NASL Expansion RoundupWhile MLS is moving in on NYC, NASL has plans of western expansion – including San Diego
by Daniel Casey | Tuesday, July 03, 2012
Expansion talk is always speculative, which is part of the reason pundits and supporters like it so much. Yet there is a practical purpose to it, expansion is dictated by how well league officials believe a club can do in a market. Clubs that come into a league without having been seriously vetted by the league don’t exist. At least, not lasting clubs — even the most cautious leagues sometimes get duped. Fortunately for American soccer supporters, the path to expansion is less murky than it used to be. We now know that a team has to not just have owners with deep pockets and their feet on the ground, they have to have a stadium or a detailed stadium plan, and there needs to be more than an “if you build it, they will come” mentality when it comes to the fan-base.
But there are subtler things as well, such as what other sports are in town? Part of the reason that Portland and Seattle have been able to draw massive and passionate fans from the get-go has in no small part to do with the fact that there aren’t that many games in town. In Seattle, MLS replaced the NBA to maintain a three sport presence in the city, and in Portland the NBA was the only professional fish in the pond (I refuse to acknowledge minor league baseball, sorry). In theory, a soccer club can do well in a major market that is more bereft of sport. Because our country lacks the structure necessary for promotion and relegation, there will always be a certain degree of poaching whenever expansion occurs. Teams that want a new challenge have to not only win, but save their pennies and make themselves an attractive brand.
NASL commissioner David Downs has said that the league is in the process of hashing out the contract details with two clubs, one an existing club and the other a start-up. Of course, this sends us all into a flurry of guessing games. But again, we have clear sign-post to guide us. There are deadlines to be met for the NASL if it is to continue to operate as Division II. The league must have ten teams by 2013, right now it has eight and will have nine when Ottawa joins in 2013, and it must have three different US time zones represented by 2016. Currently, the NASL has four US teams in the Eastern (Atlanta, Carolina, Ft. Lauderdale, and Tampa) and two US teams in the Central (Minnesota and San Antonio) time zone. The league has made increasing its presence in the western United States its top priority eying cities like San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Sacramento and the sprawl that is Los Angeles. The league has made it clear that by 2020, it wants to have twenty teams and will most likely follow the East/West conference divide of MLS (although I would argue that a North/South conference divide would be more manageable).
What we know is this: the NASL needs to add another team for the 2013 season and that team needs to be in the western United States. For 2013, the NASL needs an existing club that can come in ready to play, a club that is ambitious, financially stable and is in an attractive fan market. There are certainly several candidates in the lower divisions, some more attractive than others.
Beyond Canada and the Pacific Northwest
In past interviews, Downs has made it clear that after Ottawa, the league is not looking to Canada. The league needs to maintain a certain percentage of US teams and given its current size, the addition of Ottawa will mean it has all the Canadian teams it can handle for now; but it certainly could add a few more in the future as the game grows in Canada. The Victoria Highlanders, for example, are an attractive, well-run organization playing in a region (Pacific Northwest) that loves football. Victoria is also one of the few organizations in North America that employ a species of community ownership. A community shares or partial supporter stake club model warrants in-depth analysis because it could be a method of maintaining solvency and avoiding the need for a single uber-wealthy investor. Currently part of the PDL, a combination of success and investment could see the team move up the ladder.
The same can be said about another Pacific Northwest squad, Kitsap Pumas located just south of Seattle in Bremerton, Washington. Kitsap have quietly put together regular success at the fourth tier of American soccer over the last three years. The squad regularly does well in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and can lay claim to being the team that helped to mold current Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Bryan Meredith. However, Kitsap is a level-headed organization. When asked if the Pumas had any intention of moving up the soccer pyramid club owner Robin Waite made it clear that between travel costs, franchising fee (which Waite cited as $750,000), and lack of local rivals he doesn’t see the NASL as a destination for Kitsap just yet. For Waite, it seems like any advancement to a high division would start with going to the USL, which given the USL’s own lone west coast team (LA Blues) would make sense.
The West Coast
But soccer doesn’t just exist in Cascadia, it’s quite loved in Southern California. There are several established teams that would do well to eye advancement up the North American soccer ladder. In California, the Fullerton Rangers and Sonoma County Sol both of the NPSL are excellent organizations that could make the jump to the NASL. But beyond them, many eyes are affixed to San Diego.
On June 26th, the NPSL’s San Diego Flash announced that they were taking the first steps to join the NASL. When I queried CEO Clent Alexander via Twitter roughly a week ago about the possibility he replied, “We're focused on our current season. Have had [conversations with] the [Commissioner] over past [couple years]. Just say for now, anything is possible,” which whet my appetite for a formal announcement. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for the announcement. Going from Division IV to Division II is going to be quite a leap for San Diego, but the team has seen steady success. Dominating their conference, the Flash have played ten out of a twelve match regular season and are undefeated having only drawn twice and given up merely six goals. This success has led to a couple of their players getting MLS trials. Defender and team captain Adrian DuBois and winger Sergio Valle-Ortiz were given a looks by the San Jose Earthquakes, who currently sit atop MLS’s Western Conference. In San Diego, player development has been a cornerstone for the Flash. This is further seen by San Diego setting up a partnership with Cal FC hot on the heels of their US Open Cup success. Essentially, this created an affiliation that could see Cal FC turn semi-pro and funnel its players to the Flash; this groundwork could strengthen both clubs.
