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SBI’s NASL Preview: A year later, new league is ready to launch



It's been almost 27 years since the North American Soccer League last saw a game, but that will change this Saturday when the storied league returns to action under the USSF umbrella with eight franchises.

The NASL was scheduled to begin last April, but a bitter and protracted feud with the United Soccer Leagues, from which the NASL drew a handful of its teams, led to a denial of sanctioning by the USSF and the formation of a temporary USSF Division 2 league. Then, with several clubs facing severe financial difficulties, the league rescinded sanctioning for 2011 before reinstating it in February. The NASL will have to meet certain financial benchmarks in order to retain its sanctioning from the USSF in 2012, but those benchmarks have not been made public.

The league faces an uphill battle for survival, but, for now, the focus is back on the soccer. Eight teams made up of expansion and former USL clubs will participate with the top six teams making the playoffs. Teams will play each other four times for a total of 28 games for each team.

A few small but substantial changes also bring the NASL more in line with a traditional soccer league. Last year, it was not uncommon for a team to play three games in a week, but this year no team can play more than once in a given week. The NASL has also taken its permitted level of substitutes per game down from five to three, in compliance with FIFA guidelines.

Here are SBI's NASL team previews:

Atlanta Silverbacks

How they did last season: Did not play (On hiatus since 2008)

Players to watch: Mexican Mario Perez is a veteran on a team full of youth and inexperience. The 28-year-old fullback is the team's oldest outfield player and will have to develop some leadership skills to get Atlanta through some inevitable hard times. Junior Sandaval from the Puerto Rico Islanders will lead the Silverbacks' attack and former Colorado Rapids' veteran Ciaran O'Brien will anchor the midfield.

Outlook: Unless Atlanta's young players develop at a lightning-quick pace, Atlanta is in for some growing pains. Fans should treat this as an expansion season, where notable progress will be more abundant than results. If the Silverbacks' management can be patient and let the team develop of grow as a unit, this could be a dangerous side down the road, but it's too big of a mountain to climb in 2011.

Carolina Railhawks


How they did last season: 13-9-8, lost in the finals of the USSF Division 2 playoffs.

Players to watch: The cavalcade of newcomers in Carolina is led by veteran Scot Stephen Glass. Glass, now 36, has bounced around the top divisions of British soccer, playing for clubs like Aberdeen and Newcastle along the way. If he can keep fit, Glass can organize Carolina's midfield. Leading the attack is Brazilian Pablo Campos, while former Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Brad Knighton can keep Carolina in games should the defense lapse.

Season outlook: The dissolution of the Railhawks' ownership last season thrust the club's future into serious doubt and led to some wholesale changes on their roster. However, Carolina has done a good job of bringing in some veteran players, and if they can keep off-field distractions out of the locker room, Carolina could be a serious threat.

FC Edmonton


How they did last season: Did not play (expansion)

Players to watch: The inaugural Edmonton roster has a distinctly Canadian flare to it (15 of the 28 registered players hail from the Great White North), but there are few non-Canadian stars to look out for. Dutch midfielder Paul Matthijs, 36, should provide some experience and stability in central midfield, while forward Dan Antoniuk has a history of solid, albeit not spectacular, goal production in the lower leagues of American soccer.

Outlook: Edmonton's roster is full of youth supplemented with a few players who have bounced around the lower leagues of Canadian soccer. There are no stand-out young prospects, though, and reliance will be heavy on some aging veterans. A learning curve is to be expected for any expansion team, and Edmonton is very much a work in progress.

Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (formerly Miami FC)


How they did last season: 7-11-12, failed to qualify for the USSF Division 2 playoffs.

Players to watch: Abe Thompson, formerly of the Houston Dynamo, scored nine goals for Ft. Lauderdale/Miami last season and will be expected to produce again. Providing service for Thompson will be Argentinian Eduardo Coudet, while fellow former Philadelphia Union player Cristian Arrieta anchors the defense.

Outlook: Ft. Lauderdale added a number of key pieces that could spell success in 2011. The Strikers missed out on the playoffs last season, but that shouldn't be a problem with 75 percent of teams making the postseason this year. The Strikers are by no means the favorite, but if they play up to their potential a top-four finish should be the expectation.

Montreal Impact


How they did last season: 12-11-7, lost in the semifinals of the USSF Division 2 playoffs

Players to watch: Keep an eye on former Toronto FC striker Ali Gerba, who scored 13 goals in 17 appearances last season and could be a serious contender for top scorer in the NASL this season. Montreal padded its defensive resume with the addition of Puerto Rico Islanders goalkeeper Bill Gaudette and French defenseman Kevin Hatchi.

