It's been a rough couple of months for the USA's second division. After having just lost the San Antonio Scorpions, we now learn that Atlanta Silverbacks are done. The Silverbacks have been without owners for more than a year and were run by the league in 2015. With no no ownership group coming forward, the league has decided to close the doors on the club that has been around since 1998.
The reason Silverbacks failed was the lack of an ownership group and the lack of anyone willing to step up and take them over. The reason nobody wants them is Atlanta United, MLS's expansion club backed by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. They start play in 2017 and I can't imagine anybody wanting to take over a minor league franchise when a major league one with a shipload of money is on its way in.
What madman would want to take over a franchise who is competing with one with more 26,000 season ticket deposits sold before they even really exist? Why would anyone want to take on that losing battle?
The Scorpions were simply bought out by a rich basketball team team with aspirations of breaking into the MLS cartel.
This speaks a lot to the current state of lower division soccer in the United States and how much power MLS really has. Their money has successfully killed two lower division clubs this winter alone. If David Beckham's Miami project ever comes together, Miami FC will surely be next on the list. Minnesota United, while not disbanding like Atlanta and San Antonio, are on their way up to MLS thanks to the lure of larger profits. Add those to the last failure in Puerto Rico and Montreal Impact bolting after one season for MLS, and you get a league that is nothing more than either a stepping stone for clubs with more ambition or a test dummy for MLS to find new markets.
NASL has long been a contentious league in American soccer. It popped up in 2011 as a professional alternative to MLS. It calls itself second division, although that doesn't exactly mean anything. They aspire to achieve arbitrary "first division" status, but losing franchises is a sign that they certainly aren't ready for that, regardless of US Soccer's wacky requirements for it.
I like the concept of NASL. They align more to the world's vision of how to run a soccer league as compared to MLS and their single entity structure. They are advocates of promotion/relegation eventually making it's way to the USA. But they just don't have the money to compete with the big wigs in American soccer like they want to. With soccer's current level of popularity, their business model just doesn't work for a minor league, let alone one looking to upset the status quo up top.
What's the solution? It might very well be promotion/relegation. The USA hasn't been able to hold down clubs any better than NASL has, so the two of them can merge and develop a promotion relegation scheme between them, possibly even going so far as to include amateur clubs in the PDL and NPSL to create a four tiered pyramid.
The system will take ages to become favored by the growing contingent of MLS owners, but with the lower divisions in a constant state of flux, being able to sort the clubs out on the field will help with stability. A successful club that wins and gains strong fan support will be able to stay afloat in the higher division. The weak clubs who either can't garner that support and/or success will drop down and get replaced by ones who can perform well both on and off the pitch.
In time (probably a lot of time), perhaps MLS would be able to join in on the fun and use it to populate itself with clubs who already have strong, organic fan support.
But for the here and now, NASL needs to abandon their delusions of becoming a top division league and concentrate on settling themselves down. The NASL may have wild ambitions of competing with MLS, but in 2016, their three steps forward are accompanied by taking two back. That's not something you want from a league at any level, but especially not the top one.