NASL shift to international calendar is a major gamble

(Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images for Laureus)
(Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images for Laureus) /

In sitting out its spring season, the NASL is making a bold gamble by aligning to a European calendar. Can it save the league from extinction?

Earlier in January, the North American Soccer League announced that it would remained sidelined during what would have been its spring season. Upon its return in August, the NASL will shift to a calendar in line with European standards.

The move comes as a result of turmoil throughout the league. After the conclusion of the 2017 season, the NASL learned that it was going to lose its second-division status. US Soccer decided to revoke provisional status from the league. The lawsuit by the league against the national federation continues to wind its way through the courts. For now, though, NASL is hanging on in limbo.

By aligning itself to a calendar more in line with most of the top European leagues, the NASL is gambling on a few things. First, it could be looking to garner favor with FIFA. The organization has long expressed favor for the August-to-May calendar popularized by European leagues. Key tournaments like the 2018 World Cup are scheduled around the European calendar, even though

By shifting to a fall and winter schedule, the NASL could be looking to get FIFA to apply pressure on US Soccer in order to regain its second-division designation. Long term, it could also rejuvenate its goal to push against the hegemony of MLS in American professional soccer.

But will the league even be around to see another season?

The big question that comes with canceling spring play is whether this is the end. Are we seeing another situation analogous to the USFL in gridiron football? In the 1980s, that alternative to the NFL played spring seasons. That kept it offset from the NFL, and opened the door to grow in underserved markets and at a time when hunger for football remained strong.

More from Playing for 90

A risky attempt to move to fall play backfired. The USFL never saw another season after canceling its spring schedule. An antitrust lawsuit against the NFL ended with a finding in favor of the USFL — with triple damages totaling three dollars. Instead of going head-to-head against the NFL, the USFL folded with a whimper and a bang.

Much like the football league that tried to change the terms of the game in the 1980s, the modern iteration of the NASL has always experienced flux among its ranks. The original edition of the NASL had a tumultuous history of its own. Teams came and went from its ranks. In similar fashion, the current iteration of the league has seen 17 teams join its ranks since 2009. At the same time, the NASL has managed to play only one half-season to Division 2 standards with a full 12-team table.

As of this moment, six teams currently remain among the NASL membership. The defending champion San Francisco Deltas folded after their only season of existence ended in a title celebration at Kezar Stadium. Indy Eleven, a longtime staple of the league table, won’t be back either after leaving for the USL. Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer announced that it is a team without a league.

If the NASL continues hemorrhaging clubs, “next season” may never come. That would be a shame for a league that had grand ambitions of challenging MLS.

The NASL will always fight a Sisyphean battle against MLS and US Soccer

The league was born in 2009 with the intention of becoming the premier soccer league in the United States. US Soccer never embraced this idea of a competitive marketplace at the top. Instead of inviting the challenge of the NASL, Sunil Gulati remained resolutely anchored to MLS to the end.

At the same time that US Soccer refused a challenge from NASL at the top, it has refused to endorse and oversee any system of promotion and relegation that could expand the growth opportunities for the sport.

US Soccer could work to foster strong leagues and increase the number of viable clubs around the country. Instead, the federation has promoted MLS at the expense of greater growth potential. Being a steppingstone league isn’t a bad thing, especially when the quality differential between leagues is continually redetermined by the teams that rise and fall over any given year.

This would allow leagues like the NASL and USL to truly thrive as feeder leagues up and down the ladder.

Instead, what we get is favoritism protecting the status quo.

San Francisco’s victory over the New York Cosmos on November 12, 2017 could prove to be the last game in the history of the second NASL. If that proves to be the case, it will have been a fun run for a league that prided itself on cutting against the grain. If it does return, it will likely be as a third-division club.

Either way, it is a losing proposition. Should it soldier on as a lower division, it can take pride in the fact that it did promote in a way more than it relegated. Two former members, Minnesota and Montreal, are now MLS clubs. Four others are making the move to the USL, with more possibly to come.

Next: US Soccer ready for new president to replace Sunil Gulati

It isn’t exactly what the NASL might have wished, but they have definitely served as disruptors and developers all along the way.