The One Where I Watched an NASL Game

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.


12 thoughts on “The One Where I Watched an NASL Game

  1. I’ve watched a ton of full NASL games this season and last, and 1000% agree with what your saying. I also watch MLS ,European and Latin American clubs as often as I can.
    I’ve been a season ticket holder of the Rhino’s since the late 90’s , and the product of 2012 is just so terribly disappointing. Also watching NASL games online vs USL-Pro games, again no comparison….the NASL just has much higher production values, from the stream to weekly highlights,etc . I take my hat off to NASL for establishing such a quality product in just a few years of play.
    The style of play I’ve seen from our league (USL-Pro) leaves much to be desired, with the exception of Orlando as you also pointed out.
    And our extremely shortened season to save $$$ will hurt us in the years to come….come on, 7-8 months without outdoor soccer?…..out of sight,out of mind in my opinion…naysayers complained about the long MLS season , and they’ve grown each year. I believe the NASL will grow slowly keeping their season longer by a month or 2 and delivering a quality product on the field.
    Funny, I watched the Railhawks play this past Saturday night to a real crowd of about 7k in late September. Earlier in the day, a local radio show continued slamming the NASL ‘s 500 fans in Ft.Lauderdale , new split season format ,saying the season was too long and should be shorter ( I guess he suggested 10 home games for American lower levels to be successfull ) and another host said ” Are they(NASL) still playing this late in the year?….still paying players in September,why?…..when no one goes to games this time of year”. …..I guess he really doesn’t keep an eye out on the NASL, sad they have to bash another league thats clearly doing more for the lower level, while the Rhino’s keep losing fans and making excuses. The D3 effect hit Rochester mid 2011 , and the organization turns a blind eye to whats happening, hoping for a USL savior (loaner players and reserve teams from MLS) .

    • I think the point about production value and the weekly highlight shows is big. A random soccer fan who hears about lower division leagues or learned about the leagues during the US Open Cup will be much more likely to watch a 3 minute highlight video than a whole 90 minute game. He can easily find match highlights and a goal of the week countdown from NASL and only a few videos from Orlando City for all of USL-Pro.

      With regard to the length of the season, playing exclusively in the summer reflects how the USL-Pro is becoming more like the PDL while NASL is continuing to consolidate and professionalize.

      Thanks for reading, Frank. I appreciate your comments.

  2. This might have been one of the stupidest articles I’ve ever read. Yes, I know it is from a know name guy with a blog, but the stupidity still bothers me. So from a one game sample size you determined that the NASL plays an amazing brand of soccer that is equivalent to MLS and Europe. You must have been high. I’ve seen at least 20 NASL games, including the one you watched, this year. The standard is what you expect from low level American soccer. Why don’t you watch more games before making a fool out of yourself? You sound like the MLS fan who watches one exciting MLS game and declares it superior to the EPL. Speaking of which, I’ve seen MLS games last week that were better than games in the EPL. By your logic, that means MLS is an amazing world class league that turns out a great product every game. I guess MLS > EPL.

    Let me tell you about the NASL since you seem clueless about. The average club payroll is around 400K. The players on average make around 20k. League Two players make way more. You cannot live on that for the year. So the quality of play is very limited since you cannot spend much on players. You get what you pay for. Players desperate for work. The majority of NASL players already went through MLS and sucked there. That is why they are in the NASL. Do you understand that? So what the hell where you watching? Players who sucked in MLS all of a sudden becoming little Maradonas? Most NASL clubs cannot string four passes together. The idea that you can determine the level of play in NASL based on one game is laughable.

    There is little difference between the NASL and USL-Pro right now. USL-Pro clubs have outplayed NASL clubs in the USOC. Many of the payrolls are similar. Orlando’s is probably higher. Hell, your Rhinos spent more on players than most NASL clubs. The level of play is very similar. And both are light years from MLS which is growing.

    If I were you, I’d take this post down in embarrassment as a so-called soccer fan. .

