By Cesar Trelles – October 22, 2014
There has been an abundance of rhetoric in and around soccer when the topic turns to the North American Soccer League and what they are attempting to accomplish within United States Soccer. In only his second year at the helm, Commissioner Bill Peterson has done a very respectable job in making waves throughout the soccer world and putting the North American Soccer League back on the soccer map. Here is the second part of my conversation with Mr. Peterson where he comes forth with some more details about the ambitions that the NASL has for soccer in the United States.
Future Expansion Of The NASL
Since Bill Peterson has taken the helm, the NASL has seen three teams join the league. In the fall of 2013, the New York Cosmos entered the league. This year saw the Indy Eleven and Ottawa Fury begin their campaigns to bring the number of teams in the NASL up to ten. With MLS expanding into several markets in the United States, one might think that the expansion of the NASL might prove to be difficult. Commissioner Peterson however exerts a relatively carefree attitude when he talks about expansion.
“Leads for expansion come from everywhere!”, chuckled Peterson. “Sometimes it’s from out of the blue, sometimes it’s us working our established contacts. There is no one model for expansion.”
The NASL however seems to have a couple of things in their favor when it comes to looking at potential expansion markets. For one, their ownership system is one that differs entirely from MLS. The NASL boasts a decentralized ownership system meaning owners determine everything when it comes to running their respective clubs. The NASL has no say in how owners are to spend their money. From marketing, to obtaining players or even to building a stadium, Peterson exudes an air of confidence when describing his system and feels strongly that owners like his system. Along with the decentralized system of the league, another aspect that makes the NASL attractive to expansion teams is that the NASL can point to several of their current teams as examples of successful expansion clubs from a business perspective.
“When I first started as the commissioner I was sort of selling pro-formas to potential owners.”, described Peterson. “But now I can sit down and say, here’s the real deal. Here’s how successful our clubs are and point to certain plans that have been carried out. With those plans I can tell an owner ‘here’s a plan-you can work this plan, go out and get it done’.”
While Peterson seems to be gaining traction when it comes to expansion, he admits it’s clearly not an easy process. Determining what the right city is still remains difficult. There is an ever growing list of questions that comes to the commissioner’s mind when he is presented with a prospective expansion city. Is the city ready to support professional soccer? Are local businesses ready to support the idea? Is there a local soccer community to support an expansion team? Is there a short term or long term Stadium plan? Is the ownership group going to add something to the NASL?
In looking at a map of the United States, Peterson feels that there are up to 60 cities in the United States that can support a professional soccer club. While this virtual pool of potential cities seems to have a lot of potential fish to grab, Peterson maintains that the expansion process is not an easy one. While he wouldn’t reveal specific cities that he is currently targeting, he did add that the Virginia Cavalry, Jacksonville Armada and a club from Oklahaoma City have already been confirmed as expansion cities by 2016. Looking ahead, Peterson feels confident about further expansion cities since his conversations with ownership groups have garnered interest from three groups in the U.S. west coast, two in the US Midwest, two in the US east coast and three in Canada. With 13 teams already confirmed by 2016 and adding in the possibilities from the aforementioned ownership groups, the NASL’s short term goals of 20 teams seem very realistic and reachable in the not so distant future.
The Ever Popular Topic In US Soccer – Promotion/Relegation
No matter which side of the topic you stand on as a soccer fan in the United States, everyone has an opinion on promotion and relegation. Simply put, Bill Peterson is as big of a supporter of promotion and relegation in the United States as you will find. His support of it is simply not to challenge or rival MLS but rather based on two basic principles. His first being that the fans deserve better competition when it comes to soccer in the United States. He is convinced that promotion and relegation would bring that. His second principle has to do specifically with the ownership groups that run the clubs. Ask any ownership group in Europe and they cringe at the thought of being relegated. It keeps those owners on their toes and always striving to put their best product forward. Peterson believes soccer deserves the same ownership mentality here in the United States.
While his principles may be valid ones and may very well improve the quality of soccer in the United States, Peterson admits that the thought of pro/rel, is not something that he can focus on right now. He admits that there are clearly more important things to focus on as a league at the moment. Further, he is fully aware of one big obstacle. Who will be part of a potential pro/rel system?
