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Chaos in the lower tiers of North American football and Irish players are caught up in it

The NASL is on the brink of collapse and its future remains unclear.

THE MLS FINAL took centre stage for the last week but there was an elephant in the room – the future of the lower tiers of North American football.

Just a few short weeks ago, the storied and iconic New York Cosmos were crowned NASL champions for the third time in four years.

The club, famous for their 1970s heyday, were the emblem for the unforgiving crash-and-burn that the domestic game in the US and Canada experienced over thirty years ago. The Cosmos, having seduced the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and earned the curiosity of a galaxy of stars, eventually took a hard fall – just like the league they played in.

American Soccer - Exhibition Match - Dallas Tornado v New York Cosmos Source: Peter Robinson

The NASL fell into disrepair and collapsed in the mid-80s. It left plenty of scars. There was no professional league in North America until Major League Soccer arrived in 1996. And many had learned their lessons. MLS would be a careful, single-entity enterprise with a litany of rules and regulations for clubs wishing to take part. The teams and players would be owned by the league, there would be a salary cap and there would be no relegation. Essentially, owing to the turbulent history football has within North America, the top-tier is heavily protected against collapse and financial turmoil.

Seen as ‘too safe’ by some, the method has clearly worked. After a difficult first few years, the league found its feet and began to grow. Now, everyone wants to join the party. It’s estimated that a new franchise would need to pay as much as $200m as an entry fee.

From an initial 10-team league in 1996, there’s now 20 with a couple more on the way over the next few years.

American Soccer - MLS - Tampa Bay Mutiny v Kansas City Wizards MLS has come a long way from its early days, when figures like Carlos Valderrama and Roberto Donadoni featured. Source: Matthew Ashton

Stable and moving in the right direction, MLS is in good health.

But there’s chaos in the tier beneath.

The NASL made a comeback in 2011 and slotted in directly beneath MLS, offering private ownership and no salary cap – essentially and pointedly separating itself entirely from the structure that served MLS so well.

The Cosmos were the most high-profile franchise the league secured. It was a well-known brand, based in a glamorous city and, as a result, able to entice some high-profile players like Raul and Marcos Senna.

For a while, it seemed to be ticking along relatively calmly. Yes, there were issues, attracting big crowds being one, the marketability of clubs being another. But 2016 seemed set to be a marquee year owing to the acquisitions of teams in Miami (co-owned by Paolo Maldini and coached by Alessandro Nesta) and Oklahoma. And, crucially it seemed, the league signed a broadcast deal with national TV station beIN Sports which meant more exposure.

Cuba Cosmos Soccer Source: Desmond Boylan

But there were alarming developments. Six of the teams failed to break the 4,000 mark for average attendance. The Cosmos was one of them. The best-supported team in the league and one of its most successful – Minnesota United – were playing its final season before jumping ship to MLS.

Once the season ended (with the Cosmos as champions), everything began to unravel. The Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Ottawa Fury decided to cut their losses and drop to the USL (United Soccer League) – the third tier of the pyramid – where overheads are less. Elsewhere, Oklahoma – the brand-new NASL side – have financial issues and aren’t expected to feature in 2017. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Jacksonville Armada are also facing into uncertainty.

And last week came the real kicker. The entire playing staff of the Cosmos had their contracts terminated and staff haven’t been paid in months. The likely outcome is mass lay-offs. Crucially, the Cosmos won’t be playing anywhere next season. Just like before, they’ve fallen hard and the environment around them is doing likewise.

There are serious questions concerning whether the NASL will still be in existence in 2017. Teams are dropping like flies and the uncertainty is not doing any favours to the league’s hopes of expanding and bringing in new franchises.

San Francisco are set to debut in NASL next term and they remain committed to doing so – it’s just that there may not be a league for them to take part in.

Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 20.01.49 James Chambers plus his trade in the USL with the Bethlehem Steel.

The USL has made the most of the chaos and lobbied to become the second tier in the North American football pyramid. Some reckon that’s a likely development.

The United States Soccer Federation will hold talks on Tuesday to determine the next step and because the NASL has fallen below the 12-team minimum, serious questions are going to be asked of what the future holds and whether it may be better to act swiftly before things get any worse.

For the Irish contingent plying their trade in the NASL, everything seems a little cloudy. Colin Falvey and Eamon Zayed were both crucial to Indy Eleven’s run to the championship final earlier this year and the franchise is incredibly well-supported and well-maintained.

Richie Ryan is in Miami – who only made their NASL debut this year – another club that’s in good health.

But it’s the overall picture that matters most and the NASL’s looks increasingly fragile.

Some franchises may also decide to drop to the USL and hedge their bets. But it’s a congested space – two conferences and a litany of clubs, including some reserve MLS sides.

There’s an Irish contingent there too. James Chambers is with Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania, Liam Miller is in Wilmington and Iarfhlaith Davoren is in Tulsa. Meanwhile, former Irish underage international James O’Connor is the coach of Louisville City.

So, chaos and confusion in the backyard of North American football. Things will become a lot clearer this week and many will be keeping a close eye on how things develop.

‘All you can do is keep going’: Cork’s Colin Falvey on his tough slog being rewarded in US

‘It was a simple decision, really – this place is going to get bigger and bigger’

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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