MLS in rude health as NASL battles for survival

As Major League Soccer gears up for its season finale in Toronto on the back of another stellar year, the outlook for the second-tier North American Soccer League looks increasingly bleak.

MLS in rude health as NASL battles for survival

The Major League Soccer (MLS) season comes to its climax on Saturday when Toronto FC host the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final. The tie will pit two of North America’s best-supported franchises from two of its most soccer-crazed cities against one another in the league’s championship game for the first time, providing MLS with another opportunity to celebrate and showcase how far it has come in the 20 years since its formation.

When tickets went on public sale for this season’s finale on Monday, they sold out in just three minutes. Even if Toronto’s BMO Field does have a relatively modest capacity of just 36,000, it was the latest sign that MLS soccer has established itself in the hearts and minds of North America’s discerning sports fans. 

Under its long-serving commissioner, Don Garber, MLS has enjoyed strong commercial growth and consistent expansion. This season the league achieved record attendances and TV ratings while next year it will swell to 22 teams with the addition of two new franchises, in Atlanta and Minnesota. A host of other clubs and would-be ownership groups in several other cities are clamouring for a way in, too, eager to be part of a burgeoning league that has yet to reach its full potential.

Further down the North American soccer system, however, an altogether different picture has emerged. In stark contrast to the apparent serenity and speed with which MLS is growing, recent developments have conspired to show that all is not well on the lower rungs of the ladder.

Just seven years after it was revived, the North American Soccer League (NASL), currently recognised as the second tier below MLS, is in grave danger of going out of business. Having started its 2016 season with 12 teams, the financially ailing league has seen three sides defect to rival divisions this year. First, it lost Minnesota United to MLS, then Ottawa Fury FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies effectively relegated themselves when they jumped ship to the United Soccer League (USL), which, for now at least, constitutes North America’s third tier.

Further compounding the NASL’s misery, three of its other teams - Rayo OKC, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Jacksonville Armada - are said to be in such financial turmoil that they are unlikely to be able to compete next season. And then there is the New York Cosmos, the league’s reigning champions and marquee franchise who, if recent reports are to be believed, are on the brink of folding altogether.

A source with knowledge of the situation told last week that the Cosmos have terminated all player contracts amid dwindling attendances, budget cuts, staff layoffs, and attempts by their ownership to sell up. The club, whose return to the NASL in 2013 was hailed as the dawn of a new era for the league, has denied the reports, yet the news has come as little surprise to those who have witnessed their lavish spending and misguided decision-making.

The crisis plaguing the Cosmos is symptomatic of the difficulties being faced across the NASL, which relaunched in 2009 with bold ambitions of challenging MLS as a division one entity but has since struggled for popularity and local relevance in its competing markets. The club and the league have been closely aligned since the very beginning - even as far back as the 1970s, when the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer starred for the Cosmos and helped popularise the NASL in its original guise - and with one seemingly unable to live without the other, it now looks increasingly as though both are about to collapse in an echo of that first attempt.

Speaking to ESPN FC this week, Garber shared his views on the current turmoil in the lower leagues, including the prospect of the NASL going under. “I have a view that everyone involved in this sport is contributing to its growth at some level,” he said. “Certainly many of their clubs have become popular in their respective markets. I think that their strategy was one that didn't have full alignment amongst all their owners, and that is a really important aspect of what any league needs in any sport in any country in order to be successful. I'm confident that one way or the other, this is going to sort itself.”

But exactly what the solution will be remains to be seen. The USL - buoyed by its continued success, its close strategic relationship with MLS and, quite possibly, the demise of the NASL - has asked the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to be sanctioned as a Division Two league next year. Yet the governing body deferred that decision on Tuesday pending further talks between its president Sunil Gulati and representatives from both the NASL and USL. The USSF’s decision to stall has been seen by some as a lifeline for the NASL, although there are suggestions it has only been made to allow NASL clubs hoping to move to the USL more time to negotiate.

Amidst all the uncertainty, then, there is no telling at present what the landscape of North American soccer will look like when the new season begins next year. For now, it is down to MLS to show others how it’s done and to lead by example, starting with this weekend’s sell-out season finale in Toronto.