The New NASL – A Brief History

So, Indy’s about to start its first season in the NASL! Woo!

Uh, what’s the NASL?

As my own version of kickoff week continues, let’s take a quick look at the current incarnation of the NASL: where it came from, how it fits in to US soccer, who the teams are, and how the league has been organized. I’ll start with a look at the formation of the new NASL. Where’d it come from?

Timeline of US Soccer

Forming the NASL and Fights with USL

NASL LogoIn the mid-2000s, the second and third tiers of North American soccer were known as USL-1 and USL-2. (MLS, of course, was and is the first tier.) USL-1 ownership changes in 2009 led several of the team owners to leave to form a breakaway league. This was essentially a clash of business models and direction, and several of the biggest USL-1 teams elected to join the new league. Upon investigating, the ownership group found that the trademark for the old NASL name had lapsed, and on November 10, 2009, they announced that they would be known as the NASL and that they would seek recognition from the US Soccer Federation (USSF, the governing body for all US soccer) as the Division II professional league.

(It’s worth noting here that the relationship between US Soccer, Canadian Soccer, and North American soccer is a bit… confusing. In Canada, D1 and D2 are MLS and NASL, respectively, but they have their own system for the lower tiers. Mexico and the Central American leagues keep to themselves, but historically a few Caribbean teams have taken part in D2 and D3 soccer leagues based in the US. None do so currently, however.)

USSF D2 Pro logoThe new league faced challenges from USL-1. The older league objected to the departure of many of its bigger teams, insisting they were contractually obligated to play for USL-1 in 2010, and objected to losing its Division II status to the upstart. With threats of legal action on the horizon, USSF played Solomon and decreed that teams from both leagues would play in a temporary joint league for the 2010 season. This was the USSF Division 2 Professional League. League play included an “NASL Conference” and “USL Conference” (which did not track the eventual homes of the teams one year later, by the way).

USL Pro LogoAfter the odd 2010 season, the two leagues were free to go their own way. The NASL finally took to the pitch under its own name as the Division II soccer league in the US.  The USL combined the remaining teams from USL-1 and USL-2 as USL Pro, the Division III soccer league. Of course, there’s no promotion or relegation between the leagues, nor with MLS, so the Division status mostly affects placement in tournaments like the US Open Cup.

The end result is that the NASL is the bigger league overall, with bigger cities, bigger budgets, higher attendance, and generally better players. There’s a lot of overlap, though, and USL Pro teams like Richmond, Charleston, and Orlando play at a level comparable to the NASL. The Division III league also has a closer relationship with MLS, with the parent league using USL Pro as its developmental league. The two leagues continue to bicker, most notably as both teams have announced expansion into Oklahoma City (in 2014 for USL Pro, and 2015 for NASL).

I don’t want to comment in depth right now about the direction of these leagues and where it’s all going. It’s an interesting and complicated question. The NASL has certainly destabilized the picture a bit — but perhaps for the better. Certainly the league is generating a great deal of attention (and attendance, in some cases). But it’s an open question how many NASL teams are really angling for MLS expansion slots. For now, let’s say it’s something to watch.

NASL Seasons

So the NASL has now played three seasons, starting in 2011, and is about to start the fourth. The season format has changed three times during that period, so there’s not much consistency. But the league has generally awarded two trophies: a Supporter’s Cup for the team with the best overall record, and the Soccer Bowl trophy for the playoff winner. I’ll recap the seasons quickly and show how they worked.

2011 NASL Season

  1. Carolina RailHawks (Supporters’ Cup winners)
  2. Puerto Rico Islanders
  3. Tampa Bay Rowdies
  4. Fort Lauderdale Strikers
  5. FC Edmonton
  6. NSC Minnesota North Stars
  7. Montreal Impact
  8. Atlanta Silverbacks

The top 6 teams qualified for the playoffs, with the first two (Carolina and Puerto Rico) earning a bye to the semifinals. Ultimately NSC Minnestota won the two-game, home-and-home Soccer Bowl, defeating Puerto Rico 3-1.

2012 NASL Season

In 2012, Montreal was promoted to the MLS, and were replaced by the expansion San Antonio Scorpions. Minnesota saw an ownership change and renamed themselves the Minnesota Stars FC. The playoff format remained the same as in 2011.

  1. San Antonio Scorpions (Supporters’ Cup winners)
  2. Tampa Bay Rowdies
  3. Puerto Rico Islanders
  4. Carolina RailHawks
  5. Fort Lauderdale Strikers
  6. Minnesota Stars FC
  7. Atlanta Silverbacks
  8. FC Edmonton

Again, the top 6 teams entered the playoffs. Ultimately, Tampa Bay defeated Minnesota in the Soccer Bowl, on a 3-2 penalty shootout after a 3-3 draw over the two legs.

2013 NASL Season

2013 saw changes to the league format. The league split into a balanced Spring Season and a Fall Season, with a month-long summer gap in between. The Soccer Bowl was contested in a single game between the Spring and Fall season winners.

Puerto Rico went on hiatus (essentially folding), so the Spring Season was contested with seven teams. (Oh, and Minnesota renamed themselves again, to Minnesota United.) The Supporters’ Cup was renamed as the Woosnam Cup (for former chairman of the original NASL, Phil Woosnam).

  1. Atlanta Silverbacks (Spring Season champions)
  2. Carolina RailHawks
  3. San Antonio Scorpions
  4. Tampa Bay Rowdies
  5. FC Edmonton
  6. Minnesota United
  7. Fort Lauderdale Strikers

The Fall Season saw the addition of the New York Cosmos, taking the league back to a full eight teams.

  1. New York Cosmos (Fall Season champions)
  2. Carolina RailHawks
  3. Tampa Bay Rowdies
  4. Minnesota United
  5. Fort Lauderdale Strikers
  6. FC Edmonton
  7. Atlanta Silverbacks
  8. San Antonio Scorpions

The Carolina RailHawks won the Woosnam Cup as the team with the best record over the two portions of the season. The Soccer Bowl was contested in a single game, hosted by Atlanta as the Spring Season winners, and was won by the Cosmos, 1-0, on a goal from Marcos Senna.

The 2014 NASL Season

So what’s in store for the NASL this year? Things have changed yet again, both in teams and in league format.

Ottawa Fury logoindy-eleven-crestObviously, the Indy Eleven are joining the league this year. They’re joined by another expansion team, the Ottawa Fury FC. This brings the league to ten teams.

The league format will retain its Spring/Fall season split. This year though the Spring Season will be much shorter, so that the summer break can coincide with the World Cup in June. It’ll break down like this:

  • In the spring, each team will play every other team once, for 9 games. This will last through April and May, ending on June 8.
  • In the fall, each team plays every other team twice, home and away, for 18 games. This lasts from July 12 through November 2.
  • Matches are usually played on Saturdays. There are a few Sunday games, and a handful of Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday games too.
  • The Woosnam Cup will be awarded to the team with the best record over both legs of the season.
  • The playoffs are renamed as The Championship. The semi-finals will see the winners of the Spring and Fall Seasons each host one of the teams with the next two best regular season records. These games will happen the weekend of November 8-9.
  • The winners of these games will meet in the Championship Finals. This will be a single match, hosted by the team with the best regular season record. The Final will be played on either November 15 or 16.

Oh, and next year? 2015 should see the addition of three more teams. Virginia Cavalry FC originally planned to launch in 2014, but delayed to 2015 due to stadium construction timing. They will be joined by the Jacksonville Armada and the Oklahoma City franchise.

For now though, the focus is on 2014. There’s obviously a lot of change coming, and it will be quite intriguing to see how the season will play out.

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