By Peter Schwartz
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The sport of soccer has never been more popular in the United States.
Our national teams have enjoyed a tremendous amount of recent success, including winning the Women’s World Cup championship this past summer. As far as Major League Soccer is concerned, fans continue to pass through the turnstiles in big numbers as the league set new attendance records last season.
But while MLS has first division status in the U.S. Soccer pyramid, it is no longer the only option for fans of the beautiful game in this country.
The modern day North American Soccer League currently has second division status in the United States, but there is no denying the rapid growth that the league has enjoyed since its re-boot in 2011.
“We’re extremely excited about it,” NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson said. “It continues to grow at a pace that is very fast but manageable. We feel really good about where we are today and we feel really good about the interest in new cities that we’re working through for the future.”
Peterson was named commissioner on Nov. 27, 2012, and brought with him an extensive soccer resume. He served as senior VP of AEG Sports and the managing director of what is now called the StubHub Center (home of the LA Galaxy) from 2000 to 2006.
He assisted in the management of a number of MLS clubs and the development of various soccer-specific stadiums across the country. Now, he’s overseeing the modern version of a league rich with history.
The original NASL was around from 1968 to 1984 and was best known for the success and popularity of the New York Cosmos, who won five Soccer Bowl championships with legendary players like Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Franz Beckenbauer.
The new NASL now has three of its franchises from the “Golden Era,” with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers on board from the start in 2011 and then joined by the Cosmos in 2013.
There have also been rumors that the Chicago Sting could be resurrected, as the league continues to enjoy a mix of old and new.
“We take a lot of pride in trying to reintroduce those clubs and some of the heroes that played back then and tell that story again,” Peterson said. “Every week I meet people who tell me that their dad took them to an NASL match back in that time.”
I fall into that category as my father took me to many Cosmos games at Giants Stadium, including Soccer Bowl 1978 when the Cosmos beat the Rowdies, 3-1. Nearly three decades after they folded in 1984, the Cosmos rejoined the new NASL and they’ve picked up where they left off with two more Soccer Bowl titles in three years.
The Cosmos were hated by fans of other teams back in the day and that is the case again today.
“We’ve revived the story, if you will,” Peterson said. “The Cosmos are one of those entities in sports in that people either love them or they hate them and that makes it fun.”
But the NASL’s continued growth is not just about the Cosmos. It’s about developing strong franchises throughout North America while providing a strong quality of play for the fans. The league currently has 12 teams, including new franchises in Miami, Oklahoma City and Puerto Rico that will debut in 2016.
There is a New York flavor to Puerto Rico FC, as the owner is Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.
“He has a great history there and is very focused on building out a great club and a great organization and doing something really special for the people down there,” Peterson said.
The league’s objective is to have 20 teams sometime in the near future. A big reason why there are ownership groups from so many cities interested in an NASL franchise, as opposed to one in MLS, is that the NASL has an attractive business model.
That model does not include a single entity structure or a salary cap, so that gives teams the freedom to build a franchise as they see fit.
“I think that the attractive part of our model is that the owners are responsible for their own success,” Peterson said. “The owners dictate what the roster is going to look like.”
The bottom line is that if the product is good, fans will show up. The NASL features a high level of soccer that has been extremely competitive. NASL teams have done well against MLS clubs in the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that includes clubs from all levels of soccer in this country.
Over the last two years, the Cosmos have beaten local MLS clubs the Red Bulls and NYCFC in U.S. Open Cup play, but could they, or any other NASL team, compete on an everyday basis in MLS? Peterson think so.
“We feel very confident that our clubs are on par with any other clubs here in this country and that we would win our fair share of matches,” Peterson said. “We think we’re only getting better and we’ll play anybody at any location anytime.”
The 2016 NASL season kicks off on April 2, with the Cosmos opening up defense of their Soccer Bowl title the next day when they host Ottawa in a championship rematch. It’s a big year for the modern day NASL as it welcomes three new franchises and looks to continue its quest towards first division status in the United States.
The league is in good hands with Peterson as commissioner. He’s already overseen tremendous growth, with more to come down the road.
Don’t forget to follow Peter on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow the North American Soccer League @naslofficial and Bill Peterson @NASLBPeterson