By FRANCO PANIZO
The past couple of weeks presented an unprecedented period of media attention for NASL, with high-profile moves such as Eric Wynalda becoming the head coach of the Atlanta Silverbacks and the New York Cosmos joining the league for the 2013 season being announced.
Those are just some of the news items that have kept NASL commissioner David Downs extremely busy. From having to travel from NASL headquarters in Miami to New York for a string of meetings with the Cosmos' ownership group, to receiving more than 600 emails in a span of few days, Downs has had his plate more than full in recent days.
Downs recently took some time away from his busy schedule to take part in an in-depth interview with SBI. The NASL commissioner touched on a wide range of topics, from the addition of the Cosmos, to further expansion, to the possibility of acquiring more MLS players on loan, and even the chances of seeing promotion and relegation between NASL and third division league USL Pro.
Here is SBI's interview with David Downs (edited for clarity and brevity):
DD: It's fair to say we've sort of been slowly but surely building our credibility and our brand image, step by step, from literally kickoff of last season to [Thursday's] great announcement. Some of the bits of news are obviously bigger than other bits, but virtually everything that's come out about our league over the last year and a half has been incredibly positive and I think that's one of the reasons why the Cosmos are so comfortable and eager, frankly, to join our league. They've been sitting on the sidelines for the last year and a half and observing what we've managed to put together and while we may be small, I think we're doing it in a very solid way and just about everything that's happening, whether it's Wynalda coming into the league, whether it's the fact that at the end of last season we put an entire team (Montreal Impact), a head coach from Carolina and nine percent of our players into MLS, or whatever the news is. But it always seems that we're doing it right even if we're doing it slowly and steadily and cautiously.
It's really obvious to me not only is it flattering to us to have them want to be part of our league, but they are going to bring so much to our league. Whether it's their recognition globally of their fantastic brand to just having another real rock-solid, deep-pockets ownership group that can kind of steer us on the steady course if there are tough times ahead to the tremendous vision that they have as a sports management company. A lot of those things are real positives for the league, not just the name being in the league, not just another question.
SBI: The league has a more firm footing now than a couple of years ago when things were a bit shaky. What has changed over the past two years?
DD: I think our model is slowly but surely starting to work. Even though we lost a team, Montreal, up to MLS, and they were averaging over 11,000 fans a game, our attendance is fractionally up because San Antonio has done such a marvelous job filling Montreal's shoes and our individual teams are generally up, the seven returning teams are up against last season, so that's been solid. I think our sanctioning has been solid and every day that goes by, it becomes more and more evident what it means to be a second division in the United States versus a first or a third or whatever, but I think there's less confusion out there.
As you alluded to, there was a bit of a rocky start with the on and off again sanctioning, with some of the back and forth comments between the teams that broke away from USL and the USL administration, so it's good to get that behind us. And every day that we produce plays of the week and players of the month and standings and goals and so on, is another week where we become more and more of a fixture in the American soccer landscape and that's what it's all about. The more that we can provide that environment of legitimacy and solidity to this level of soccer, the more attractive it's going to be to bring in other teams and the opportunity is there for us.
MLS is going very carefully to find that 20th team and it's a big price tag and it's a very important piece of their growth strategy and they're going to make sure they do it exactly right. But in the mean time, there are probably eight or nine cities in the top 30 cities in the United States, population wise, that don't have professional soccer above the fourth division level. And that's going to be a tremendous opportunity for us to move into those markets and provide that service.
The Cosmos are unique in that they are technically in a television market that already has an MLS team, but the fact that New York is such an enormous market, I don't think anybody, including MLS, ever doubted that New York could support two teams. But there's so many fantastic cities in America that have an ability to support a team and we'd be proud to be the top of the soccer pyramid in those markets, too. I think that's our opportunity, bringing the Cosmos in only makes that opportunity more vivid and real for the cities that are considering it and the ownerships that considering it, so it's all good, I guess. I know it's a long-winded answer, I know.
SBI: How long had you guys been in talks with the Cosmos about the possibility of joining NASL?
DD: The reality is Aaron [Davidson] was talking to the Cosmos before I even joined the league a year ago at the end of March, but that was with the previous administration of the Cosmos. It pre-dates both my tenure and the current Cosmos' ownership, so it's a really long time. And like any of these things, the one thing that these discussions are not, it's not like watching a software download on your computer. There's no bar that says '28 percent complete, three minutes and 11 seconds remaining.' It's one of these things where you think you're almost there and then something happens and seems like two, three months drag on and then you think you're almost there again and then suddenly you are there.
This has been a classic case of two years-plus in the making and moments where we didn't think there was a chance of it going right and moments where we thought we were ready to announce the next day and nothing happened. We've got that kind of pipeline going with four or five other people right now and it's frustrating for me not to be able to announce and say 'Yeah, this will be announced in a week, that will be announced in two weeks and that'll be announced in three weeks.' It just doesn't work that way.
