The human element: NASL players, coaches feeling the stress of unrelenting uncertainty

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

For some, the NASL's off-field drama is a soccer sideshow. But for the likes of Richie Ryan, livelihoods are on the line.

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Miami FC midfielder Richie Ryan got in his car after his team’s final training session and picked up the phone to call his wife.

It was a few days after Miami bowed out of the 2017 NASL playoffs in a penalty-kick-shootout loss to the New York Cosmos, and with no game ahead, it was Ryan’s long-term future, rather than short-term, that was the reason for the call.

At training, the team had been told that it will be playing next season in some version of its league – assuming the league still exists. “See you in preseason” are normal words for players to hear from the club at the end of any season. In the NASL, however, they meant a bit more.

With a lawsuit hanging over its head and news that a judge denied an injunction that would have delayed U.S. Soccer’s decision to reclassify NASL as Division 3, not even a guaranteed contract meant guaranteed security. Players had gone through an entire season with questions lingering about their futures.

“It’s difficult; I’m married with two kids,” said Ryan, considered to be one of the top players in the NASL. “It’s a worry when we had the off-the-field antics last year, as well, and that was a difficult offseason for every player. We see everything going on this year. It’s not something you want to see as a player. The older you get, the more you have a family to look after. You love the sport, you play the game because you love the sport. But you need to have security as well.”

This is the reality of the instability in the lower divisions of American soccer. While it’s easy to focus on the court dockets, team and league names and even the big personalities that own the clubs, there is a massively human element at stake, as well.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 players have their jobs at stake when it comes to the future of the NASL. The uncertainty around the future of the league means an uncertainty with where they’ll next get to kick a ball.

Even players at established clubs like the Cosmos and Miami FC feel those stresses. Ryan said he feels Miami is run as any club in Europe would be run, with the players looked after well, but the team can’t insulate players from the outside rumors and news reports.

“With all the stuff going on off the field, [Miami FC is] a good, honest club and they said they will honor everyone’s contract whatever the situation is next season, wherever we’re playing,” Ryan said. “That’s a sigh of relief for any player under contract next season. A lot of clubs try to cut corners and try to get out of giving players different salaries. This club does it the right way. We’re lucky in that aspect.

“It’s brilliant to play the sport and we’re very lucky to have the opportunity to work at something we love. At the same time, we’re human beings. We have wives and kids and families to look after. That’s the most important thing.”

The dissolution of the NASL would mean jobs lost and fewer opportunities for soccer players in this country. Just the prospect of such a future gave players and coaches another challenge to navigate over the course of the 2017 NASL season.

In San Francisco, Marc Dos Santos said he kept his team together by telling them to make history if this was to be the one and only season for the franchise. The Deltas will play in the NASL Championship on Sunday against the Cosmos and Giovanni Savarese, who said a good chunk of his job this fall was to be on top of his players’ off-field mentalities.

“You have to make sure the players are comfortable, that the players are mentally in the game on a constant basis, that their families are okay,” Savarese said.  

Courtesy of NASL

Miami FC, Cosmos tangle (Courtesy of NASL)

Working in the reality that has been the NASL over the past two seasons – with some clubs failing to pay players, others moving to the USL or MLS and rumors of others going under – most involved with the league have come out of it with one big takeaway: There has to be a better way to manage the divisions in this country.

“For U.S. Soccer and for the best thing for the game, everybody needs to come together and put a system in place that’s going to work and make the game go to the next level over here,” said Ryan, who was born in Ireland and played in Ireland, England, Belgium and Scotland before landing in the NASL in 2014.

“Maybe you have a top division, Division 1, Division 2, but further down the line there needs to be a system put in place to have promotion and relegation. With the size of the country, the wealth it has, it needs to be one of the top footballing nations in the world. … I know all these things will take time and there will be a lot of problems, but I think for the best moving forward it needs to put in place sooner rather than later.”

There is movement for change at the very top, and every decision made will continue to have a trickle-down effect. For players like Ryan, those decisions are about so much more than just a league’s divisional status.

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