Saturday night marked the opening of the new North American Soccer League, re-launched, re-branded and re-positioned as the second tier of professional soccer for the US. The league features eight teams, half of which are based in the southeastern states (Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa Bay & Carolina), offering the area a chance of repairing its, perhaps unfair, poor reputation for soccer-supporting.
Looking at a map of MLS teams (this is from 2009, but only omits Portland and Vancouver in the north-west) it is clear to see the extent of the vacuum professional soccer suffers in the south-east. From Atlanta, it is over 600 miles in every direction before you come into contact with a team; DC United being the closest at the end of a mere 10 ½ hour roadtrip. However, that’s not to say there is no interest in football and the challenge for fans eager for an MLS team, will be to prove the interest is strong enough. One key step towards that goal will be how successful the NASL proves to be. So how did the opening weekend fare?
Florida has provided top level teams in the past and briefly had two MLS teams, Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, but both folded with league contraction in 2001. FC Tampa Bay is a relatively new team, but has attempted to acquire the Rowdies moniker (legal wrangling continues apace) and bear a strong visual resemblance to the original NASL team, using the green and yellow horizontal stripes. Tampa won their opening game against future MLS franchisees Montreal Impact, with an impressive 4,161 attendees.
Another Floridian team tapping into their rich NASL history is the new Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a rebranded Miami FC team, who wear the famous red and yellow striped kit (Florida loves stripes) once worn by players like George Best and Gerd Müller. Despite losing 2-1 to FC Edmonton, the Strikers pulled in a good crowd of 6,402 spectators.
The Carolina Railhawks are based out of Cary, NC (close to Raleigh) and suffered a two-hour game delay due to thunderstorms and torrential rain. Despite this, the attendance of 2,106 soaked souls was in line with previous years’ crowds, from their seasons in the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and USSF Division 2. The Railhawks succumbed to a last minute goal and lost 2-1 to the Puerto Rico Islanders.
Finally, the Atlanta Silverbacks returned from a two-year hiatus and received a good welcome back from 3,543 fans as they played out a 2-1 loss to NSC Minnesota Stars (unfortunately also giving up a last-minute winner). I attended this game and was impressed by the Silverbacks’ level of play. The emphasis was on quick-passing, possession play, and for a new team who haven’t played together much, there were a lot of positives. In particular, captain Lucas Paulini dictated a lot of the midfield play and left-back Mario Pérez looked bright when given the license to get down the wing.
It’s also worth noting that the USL PRO League, which represents the third tier of the US Soccer pyramid, features five southeastern teams and have had some impressive crowds there, too. Notably, Charleston Battery attracted 4,083 for their 1-0 win against Charlotte Eagles on Saturday and Orlando City’s first home win, the same night, drew an impressive 7,933 crowd.
Overall it was an encouraging opening weekend for NASL, but of course the true test of its popularity will be attendances during the season, especially in a few months time after the initial excitement subsides. Optimistically, based solely on these first games, there appears to be a strong appetite and interest in returning professional football to the region.
I’ll continue to check in with the NASL and USL leagues during the season as both push to become solidified parts of the burgeoning US football pyramid. If you have suggestions, or wish to submit match reports please contact me at daveev4ns[at]gmail.com.