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NASL's place in an increasingly crowded U.S. soccer landscape

Last Saturday, I attended two professional soccer matches in the New York area.

The first was the New York Red Bulls II's debut home game in the United Soccer League (USL) vs. the Rochester Rhinos at Red Bull Arena. The second, a few hours later, was the second-ever Major League Soccer home game for New York City FC as they faced off against Sporting Kansas City at Yankee Stadium.

Neither game was particularly memorable. The Red Bulls game was chiefly notable for a missed Leo Stolz penalty and the laudable, if slightly pathetic, efforts of the handful of supporters behind each goal to taunt their opposite numbers. Seated in the press seats at the halfway line, I was tempted to offer my services as a go-between to inform each party that the other group couldn't hear them "singing over there" considering I wasn't convinced their voices would carry.

Meanwhile, the NYCFC game had a perfectly decent crowd of 27,545. But a combination of injuries, international absences and the bitter cold that descended on the city as darkness fell meant there wasn't a lot for them to cheer about. Ike Opara put Sporting KC up early and Benny Feilhaber helped the visitors dominate the midfield for the rest of the game, as New York fell to their first defeat.

Nonetheless, these were small historic milestones in New York soccer history and I was glad I got to witness them. I also idly wondered when the New York Cosmos, the city's other professional team and one whose sense of deadpan timing in irritating MLS is becoming a kind of comic trope in the city, would make their next move.

We didn't have to wait long.

New York City's spectacular home opener on March 15 was followed a day later by the Cosmos officially announcing their plans to play in Cuba this June, an occasion that involved Cosmos chairman Seamus O'Brien claiming not to spend "a moment of the day worrying about what [MLS is] doing." Most recently, the Red Bulls reserves debuted the New York version of the MLS/USL axis, which was followed by the Cosmos announcing the signing of USA U-17 prospect Haji Wright.

Raul and his New York Cosmos have been making headlines, most notably by recruiting LA Galaxy academy product Haji Wright.

The Wright signing is a significant one for the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League (NASL) -- more of which in a moment. But in the bigger picture, the NASL is heading into its fifth season (starting this weekend) in as publicly bullish a mood as ever. Yet, it is currently dealing with the backhanded compliment of MLS not only trying to outflank their position, but actively encroaching on it.

The most obvious example of this is the defection of Minnesota United and NASL's briefly iconic delegate to the U.S. national team, Miguel Ibarra, to MLS. The territorial lines had already been crossed, though, when Arthur Blank's Atlanta expansion team was announced in 2014 in the backyard of the NASL's struggling Silverbacks.

But the strategic ties between MLS and USL, respectively the first and third divisions either side of the NASL within the U.S. Soccer ecosystem -- don't call it a pyramid in mixed-division company -- have in themselves been a clear statement of intent about how MLS wishes to consolidate its favored position under the U.S. Soccer Federation.

USL's rebrand, following the addition of a plethora of MLS II teams, has seen that league embrace a position as a feeder/developmental league for MLS while its leadership muse publicly about applying for second-division status.

The problem with these "divisions," of course, is that there is no independent sporting process for moving between them. In other countries that mechanism would be promotion/relegation, but that appears to be not just sporting but ideological anathema to MLS, with the single-entity model predicated on stability and control.

The deal with USL to field MLS second teams there offers several benefits for the latter. One key is that it allows MLS to legislate for a path that developmentally links its own academies to its first teams, validating the former while ultimately being a talent pipeline to the latter that protects owners' original investments in youth development. It also creates an alternative to the collegiate route. And, with the shortcomings of the college system ever more apparent year on year, this is a strategically important bridge.

It also just so happens to structurally sideline NASL, which is why the Wright signing is so symbolic for them -- and why commissioner Bill Peterson cited the player in his state of the league remarks to media on Wednesday.

Wright is a player whose goals and assists have helped guide the U.S. U-17s to this summer's World Cup. He is widely expected to go to Europe when he turns 18 next year, probably to Bundesliga side Schalke 04, where he was a "guest player" last summer and where his new Cosmos teammate Raul ended his European career. But for him to leave the LA Galaxy academy that shaped him and to come to the Cosmos, for however long, represents a coup for the NASL side, and Peterson was happy to emphasize that when I asked him about it.

"This is a statement about how we're structured as a league and that structure is very similar to most, if not all, leagues around the world where the players truly are free agents," he said. "So for a young player like Haji and others, they can come into this league and know that they've just entered the global soccer economy and know that they're in control of their destiny..."

And as for what that destiny might be, Peterson drew an implicit comparison with MLS's recent baby steps into limited free agency.

"At the end of that contract he's going to be able to go back out on the market and test his value on the market."

Minnesota United is perhaps the NASL's greatest success story, but now the club is leaving the league for a place in MLS.

While Peterson was reluctant to be drawn into a direct comparison with MLS, he did offer that, "We believe it's maybe a better model from a player development standpoint because it gives them more opportunity to control their own destiny ..."

Of course, one young player diverting his path through NASL -- and through the exceptional club that is the Cosmos, at that -- does not in itself represent a trend for the league to console itself with as it navigates the perilous waters of its early years. But Peterson's comments about entering the global soccer economy echo the tone of the Cosmos' Cuba announcement, which returned repeatedly to the number of countries the team had historically played in.

The NASL is being squeezed by MLS on one side and USL on another, and arguably the federation from above as well, at least with the current lack of a clear definition regarding the purpose of divisional statuses. Yet there's certainly an argument that one of the remaining unique selling points for NASL's free-market model is its potential ease of integration with the global market, compared to the ongoing frictions and difficulties of the protectionist MLS model.

Not that the free-market model doesn't present its own dangers for NASL; Minnesota's exploration of their free-market options led them right to an MLS expansion bid. No amount of spin from NASL about this representing some sort of validation for the league could disguise the fact that that "success" was acknowledged through gritted teeth.

And beyond that, as all three domestic leagues announce multi-territory broadcast deals, sponsorship initiatives and other hallmarks of competitive success beyond the field over the last few weeks, the truth is that none of them are yet in the position where they can afford to become too distracted by the progress of the others. The domestic TV market for the sport is growing but still small compared to the appetite for the imported versions. It's smaller still when compared to the big four sports.

It's not that the arguments and models being tested and contested aren't important in shaping the future of the game in the U.S., but there are surely bigger and more-pressing challenges than sibling rivalry for all concerned -- challenges that might currently make the expressions of that rivalry an unaffordable luxury.

After all, I may have been at two games on Saturday, but New York's hardly unique in soccer not being the only game in town.

Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.


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