The shifting landscape of professional and amateur leagues in American soccer is not perfect. Some players don’t have access to development academies growing up or the chance to play at strong college programs. There are a finite number of roster spots in America’s professional leagues and many players are not ready for that level of play at their first or second open tryout.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, American Soccer League founder Matt Driver promoted the league, through some media exposure, but mostly at USASA and other regional soccer conventions. In not so many words, Driver presented the ASL as the fix to what ails soccer in the United States.
During the summer of 2013, Driver spoke with soccer writer Beau Dure, who described the ASL as a novel path for American soccer that would focus on sustainability and player development. From his experience operating clubs and leagues, Driver believed he had the requisite knowledge to build a different type of developmental league.
Several former players, coaches, and general managers of teams in the ASL told me that the theory behind the league was sound. An experienced coach who worked for a year with an ASL team told me, “The premise of the league is great,” but that the operations failed to live up to Driver’s expressed goals.
The general manager of the former ASL team Rhode Island Oceaneers spoke on the record about the early days of the league. David Borts recalled, “I was at a meeting of USASA Region 1 when Matt came up there a couple years ago in the wintertime to promote his idea.”
Borts said, “I don’t think there was substantial vetting. It was just another big national league or regional league that USASA looked at. It had a good plan, paid the fees, and got approved [by the USASA]. The federation is a little bit more detailed, more substantial, and it’s a little bit more rigorous and more of a cost.”
“Matt Driver, the owner, is a very energetic guy with big ideas. I think his ideas are good. The idea of this type of league running year round [as opposed to the short-summer seasons in the NPSL or PDL], particularly as it pertains to the 18-23,24,25 year old male player, is conceptually excellent. It needs to be done,” Borts continued. “In that sense; great idea. I think Matt’s a big thinker.” A player who suited up for an ASL team before moving on to a professional league told me, “I think the league as a whole is a good idea but there are definitely things that need to be changed.”
Glaswegian-export Matt Driver previously held high level positions with the National Premier Soccer League, where he was named National Technical Director in 2010. At the time that league touted his extensive coaching licenses in the U.S., Brazil, and his native Scotland as proof that he would be successful in the technical role with the short-season summer amateur league. Driver used these same credentials to impress potential suitors at regional soccer conferences leading up to the inaugural ASL season
One only needs to examine the brief historical trajectory of the American Soccer Leagues in order to understand that reality pales in comparison to the lofty ideals espoused by the league. In early 2014, the ASL and American Professional Soccer (its proposed parent company) laid out a vision online:
“We believe the time is right to enter the American soccer scene in 2014 as the possible USSF-sanctioned third division pro league or as USASA-sanctioned professional league. Our business model resolves issues that have hindered pro leagues in the past including large travel budgets, unorganized large structure, and high entry fees.”
“Mission Statement: Operate a financially-viable, cost-effective national soccer league that delivers investors a genuine, complete, and professional organization and structure at the minor-league level.”
The presentation then holds up two quotes from former head of FIFA Sepp Blatter. The quotes show a profound ignorance on the part of Blatter, and if they are meant to advance Matt Driver’s position, perhaps illustrate an ignorance on that front as well.
Heading into the summer of 2016, the ASL is still not a professional league and appears no closer to professional sanctioning than it did prior to its first kick. Clearly the ASL’s model has not resolved the issues that plagued previous leagues, as five of the original eight teams are no longer in the league. Furthermore, two current teams (New England FC and New Hampshire Bobcats) may be facing suspension for failing to register players according to league rules.
It may unfair to judge the league today based on its preliminary aspirations published on a website that no longer exists. Ahead of the current season, the ASL updated its public mission but still falls short.
On a recent slide the league boasted, “The ASL is the only U.S. league in the country to allow a maximum of 3 foreign professional players on the field at one time, giving Americans more of an opportunity to play the game.” Players and staff from several ASL teams told me that the strict foreign limit never took place.
Another slide states, “In fact we had over 10% of the players in the league move onwards and upwards to other professional leagues here in the US or abroad in Europe or the far east.”
Some players who moved from teams in the ASL to teams in the USL, the professionally sanctioned third division league in the United States, have been forthcoming. Several of them described the level of play in the ASL as lower than that of the NPSL, PDL, and their collegiate leagues. One player worked to set up a series of trials at USL clubs, and another used personal contacts to earn a look from a team in the USL. None of the players mentioned their ASL teams assisting them, and one actually detailed persistent harassment by the ASL team attempting to dissuade him from moving on.
The ASL later claims to have a full division in the Southeastern United States; “The league has already secured teams in the following locations for 2016: Brunswick, GA; Boca Raton; Tallahassee, FL; Dothan, AL; Atlanta, GA; Decatur, AL”
As of May 2016, this proposed southeast division does not exist.
Having changed tune since the initial promotion drive, the ASL now publicly focuses on players who fell through the cracks. League CEO Matt Driver described the targeted player for the ASL in the announcement that the league was switching scheduling formats.
“The primary focus of ASL has been the development of young talent that does not make it major leagues after playing high school or college. [sic] A realignment of our scheduling and seasons will allow the ASL to become the premium league for young American professional players by aligning ourselves with the top domestic leagues.” said Driver.
The ASL has been adamant from the beginning that it would be a nominally professional league, advertising tryouts for non NCAA-compliant contracts. This means that teams would pay players for their participation and that players would forgo their eligibility to play soccer in the NCAA system.
This move separated the ASL from similarly positioned teams within the PDL or NPSL, which largely rely on local college-aged players during their short summer seasons. David Borts mentioned that fact while explaining to me in 2014 the choice to join the ASL ahead of the first season, “Another reason we chose the ASL is that the NPSL and PDL are 2-month leagues. It’s a great option for your college players and college grads, but as a business model they’re useless.” Borts said that aside from ski resorts, there aren’t many businesses that are successful only operating for a few months a year. “If you only do something for 2 months a year, how do you build a name?”
The league’s teams have largely failed to build brand recognition or fan followings. This failure comes as a very small number of individuals are involved in operating the league.
ASL founder/CEO Matt Driver owns the Philadelphia Fury and previously owned the AC Crusaders. Driver is reportedly involved in the evolving ownership group for the Delaware Copperheads (now Delaware Stars FC). League champion Icon FC’s president Greg Bajek is also the owner of the new Connecticut United FC.
Jim Antonakas owns Mass United FC and did own the failed Rhode Island Oceaneers. Antonakas now operates New England FC and New Hampshire Bobcats in addition to Mass United.
That puts just three individuals behind the ownership groups of 7 of the ASL’s 10 current teams. Sure, MLS had similar entanglements with Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt in the early years, but that precedent certainly shouldn’t be repeated by other professional or aspiring professional soccer leagues.
The ASL has not fulfilled its goals of challenging for division III sanctioning, of operating a cost-effective national league, or providing investors a professional organizational structure. The ASL has not even adhered to less lofty standards it set for itself such as limiting teams to three foreign player slots or establishing teams south of the nation’s capital.
Simply put, the American Soccer League fails to live up to its billing.