20 by ’18: NASL near expansion in Canada, target Miami, Hartford and West Coast

IMAGE, INDYELEVEN.COM

IMAGE, INDYELEVEN.COM

The North American Soccer League are certainly living up to their name, with expansion plans targeting Hartford, Miami, the West Coast and Canada.

But that isn’t the least of it. NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson reveals the league’s ambitious plan to host a 20-team, single table tournament by 2018.

“It’s a timeline, not a deadline,” he explains. “That is a big difference. By 2018, would I like to be at 18-20 clubs? Yes, because we are able to do a lot of things once we crack 16, and 18 is a sweet number for us, and 20 is a good number for us.”

Currently, the NASL is comprised of 10 clubs. Next season, the league is scheduled to debut a trio of expansion sides including the Virginia Cavalry, Oklahoma City F.C. and the promising Jacksonville Armada in Florida. Virginia were supposed to debut in 2014, but a restructuring in ownership pushed the project back a year. Similarly, Oklahoma City has been sidetracked with former stakeholder Tim McLaughlin taking his purse to the banks of third division side, Oklahoma City Energy of the USL Pro.

If all three teams arrive as scheduled, the league will increase to 13 sides. That would mean an expansion of up to seven teams in three years.

One city which is aggressively pursuing an NASL franchise is Hartford, Connecticut.

“We have had conversations with interested parties in Hartford and we have studied the Hartford market,” Peterson reveals. “I like Hartford. I think it’s a great soccer market. For years, U.S. Soccer has been able to draw incredible draws with the men’s and women’s team, even recently with the French friendly with the women’s team.

“I’ve met with the Mayor of Hartford. He is a supporter of what we are doing and they are looking for ways to accommodate a professional team in Hartford.”

One way that Hartford is doing their part to help this idea become reality is by soliciting bids from prospective stadium operators who may wish to take on the old Dillon Stadium site.

Dillon once served as the NASL home for the then-Hartford Bicentennials. The riverfront edifice currently holds a capacity of 9,600 seats, but can be expanded. It has also been a multi-use site of the years, hosting countless concerts and sporting events.

A stadium is only part of the puzzle. If Hartford is truly a destination, the NASL hopes to vet the right owners for the job.

“There is still work being done from an ownership standpoint and we haven’t started what I would call the final stage of evaluating an ownership group there,” Peterson says. “We continue to dialogue with them. We continue to look at it as an opportunity. We think there is a lot of upside to having a team there, but at the same time, like you’ve heard me say in the past, there is really nothing to talk about yet until all the pieces are in place and we do all of our diligence and decision making.”

While Hartford remains a goal, further Canadian expansion sounds imminent. Peterson has been in constant contact with the Canadian Football Association, holding several meetings and exploring the possibility of furthering the NASL footprint in the Great White North.

As of now, this is, as Peterson says, “the only expansion discussion we are in.”

“I am going to hold off telling you which market place at this time because I don’t think the group would want that revealed,” he explains. “It’s a good group. They have some level of interest. We have had personal conversations and I assume sometime later this summer we will continue those and see where we stand.

“From a league standpoint, we think there are probably three or four market places in Canada that would do well to support an NASL team now. With the success of the teams in Canada, professional teams in Canada now, people are starting to see the real opportunity and support that exists there for professional soccer.

“I am confident we will expand in Canada and just like the rest of the process, when it is organic with the right numbers and right cities it will happen.”

Miami is another site of interest for the NASL. Currently, David Beckham and his ownership group have been at a stalemate trying to break through in a market that has been bitten badly by sports franchises in the past.

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“There is an ownership group, and I won’t reveal who that is, but there is a group we have been in discussions with for a few months now that has an interest in putting an NASL team in Miami,” Peterson said. “We will continue to have those discussions.

“We aren’t at a point with that group to move forward yet, but there is a high level of interest.

Currently, NASL does have a solid footprint in the area with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Adding a Miami team would mean four clubs in the state, and two in close proximity. “We have taken a look at it, of course,” the Commissioner explains. “There are things that have to be worked out from a market stand point between the two clubs but we feel it can get done if we decide to put a team there.

“We feel we could have two teams; one in Fort Lauderdale, one in Miami. From a fan standpoint, they are really two different markets. It gets a little more complicated when looking at commercial support from companies or media support from broadcasters. It is a little more of one market then. But all those things are able to be addressed if the other conditions are all met and we decide to go forward.”

Finally, Peterson touts the need for the league to expand to the West Coast. “Eastern expansion, though important to us, is not an urgent matter by any means,” he explains. Reports have surfaced over the past year linking the NASL to teams in San Diego, San Francisco and Las Vegas, though Peterson did not confirm those cities as potential cites.

“We are not going to get into that situation where we are making announcements or making decisions before we are ready,” he said. “This is a very important process, we are taking a very long term view at growth, we plan on being here for a long time, so when we are going through potential expansion, we want to make sure going forward that we have the right ownership groups and we have everything properly [done] before we make a final decision to go forward.

“It is very important,” he reiterates. “We witnessed it in other sports and soccer and forever in this country where leagues and teams got ahead of themselves, make announcements and then end up for the next ten years trying to recover from poor decisions they made. We will stay pretty close to the vest on this, but absolutely, 2018 is something we are working towards.”