All who know me know that the original North American Soccer League holds a special place in my heart. It’s why I played soccer in high school, why posters of Pelé and Kyle Rote Jr. once hung on the walls of my bedroom, and why the Beautiful Game became one of my greatest sports passions.
I don’t care that it was built from the top down, nor do I care that it was a retirement league – show me a photo of the New York Cosmos packing Giants Stadium, George Best and Elton John “practicing” together, or the gloriously tacky fringe jerseys sported by the Caribous of Colorado – and those pictures paint a thousand words and revive hundreds of memories.
The old NASL breathed its last in 1984, however, and since then much has happened to and with association football in the United States. America’s closed system currently features Major League Soccer at the top, the United Soccer League Championship a notch below, and USL League One and the National Independent Soccer Association serving as de facto Division III leagues. There are also many semi-pro and amateur loops scattered across the country. As to which of the above are the best to follow, well, every soccer supporter has an opinion. But that, as the Kermit the Frog internet meme suggests, is none of my business.
I’ve got to tell you, though, when it comes to men’s leagues I now find myself firmly in the NISA camp. It has nothing at all in common with the old NASL other than a Cosmos-branded club, but I like its style and the renegade vibe it gives off. And my attraction to it isn’t so much for what it is, but what it might become.
NISA features my longtime favorite side, the Cosmos, so it has built-in appeal to me. