New Directions for NASL, USL PRO & NPSL

Offseason changes all across the lower leagues of the US soccer pyramid
by Daniel Casey   |   Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

For nearly every sport, the offseason feels interminable. For those who are addicted to soccer, the offseason can feel maddening. Fortunately for US fans, the end of our domestic season coincides with the beginning of the European season, meaning US soccer junkies can get a fix nearly year round. Going into the 2013 domestic season there will be some significant changes, all for the better, at every level of the US soccer pyramid.

Perhaps the biggest news of the off-season has been the integration of MLS’ Reserve League with the USL PRO league. The move is significant because it is the first time that the US soccer pyramid has made any attempt to integrate itself. Prior to this, every league operated in virtual isolation, leaving communication with other leagues to the players and their representatives. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that the NASL and USL acrimoniously split. Fortunately, tensions have cooled between the two and now both are stronger for it.

USL PRO is the third tier of US soccer and remarkably stable; its core teams have carved a sure niche. Integration with MLS Reserves means that MLS players who have been denied minutes with the first team will be able to hone their skills in a genuinely competitive league. And players returning from injury will find it easier to return to match fitness. MLS teams will no longer have to fret over a player turning stale or stalling out while having more control over how their players are used.

The new arrangement will also allow a reserve team to be fielded by a MLS side or they can work out an affiliation with one of the existing USL teams where at least 4 MLS players will go out on a long-term loan. Overnight, the USL went from 14 teams to 26. Such a move means significantly higher revenue for the USL.

USL PRO League 2013

On the surface this move appears a win-win for both the leagues and the players. But a legitimate concern has arisen – has the USL positioned itself to only ever be the ‘minor league’ for MLS?

In the long-term, the USL needs to demand to be more than this. A baseball-like system will only marginally benefit US soccer, although it will significantly benefit MLS. But the urge to naysay should be resisted simply because the new reserve league sets the foundation for not just improved player development but increased professionalism. More soccer played by more people, coached by more people, watched by more people and commented on by more people means that soccer is more professional; it can be a career and not just a pastime. 

Significant also is the fact that during the MLS SuperDraft, the vast majority of the players drafted were developed not in the college ranks, but by the USL’s Premier Development League (PDL). The PDL is part of the fourth tier of the US soccer pyramid alongside the NPSL, which also saw several of its alums drafted. It’s unfortunate that the teams who put in the time to train and develop the players drafted by MLS will not get any compensation for doing so. MLS needs to create a system where teams that have developed a draftee get some kind of monetary compensation for their efforts.

The US doesn’t work like the rest of the soccer world (nor should it) in allowing the transferring of players between teams. Small teams that put the time and effort into a player get little to nothing for doing so; they certainly deserve some kind of compensation. It doesn’t have to be a lot; it could be a fixed amount such as a percentage of the base salary.

For example, if the MLS base salary for a first-year player is $33,750, then why can’t the PDL team (or teams) that developed the player each be awarded 5% based on that salary? This formula wouldn’t give a lot to the PDL side (just under $1,700), but it would be something and something is always better than nothing – especially for a very small team that may or may not being be breaking even financially.

For a team like Reading United, who had 5 SuperDraftees (Deshorn Brown by Colorado, Ryan Finley by Columbus, Ian Christianson by New York, Stephen Okai by Philadelphia and Greg Cochrane by Los Angeles) and 4 Supplemental Draftees (Will Bates by Seattle, Eric Schoenle by Philadelphia, Jose Gomez by Toronto and Leo Fernandes by Philadelphia) chosen this year, this would amount to just more than $15,000. For a 4th tier team, that’s not peanuts, but for a MLS team it’s hardly a lot to ask.

By creating a compensation system, teams would be given a more concrete incentive to develop players and a revenue stream would be created to strengthen lower division teams. The teams in the PDL and the NPSL deserve to be rewarded for shepherding players into MLS. If MLS is truly committed to a stronger soccer pyramid, it needs to start compensating the teams and leagues from which it takes its talent.

After the SuperDraft, it is the player combines that rightfully garner attention during the offseason. Combines remind us all that soccer is coming and that, in fact, we are now in the preseason. The giddiness this realization provokes in grown men and women is a delight. Hundreds of players vie for places among the top three leagues. Most will not land a contract, but more will this year than in previous seasons thanks to expansion.

The USL will add two wholly new teams this season in the Phoenix FC Wolves and VSI Tampa Bay FC (and another come 2014 in Sacramento), the NASL will finally see the return of the New York Cosmos to US soccer and the NPSL has added 15 new teams. The growth of all the leagues can’t be denied and part of this growth has been a steady growth of supporter culture.

In the NPSL, the vigorous supporter groups that created the Rust Belt Cup inspired the newest soccer team in Ohio, Zanesville FC, to join with AFC Cleveland to create the Presidential Cup. What is truly great about this new supporter cup is that part of the reason Zanesville FC came into existence was because of how much the team founders enjoyed the competition for the Rust Belt Cup.

AFC Cleveland Cup

Supporters will also see a new league format in the NASL, one that is becoming increasingly more common in the Americas, that of the Apertura/Clausura of Liga MX in Mexico, or Opening/Closing seasons. It’s a split season format where the Opening session winner plays the Closing session winner to determine the league champion. It’s worked very well in Central and South America.

By adopting this split-season format, the NASL has given itself more room to maneuver as it seeks to fill out its ranks and solidify its teams. This season will see the Minnesota Stars no longer league owned and, if their recent signings are any indication, the new owners want to win (Minnesota has signed last season’s Golden Boot winner Pablo Campos away from San Antonio and the 2011 Golden Boot winner Etienne Barbara, who had previously been with the Vancouver Whitecaps). The New York Cosmos will join the league in the Closing session and have already made waves by announcing intimidating and grand stadium plans.

And while the Cosmos talk about future stadium plans, several NASL teams now have amazing new SSS (soccer-specific stadiums). Last year’s expansion side San Antonio will build on its success as it opens its new Toyota Field on April 13th. Toyota Field looks to be a jewel and it will certainly raise the standard of play for the league.

The Puerto Rico Islanders will sit out the Opening session to better get their house in order but intend to return come the Closing session. When I spoke with Ignacio Rodriguez-Argote, spokesman for the Islanders, he made it clear that the team plans to compete in the CONCACAF and that although they’ll have a completely new-look team, they’ll be back stronger than ever in their now thoroughly renovated stadium.

Looking to 2014, the NASL already has announced teams will arrive in Ottawa with a new downtown stadium, Northern Virginia and Indianapolis, where more than 1,500 season tickets have already been sold.

I would sound too much like a booster to insist that 2013 will be one of the most interesting seasons for US soccer. Only time will tell if this season works out. The Apertura/Clausura format may bomb, the New York Cosmos might continue to be a marketing gimmick and mirage, the MLS/USL Reserve league could very well add nothing to the sport and end up costing more than it’s worth and the PDL and NPSL may very well keep grinding out in obscurity. Reality will fall squarely between the two poles of unmitigated enthusiasm and pessimistic fatalism. But the offseason and the preseason is the exactly the place where optimism should reign.

A week ago I joined my first supporters group, the MN Dark Clouds, for the Minnesota Stars FC. We’ll see what that means as the season unfolds, but here’s what I know for certain: I will buy season tickets, I will bring new faces with me to see the sport and I will continue to watch and discuss US soccer at all levels. During the offseason and now in this preseason, I know that now more than at any other time in the past the number of people doing so with me anonymously around the country is larger than it has ever been.

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.