The I.S.A. Collection

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Evolution of The North American Professional Clubs

(Orlando, FL) April 12 - Soccer, the name of football in North America, has changed in dramatic fashion over the past few seasons. The major developments are at the professional level where renovation has occurred through expansion, re-branding and restructuring.

Major League Soccer, the top tier among the professional leagues, has added 6 teams in the past 5 years and will add another in 2012. Nine of the original ten franchises remain, although San Jose has experienced a move (to Houston) and then a rebirth. Name changes for New York (twice), San Jose, Dallas and Kansas City have been part of the trend to align with the international flavor of the game. The adaptation of Pele era club names has a wave of nostalgia washing through the North American game.

The return of the Reserve League in MLS and the professional association with youth academies reflects the long term investment in this hemisphere. The recent financial provisions by MLS has widened the international transfer window to sign marquee players .

The most significant changes of the pro leagues has occurred in the Southeast and the Northwest with the return of Atlanta and Orlando to pro status and the promotion of Portland and Vancouver this year to MLS. Orlando is only 1 of 2 World Cup venues, from the nine that hosted games in 1994, that did not get a franchise when MLS began in 1996. The Florida city was also a soccer venue for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Their newest club, called Orlando City, is hard pressed to build on the World Cup legacy of 15 years ago and is treading where others have failed.

Portland and Vancouver, leftovers from the frenzied heyday of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) have joined a highly successful Seattle team in the MLS' Pacific Northwest mix. With average gates well over 30,000, Seattle has led the league in attendance since they were accepted from the lower division United Soccer League two years ago.

In addition to the Portland and Vancouver's new start in MLS, the NASL welcomed Edmonton while the USL premiered Orlando City, FC New York, and Los Angeles Blues plus three teams from Puerto Rico and one from Antigua.

( Orlando City debut in the stadium that hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994 - photo International Soccer Archives Ó 2011)

MLS expansion, the target for several professional newcomers who desire to be the 20th franchise, is contested from Phoenix and Atlanta to Miami and Orlando. The reborn New York Cosmos, who are currently without a league, desperately want to be the second MLS club in the highly populated Northeast region. There are, however, other "Big Apple" entities showing interest as well.

Since the contraction of the Miami and Tampa franchises in 2001 by MLS, there has been a soccer void in the Southeast and several teams have vied for credibility. None more so than the Miami FC owned by Traffic Sports. The Brazil based company, which re-branded itself as the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, took interest in fellow NASL clubs in Minnesota and Carolina. FC Tampa and the former Miami FC clubs have struggled to win back futbol fans in a predominantly grid iron football region.

Tampa, who were recently stripped of their heritage in using the Rowdies name, have had two coaches and two stadium in as many seasons. Miami moved north to Ft. Lauderdale in hopes of capitalizing on the original NASL legacy of the Strikers.

All the chest pounding and fluffing will do little to impress MLS Commissioner Don Garber. The bravado between the soccer czar and Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo a few years ago ended in a stalemate. But the Quebec club, now playing in the new NASL (Division 2), backed up their boasts by drawing good crowds for their league, exhibition, Canadian Cup and Concacaf Championship matches. Their reward was being named the 19th franchise in MLS to begin play in 2012. The Impact have been playing in their team-own stadium since 2008.

Stadium construction has been the vital component in what the MLS requires for consideration. Since the first Soccer Specific Stadium (SSS) was built for the Columbus Crew, the total of MLS home projects is ten or about half the league now.

There are additional lower division clubs who also control their facility such as Atlanta, Charleston and Ft. Lauderdale.

While 2011 seems to be on the upside, the previous season had its troubling moments. Several teams from the United Soccer League (USL) were unhappy with the circuit's administration and formed the NASL, a breakaway league of their own. The two factions were ordered to share the 2nd Division for 2010 by the US Soccer Federation.
For 2011, the USL opted to drop to 3rd Division status while NASL scrambled for owners to become the lone 2nd professional level. Only time will tell if the divisional status and expansion can meet the financial constraints of professionalism.

With two weeks of play already behind the MLS, the lower divisions - NASL and USL kicked off this past weekend. Matches from Canada to the Caribbean and many points in between raised the numbers and interest across the continent. These were the results (in order of attendance) for the week of April 8-10:

Venue                                                Attendance                            Teams                                       Result                              League

QWest Field (Seattle)                       36,233                        Seattle Sounders - Chicago Fire                   2:1                            MLS

RFK Stadium (Washington, DC)    26,622                        DC United - Los Angeles Galaxy                  1:1                            MLS

Empire Stadium (Vancouver)           19,396                       Vancouver Whitecaps - New England         1:1                           MLS

PPL Park (Philadelphia)                     19,027                       Philadelphia Union - New York Red Bull     1:0                            MLS

Home Depot Center (Los Angeles) 13,385                      Chivas USA - Columbus Crew                       0:0                            MLS

Pizza Hut Park (Dallas)                       12,261                      FC Dallas - Colorado Rapids                          3:0                            MLS

Robertson Stadium (Houston)          12,047                     Houston Dynamo - Vancouver Whitecaps  3:1                            MLS

Buck Shaw Stadium (San Jose)           8,928                     San Jose Earthquakes - Toronto FC              1:1                            MLS

Gillette Stadium (Boston)                     7,970                     New England Revolution - Real Salt Lake     0:2                            MLS

Citrus Bowl (Orlando)                           7,933                     Orlando City - FC New York                           3:0                             USL

Lockhart Stadium (Ft. Lauderdale)      6,402                     Ft. Lauderdale Strikers - Edmonton FC         0:1                          NASL

Blackbaud Stadium (Charleston)         4,083                     Charleston Battery - Charlotte Eagles           1:0                             USL

Al Lang Field (Tampa)                          3,693                      FC Tampa - Montreal Impact                          1:0                         NASL

Atlanta Silverbacks Park (Atlanta)      3,543                     Atlanta Silverbacks - NSC Minnesota          1:2                          NASL

City Stadium (Richmond)                      1,385                     Richmond Kicker - Pittsburgh Riverhounds2:1                             USL

WakeMed Soccer Park (Raleigh)          N/A*                   Carolina Railhawks - Puerto Rico Islanders 1:2                           NASL
* after 2 hour rain delay