Outlook: It's all about the future for the Impact. Will an NASL title in Montreal be much of a goal considering the move up to MLS next season? Fans would like to think so, but Montreal is definitely building for the future rather than trying to win right now. That being said, Montreal has more than enough talent to stay competitive, and some of its younger players will need to impress in order to make the jump next season. The San Antonio Scorpions are expected to replace the Impact in the NASL in 2012.

NSC Minnesota Stars


How they did last season: 11-12-7, lost in the quarterfinals of the USSF Division 2 playoffs.

Players to watch: Goalkeeper Joe Warren, 36, will need to stand tall behind a back line that is completely unfamiliar with each other. Up front, Simone Bracalello could be one of the top offensive players in the division while Kentaro Takada fills in for standout midfielder Daniel Wasson who is out with a torn ACL.

Outlook: As with most teams in the NASL, continuity is not a given, but this is a group with experience. The back line is patchwork and the strike partnership of Devin Del Do and Bracalello could be dynamic. Minnesota should be one of the more consistent teams and a deep run in the playoffs is possible.

Puerto Rico Islanders


How they did last season: 9-11-10, won the USSF Division 2 title.

Players to watch: The Islanders boast some promising replacements following a bit of an exodus following last year's championship season. Captain Noah Delgado returns for his sixth season with Puerto Rico and is the undoubted leader of a talented side. Also be on the lookout for returning striker David Foley to partner with newcomer Matthew Bouaree.

Outlook: The Islanders did a solid job of replacing some of the players they lost during the off-season while retaining some core components. An early favorite to win the title, Puerto Rico will also be playing in the CONCACAF Champions League, where it famously knocked off the LA Galaxy last season. The Islanders may be talented, but with NASL squads being far from robust, will they tire and slip up down the stretch?

FC Tampa Bay


How they did last season: 7-12-11, failed to qualify for the USSF Division 2 playoffs.

Players to watch: A reformed defense is led by veterans Andres Arrango and Frankie Sanfilippo, who should provide some stability. Versatile midfielder Takuya Yamada is the team's standout player, while Aaron King, who scored 12 goals in 2010, leads what could be a potent attack.

Outlook: Consistency was elusive for Tampa Bay last season, combining for one point in the months of June and September. A completely gutted and rebuilt squad may or may not prove to be successful. Most likely, Tampa Bay will struggle early and get better down the stretch, but fans may be in for difficult spring.


What do you think of the NASL this season? Which team do you think will win the title? Is having six teams in the playoffs overkill?

Share your thoughts below.


  1. Promotion/Relegation

    In Brazil only three teams have not been downgraded: Flamengo, Cruzeiro and International. And football is not over.

  2. Ives, last year you said the Rowdies would suffer from a lack of experience in this division. Turned out that you were right. The players that did well for us all had experience at this level (Aaron king, Ricardo Sanchez, Johnny Steele), except for Jeremy Christie and he buggered off to the World Cup. Our defense was a shambles, however. Lacking pace and guile. Gutting it was the most merciful thing we could do.

    This off-season the club have gone for experience and proven quality in nearly every position. I wished you had a bit more time to weigh up whether you think we’ve improved. The manager has a lot more gravitas about him as well. Hopefully the results will reflect this and we won’t have a miserable summer (minus the searing heat and humidity, and mosquitoes, and our politicians).

  3. Cuz our kids gotta learn from someone and we natives currently don’t really play the skill positions all that well. Good goalkeepers though, lol.

    That said, I wonder at times if we shouldn’t have a quota system for US citizens like they do in Italy. It would lower the quality, but may help foster native talent. But I reckon this would really have to happen at the College level first. Anyway, I haven’t thought this through very far; rather leave it to people who know better.

  4. You have to look at promotion/relegation from a purely business standpoint. What would be the financial benefit of relegation to MLS? What MLS franchise owner would welcome the risk of relegation? Could MLS afford to make “parachute payments” to keep relegated teams from going bankrupt? It doesn’t make sense (or cents). It’s not going to happen here.

  5. Not a single team that will be in the league in 2012 averaged more than 5,000 fans last year in USSF-2. They are going to need to increase attendance if this league is going to be remotely tenable.

  6. Willy B. was a popular and well known Silverback Gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo back in the day. I assume that’s how the nickname relates to the team and city.

  7. Promotion/Relegation may not be the right model for MLS now, and I can’t say if it ever will be, but it is something the league should strive for.

    Once fan support reaches a manageable level (it’s growing…slowly), some creative ideas need to be tossed around. Relegation shouldn’t mean the end of a franchise (even though that would be a near certainty in MLS right now). Look at La Liga… every team but Barca and Real Madrid has been relegated at some point.

