by Neil Morris
However, the information in the latter half of the release generated the most attention and social media firestorm. The league also announced that its Board of Governors voted unanimously during its meetings in Dallas, Texas last week to retain the split regular season format instituted this year for 2014 also, but will instead adjust to a 10-game Spring Season followed by a 20-game Fall Season. Moreover, the winner of the 10-game Spring Season will host the annual Soccer Bowl championship in November against the 20-game Fall Season champion.
The reaction from a large proportion of fans and media was swift and critical. There's the continuing cadre of those skeptical of the split season format in general. But, the latest and most pointed criticism centers around awarding a Soccer Bowl berth and hosting rights to a team only required to accumulate the most points over the first third of the entire regular season, while the visiting Soccer Bowl opponent must accomplish the more arduous task of winning the most points over a two-third span of the season.
Sports Illustrated soccer writer Brian Straus makes the observation that, under this new format, a heightened possibility exists that the 2014 Soccer Bowl will be hosted by a team with a losing record. Of course, that possibility exists to a lesser degree under this year’s split season format, as well. Moreover, under the playoff scheme formerly employed in Second Division U.S. soccer, clubs with losing regular season records ended up being crowned league champions in 2010 (Puerto Rico Islanders) and 2011 (NSC Minnesota Stars).
In an interview with Triangle Offense on Saturday, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson said the format ultimately approved for the 2014 NASL season was the best solution that met three basic pillars.
“One, we want to maintain the integrity of the structure we have now, meaning Spring Season and Fall Season,” Peterson explained. “Two, we want to honor the World Cup by not playing during that period of time. Three, we want to have a balanced schedule … Balanced meaning the teams play each other the same amount of times [each season].”
Given those parameters, Peterson said the other practical consideration that affects the starting date for any Spring Season is weather for the league’s northernmost clubs. In essence, season start dates in February or even March aren’t feasible.
“We basically have a window to play that begins on April 1 and ends around the first or second week of November,” Peterson said. “Anything outside of that window begins to be real sketchy up north … You start getting outside those windows and you’re really risking the reputation of the game. And if you try to squeeze too many games in that window, then you play a whole bunch of midweek games, which I don’t think we want to play too many of those.”
Essentially, that affords the league a 10-week window before the start of World Cup competition. From there, it became a process evaluating any and all possible format.
“We had rooms full of schedules and conferences and playoffs,” Peterson said. “We went everywhere with this. Some of them were just bad ideas. But then we sat down with the teams and some of the coaches and narrowed it down to two real options. Then everyone looked it and went, ‘This makes sense.’
For Peterson, the ultimate choice is also the one that provides the most structural consistency between this season and next.
“If you play with 11 teams next year and you’re going to play a split schedule and you want a balanced schedule, then you only have 10 weeks [for the Spring Season],” Peterson continued. “You have to play 10 and 20 [games]. With the World Cup, we can get a 10-week schedule in, take the month off, and then do a 20-game schedule. By the time we get to 2015, we’re out of this strange place of 11 teams.”
Once the split season was determined to be the most viable option, Peterson said rewarding the Spring champion with the right to host the Soccer Bowl—the same rule as this season—was again the logical choice from the perspective of providing enough lead time to effectively plan and market the game. Still, Peterson heard the criticism that, instead, hosting rights should go to the 20-game Fall Season champion.
“And then you have two weeks to organize it, and it’s a dud game,” Peterson responded. “So, you win the spring, you host the Soccer Bowl. Great. It’s going to be a nail-biter next spring. It’s going to be as exciting as anyone has ever seen.”
While the possibility of midweek games exists given the compressed 10-week Spring Season, Peterson said scheduling will take both the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and Amway Canadian Championship midweek competitions into account, along with Mother Nature.
“We’re going to do a little bit better job than we have this year to help the Canadian teams. We’ve got the Amway dates already, and we’ve also got to keep them out of the north. It gets kind of tricky keeping them out of the north for the first couple of weeks of the season, but yet they’ve got to play Amway. Last year, I don’t think we paid enough attention to it. We have to be a little bit smarter, I hope, when we put the schedule together.”
Peterson said the other option debated at length was dividing the league into conferences. Hypothetically, clubs would play members of their own conference twice and teams in the other conference once. The conferences winners could play each other to determine the Spring and Fall Season champions, and the two champions would face each other in the Soccer Bowl.
“It wasn’t like it was dismissed,” Peterson explained. “We went long and hard on this stuff. But, it’s not what we want to do at this point. We want to stay single table.”
Peterson also forecasted the NASL’s regular season format beyond 2014. Last week, the league voted to approve expansion franchises in Jacksonville, Fla. and Oklahoma City beginning the 2015 season. Added to the 11 teams anticipated to compete in 2014, that would increase the league total to 13 teams. Peterson said his actual intent is for 14 teams to compete during the 2015 season, with the additional club being another yet-to-announced expansion franchise or perhaps a revamped Puerto Rico Islanders.
According to Peterson, a 14-team NASL will likely yield a 13 game spring season and 13 game fall season, with each team playing every other team once per season.
“So, it’s interesting—if you look at how many home games you’re going to get in 2014, you’re actually going to get 15 home games,” Peterson observed. “And when you get to 14 teams, you drop back to 13 home games. And then when you’re at 16 teams you’re at 15 home games. And by the way, 16 teams is when we have to re-evaluate the structure. We’re good up through 16 teams, then you’re jamming those windows again.”
That re-evaluation is when a format that include conferences and some sort of playoff might emerge, but not before.
“With the amount of teams we have right now, if we put four teams in a playoff [each split season], then we’ve just burned up two weeks in each season for only four teams getting to play,” Peterson explained. “When we get to 17 or 18 teams, I believe it’ll be a conference schedule, and that’s when you’re going to introduce playoffs because you’re going to want to have those to determine who wins the season. But, it’ll be a limited thing—it’s not going to be like these other leagues where everybody gets in the playoffs. That’s just ridiculous.”
In the meantime, Peterson is quite cognizant of the criticism and concerns roiling among some supporters over the 2014 regular season format. And, he remains resolute in the league’s decision.
“They’re fans—they’re supposed to be fanatical, and they got fanatical over this,” Peterson said. “But you have to think through, what are the things that fans told us up front? ‘We want this to look more like it does in the rest of the world..’ Well, we have a single table, although we’re not going to play single season with this amount of teams, it doesn’t make sense. ‘We don’t want you playing during the World Cup—that’s disrespectful.’ Well, we’re not going to do that. ‘You’ve gotta have a balanced schedule, you can’t have an unbalanced schedule.’ OK, we’ve got that. ‘We don’t want playoffs.’ OK, we don’t have playoffs. We’ve answered everything they’ve asked for, and none of them stepped back and went, ‘Why did these guys do this? Because, they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. But, why did they do it?’”