The rising tide of North American soccer has lifted all boats, as the old saying goes. We see it every week with sold out MLS stadiums, new stars - foreign and domestic - and a level of passion in the fanbase that rivals any league in the world.
There's been a palpable knock-on effect, experienced by both the US and Canadian national teams as well as the second and third flights of professional soccer on these shores. With that in mind, we at MLSsoccer.com are expanding our coverage of the lower tiers, beginning with this piece on the eve of the NASL's postseason.
Check back on Monday for a weekend playoff recap.
The North American Soccer League’s second regular season has come to a close, and the playoffs are set to begin. There have been plenty of talking points around the NASL this year, ranging from the groundbreaking of a new, Toyota-sponsored stadium in San Antonio to an icon of American soccer injecting life into a confidence-starved Atlanta side.
The eight-team league, from which the Montreal Impact graduated last year, were paced in 2012 by the accomplishments of the expansion San Antonio Scorpions. Even prior to the start of the season the team was commanding headlines, due to a lively fanbase and a unique partnership with a community-driven charity. Thanks to that,100 percent of the Scorpions’ profits are directed to Morgan’s Wonderland, a theme park for those with mental and physical impairments founded by club owner Gordon Hartman.
Dubbed “Soccer for a Cause,” this approach helped the Scorpions grab the attention of the local fans, and a host of sponsors soon followed. With a repeatedly sold-out stadium, a front office – steered by former FC Dallas executive Michael Hitchcock – that understands the game and a team littered with talent, they took the NASL by storm.
Finishing with a record of 13-8-7, the Scorpions won top honors as the league’s regular-season champion with 47 points, fending off a late-season surge by the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Scorpions boast former Real Salt Lake forward Pablo Campos, whose 20-goal, Golden Boot-winning campaign rewarded the team’s supporters with on-field success.
The Rowdies proved a serious threat as they surged in the second half of the season, nearly seizing the top spot in the final weekend only for a resilient Carolina Railhawks side to hold them to a draw.
Joining the first-place Scorpions and second-place Rowdies in the postseason will be the Puerto Rico Islanders, Carolilna, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and 2011's champions, the Minnesota Stars.
The Railhawks, who won the regular season title in 2011, were one of several teams who struggled out of the gate in 2012. Another were the Atlanta Silverbacks, who eventually dismissed head coach Alex Pineda Chacon and turned to former MLS and US national team star Eric Wynalda to right the ship. Riding the back of his US Open Cup success with Cal FC, Wynalda used his interim head coaching role to revamp the Atlanta club culture - inking several Cal FC players, helping choose Brian Haynes as permanent head coach, and injecting new life into the team.
Despite missing out on the playoffs, Atlanta was a different side in the second half of the season and proved themselves a formidable opponent, setting up an intriguing offseason for the club that's now in the middle of a possible rebrand, as fans have been tasked with choosing between the current "Silverbacks" moniker or resurrecting the old "Chiefs" nickname of the Atlanta entry in the first incarnation of the NASL.
Off the field, two of the biggest stories were the mid-summer announcement of the New York Cosmos as a 2013 expansion side, and the September announcement that the league would go to an Apertura/Clausura format for the 2013 season. Adopting a “split-season” format similar to LigaMX, the year will now feature a nearly month-long break in July, as well as reformatted playoffs. Potential benefits to the switch include an uninterrupted window during FIFA international dates, rest and preparation for US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League games as well as the opportunity to schedule high-profile friendly matches.
As MLS has grown, so too have North America’s second- and third-division leagues. The NASL and USL Pro are producing stars of their own, as players like Campos and Nick Zimmerman have found homes in the second division and are thriving, and polished a few diamonds in the rough such as Atlanta forward Matt Horth. There have also been productive loans for players like D.C. United's Conor Shanosky, Portland's Bright Dike, and New York's Corey Hertzog.
Round one of the playoffs begins this weekend, as the RailHawks host Fort Lauderdale at 7 pm ET on Saturday and Minnesota visit Puerto Rico on Sunday (6 pm ET). San Antonio and Tampa Bay earned an off week, slated to join the party for the semifinals.
2012 NASL regular season standings
|San Antonio Scorpions||28||13||8||7||19||47|
|Tampa Bay Rowdies||28||12||9||7||7||45|
|Puerto Rico Islanders||28||11||8||9||2||41|
|Fort Lauderdale Strikers||28||9||9||10||-6||36|
|Minnesota Stars FC||28||8||11||9||1||35|