San Francisco Marks NASL’s Long-Awaited Move WestThe league finally expands to California after years of rumors
by Ray Marcham | Thursday, February 11, 2016
The NASL looks to be finally expanding westward, but it will be expanding in a manner different than what has worked for the league.
It’s going back to the concept of competing with other leagues, rather than the proven path of trying to grow professional soccer in new areas.
Rumors of the NASL expanding into the western US have floated for years. That the league is required to have clubs in the Pacific or Mountain time zones as part of its Division 2 agreement with US Soccer has made such a move inevitable, but until now NASL expansion has been limited. The only NASL team in the west is FC Edmonton, whose closest rival is Minnesota United.
The first definite expansion NASL club to be announced in the West is San Francisco Deltas. The team is planning to start play in the 2017 spring season, and plan on playing in historic Kezar Stadium. A club in southern California has long been rumored, with Orange County and San Diego being the most recently mentioned.
If it’s San Francisco and Orange County, then it plays into the revived NASL expansion strategy of competing with other leagues, instead of trying to go to new markets. San Francisco Deltas would be competing for supporters, and maybe field time, with a supporter-owned San Francisco City FC that just moved into the USL’s Premier Development League and has aspirations of someday going pro. It also would look to possibly compete with MLS’ Bay Area club, San Jose Earthquakes.
An Orange County team would directly compete with the USL’s Orange County Blues, but then the question arises of whether that part of SoCal could support two professional soccer clubs. One could say that Orange County barely supports the Blues, as they had the worst attendance of any independent club in the USL in 2015 (four “MLS 2” sides drew worse).
San Diego would be an interesting case, and maybe a city the NASL should be pursuing. While it has been mentioned as a possible MLS expansion site for years, little beyond a few NPSL sides have played in the city. In fact, the main competition for an NASL club would come from across the border in Tijuana, as Xolos of Liga MX has a sizeable season ticket base in the San Diego area and gets decent local media coverage. The NASL also could court a couple of familiar faces, as former Atlanta Silverbacks coach Eric Wynalda and Warren Barton have spearheaded efforts in the past to bring pro soccer above the NPSL level to San Diego.
One can see that there are numerous missed opportunities for the NASL in the west, and they only have themselves to blame. One problem, of course, is that the USL has quickly moved into western markets such as Phoenix/Scottsdale, Colorado Springs, Sacramento and Reno, cities that didn’t have teams before 2014. If the league was interested, the NASL could have made a move into those markets.
Maybe the NASL should be looking at large cities with PDL clubs. In the west, that list includes Fresno, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Calgary, and Tucson, along with the new PDL sides in San Francisco and San Diego. Each of those markets has the potential for going into a bigger league, and both Fresno and Las Vegas are semi-regular stops on the friendly circuit. There are also markets like Boise and El Paso that don’t have teams at this time, but could be enticing to a league that needs a western presence.
While I have mentioned one Canadian city, it may not be available for long. The proposed Canadian Premier League would likely involve Calgary, and may also take in a reluctant FC Edmonton if the Canadian Soccer Association requires them to move from the NASL into the CPL. That may also eliminate any other Canadian market from any NASL thoughts if the CSA requires all top-flight, non-MLS clubs to be in the CPL.
If one looks back at the NASL’s recent expansion history, it shows that the clubs in markets where the NASL is the only pro soccer league in town have been the most successful. Indy Eleven has been the biggest drawing home team in the NASL over the past two seasons, and Jacksonville was third in 2015 home attendance in their initial season (Minnesota United was second in NASL home attendance in 2015).
But that’s not how the NASL is expanding this time around. Miami FC was a direct attempt to take the city before MLS could gain a foothold, Rayo OKC is going head-to-head with the USL’s Oklahoma City Energy, and the man who was the Chicago Fire’s GM during the club’s glory days, Peter Wilt, is now being asked to head up an eventual team in Chicago that would directly compete with the Fire.
Of course, the NASL gains these clubs while losing two others. Atlanta Silverbacks folded in the offseason and won’t be going head-to-head with future MLS side Atlanta United. San Antonio Scorpions also folded after their stadium, Toyota Field, was purchased by the city of San Antonio and Bexar County and the operating rights were given to the parent company of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. A new USL team, San Antonio FC, will play in the Alamo City in 2016 with hopes that success in the USL will eventually lead to a move to MLS.
But expansion is on the docket, and San Francisco is the first attempt by the NASL to go into the western US. Assuming that a SoCal side, either in Orange County, San Diego or somewhere else, also is established, 2017 will finally be the year that the NASL becomes a truly national league.
Whether the NASL wants to grow the game in the West, or just compete with other leagues, is still to be sorted out.