Second-division soccer in the United States is set to make a return. The on-again, off-again Division 2 North American Soccer League (NASL) has been provisionally sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for the 2011 season. The league will be expected to meet certain requirements before receiving permanent Division 2 status.
In a nation where American football reigns supreme, soccer is viewed more as a niche sport. And while Major League Soccer, the top tier professional soccer league in the United States, has grown slowly and steadily, the leagues underneath it have struggled to stabilize.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati this week emphasized the influence the second-tier North American Soccer League would have on the growth of the sport in America. "If we want to see American soccer grow, having additional outlets for fans, whether in some cases it's in very different cities than where MLS may be, in other cases in suburbs of MLS markets or at a different level, I think it's very important," he said.
The re-development of NASL, which originally operated from 1968-1984, has been promising but not without struggles.
The league had been provisionally sanctioned in November 2010 before being revoked last month over financial concerns of some of its teams. But last Friday, the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors voted to re-instate the provisional sanction.
NASL Chief Executive Officer Aaron Davidson understands that the NASL is a work in progress. "No one is under the assumption all of our teams are going to break even overnight, even now we are provisionally sanctioned and we are a second division league," he said.
With league play scheduled to begin on April 9, NASL is working hard to promote its eight teams (Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina Railhawks, FC Edmonton, FC Tampa Bay, Miami FC, Impact De Montreal, NSC Minnesota Stars and Puerto Rico Islanders) that are located in major markets across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati believes that with a solid foundation, NASL will be difficult to ignore. "The opportunity and the stability of the league are, obviously, very much related," he said. "If the league is stable, and that's what we're counting on, and the business plan makes sense and you have sensible attendance and so on, then there will be increased interest for people to make an investment in a team."
NASL's Aaron Davidson views the 2011 season as a litmus test to see where the league stands and what needs to be done to create stability in the future. "This year is really about focusing on [foundation] and making sure we run a league where the teams are happy with the direction it's headed, where the [U.S. Soccer] Federation is happy with the direction it's headed, where the media and fans are happy so we can build a methodical growth plan going forward," he said.
One of the teams, Montreal, will only be on board for one year before joining MLS and the five U.S.-based NASL teams will not be involved in this year's U.S. Open Cup soccer tournament due to delays in sanctioning. For NASL, the promising but difficult journey has just begun.