Integrating North America’s Soccer Leagues via Expansion

Why full competition between leagues should be North American soccer’s ultimate goal
by Daniel Casey   |   Wednesday, May 16, 2012

North American soccer club mapPlayers, teams, and even leagues strive for consistency because it conveys to fans a sense of reliability. Reliability is one of the foundations of loyalty, whether brand loyalty or genuine loyalty. Because no real sport rises or falls in the vacuum of a single ego, consistency is paramount. Before we can have expectations of a player or a team we need to have our league expectations met. In the US soccer world, consistency is a major issue first and foremost because leagues have found it difficult to not just meet expectations but identify what those expectations are. There is an inevitable mutability in all professional leagues. We all like to believe that the teams and leagues we see today in MLB, MLS, the NFL, NHL, and NBA are somehow fixed or, at least, ordered by some sure and measured plan. But they aren’t. And we know this, we just forget.

Modern era sport leagues are the products of intra and extra league disputes. Hockey saw a war between the old NHL and WHA during the 60s and 70s, basketball experienced the same thing between the old NBA and ABA, and the current NFL only exists because of the competition faced between its old form and the AFL. You probably don’t remember these leagues, the WHA or ABA or AFL, but their teams may very well be your team. The point is, our leagues didn’t only come into existence through measured, deliberate expansion. They rose out of conflicts that caused a lot of needless strife to fans of the game.

North American soccer has an opportunity to learn from the missteps and stubborn battles made by other leagues. MLS has paid close attention to the mistakes made by its predecessor the old NASL. Some would argue that the league is perhaps too cautious (especially in the area of television coverage) but doing so would be a bit nit-picky. Expansion for MLS has been deliberate, reasoned, and with the long-term in mind. This kind of business mindset, the long-view, needs to be praised because it bucks the short-sightedness that all too often leads to fiery collapse.

For the past few years now, MLS has made it a top priority to have its franchises play in soccer specific stadia (SSS). The flurry of stadia built can’t be ignored. In Houston this past weekend, the Dynamo opened their new stadium to much fanfare and praise. Deservedly so, for the currently crop of SSS are each impressive and pleasant. Each new stadium whets the appetite for those teams without one. DC United is desperate to orchestrate a new home, and, now that Revolution ownership has abandoned their plans for a casino resort, New England supporters have a glimmer of hope for a stadium suited to their needs. MLS expansion side Montreal will have a new stadium this summer and the recent success in San Jose has reignited the opening of the upcoming new venue there.

It’s been made clear that in order to be considered for entry into MLS, a finished or advanced-stage plan for a SSS is required. Recently the groundwork has been laid in several cities for this ‘requirement’ to be met, leading to a whole new round of expansion talk. In El Paso, there is a nascent debate about whether or not to approve a new professional soccer stadium, a potential $835 million project that would upgrade the collegiate Sun Bowl and provide a better venue for Triple-A baseball. The El Paso Patriots of the Premier Development League (a fourth tier soccer league) who already play in a SSS must look on this with mixed feelings. First year NASL side San Antonio Scorpions are averaging over 11,000 fans per game. With this support, the team is ready to complete plans for a 6,100-seat stadium (one that would be expandable to 18,000-seats). San Antonio could have their privately funded new home by the end of 2013. Other cities are going the more traditional private/public route. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings were recently able to move through the Minnesota state house a plan for a new stadium. In that plan, Vikings ownership is given exclusive rights to bring a MLS franchise to Minneapolis for a five year period. If the Vikings ownership can mirror what the Seattle Seahawks ownership was able to do with the Seattle Sounders, then this could be a very lucrative move. But, ya know what?  Minnesota already has a professional soccer team, NASL champions Minnesota Stars FC.

This leads us to a vital question: should cities only eye getting their name on ‘The List’ of potential MLS expansion sides? Quite frankly, no. North American soccer needs to break itself of the belief that MLS play is the be-all-and-end-all of a team’s existence. Why? Because there are untapped markets out there with no footy at all, because maintaining steady growth means monitoring and bolstering the lower tier leagues, and because a war for territory and players needs to be avoided in North American soccer.

MLS isn’t done forming and neither is the NASL or the USL or the PDL or the NPSL. The five leagues that make up the four tier soccer pyramid in the United States are all still looking to fill out their ranks and stabilize. Teams come and go at the fourth tier because owning and operating a professional, competitive team is difficult. But the PDL and NPSL are doing a great job providing the means for local, genuinely local, teams to play at a high-profile, serious level. The third tier USL has eleven teams and the second tier NASL has eight, all of these teams are vying for the attention of MLS expansion. They have reason to be hopeful, over the past few years MLS expansion has come from the ranks of the NASL and USL (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Montreal). But leagues need to stop looking to poach successful teams from other leagues.

The NASL itself is looking to stabilize and grow at a reasonable pace, one that will allow the league to live within its means and avoid the over-reaching that doomed the original NASL and threatened to dissolve MLS in its infancy. Currently, the Ottawa Fury is part of the PDL but will join the NASL in 2013. This can serve as a model for future expansion. The organization will not enter the NASL until its downtown stadium is complete, so it can accommodate the amount of supporters a higher-profile league brings.

Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Memphis, and Oklahoma City are all markets that currently lack any substantial presence in the US soccer pyramid. But each city possesses connections to at least one of the other major sports leagues as well as a history of professional soccer. There may be some hesitancy, however, because there is only a fledgling or unstable soccer culture in each city. Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Baltimore are huge markets with a full spectrum of professional sports. Yet soccer in these cities, though always present, has at times been precarious. St. Louis and Baltimore have already had teams in the NASL and those teams have folded. Fortunately both cities have kept at it with the St. Louis Lions and Baltimore Bohemians of the PDL. Detroit and Cleveland have reignited their soccer culture and are starting out small in the NPSL. All of these cities are major markets that are currently under-served. Also, each city would make an excellent bridge market, a city that breaks up league travel into smaller more manageable bites.

This last point is vital because travel is frequently cited as the most significant hurdle to not only maintaining a team but to expanding a league. With this in mind, it would make sense for the NASL to pursue a North/South strategy to engage the somewhat ‘empty’ markets. This allows MLS to continue its East/West set up and for the USL to continue to grow its teams in the ‘smaller’ market cities and regions. All this can be done without leagues stepping on each other’s toes and allows for teams to grow at a natural pace. Doing so also sets up the potential at a far later date of the leagues coming to an agreement about promotion/relegation, which should be the endgame of all expansion.

Not too long ago I decided I needed to see where all the US soccer teams were. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a map that showed all the professional clubs. So I made one (see above).

What it shows us is that there are a slew of pro teams all over the country. That if you bother to look, there’s probably a team in your backyard. It also shows us where North American soccer needs to grow such as the Southwest and Canada. Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico are boom states and hopefully over the next few years soccer will get in on the action. In the Great White North, the slowly expanding CSL (Canadian Soccer League) will be Canada’s solely domestic national minor league for years to come. Hopefully it will nurture the game there while continuing to strive for non-Ontario expansion.

What we also see in this rough sketch of a map is that promotion/relegation can work; we just have to wait for the leagues to coalesce. Once stable, once the leagues have earned the trust of the fan-base, that confidence in knowing your team and league will be around for many tomorrows, full competition becomes a reality. Full competition, integration of play, is the necessary endgame so that fans and players experience the sport as a continuous whole and not some patchwork of partisan bickering. All Americans have the desire to see their team climb out of obscurity, earn a place at the top of the heap, and stay there. We can’t fulfill that dream just yet but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it.

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.