“I don’t know that anybody that is existing today is going to decide to do it (pro/rel) with us”, stated Peterson in a rather frustrated tone. “If we want to do it, we might have to look at doing it with ourselves”.
Sticking with that thought, will 20 teams be the final tally for the NASL if they really intend on having a pro/rel system on their own? Perhaps 40 teams in the NASL might be the answer? This is not something Mr Peterson stated just a thought that might be worth pondering.
Knocking On CONCACAF’s Door
We have seen the NASL attempt to emulate teams and leagues that compete on a grand scale in Europe. One aspect of the beautiful game where the US clearly has to make strides in is Champions League. United States soccer is part of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. More commonly known as CONCACAF. For those that may not have been aware, CONCACAF has it very own Champions League, held in the same manner that the more popular UEFA Federation has theirs in Europe. Commissioner Peterson has been very vocal about the fact that his league does not have direct access to the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) and would like to see that change. Currently the only way that the NASL can gain access to the CCL is by winning the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
“We have to convince US Soccer is what I have been told”, insisted commissioner Peterson when asked about how the NASL can gain direct access to CCL. “I think at some point we are going to have to convince CONCACAF as well. We’ve stated our desire but at the she time we realize we need to prove ourselves.”
Bill Peterson takes pride in knowing that NASL teams have already had success against MLS teams during the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup tournament. Just this season, the New York Cosmos defeated and eliminated the NY/NJ Red Bulls during that tournament and came within minutes of forcing penalty kicks against the Philadelphia Union. But the Cosmos weren’t the only NASL team to knock off an MLS side. The Atlanta Silverbacks knocked out Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids. Finally, The Carolina Railhawks elminated Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy.
Success against MLS sides aren’t the only reasons why Peterson thinks his league deserves more access to CONCACAF. NASL teams have also defeated teams from Liga MX albeit during friendlies. While the league seems to be standing their ground against other teams in CONCACAF, Peterson still feels his league is a year away from making a true structured approach. During that year he would like to gain more conviction based on his teams results agains other CONCACAF teams. Having an NASL team win the US Open Cup would make a statement in its own right and provide all the conviction that Peterson needs to push for that direct CCL spot.
“Lets be patient for another year, lets keep growing this thing.” insisted Peterson. “Lets keep performing well every chance that we get and at some point it will become more than obvious that we belong directly in CCL.
NASL on International Exposure & International Football Calendar
If you’re going to try and emulate football around the world, you might as well have global exposure and hey, maybe even follow the global calendar right? While the idea intrigues Commissioner Peterson, adopting the global soccer calendar (September thru May) is something that he admittedly struggles with.
“Conceptually that would be great, but we can’t play during that period of time here in this part of the world”, responded Peterson when asked about adapting a global calendar.
Weather is a big deterrent for Peterson’s pursuit of adapting a typical European calendar of football. Currently the NASL starts their season in April and plays a short spring season through June. The league then takes a few weeks off and resumes their play in July when they start the fall season. That season culminates in the middle of November when the league holds its annual Soccer Bowl to determine a champion. Peterson has gone as far as playing with the notion of moving the championship to the spring as opposed to having it in November but he struggles with the multi month layoff that he would be faced with if he did that. While the National Football League seems to have success in the winter, Peterson believes that soccer would not be enjoyable for the fans if they had to come out to regular season matches during the months of December thru February. But a commissioner can dream.
“Maybe one day we will be lucky and we’ll have a bunch of stadiums with rooves that open and close!”, chuckled a wishful Peterson.
Although the possibility of an international football schedule might seem far fetched, Peterson still feels its important for the NASL to maintain a global presence. One of the few objectives that the NASL encourages their clubs to pursue is continued interaction with clubs overseas. This past off season we saw a number of teams travel over seas to play friendlies against teams internationally. The Cosmos travelled to Dubai for their preseason conditioning, and Minnesota United travelled to England to play a few teams there including Stoke City of the Premiership. The ultimate goal is for the NASL to continue to gain exposure internationally.
