Do all first-division dreams go through MLS?

Trevor Ruszkowski-NASL

Not necessarily, says Indy Eleven. As Scott French reports, the NASL's spring-season champion still looks toward a day when its league can be "the highest level."

Minnesota United's dream of playing first-division soccer comes true next year, following Friday's announcement that the NASL club, accepted last year for Major League Soccer expansion, will begin play in the country's top league next year.

It’s not the first team to make the jump to MLS, and they're not the only one with first-division desires. The New York Cosmos have made it clear that they harbor big-time aspirations, and Miami FC looks like it wants to be at the top level. MLS probably isn't going to be an option for either, and with only so many slots available as a league aiming for 28 teams, it doesn't look good for most of the rest of the NASL, either.

That doesn't mean anybody is giving up on the dream. There's more than one way to make it to the top. Just ask Peter Wilt.

“During my time [with the NASL’s Indy Eleven], the feeling among everyone in the organization was that we want to compete at the highest level,” said Wilt, who founded fall season-leading club and served as its general manager through last spring's campaign. “The preference is that the North American Soccer League would be that highest level. ... The progress of the NASL has been such that there's reason for optimism, that achieving first-division status in Indianapolis and playing at the highest level in North America in Indianapolis is possible within the North American Soccer League.”

If so, it's a ways off. The NASL, in name a successor to the celebrated league that lured Pelé, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and other international stars to North America in the 1970s, has grown immensely since stepping onto the field in 2011, but, Wilt said, “it's not where it needs to be to be a first-division league, which is an aspiration of most if not all of its owners.”

A two-first division world?

MLS is the only accredited first-division league in the U.S. and Canada, and it's still nowhere near the level of Europe's top leagues, nor the best in Latin America. There doesn't seem much need, nor much U.S. Soccer support, for a second top-tier competition, and NASL must upgrade its standards considerably to make a reasonable argument.

The gap between MLS and the NASL is sizable. The biggest differences: the stadium situation, which will take time to solve, and the amount of money available to spend on talent. The former is a real challenge. The latter could come into focus a little more quickly, perhaps.

Trevor Ruszkowski-NASL

Indy fans have made IUPUI home.. (Trevor Ruszkowski-NASL)

Indy is pursuing a downtown stadium, not far from the club's current digs on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, behind owner Ersal Ozdemar, a Turkish-born, Purdue-educated civil engineer who runs a construction/real estate firm. It's a necessary step if Indy is going to become what it wants to be, and Jeff Belskus, who in January succeeded Wilt as club president, will surely be vital in that endeavor.

Belskus spent 27 years with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy 500, the last six as CEO and president and, Indy head coach Tim Hankinson said, “knows the layers of legislation and zoning and the process to move in a positive direction with that.”

Bringing in top players is a matter of money.

“[Reaching MLS's level] requires a number of things, but most simply it requires greater investment in players,” said Wilt, who also founded the Chicago Fire and is working to bring a Chicago team into the NASL. “And it needs to be smart investment, obviously, and it's good when it's tied into revenues. I think in Indianapolis, the club earned its right to spend more money on players because of the large revenues generated via ticket sales and sponsor sales. I think when broadcast revenues begin going north, especially on a league-wide basis, I think there'll be an opportunity to grow the player budgets significantly, and that's what's needed.”

Bridging the gap to tier one

Recently the NASL has been facing more fundamental problems. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers have had difficult making payer and staff payroll, while Rayo OKC, and Oklahoma City-based team which began play this spring, saw its head coach and management team leave the organization amid new plans from the team’s Spain-based owners.

Wilt and Hankinson note that NASL is in a similar position as MLS in its early days, with a solid first 13 or 14 players on a team and then, generally, a huge fall-off in quality for the rest of the roster.

Hankinson believes NASL teams could compete in the middle of the pack with MLS clubs, in the short term, “but to do it over the course of a year would mean deeper-quality rosters, which are bigger salary budgets and probably the ability to get our own Designated Player concept, where we can reach out to find a couple of special players that go beyond what we would necessarily do. And to some extent, New York Cosmos have done that, so it's just getting the rest of the league to buy into that.”

Doing so while avoiding an arms race such as that which in the mid-1980s killed the original NASL is imperative.

“We are seeing some teams, like Miami, reaching deep into pockets and setting a new course for the league to try to keep up with ...,” Hankinson said. “You're only as good as the teams you play, you've got to keep everyone moving forward together. Some of these recent purchases go beyond what even MLS would do, and that concerns me a little bit. I hope ownership will bring that under control or [project] the right perspective on that, so some teams don't skyrocket and other teams can't keep up and eventually say that's enough.”

Hankinson estimates NASL is “probably five years” behind MLS. Reaching that level requires extraordinary commitment.

“Let's put it this way,” Hankinson said. “If a NASL club is spending $1.5 million [on salaries], then ownership has got to say, all right, now it's going to be $3.5 million, plus three Designated Players, which probably puts you somewhere between $5 million and $10 million, and that's a modest number. You've got to make sure your market is ready to support that. And, hopefully, that will continue to happen in some of the markets.”

Wilt believes it will.

“If the league continues its improvement at a similar rate of the last five years over the next five years,” he said, “I think we'll be positioned as a first-division league in the United States and Canada.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.

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