As the eyes of the North American soccer world have been fixated on the MLS labour dispute for the last few months, the NASL, a newly formed second division, has been quietly laying the ground work for the years ahead.
In their sights? Quite simply: Canada.
I was invited, along with Duane Rollins, one of the co-hosts of the It’s Called Football show, to an off-the record meeting with a high ranking NASL official a month ago.
In it, they laid out for us their aggressive plans for Canada over the next two to three years.
Six cities, two in Ontario - all in markets that have a strong soccer communities- are being targeted by the NASL.
How did we know it wasn’t some NASL flack blowing smoke up our microphones? A few days later they tipped us to two things. 1) Edmonton was about to be announced as the newest NASL franchise. My co-host, Duane Rollins, broke that on his website the 24thminute.com. And 2) they told us of a rift in the Vancouver Whitecaps front office over their move to MLS.
Two weeks after that was reported and a week after Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi came on It’s Called Football to dismiss the claims, the Caps parted ways with Residency Managing Director Thomas Neindorf. Coincidence? Maybe, but it played out exactly how the NASL source told us it would.
So what does all this mean? Well, I finally caught up with the man looking to bring the NASL to Ottawa this week and he confirmed what we had been told.
“I attended the NASL AGM last month and we are indeed looking at a franchise in the NASL,” Neil Malhotra said by phone. “We feel the community is interested and the timing is right. But, before we move forward we have to wait on the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) to make a decision on second division soccer in the States.”
Earlier this year, a group of teams split off from the USL-1 and formed a rival second division league. The USSF agreed to sanction both, putting off any final decisions until a later date.
The other name who came up in the meeting is Bob Young, owner of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger Cats. Young, who co-owns the NASL Carolina Railhawks and whose company has been contracted to re-design the NASL website, has previously expressed interest in bringing a soccer team to Hamilton and while he has declined several requests for comment, it’s all but a foregone conclusion that it’s his group behind the plans.
Calgary, Victoria, Quebec City and Winnipeg are the other cities tagged to be future NASL franchises. But those are less developed than the Ottawa and Hamilton bids.
The timing in all of this is probably the most interesting. As the MLS dances in the wind, waiting for its players to decide if they want to push their dispute to a strike, a hardcore group of soccer-first people are preparing a ground assault on the Canadian sporting landscape.
Things like proper academies, grass pitches and soccer specific stadiums have been laid out as a mandate by the NASL.
And while the NASL would never attract the Saturday afternoon soccer moms if MLS was to go on strike, the hardcore footie fans, who have long railed against MLS’ non-traditional ways, could conceivably find a home as NASL fans.