home grown players getting opportunities, this trend will only intensify with rapid expansion. Much like the NASL, the new expansion teams will be tempted to pollute their squads with high priced foreigners and then fill in the remaining spots with young Americans making a measly salary thus leaving the young Americans with national team potential to be developed either overseas or even worse in the USL. Through the years the tiny MLS salary cap has in fact kept a steady flow of good players going to USL which is good for the second division, and maybe on the whole good for US Soccer, but not good for MLS.
Fear of going the way of the NASL forced MLS to start with a single entity structure, restrictive salary cap, and squad limits. Fear of DC United becoming the MLS version of the Cosmos, forced the league to rapidly strip the one club able to serve as a worthwhile ambassador of the growing American soccer culture abroad of almost all its marketable assets and render MLS in the eyes of some critics a “mickey mouse league,” whose teams cannot compete on a global stage. The critics of this league who make these arguments do not recall DC United’s mastery of Vasco De Gama in the Inter-American cup nor the great victory the achieved for MLS in conquering Spurs at White Hart Lane in the middle of the EPL season. Those critics do not recognize it was league policy, not the standard of football in this country that made MLS clubs so uncompetitive on the global stage. The bottom line on the NASL as it arrived at a time when much of the US was different demographically, and when the US National Teams were not competitive in any way shape or form on the international stage. Sustaining a domestic league regardless of quality when your own national team is in the pits and has no chance of qualifying for any significant event is beyond difficult. The NASL did however develop a base from which the US nearly qualified for the 1986 World Cup and then did qualify in 1990, despite not having a FIFA sanctioned first division to develop players.
MLS has consistently stated they do not want to repeat the mistakes of the NASL. But it seems throughout the league’s now twelve year history they have not learned the positive lessons from the NASL and have instead taken a road of guarded insular thinking masked as a recipe for competitiveness. At the same time MLS has shunned the legacy of the NASL both in local markets and in the general soccer community by re-creating the wheel in a far from perfect form and in many ways forcing American professional soccer and local markets to re-learn and re-embrace a game it already understood and loved.