    • You might want to work on your reading comprehension, bud.

      While this was the first time I sat down to watch a full NASL match this season, I have seen bits and pieces of games and the highlights to every match all year. I’m glad you’ve seen 20 NASL matches, I’m honestly and truly happy for you. If you could actually read, you would have seen me say that NASL does not compete directly with MLS. I mentioned that I watch a lot of soccer from around the world and that within that context NASL is worth watching.

      Thank you for trying to impart your limitless knowledge on me, but salaries don’t matter. The point is that the style of play and the level of competition is exciting in NASL. One of many problems with USL-Pro is that every away team and a good number of home teams, with the exception of Orlando, play a packed defense and try to spring on the counter. This makes for very boring games when individuals on the field don’t have the requisite skill to control a ball on the run or to play pinpoint passes into a teammate’s stride in the first place.

      Depending on your definition of “little” you might not be wrong on that point. There is a difference and it is growing. Those who say otherwise are delusional. Thanks for your advice and the swarm of ad hominem attacks. I’ll really take it to heart. Next time learn to read before spewing verbal vomit on the internet.


      • Sorry, but you truly are an idiot. Do you realize how stupid it is to declare that “that the style of play and the level of competition is exciting in NASL” based on ONE GAME! That is what I cannot believe. You have no clue what you are talking about! How can you judge anything on one game? I am sorry, but the level of play and competition in the NASL is not exciting or amazing. I have seen numerous NASL games since I still follow the league. Most of it is boring American college style soccer. It is what it is. If these players were any good, they would not be in the D2 NASL. We do not have pro/rel or a minor league affiliation system. So players are in the NASL because they are not good enough to produce “exciting” soccer in MLS. Got it?

        I also have to address your “salaries don’t matter” statement. You cannot be that daft. When you have a bunch of 25 year old players making what folks in McDonald’s laugh at on the pitch, they are not going to play the highest level of soccer. You are not going to see pinpoint passes or possession. You are going to see mediocre college trained players who couldn’t hack MLS and poor foreign players looking for scraps. If owners could get the excitement you claim from players making peanuts, they wouldn’t have to pay anyone! MLS will not be as good as the FMF until they up their payrolls to FMF levels. I won’t even bring up the EPL. That doesn’t mean some MLS games are better and more exciting than the EPL. But consistently the league is not as good. And the NASL will continue to be garbage soccer if their payrolls hover around 400k. You get what you pay for.

        i doubt you watch much soccer at all. I also truly doubt you watch MLS. You certainly don’t watch the NASL outside of ONE GAME. If you did, you would see there is a huge difference in level of play between various leagues. You could tell how much of a difference there is between the EPL and MLS. And how great of a difference there is between MLS and the NASL/USL. You would also see there is little difference between the NASL and USL since they use similar low paid American players. I watched a recent game between USL-Pro clubs Wilmington and Richmond that was miles better than anything I have ever seen in the NASL. But notice how I do not proclaim the USL-Pro to be an exciting league on par with what I have seen in MLS and Europe. I would be a fool like you. Most of the USL-Pro games, like the NASL, are low level boring garbage.

        I get it. You are a bitter Rhinos fans who hates how your town doesn’t care about the club now, So now you are kissing the arse of the new girl you hope to romance. But you should the new girl also has plenty of warts. The NASL could easily implode. It is barely surviving now. Traffic still invests in almost half the league. The Cosmos will be gone soon one way or another. If David Downs isn’t careful, he could over-expand and bring the league down. The NASL and USL-Pro have numerous issues. All minor league soccer does. As for the Rhinos, just hope MLS and the USL come to their rumored working affiliation agreement. Then maybe folks might care about you team again.

        I am one of the three people on earth to come across your blog and I am laughing,

        • I’m glad you keep saying the same things without actually reading. This was the first time I sat down to watch the pre-game, whole first half, halftime show, entire second half, and the postgame show. So my sample size for the 2 hour production is 1.