  8. At the heart of it was what should the lower divisions of US soccer look like. The original group the broke from USL to form NASL wanted to try to create a national image for the league, more promotion, a goal of getting some TV airtime, etc. At the same time a number of the USL franchises were looking to scale back, create a regional setup to limit travel costs, create regional rivalries, etc. USSF took these differences are created Division 2 and 3 standards that fit both of these descriptions. Division 2 must be have a national presence, be in at least 3 time zones (I think), have financial backing strong enough to create the growth that the NASL teams claimed to want. Division 3 can be regional and has lower financial requirements.

  9. The Atlanta-Gorilla thing seems kinda weird to me…how on earth did they decide that a Gorilla best represented their city?

    I like the colors of FC Tampa Bay…perhaps their jerseys will resemble those of Norwich.

  10. what was the reason for the split between USL Pro and NASL? the two have a similar geographic area and together they would be 23 teams..

  11. 6/8? Way too many teams in the playoffs.

    Eight team league should have two in the playoffs, max. As was stated before, what’s the point of the regular season?

  12. How is the attendance for Carolina teams in the NASL and USL Pro? Maybe MLS could put a team there instead of Atlanta or Florida (Miami, Orlando, or Tampa)

  13. D2 is not intended as a development league for MLS. As Sunil Gulati said in February when asked if the pseudo-promotion that has occurred in the past in which teams join MLS after being in the second division and whether this is the path the league wants to follow in the future, “None of the four teams mentioned came into, at the origins, the USL with the primary motivation of moving up and promoting into MLS. That wasn’t the motivation, so that hasn’t been the model.”

  14. Promotion and relegation is not the right model for professional soccer in North America. It should never be adopted by MLS. It would mean financial ruin for countless clubs and destroy the USSF soccer pyramid.

    Right now and for the foreseeable future, professional soccer in North America needs to continue to build its profile in relation to other established sports leagues, maintain financial stability (no guarantees there for D2 NASL), and develop vital cooperative relationships with the communities they serve.

  15. Promotion and relegation is one of the most interesting facets of club soccer and I firmly believe it is a system that “the american fan” will get behind in time, with elimination tourneys and playoff being other marquee matchups throughout a regular season and the ultimate prize being the top of the table and qualification into a truly international Champions League that faces the best clubs of every conference, not just UEFA, against each other in elimination style –provided FIFA doesn’t resist that evolution of CL for fear of it eclipsing the World Cup.

    I really hope that it is in the MLS’s future and that this kind of global integration of the sport in my lifetime..

  16. The sole purpose of creating and maintaining a Division 2 league is for the a purchase by the MLS when they decide to go to a relegation/promotion league. After the MLS reaches 20 teams which is what FIFA desires for it’s Top division leagues, the only opportunity for expansion into new markets will be at the lower division, the lower division teams will only be “allowed” to be promoted if they are part of the MLS which can assure financial stability. It will also apply to teams being relegated from the Top MLS league to the second division MLS league as a “golden parachute” to retain it’s investment.

  17. It’s also similar to what the history of the game in the US has been, for over 100 years now, just without the “eventually working its way towards a unified system” bit. Rochester needs a deep pocketed owner, that club almost went under a few years ago.

  18. Dont think we should be making entry to MLS easier for clubs that are frankly nowhere near ready for that jump. Many clubs would “like to play at a different level”, that doesn’t mean they should all do so. This isn’t the OLD NASL after all, where it seemed like all you needed was access to a stadium and some guys wearing matching uniforms in order to get into that league.

  19. What happened to the Rochester Rhinos?

    I also wonder if this is similar to what the soccer atmosphere was like in late 19th century England. Leagues growing up then folding, teams coming and going to different divisions, eventually working its way towards a unified system.

  20. Maybe the USSF feels this could potentially help develop soccer in the United States further. A league like this would also help to prepare teams who wish to become part of the MLS. Sort of a crutch to ease their way in.

  21. The Strikers are playing at the old Lockhart Stadium and the president is Tim Robbie, whose family used to own the original Strikers and an American football team called the Dolphins. This might be MLS’s future Florida franchise.

  22. Its unfortunate that I don’t have the opportunity to support 2nd division soccer here in Austin this year. Hopefully, USSF can step in and provide some leadership to allow minor league soccer to function better in the US.

    The biggest issue I see is an in unnatural growth to clubs. You have to start and immediately have $40M to be in MLS (where you will lose money), or you’re some pathetic also-ran in a league/division left adrift. It would be nice to allow some way for clubs to grow naturally without paying a toll keeper a franchise fee every time you would like to play at a different level.

  23. Do any of the other teams besides Montreal have any hope of ever moving up to MLS? Having a team in Puerto Rico or Alberta would be interesting… And of course MLS will eventually return to the southeast, but will it be in the form of any of those four teams?


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