SBI: There is a lot of talk about where the Cosmos will play next season, is there any word as to what will be the site of their home games?
DD: The official answer is that they are not ready to make an announcement, so we're certainly not going to spill the beans and make an announcement for them. But just to set the record straight, they do have options that are completely known and approved by us. It's not as if we let them in the league without knowing if they could have a place to play. That's the technicality, but we're not comfortable until they're comfortable saying where they think they're headed. They are very far along and it should be more a matter of days and weeks than months before that's announced. We're happy for that and I think it will work well.
SBI: You said you can't say where, but the press release the league sent out said a record number of ownership groups had presented expansion team plans during your recent meetings in New York. How many did you hear and how much expansion are you looking at for the coming years?
DD: The door isn't shut yet on another team or even two teams, I suppose, joining between now and the start of the 2013 season. But the door is rapidly closing on that because unless the team is an existing team that is merely saying 'We're not playing in league X, we're playing in league Y,' you probably wouldn't advise the team to start from scratch this late in the year.
But we have, I would say, advanced discussions with six or seven groups that are targeting either 2013 or 2014. One of them I can say, if only because they themselves put out a press release and announced they were applying for us, that's the San Diego Flash from the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League). San Diego is obviously a great market and one of our strategies is to move the league out farther into the western part of the United States. Adding the Cosmos obviously adds greater national relevance and helps us balance out a map. We didn't have a team in the northeast other than Ottawa coming in in two year's time, but obviously another high priority for us is to get out west so San Diego makes an awful lot of sense in that regard.
SBI: The press release also said some "possible changes to the league's competiton structure for upcoming seasons" were discussed. What where some of the ideas thrown around?
DD: We didn't enact any changes, but we had a committee of experts study everything from player movement to annual operating budgets, you name it, of virtually every kind of scheduled format that's out there. We've talked about the European calendar and whether that makes sense. We've talked about what a number of teams in Latin America do, which is in effect two seasons in one and does that make sense. And we've talked about staying the way we are, and we've talked about staying the way we are but spreading the games out over a longer period of time. You know there's a lot of sentiment in U.S. Soccer that everybody's season is too short, including MLS's. And of course ours is probably a month shorter than MLS's, a couple weeks on one end and three weeks on the other depending on who is in the playoffs and so on.
All those things were discussed and analyzed and presented not in a recommendation format so much as in a just what do other people do, what impact would it have on us if we did it, what does anybody think about that. Essentialy, doing our due diligence. We might possibly enact something before the start of next season, we might not. One of the things I'm pretty proud of is we came back with the exact same 28-game schedule, everybody plays everybody four times and we have the exact same playoff format. I think if nothing else, consistency is a good thing for soccer fans.
Having said that, if we line up with nine teams next year, in order for everybody to play everybody else four times, now it's a 32-game schedule and not a 28-game schedule and what are the ramifications of that. Should we have some of our teams that are more logical rivals play each other four times but others play only three. Those are the kind of things we're looking at, nothing too wacky. Other people do it other ways.
One other thing that is interesting is that although we do have a team in Edmonton, and it's awful cold there in February and awful cold there in November, a lot of our teams are in very warm weather cities and the games in July, unless they're really special games like Tampa had a wonderful game, I think a record crowd actually for their July 4 game against the Strikers, but it can be kind of hot in Tampa in July. A lot of these things are under consideration, including how many times every team should play everybody else and what impact that it has on the travel costs, all that sort of stuff.
SBI: Promotion and relegation are talked about a lot by fans and media alike. What is NASL's current relationship with USL Pro? They are expanding themselves. Is it possible for promotion-relegation between you two down the road?
DD: One of the things that happened in the course of the break up of the USL second and third division was that USSF initiated these team ownership standards that distinguish between second division and third division. The USL teams chose to go to third division because they couldn't meet the criteria or chose not to meet the criteria because they didn't believe in them or whatever, I don't honestly know the reasonss why everybody made their individual decision. But the point is they made that decision.
That makes it kind of hard to have a promotion and relegation order between the two leagues, where the teams are jumping from third to second and second to third because not every team that got promoted would meet the qualifications. I don't think that's realistic from that practical standpoint. I think it's also fair to say also that while we have an exceedingly good, cordial, positive relationship, where we're speaking openly and honestly with each other in various board meetings where we're both participating in the same committee on the USSF level or whatever, that's fine. But I wouldn't say that we're in active discussions with USL to try and figure out how to put the two leagues together. I think that's not been the case.
