by JAKE NUTTING
After a turbulent off-season for the North American Soccer League, it would be a reasonable assumption that it’s rebuilding time for the league’s seven ownership groups.
While no NASL owner doubts that goal in the immediate future, the recent bids from Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC to join Major League Soccer in the top tier might suggest to some that the long-term viability of the NASL is still in question.
Instead, Rishi Sehgal, the league’s interim commissioner, told EoS he views the bids from Indy and North Carolina as evidence of the ambitious ownership groups within the league’s ranks.
“I think with the case of Indy Eleven and North Carolina, they want to get bigger and they want to grow,” Sehgal said. “They feel that their markets are capable of supporting soccer at a much higher level, and frankly I think around the league we all feel that way. We feel that the league is capable of supporting soccer at a much higher level. For me, it’s a sign that everybody wants to grow bigger, and I think that’s a really positive thing. Certainly none of our owners are content with staying at the status quo. We all want to grow and that’s going to be our challenge, to keep growing.”
For Indy, stating its desire to join MLS after three years as an NASL outfit is seen as an attempt to bolster its effort to build a stadium in downtown Indianapolis after two attempts to pass legislation to finance the stadium faltered. The younger NASL does not have the political capital that MLS has managed to build up over the last decade.
So far, the NASL hasn’t been shy about its desire to raise its profile and eventually be counted as an equal to MLS. That ambition remains, according to Sehgal, but the aggressive tactics employed by the league that ruffled feathers in the U.S. Soccer community will not be a part of its strategy.
“We know we need to get bigger, we want to get bigger,” he said. “We want to celebrate the game at a bigger level and a bigger platform than what we’re doing right now. From that perspective, our long-term aspirations are quite high. We hope that people view that as a positive thing. But we recognize that it’s going to take a lot of work among all of the stakeholders in soccer in this country, MLS, USL, NASL and the amateur side to advance the game forward.”
Before those goals can be achieved, the NASL will need to see unprecedented growth between now and the start of the 2018 season to maintain its Division II status. With only eight teams on the field this year, the NASL must add four teams and secure new ownership for the league-owned Jacksonville Armada FC to meet the 12-team standard for Division II set by U.S. Soccer.
Sehgal is hopeful new ownership will be found in Jacksonville and for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, as the latter will sit out the 2017 season after the current owner struggled to pay its players and staff throughout last year. The interim commissioner admitted the ongoing lawsuit from Tampa Bay Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards seeking payment on multiple loans to the Strikers is a factor in the attempt to sell the team, but he did not offer details on what impact the issue has had on the process.
Working in the NASL’s favor is the dissolution of its relationship with Traffic Sports this past November. Frustration over the heavy financial stake that Traffic continued to have in the NASL even after being implicated in the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal was reportedly a significant factor in the Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC voluntarily leaving the league for the United Soccer League.
The close ties to Traffic were also seen as a hindrance to expansion for the NASL. With the NASL owners finally negotiating a deal to buy out Traffic’s shares to ensure the league is “100 percent owned and operated by team owners,” Sehgal is confident the league can move forward with expansion.
“Our goal is never to just be an 8-team league or a 12-team league,” he said. “We want to create more competition and take advantage of the passion for soccer. There are so many markets hungering for high level soccer. So it’s about developing that. I think with the U.S. Soccer provisionally sanctioning, we’re going to be able to move through those conditions, and certainly they want to see us move through those conditions so we don’t have an offseason that’s filled with uncertainty and drama again.”