Stability Power Rankings: Which NASL teams will stick around for 2017?
Last week, news broke that the American lower divisions of soccer are yet again being plunged into chaos. First came Neil Morris’ report that the owners of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers were no longer funding the club and that the North American Soccer League’s other teams had stepped up to foot the bill. Hours later, Brian Straus reported that the Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies are poised to jump ship from the troubled league.
Though reports on the death of the NASL are greatly exaggerated, the league’s shakeup has yet again sewn a lot of doubt for its future. All this turmoil is going on while the NASL is drawing toward its most exciting end of a season yet, with five teams queuing up to duke it out for the last playoff spot.
Whether the league is still kicking in 2017, we’ve compiled a Stability Power Rankings to evaluate where these teams stand going forward. Which teams are poised for bigger things and which are headed to the dustbins of history?
1. Minnesota United FC
When the Minnesota Stars slumped off the pitch after their penalty kick loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 2012 NASL final, players believed that the club was done. The league-owned team was set to be boxed up after the season. Then Dr. Bill McGuire stepped in, bought the team, and renamed it Minnesota United.
Fortunes have changed for the Loons as they prepare to make the leap to MLS in 2017. McGuire had already brought a steady and committed hand to the team, making it one of the most stable in NASL. Joining MLS, though, has allowed United to build a stadium in St. Paul. After all, it is a stadium and the control of one’s own revenue that is the real mark of stability.
On the pitch, the Loons are limping toward the postseason and look bereft of confidence, but off the pitch they are selling season tickets at a clip while Sporting Director Manny Lagos is on a scouting expedition in Norway and Sweden.
2. Indy Eleven
When the Indy Eleven debuted in 2014, it immediately became the darling of lower-division soccer. With legendary Peter Wilt as president, the team sold out every match in its first season. Most importantly, in its first few years, the team has come close to turning a profit. Indy has made no noise about whether it plans to join Tampa Bay in defecting to the USL, as the Rowdies reportedly plan to. At this point, Indy seems slated to remain with the league.
NASL or not, Indy lives and dies on its own relationship to its fans, not to a league. Attendance dropped slightly from its inaugural season, a reminder that the honeymoon ends for every new team. However, the Eleven secured its first trophy by winning the NASL’s spring season, which will go a long way to fanning the flame of longevity.
Indy has struggled, however, to figure out a long-term solution as efforts to secure a soccer-specific stadium in Indianapolis have fallen short. League turmoil will do nothing to help those efforts, either. Indy is not the most glamorous flagship for the NASL to fly its flags from, but it remains a shining beacon of having created a club stabilized by its grassroots.
3. Tampa Bay Rowdies
The Rowdies’ reported defection from the NASL could be one of the biggest blows to the league in recent history; at least, it’s the biggest blow since losing the San Antonio Scorpions last season. Rowdies owner Bill Edwards may be something of a loose cannon (who creates mixtapes of calls that go against his club and has had some legal troubles), but he has invested heavily in his club both on and off the field. The NASL will be losing one of its charter members, as well as a club with ties to the original NASL.
The Rowdies have the third-highest average attendance (5,814) in the NASL, and the capture of Joe Cole has paid off somewhat. Edwards’ club has out-spent almost all its competitors with very little success on the pitch. However, there is a lot of room for growth in the Tampa area, and the Rowdies can build on small gains.
What the Rowdies also have going for them is the sole management agreement that Edwards has arranged with the city of St. Petersburg. While Al Lang Stadium provides modest digs for the team, the deal lets Tampa Bay capture far more revenue than most lower-division teams. It is not a permanent solution, but it’s one that, if operated correctly, could allow the team to hemorrhage less money.
While a move down to the USL is a risky move, it may be part of a longer-term plan to move to MLS.
4. Carolina RailHawks
For a long time, the Carolina RailHawks have been a remarkably well-run club despite living with the specter of ownership issues. The RailHawks were propped up for years by the Brazilian company Traffic Sports, which was extricated from NASL after Traffic’s president and chair of the NASL’s Board of Governors was arrested under charges of corruption. During this struggling period, the RailHawks were always able to attract modest crowds and push for the playoffs, even if they always, eventually suffered a summer collapse.
When Traffic Sports pulled out of the RailHawks, local entrepreneur Stephen Malik stepped up and purchased the team. Since Malik took, Carolina has made significant, even if subtle, improvements. Finally the team is spending more to bring in players like Mexican legend Omar Bravo. The club can now move beyond subsistence living, leading to a 16 percent gain in attendance so far in 2016.
Little has been said publicly about where Carolina might stand in its relationship to the NASL, but behind the scenes, Malik has been very critical of the league since he came into it. The RailHawks are likely candidates to join Tampa Bay in defection to the USL, but this decision may not be made until after the next Board of Governors meeting.
A move down to the USL for Carolina is unlikely to have any negative effect on the team. Instead, it would provide regional rivals in the Charlotte Independence and Richmond Kickers. Travel costs will also come down without having to trek to Edmonton and Puerto Rico. If Carolina stays in NASL, though, it will join Indy Eleven as one of the solid mid-sized markets that should be building blocks of the league.