But the closeness of San Diego and Cal FC shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. San Diego’s Head Coach and Director of Player Development is Fox Soccer’s Warren Barton and Cal FC’s Head Coach, Fox Soccer commentator Eric Wynalda, is also San Diego’s Player Talent Coordinator. Perhaps an even stronger inclination that San Diego could find itself in the NASL, is the recent announcement that Wynalda will be the interim head coach for the Atlanta Silverbacks; the ties that the organization is making within that league can’t be denied. What we are seeing in the San Diego Flash organization is a fresh approach to running an American soccer club, one that isn’t bucking conventional wisdom but rather showing that there are viable, effective alternatives. So, in San Diego there is success and a stable front office with ambition and vision, what the Flash need to do now is find a venue that is a bit more accommodating than Del Norte High School.
If San Diego joins the NASL in 2013 and becomes its first West Coast representative, then it will be a jewel in the cap of the league. San Diego is a great market that is under-represented in the sports world. Like Seattle, San Diego is home to established NFL and MLB teams but is definitely large enough to welcome the number three sport in the nation.
The trick, of course, will be sustainability. In a team press release Warren Barton made it clear that “There is no doubt our current squad would be extremely competitive in the NASL. However, it needs to be a smart business decision. Because we would be the only West Coast team in the competition, travelling to places like Ottawa and Puerto Rico every second week would need to make sense from a financial point of view.” That will be the challenge facing commissioner Downs, how to find a ‘bridge’ market to make the addition of San Diego (or any other future West Coast team) more bearable.
And that is where the ‘start-up’ club would come in to play. There is the possibility that the NASL could poach another club from the lower divisions. The NPSL’s Sacramento Gold is a savvy, successful club in a prime market that in all likelihood would do well in the NASL. The same is true of PDL powerhouse the Ventura County Fusion, an organization that routinely sees its players go on to MLS. Not long ago my fellow Soccer Newsday columnist Herb Scribner interviewed FC Tucson’s manager Rick Schantz, who talked in very reasonable terms about the possibility of moving up the ladder. He, like Kitsap, sees the USL as their most sensible immediate target for advancement. General Manager Jon Pearlman made it clear in an email to me that FC Tucson is “always open to listening to all soccer opportunities for our team and city, we have not been approached by anyone at NASL and our immediate focus is qualifying for the PDL playoffs, U.S. Open Cup, and competing for the PDL Southwest Division title.”
There’s something to be said for an organization that will take its time and do things right and that should be praised, simply because over the last two decades Arizona has experienced a bit of an oversaturation when it comes to sports franchises. It’s been a hit or miss affair—hit, Arizona Diamondbacks; miss, Phoenix Coyotes (at least, financially). Right now, Phoenix can boast the worst team in the NPSL, the Phoenix Monsoon. The lowly Monsoon has lost all their matches and most by huge margins…not just by soccer standards but by baseball standards, (9-1, 5-2, 4-1, 7-1, and 8-0). Phoenix are the exact opposite of the San Diego Flash, they’ve given up 40 goals over eight matches and only scored five themselves. Also the front office seems a bit harried. When I contacted the Monsoon I got a rather convoluted email, the gist of which was that Phoenix plans to be part of the NASL by 2015, an echo of what the team planned in 2010.
But news this week from the USL will certainly affect the NASL’s expansion plans and the future of the Phoenix Monsoon. As on Monday, July 2nd, the USL put out a press release announcing it had awarded an expansion franchise to Phoenix. It looks as though the city of Phoenix will have a Division III team for the 2013 season. By getting to the Phoenix market first the USL has, in a way, helped the NASL make its future decisions easier. With Phoenix off the map for the NASL it can turn its attention to a new club, but it should still look to the Southwest.
With that said, Tucson could start garnering more interest since it is an untapped smaller market that is craving attention. This is much like another Southwestern venue, Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has a population of over a half a million coupled with the University of New Mexico’s recent NCAA success has certainly drawn attention to the region, enough to draw Commission Downs. There’s been a quiet soccer presence in New Mexico for some time. Indoor soccer along with gridiron football has been steadily present since 1986 with the Albuquerque Outlaws, which became the Gunners, then the New Mexico Roadrunners and then finally the New Mexico Chiles which folded in 1996. But that wasn’t the end of things. From 1997-1999 the USL saw the Albuquerque Geckos. Although the organization was sold, relocated to Sacramento, and dissolved in its final year, what we see here is a steady history. It’s been more than a decade now and Albuquerque has been without a semi-pro/professional team, but over that time North American soccer has become more stable and economically viable. If an ownership group can be assembled, Albuquerque would be an excellent addition to the US soccer landscape. It would provide a bridge market for the first NASL team on the West Coast, it would open a fresh growing market for the sport, and it wouldn’t step on the toes of any of the other leagues.
Midwest and Southeast
It has already been announced that the NASL is actively looking for an ownership group for a team in St. Louis as part of its attempt to fill out the Midwest. Detroit City FC in its first year has demonstrated a committed fan-base, a front office that is creating solid relationships with local sponsors, and success on the pitch. And I’ve always wondered why Indianapolis, perhaps the most under-represented Midwest market, isn’t part of the conversation. But all of this is pure speculation, and it’s fun. The NASL wants twenty teams in eight years, 20-by-2020, and slow, deliberate growth is the path they’ll take to that goal.
Here’s what we know—this decade will see growth like we’ve rarely seen before making it an exciting time to be an American soccer supporter.