What conclusions can I draw from watching one full NASL match? Quite a few apparently…
On Sunday afternoon I took the time to watch the full 90 minutes between the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and FC Edmonton. After watching Tottenham Hotspur squeak out their first win at home this season in the morning and grabbing lunch off campus but before I started reading for my Monday classes, I was able to watch the whole NASL match. Previously this season I had only caught a few minutes here or there of NASL action in addition to seeing the weekly highlights show on YouTube. I was initially blown away by the product on the field.
During the USL-Pro season I attended all Rhinos’ home games and tried to watch every away game on U-Nation’s streaming service. I also watched all of the United States’ and Mexico’s international matches and the Euro Tournament. Now that fall is upon us, I watch college soccer (both my own school and nationally ranked division I colleges on television), Mexican league and cup games, and a fair share of European club soccer. During this whole time I’ve been watching every Red Bulls’ game and a number of other MLS matches of national significance. The point is I watch a good deal of soccer and NASL ranks pretty highly in that pantheon.
I’m not arguing that NASL is the end-all be-all for American soccer; that’d be silly. MLS clearly operates at a higher level on and off the field, but the style of play utilized by many teams in NASL is very promising. Watching this NASL game, between 5th placed Fort Lauderdale and 8th placed (out of 8 teams) Edmonton, I observed a more exciting brand of soccer than the average MLS match exhibits. Several MLS clubs boast world class players like Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Fredy Montero, but as a whole this NASL game had a much more attacking feel than an average MLS game.
NASL vs USL-Pro, Miles Ahead?
And then there is the comparison with USL-Pro. While USL has a few “marquee” clubs (Orlando, Rochester, Charleston, recently Wilmington), the style of play is still closer to that of NCAA than MLS. When minor league soccer clubs separated into what are now NASL and USL-Pro, there wasn’t much of a gap in talent; that difference is now apparent. USL clubs like to sit back and play long balls over the top. NASL clubs knock the ball around more and look to spring players with smart diagonal through balls on the ground. With the exception of Orlando City, which is an outlier in almost any discussion on American soccer, USL-Pro clubs can not afford to play an intelligent possession game at pace because several players lack the technical ability to take a pass in stride, control the ball at speed, or play an accurate pass without breaking the flow of an attack.
The players in this NASL match between Fort Lauderdale and Edmonton had that technical ability to keep up with the high pace of the game. I can speak to Rochester Rhinos’ more talented players having to play down to the ability of their teammates in order to keep a consistent level of play. Bearing down to the lowest common denominator in Rochester’s midfield is a waste of the skill on the team and makes for boring games. Even though my NASL sample size is considerably small, there were not any obvious weak links on either team that broke the flow of play.
The individual skill of players in terms of quick feet, creativity, and fearlessness, made every 1 v 1 battle interesting anywhere on the field. The pace of the game provided seemingly constant end to end excitement. However, the odd skipping bounce off the artificial surface or momentary lapse by a defender meant that any rush up the field could result in a goal. All in all, NASL is a very entertaining brand of soccer to watch.
My team, the Rochester Rhinos, had a decent squad by all accounts in the 2012 season. However, the lack of depth beyond the starting 11 hurt the club deeply. Beyond the squad limitations of playing in the third division of American soccer, were the scheduling conflicts in which USL teams often played back-to-back games or two games in three nights. These horrors of fixture congestion precipitated more lower body injuries and the lack of quality back up players crippled the Rhinos in clutch situations.
NASL clubs, as a general rule, don’t suffer as much from either of these problems. There were only a few occasions in the 2012 regular season schedule in which an NASL club played 3 games 8 days and there was never an occurrence of 2 games in 3 nights. If a team played a game on Wednesday, they would have played on Saturday the previous weekend. Likewise, if a team played on a Thursday night, they would play Sunday the following weekend instead of having to play on Saturday (a two games in three nights situation). Similarly, several players on Fort Lauderdale’s matchday squad on Sunday afternoon were not first choice players. The Strikers begin their play off quest next week so their coach chose to rest a handful of players. Fort Lauderdale, as a mid-table team, has enough depth to compete in their league with second choice and fringe players.
Hats off to Edmonton
The grandstand finish to the match, two goals on either side of full time by FC Edmonton, typifies the exciting brand of soccer on display in NASL. Playing in their last match of the 2012 season, despite having been eliminated from the playoff race weeks ago, FC Edmonton players were determined to give something back to their fans. That kind of passion was sorely lacking from my team, USL’s Rochester Rhinos, this season.
Aside from the product on the field, the pre-game, half-time, and post-game shows conducted by Steve Sandor and Gareth Hampshire were worth watching. The two match commentators asked insightful questions of the coaches and players from both teams that required knowledge of the game and some research into each team’s season. The video quality of the stream provided by U-Stream was high and the production crew in Edmonton had several camera angles to cover replays of important match events.
This post wasn’t supposed to bash USL-Pro, but rather point out some of the several positives I’ve found in NASL. I know one match may not be enough to judge the whole of a league, but NASL’s extensive series of highlight videos for each game have provided a library of attacking plays and a creative variety of goal scoring exploits for me to observe. NASL produces exciting soccer on the field and has a reliable method to deliver that product to its fans. The league, its coaches, and its players deserve a round of applause for creating their own brand of soccer which is independent of MLS and many steps above USL-Pro.