You touched on MLS for a second and the reality is we've had discussions ongoing for almost a year now on a very serious level about things our two leagues can do, either officially or unofficially, to improve the development of young aspiring professionals in the United States. We believe a strong division 2 will benefit the sport in general in the United States and we also believe there are players right now who are on MLS rosters who are primarily playing in their reserve league, which is only 10 games a year, and really not getting significant minutes in MLS.
We think those players would probably be better soccer players if there was a way they could be playing on our rosters. Some of them do, on loan. Conor Shanosky is playing 90 minutes a game practically for the Strikers on loan from D.C. United. That's a great example of how that works. We've had some loan players come down and not even hold down jobs in our league, so obviously that didn't work. But I think in general we think there's got to be a solution that's beneficial to everybody, beneficial to MLS and their role in development, beneficial to us in putting better players on the field and challenging our existing players more, beneficial to the players by giving them minutes in a real environment.
I said it the other day, it's better for a 21-year-old aspiring professional to play 90 minutes for the Carolina RailHawks in front of 5,000 people in a meaninful game against real men than playing in a reserve game. Some people will argue I'm wrong about that, but I believe that to be the case.
We'd love to come up with something that our teams can do to be part of that solution to that problem because we believe that is our other mission. We have one mission with U.S. Soccer and that is to fill out the map of the United States, to bring professional soccer to cites that don't have it at a high level right now, and we can be a very useful organization that way.
We should be able to be a useful organization in grooming players as well. Last year, we managed to give 35 percent of our playing minutes to players aged 23 and under but I don't think it's that impressive a statistic if you go to 21 and under. I'd love to change that. That might require changing NCAA elibility rules, it might require a lot of things to ever have that really work. But you just kind of think it ought to be able to work, right?
SBI: We asked you about this last year. Orlando City is a team that has people talking and last year you said you would not mind in having them come up but that they weren't interested at the time. Has that changed?
DD: We have not had any discussion with Phil Rawlins and Orlando since the announcement of the Cosmos (Thursday). I think I've bumped into him on two or three occasions since the season ended last year. And he knows who we are and what we're doing and we know that they're doing a terrific job in their league and absolutely have the quality to play at a higher level but I think that's kind of their call.
If they're genuinely interested in playing in our league, they know where to reach us. We're not going to hound them on it, but I would say that they and a couple other teams in USL Pro that seem to be doing really, really well. And that's interesting to us, but we're also respectful of the fact that they're in a league and chose to be in that league and we'll wish them well in that league until such time they were to pick up the phone and say 'Are there any openings?'
SBI: Going back to loans between MLS and NASL, we've seen more of that this year than last. But why is there not more of that? It seems simple enough to send players down for a couple of months and then bring them back.
DD: I don't know for a fact why there's not more of them. I think you're probably right. Between last year and this year, the averages, we typically have probably somewhere between five and ten players total around our entire league on loan. One reason may be because our geogrpahically compatibility isn't all that great. MLS has no teams in the Southeast, we have more teams in the Southeast than anywhere else, so maybe coaches are reluctant to loan players away thousands of miles away from home. They'd be more comfortable if they were sending them to a team 50 miles away where they can occasionally see his progress or something like that.
I know in general the reluctance of some MLS coaches to loan out players is because they're fearful the player won't be played in exactly the right system or he won't be given the right minutes under the right conditions. I wonder about the validity of that argument. You certainly see in Europe a coach is willing to loan a player that they spent $5 million on the transfer market to get out to a lower division club of another country all the time. It doesn't hurt Arsenal, it doesn't hurt Barcelona to do it, so it shouldn't hurt the Chicago Fire to loan a guy out.
But I do think that some of the coaches just don't like giving up control of the player and not knowing if he's starting every night, not knowing what he does in practice, all that sort of stuff. I'd like to think the more we play, the more our games seem to be meaningful, the bigger our crowds are and the tougher the competition is, I think the more and more the coaches will realize it still probably does beat the heck out letting them play a reserve game once a month.
SBI: MLS has said they want to put a cap on expansion at some point. NASL has eight right now with more on the way. Is there a cap that you guys are trying to put on the league?
DD: I don't think that's the case, but I do think its fair to say that we have aspirations to be a truly national league and we don't ever want to be four small regional leagues with an end of season playoffs to link us together. We would want to be in San Diego, in Edmonton, in New York, in San Juan, in Florida, in Texas, whatever, and all those teams play each other. Because of that we need strong ownership groups and finding them takes some time and so I will say that you're going to see our league grow at the pace of two teams a year for the next five, six years and settle in at a number somewhere between 18, 20, 22 and not try to go much beyond that because then you really would be forced to break into a series of regional leagues where teams didn't all play one another.
Maybe in the long run that will be the plan, but at the moment that's not the plan. Right now, we sort of say if we can hit 18 teams by 2018 and 20 teams by 2020, those have a nice ring to it.