Every Wednesday throughout the 2014 NASL season, a guest writer who regularly covers the NASL and soccer in North America will give their take on the league or the sport in general.
This edition, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson spoke to guest writer Dylan Butler on the league’s vision in the modern era and its future plans.
By Dylan Butler
There’s a spike in attendance, unprecedented success in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and an aggressive, yet responsible, plan to expand.
It’s a good time for the North American Soccer League (NASL).
“That’s how high the level of play has risen in the last 12 months,” NASL commissioner Bill Peterson said.
During the Spring Season, attendance was up 30 percent and already the Fall campaign has seen terrific numbers, including a modern day single-game record of 14,593 at TD Place in Ottawa for the Fury FC’s home opener against the New York Cosmos.
“I think it’s a real tribute to the work the clubs are doing and how they’re maturing as business entities, understanding marketing and promoting their clubs,” Peterson said. “Ultimately, I think it’s a sign the fans are enjoying the matches they’re going to see.”
Peterson attended the match at TD Place, which joins WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. and Toyota Field in San Antonio, Tex. as venues Peterson called “soccer-specific in the league.”
“Every other club in the league is in some discussion for either a complete remodel or a brand-new stadium in their communities,” Peterson said. “Our owners are committed to that, although it is a tough process these days to get through building a stadium.”
One reason for a spike in attendance is the league’s two-season, single-table format, which is popular throughout Mexico and Central America. With the two champions, along with the next two teams with the best aggregate record qualifying for ‘The Championship,’ it means more meaningful games.
“This is a very exciting concept,” Peterson said. “It’s still very hard to get into that ‘Championship,’ but it does recognize consistency over the two seasons while still maintaining that the most important thing is to win either the Spring or the Fall. It gives everyone something extra to play for.”
Peterson said the league has also placed an emphasis on the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the United States and the Amway Canadian Championship and it was proven on the field.
The NASL had an 11-8 record in the Open Cup with two teams – Carolina and Atlanta – reaching the quarterfinal rounds for the first time in the league’s history.
In Canada, FC Edmonton reached the semifinals where they suffered a tough 5-4 aggregate loss to the Montreal Impact with the decisive goal coming from the penalty spot in the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time in the second leg.
“I think it showed how much better we’ve become on the field in a very short period of time,” Peterson said. “We’re barely in our fourth season and we’re able to stand in there and take a lot of teams down. We’re very proud of that effort.”
Peterson said he also envisions a day, perhaps sooner than later, when the NASL competes in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“We’re going to keep striving to get into that tournament, whether it’s through the Open Cup or petitioning for our own spot,” Peterson said. “As this league has grown now and we start getting up over 12, 14 teams and playing at the level we’re playing at, I don’t understand why we wouldn’t be able to receive an invitation for that.”
The NASL has also acquitted itself well in recent international friendlies. Minnesota United defeated Swansea City of the English Premier League, Carolina knocked off Puebla FC from Liga MX, the league’s first win over a Mexican side since 1981, San Antonio drew against three-time Champions League winner CF Monterrey and Ottawa fell to Scottish powerhouse Glasgow Rangers FC.
“This is all about competition and playing teams from around the world,” Peterson said. “It’s a global game, there’s great teams all over and we want to line-up against them and give them a run for their money. We’re very proud of the efforts there as well.”
With the global game in mind, the NASL was the first men’s professional soccer league in the United States to not compete during the FIFA World Cup.
“It is such a great competition and we just felt it needed the respect of not trying to compete against it. It only comes around every four years,” Peterson said. “Although it may have created some interesting scheduling problems for us, we believe it was the right thing to do. I’m sure we’ll do it again next time around.”
When the World Cup comes around again, Peterson said the goal is for the NASL to be an 18-team league. Jacksonville Armada FC and Oklahoma City FC will start play in 2015 and Virginia Cavalry FC is set to join the league in 2016.
Where will the five teams be from?
Perhaps Los Angeles?
Or maybe San Francisco?
“We’re engaged in a lot of conversations. I suspect some of those will result in expansion teams and some won’t, but we go through the process with a lot of different people to make sure we’re not overlooking or missing something,” Peterson said. “We’re in discussions out west. There’s no reason to believe right now it’s not going to happen and not going to happen in a timely matter.”
Peterson is also optimistic about additional loan deals – both ways – with Central and South American countries.
“They’re starting to understand what our league is, what level of play we have and that we’re free to participate in the global player market,” he said. “You’re seeing more conversations taking place and more calls of interest from clubs outside of the United States and Canada. I’m suspecting you’re going to see more activity over the next couple of years.”
But will the savvy North American soccer fan see promotion/relegation? Not any time soon, but Peterson said it’s a concept the league supports.
“It’s an important part of soccer around the world,” Peterson said. “It sure would add a level for interest the fans here haven’t seen yet. There are a lot of advantages to it. … We’re in favor of the concept. From there we’ll just have to figure out how it might get done and when the right time to something like that is.”