‘Keep these players playing’: What the NASL could learn from women’s soccer’s past failures

Photo: NASL

Remember WPSL Elite? It kept the soccer flame alive for players after a collapsed league. What (and who) is left of the NASL could learn from that.

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A professional league in tatters, torn apart by wildly diverse visions among its owners. A few issues getting the thumbs-up from U.S. Soccer’s board. League officials in court.

The North American Soccer League in 2018? Yes, but that description also applies to the women’s soccer landscape in 2012.

The difference: The three teams that emerged from the ashes of Women’s Professional Soccer in early 2012 wound up taking the field that year, thanks to their resilience, determination and creativity. They joined five others to form the ad hoc part-pro, part-amateur WPSL Elite League. The next year, those three teams moved into the new National Women’s Soccer League.

“We were hoping there would be a [professional] league the next year, but we were thinking it may be two or three years,” said Lisa Cole, who coached the Boston Breakers in the WPSL Elite League and is now an assistant with the NWSL’s Houston Dash.

Cole and the Breakers continued to the NWSL along with the other two former WPS teams. In 2018, Boston is the only one of those three teams not playing, though the Breakers Academy continues amidst hope of a rebirth next year. The Chicago Red Stars are still in the NWSL. The Western New York Flash’s NWSL operations moved to North Carolina, and a Flash team continues to compete in tier-two United Women’s Soccer.

To be sure, the NASL and WPS situations aren’t exactly identical. The big conflict in WPS’ case was internal, with maverick owner Dan Borislow challenging the league’s authority directly and through his attorneys. The league’s relationship with U.S. Soccer was amicable by all accounts, even with a delay in granting a sanction for the yet-to-be-abandoned 2012 season, and the federation has more incentive to support a top-flight women’s league with U.S. national team players than it has for a second-tier men’s league.

The NASL, on the other hand, is still engaged in multiple legal actions against the federation. Lawsuits generally don’t incentivize parties to work together, and they may also have a chilling effect to prevent other interested parties from getting involved with creative solutions.

But can we draw any lessons from the creative solution of 2012?

WPS and the NASL have a few similarities. Both leagues had lost a few teams over the years. WPS, in its three-year history, had lost four of its original seven teams -- including Chicago, which dropped down the WPSL for the 2011 season. One team, St. Louis Athletica, shut down partway into the 2010 season. The Washington Freedom, a holdover from the WUSA that had kept going through the five-year gap between the WUSA and WPS, was sold to Borislow and moved to South Florida.

The NASL has been around since 2011 but has none of its original teams. The remaining owners have meager experience with U.S. professional soccer, though a couple of them have been involved with other aspects of the game.

Like their predecessors in women’s soccer, those owners are trying to keep their clubs in operation at some level. Puerto Rico FC, owned by NBA star Carmelo Anthony, recently announced it would take 2018 off to reorganize as it deals not only with the league uncertainty but also with the aftereffects of Hurricane Maria. The other three organizations will field teams in the amateur National Premier Soccer League this summer.

But other possibilities for continuing play have been swatted away. Rocco Commisso, who bought the New York Cosmos in January 2017, held a combative press conference on March 1 in which he took a dim view of the prospect of joining the USL. He also gave no indication he would work with Peter Wilt’s new league, National Independent Soccer Association, which Wilt hopes to launch at a Division 3 level in 2019 and work toward a promotion/relegation pyramid.

Nor is the NASL presence in the NPSL anything close to the WPSL Elite League. The Cosmos, Miami FC and the Jacksonville Armada are simply entering teams -- the Cosmos and Miami labeled “B” or “2” -- in their respective regions of the predominantly amateur league. We don’t yet know how many of the pros who were under contract to those teams will be playing this summer. Armada owner Robert Palmer has proposed the idea of a "Division Zero," but details are still limted.

The professional teams in the WPSL Elite League were missing a few of the players they would’ve had if WPS had continued, but were still loaded. Most of the players that went on to play in the Olympics missed the short season, but U.S. national pool players and a few international players were on hand, especially on the top teams. And the condensed summer schedule actually worked pretty well for players who needed to supplement their incomes in the offseason, Cole said.

The Red Stars featured former and future U.S. player Lori Chalupny and eventual Chicago lifer Alyssa Mautz. Western New York had future NWSL stalwarts Angela Salem and Tori Huster. The amateur Chesapeake Charge had 2013 NWSL College Draft first-rounder Christine Nairn. Cole’s Breakers had Australian attacker Kyah Simon along with U.S. international veterans Cat Whitehill and Leslie Osborne.  

No coaches and no fans would prefer the WPSL Elite League to the current NWSL, with its rosters full of U.S. and Canadian internationals along with well-drilled veterans testing the top young college grads. But fans were able to stay engaged, and the powers that be were able to work together to keep the U.S. women’s soccer fire burning -- a great lesson in priorities for any club and league administrators.

“We needed to figure out how we keep these players playing,” Cole said.

Many of the NASL's players have found playing gigs overseas, in the USL or newly expanded MLS. But many players are waiting for the powers that be to come up with another solution.

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