          You don’t need to have the most talented players on a team in order to play exciting soccer. Surely MLS has better players, but NASL can be more entertaining. I said that this one game was more fun to watch that a lot of MLS games I’ve seen. Both teams were attacking and going all out because it was the last home game of the season for Edmonton and a chance for fringe players to make a point to the coach before Fort Lauderdale goes into the playoffs.

          Exciting doesn’t mean better. Those are two different words. I’m sure the schools in Vancouver or Long Island or wherever you grew up must have taught you that.

  3. I’ve watched plenty of NASL games and will definitely say its more of an attacking and skillful league. As Doherty pointed out , it was never intended to say NASL was better then MLS. Personally I think its (NASL) is a better all around brand over USL , and I know many locally that have said the same thing, without reading a blog or bigsoccer forum.
    Having attended numerous Serie b and c (2nd/3rd div Italy) matches, one A-League (down under)….TFC (left early twice it was bad) and RBNY ( sparse crowd for a new stadium)matches, I could say the NASL isn’t the same as those mentioned , however it does offer an exciting and competitive style that I haven’t seen much of in the USL. Orlando and Charleston seem to be the exception though. Hey, its just soccer and is still just a game, and I don’t proclaim to be an expert or soccer forum wizard, just interested to see the US game evolve.

  4. I’m curious as to how both the USL Pro and NASL compare to the lower Euro leagues in terms of quality. Bundesliga 2, French Ligue 2, Serie B, etc.

    I don’t know why this is, but why don’t both leagues (USL PRO and NASL) draft/recruit/sign top level youth players that perhaps haven’t been discovered by a foreign club or picked up by MLS. I would like to think that this represents a better developmental path for players with pro potential in stead of the traditional collegiate soccer experience. After all, this is how the rest of the footballing world operates. Bundesliga youth/reserve teams play in the 3rd tier.
    I think most serious soccer fans would rather watch up-and-coming players than a bunch of retreads and guys who just don’t and will never ‘have it’ to play top division football.

    MLS reserve league only consists of 10 games. That’s not enough to develop the handful of teenage home grown players on their books. (Then again, why doesn’t MLS send these players on loan to NASL/USL teams…for experience?)

    The PDL and NPSL are decent summer opportunities for college players. It’s better than nothing but is still lacking due to the structure. Players need to spend 10 months in a system that allows for both a cohesive, consistent training environment AND competitive matches spread out over a 10 month period.

    The college/PDL option does not allow for this. As for the low player salaries in the minor leagues, 20K is probably above the average amount of scholarship (especially figuring athletic money alone) money a player is awarded in college soccer. 20K is decent money for an 18-20 yr old!

    Granted, it is a ‘tough sell’ to the typical American soccer parent. They view college as a priority. I don’t disagree with that. But you can pursue higher education ANDa pro career simultaneously.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. There are a couple things I can say to perhaps elucidate the situation.

      The traditional American development path (high school, then college, then the draft) makes for a lot of “late-bloomers”. Whereas young players train for hours and hours each week from a young age, the American system meant that players have the ball on their foot less. Simply put, in terms of hours, it takes American players longer to catch up to players from other countries. This means that at 25, an American might not be washed up or a ‘will never have it’ if he is playing for a third division club.

      The reserve league serves a lot of functions, but it isn’t necessarily conducive for development. It’s a nice chance for academy players and trialists to play alongside and against professionals in the team’s tactical system, but it’s not ideal for growing young players. As with any reserve league, it serves two primary functions; first to keep reserve players fit when they do not get regular football with the first team, and second to allow players returning from injury a path to regaining full fitness. Neither of these is necessarily conducive for an 19 year old player trying to fulfill his potential.

