There appeared to be a fresh start when Bill Peterson took over as league commissioner in 2013. Peterson saw Downs keep it local mentality as too reserved. He believed that the NASLs structure (no salary cap and a lower expansion fee to join the league) primed it to one day overthrow Major League Soccer at the top of the pyramid. Peterson joined the league at the same time as the Cosmos, and the NASL became a more brash organization, earning the nickname US soccers wild child from this very publication.
While the league has almost always been defined by its backroom drama, its impossible to deny the role it has served in developing talent. Players that have slipped through the cracks at the top flight have found a chance to forge a professional career at a livable wage. Players like Miguel Ibarra, Faf Picault, and Haji Wright leveraged their success into international contracts (at Club Leon, FC St Pauli, and Schalke 04, respectively), with Ibarra even cracking Jrgen Klinsmanns USMNT rosters. Christian Ramirez and Brent Kallman moved with Minnesota into MLS, becoming respected starters. A current wave of talent headlined by Nazmi Albadawi, Stefano Pinho, and Jack Blake seem destined for shots in the top-flight, as well.
That wasnt enough for Peterson, however. In his eyes, the league needed to keep up with the Beckham Rule and acquire stars of their own. The Cosmos (possibly still the most globally recognizable brand in US soccer) were reborn and played Manchester United in Paul Scholes testimonial at Old Trafford in 2011. Launching competitively in 2013, they acquired Spanish midfielder Marcos Senna from Villarreal, and paired him with Real Madrid legend Ral the next season. The duo were the first marquee attractions for the league, and would later be joined in the NASL by the likes of Joe Cole, Niko Kranjar, and Georgios Samaras.
With bigger stars, the league believed their usual size of 10-12 teams wasnt enough. Citing the low entry fees (it cost around $10m to get a franchise into the NASL as opposed to $150m for MLS) Peterson boasted frequently of the possibility of rapid expansion. Infamously, he told Sports Illustrated that there were 40 groups in talks to join the league last summer, in the midst of two sides jumping ship for USL. This desire for rapid expansion sometimes meant less-than-watertight vetting for ownership groups.
The league saw three teams join its ranks ahead of the 2016 season. One, Puerto Rico FC, was fronted by NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony, joining in the second half of the leagues split-season schedule. The second, Rayo OKC, was a puzzling case. Owned by then-La Liga side Rayo Vallecano as a brand-placement in the US, the side joined a relatively small market in Oklahoma, which already housed the USLs OKC Energy. The Spanish ownership seldom focused on Rayo OKC, leaving the local ownership to revolt, with one member taking 60% of their stadiums turf with him on the way out. Not only did OKC fold after one year, but Vallecano were relegated that very season.
The third, however, proved to be the biggest wild card in league history. Miami FC became the fourth Florida side in the 12-team league, and floundered in the first half of the year. Coached by Alessandro Nesta, owners Paolo Maldini and Riccardo Silva were unimpressed by the clubs early results. They opened their pockets, spending $750,000 to bring in NASL Best XI midfielder Richie Ryan and $700,000 to lure Kwadwo Poku from NYC FC. The spending continued, and Miami FC became the second big-budget franchise in the league, rivaling the Cosmos.
Very few clubs existed in the league without upheaval. The San Antonio Scorpions were purchased by the local Spurs owners and reassigned to USL. The Atlanta Silverbacks folded after 2015, with the city on the brink of hosting MLS Atlanta United. The once-stable Strikers were purchased by a Brazilian group led by Ronaldo, but by 2016 were caught failing to pay their players on time and folded that same season. The San Francisco Deltas are likely to have come and gone in one season, with owners calling out fans publicly to increase attendance in the face of ticket prices ranging from $34-$124.
Still, the sporting side of the league continued to produce promising talent. On the sidelines, the Cosmos were led to three titles (and a possible fourth this weekend) by Giovanni Savarese. The manager has been linked to former MLS vacancies in Houston, Minnesota, and New England and seems poised to get a chance sometime soon. Likewise, his rival this weekend, Marc Dos Santos, is seen as a rising star in the US coaching ranks, having led Ottawa Fury side to the final in 2015 and the Deltas to the championship game despite their off-field troubles.
The most notable successes come from some of the leagues least revered cities. North Carolina FC (ne the RailHawks) formed a successful academy that hosted Albadawi and Nick Taitague, who now plays for Schalke. They put in a bid for MLS expansion alongside league rivals Indy Eleven. Indy was founded by Peter Wilt, who took a market known for a love of the NFL and racing and created a fanatic supporters culture. 2015 expansion side Jacksonville Armada are now led by president Nathan Walter (a former West Brom academy coach and scout) and Mark Lowry, a fellow Brit. In a league that boasts Savarese and Dos Santos, its Lowry who may be the best among the ranks.
Still, the recent court rulings have stripped the NASL of its second-division sanctioning, and many clubs are poised to leave the league in its grave. North Carolina has agreed to head to USL, while the rest are set to decide between USL and Wilts forthcoming new league, NISA. The Cosmos and Miami FC appear too pricey to join the USLs relatively-tight pocketed structure, and would be wise to try and continue their relevance in major markets in a more open league.
Whatever the fate may be for these sides, the past seven years have provided not only tantalizing football, but some remarkable backroom dealings for club and league alike. As the leagues two most successful managers take the helm on Sunday, they may be dealing with more than Xs and Os. They very well may create the final image of the short, but memorable existence of the NASL.