The New Post Season Format
At the beginning of the 2014 season the NASL announced that it was changing its post season format for the upcoming year. Prior to 2014, the pot season qualification factors were easy. The winner of the spring and fall season would play each other in a single, winner take all match for the NASL championship. While there are only 10 teams in the league to begin with, commissioner Peterson agreed that it may have seemed a bit unfair for only two teams to make the Soccer Bowl particularly if a team had played well all year but just missed out on either the spring or fall championship. At the same time, Peterson also disagreed with the concept of playoffs, as he has always felt that playoffs water down the competition and add a level of mediocrity to a level of play such as postseason that should be top notch. After several discussions, he arrived at his decision for 2014. The winner of the spring and fall seasons still clinch two post season spots, but now the next two highest point earners over the combined spring and fall seasons also made the playoffs.
Peterson saw this as an opportunity for teams to play meaningful matches deeper into the season since they could still play for the third and fourth seeds in the post season. In his first year of implementation, things are playing out in his favor. With just two weeks left in the season, six teams are still alive and playing meaningful matches with playoff implications. Further when there were four weeks left in the season, every team was mathematically still in the hunt for a post season berth. Clearly the motivating factor for Peterson in adapting this format was to maintain the competitive nature of his players for as long into the season as possible.
“Every decision we try to make, we ask, is this going to improve the competition?”,commented Peterson on his new structure. “Because at the end of the day, that’s what we are here to do. We are competing for the benefit of the fans. We would never do anything that would take away from that. If you just do one winner, one winner (in each season),this thing could be over early and then everybody is checked out.”
Commissioner Peterson feels strongly about keeping the amount of teams that reach the post season at four. He even went as far as saying that if he should reach his vision of twenty teams in the league, he would likely keep his current structure.
With a change in post season structure, I thought I would get ambitious and see if there might be a change to the Soccer Bowl broadcast in 2014. If you recall in 2013, that Soccer Bowl was the first time that the NASL was shown on ESPN3. Of course that led to the NASL Match Of The Week being shown on ESPN3 throughout the entire 2014 season. Unfortunately, Peterson lamented that he was not able to get the Championship on any other networks but that ESPN3 would carry the Soccer Bowl once again. A definite item on his to do list for 2015!
The future of the NASL
After a lengthy and lively chat with the Commissioner, I wanted him to look into the future for me. He excited me with a lot of what he said during the hour we spoke. The league has already made many strides since he has taken over and the NASL continues to be mentioned more and more when soccer in the US is being discussed. So I had to pose one last question to Mr. Peterson – ‘Take me four years down the road into the 2018 World Cup, where do you see the NASL at that time?’.
I won’t paraphrase his response – I will just leave it here in his exact words.
“16 teams on the field. 18-20 have already been admitted into the league. Very vibrant teams who are financially solid. Great players coming in and out of the league. More and more interaction with the rest of the world and in four years we should be able to line up with anybody in the world and give them a match. I don’t know if we would win every week but we should be good enough that we can lineup with anyone and give them a good 90 minutes worth. The market place is there. We have to do the work. We have to put on great competitions. We have to spend money wisely. Sometimes we will have to be patient and sometimes we will have to rush depending on the issue but we have to keep everything going forward. There’s going to be some bumps in the road, there are going to be things that won’t go the way we thought they would go but you just gotta keep plowing ahead. The fan base is there! We’ve already shown that we can play soccer at a high level after three years. Imagine after three more years? I don’t know what that’s going to be like – I hope its crazy! But with all these ingredients there, as long as you don’t screw it up, you should end up with something really good.”
His answer made me really want to fast forward the calendar to 2016 and see if his vision has come true. The pessimist in me had to go a step further and ask -‘Is there anything that worries you from now til then Mr. Commissioner?’
“There is nothing that concerns me that ‘THIS’ can’t happen. Its really just about doing the work that needs to be done and its a lot of work but if you do all that work diligently, you’re going to be wildly successful in a short period of time. It’s not going to take 19 years.”
Well played Bill Peterson, well played.