      There were a number of loans in from MLS clubs to NASL and USL-Pro (Corey Hertzog, Bright Dike, Conor Shanosky), but not enough in my opinion. Lower division clubs don’t sign up-and-coming players because they don’t have the resources to put development capital into a player. These clubs exist in a volatile environment where teams or leagues could fold after each season and because of this don’t sign players for more than one or two years at a time. Furthermore, these teams don’t stand to make any profit from transfer fees because of these short contracts. If a player wants to move to an MLS team and his contract runs for another year, the USL-Pro club often lets him leave because there are “release clauses” written into the contract if a team from Europe or MLS approaches the player. And lastly, the lower division teams don’t have great training facilities or medical teams.

      I’ve written before about creating a u21 or u22 league similar to the Development Academy in structure with 60+ teams playing in regional divisions. I think that’s the next step in the player development process and would provide a conducive environment for player growth to properly bridge the gap from Academy stand-out to MLS rookie.

      Maybe that helps, but this is a conversation I’d always love to delve deeper into.

  5. I get what you’re saying. Even the EPL’s reserve league is now mostly a u21 league. There is also a youth club competition in Europe called Next Gen Series.

    But what would a national amateur youth league do to college soccer here? Or should I say the ‘college soccer mindset’. To me, college soccer either needs to reform or gotten rid of altogether.

    We don’t have a true soccer pyramid in this country. The talent pool is highly diluted (college soccer) with too many competing interests. And of course, no promotion/relegation.

    In any case, I don’t think a player’s fate can be decided at the age of 18.

    Until we strt adhering to the global standard, we will continue to get the same results.

    I’m not sold on the DA thing either. That is just a continuation of the club soccer system. Just because the USSF sanctions it…doesn’t mean we are truly developing players. I’d rather see a regional Clairefontane (France) type of setup. Players are identified and brough tinto residency. USSF could make money off of transfer fees.

    • A national amateur league could very well follow the Development Academy League with regard to scholastic competition. Players who want to play high school ball will still do so despite growth of the DA, and the same would be true of any new national u22 (or 21, or 23) league.

      Certainly players should not be permanently separated between professional development track and a future of recreational soccer while they are still young. But this raises another conflict. If this country does something about consolidating the alphabet soups of leagues and organizations that exist at every level of soccer, then what happens to the players that develop late or fall through the cracks or were employed at the wrong position by a second-rate coach.

      I wrote this about a month and a half ago:

      The Chicago Fire have a rather redundant youth system with u-12, u-13, u-14, u-15, u-16, and u-17 in the Super Y-League, the u-15/16 and u-17/18 divisions of the Development Academy, the Super-20 League, the National Premier Soccer League, USL’s Premier Development League, and a team in the MLS Reserve League in addition to youth academy satellites in other states (Indiana, Florida, Michigan, Louisiana, and Mississippi).

      Some players may be good enough for the u-16 team in the Super Y-League but not the u-15/16 team in the Development Academy. Some players may have aged out of the Development Academy but aren’t yet good enough for the NPSL team (and there is a case for late-bloomers). However, at some point this conglomeration of youth teams creates an inefficient overlap for clubs without the financial resources of the Chicago Fire.

      And that presents another side of this issue; the finances. It would be great if the U.S. could have regionalized residency programs, but I think the money just isn’t there. Surely if you produce players that other clubs want you can sell them for a profit, but there needs to be an initial investment. Bayern Munich spends a huge amount of money to maintain and build one of the world’s best development academies, but even the Bavarians are struggling to recoup that expense.

      The pay to play system of club soccer in the U.S. needs to change and is a less drastic move than establishing residency programs (but perhaps a step in that direction). Development is very clearly not perfect, but I think the structures are improving and progress will show soon enough.

      • If the DA is going to be the primary development path for the elite players, then it has to be more geographically diverse. Right now, they are concentrated in the largest markets.
        I live 200+ miles from the nearest DA member club. It’s not a question of whether my 14 yr old son is ‘good enough’. It’s a question of logistics.

        I think it is also important to realize that defenders take longer to develop than the creative, attacking players. (Who tend to break through earlier.)

        Whether it is the MLS academies or other DA clubs, some type of ‘residency’ setup for out of area players is in order.

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