NASL – that arrangement of letters might sound familiar to the older generation. “Isn’t that where Pelé and Beckenbauer played?” – Yes and no, let me elaborate.
The North American Soccer League (NASL), was the first division of American soccer in the ’70s and ’80s. Yes – Pelé, Beckenbauer, Best and other huge names played there, but that is the old version of the NASL. I’m going to talk about the modern NASL, founded in 2009 and hosting its inaugural season in 2011.
In August 2009, Nike decided to sell its shareholder stakes in the United Soccer Leagues (USL) to NuRock Soccer Holdings. Soon the owners of some USL franchises questioned this decision, which ultimately lead to them leaving and creating a whole new league – the North American Soccer League (NASL). After a whole lot of controversy and confusion, the new league was given Division II status, placing it below Major League Soccer in the American footballing hierarchy.
What happened to the USL?
NuRock Soccer took over, USL Division One and Two merged, the name was changed to USL Pro and it was a recognised third division until early 2017.
In January 2013, MLS and USL signed an agreement, which meant that the USL would be home to some MLS reserve teams and that USL clubs could become affiliates of local MLS franchises (examples: Philadelphia Union – Bethlehem Steel, Houston Dynamo – RGV FC). The MLS – USL partnership blossomed.
The NASL higher-ups weren’t too happy about this development – obviously. At first, they accused US Soccer (the FA) of colluding with MLS to strengthen MLS’s position as a ‘first division monopoly’. Later, US Soccer announced that the USL would be granted Division II status and at that point, it was all over for the NASL. Both organisations were second divisions for the 2017 season, but the NASL was falling apart.
San Francisco joined, but Minnesota left for MLS, Fort Lauderdale and Oklahoma City didn’t participate in the 2017 season and here’s the best part – Tampa and Ottawa jumped ship and joined the USL. US Soccer stripped the North American Soccer League of its second-division status, which lead to them filing a lawsuit against US Soccer in September 2017. The NASL lost the case and that was the end, the NASL was dead.
The NASL was created because some teams didn’t think the USL would last, now the USL is more powerful than ever, being the home of over 100 teams across three competitions, while the NASL is nothing more than a memory.
After the 2017 season, Edmonton, Puerto Rico and the champions San Francisco ceased to exist. The Jacksonville Armada, Miami FC and the legendary New York Cosmos were forced to compete in the American version of ‘non-league football’, while Indy Eleven and North Carolina joined the USL.
Over the course of its existence, the league has, in total, been the final resting place of six football franchises – FC Edmonton, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, the San Antonio Scorpions, Puerto Rico FC, Rayo Oklahoma City and the San Francisco Deltas.
Six years, hundreds of jobs lost and supporters left with no one to support. Once home to some of the best players in the world, the modern NASL never came close to reaching the heights of its groundbreaking predecessor.
Teams – Where are they now?
Let’s do something fun and look at the eight teams from the inaugural 2011 season and see where they are now.
They finished dead last with just 16 points, 20 points off the last playoff spot. Renamed to Atlanta SC on January 23, 2019, and competing in the NPSL.
The other team to miss out on the playoffs; however, they missed out by just one point and finished 19 points ahead of Atlanta. Joined MLS in 2012.
Finished 5th, went out in the first playoff round. Part of NASL until the very end and dissolved afterwards. In the summer of 2018, it was announced that they will make a comeback and play in the Canadian Premier League.
FC Tampa Bay
Finished 3rd, went out in the first playoff round. Weren’t allowed to use historic “Tampa Bay Rowdies” name until the 2012 season. Joined USL Championship after the 2016 season.
Puerto Rico Islanders
Finished 2nd, went out in playoff semi-finals. Stopped league play after 2012 season, wanted to return in 2014, but insufficient funding made this impossible. Puerto Rico FC was founded in 2015 and played in the NASL in 2016 and 2017. Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. In early 2018, there was hope that the club might resume at least some sort of play later that year, but the club’s Twitter has been silent since February 2018. Puerto Rico is still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and there is uncertainty over the club’s future.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Finished 4th, but made the playoff final, which they lost. Played in NASL until 2016. Financial trouble kept them from competing in 2017. Bill Edwards, the owner of the Rowdies, filed a lawsuit against the Strikers ownership in 2016. He won and acquired the rights, but it is not known what will happen with the brand.
Finished 1st, won Supporters Trophy, but only made the playoff semi-finals. The Supporters Trophy was the NASL’s version of MLS’s Supporters’ Shield, given to the team that topped the table at the end of the regular season. Changed name to North Carolina FC in late 2016 and joined USL after the 2017 season.
NSC Minnesota Stars
Finished 6th, but ended up winning the whole damn thing – the Soccer Bowl. Originally known as the Minnesota Thunder, the name was changed to National Sports Center (NSC) Minnesota Stars. Weirdly enough, the NSC no longer owned the Stars once the first NASL season came around, but they kept the name anyway. For the 2012 season, the NSC part was dropped and in 2013, the franchise was rebranded as Minnesota United FC. Two years later it was announced that Minnesota would join MLS and after staying in the NASL for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, they began MLS play in 2017.
There have been rumours that the NASL might make a return in 2020, but we’ll have to wait and see. It would be nice for it to come back in some capacity though, maybe even as part of the USL; however, that seems very unlikely.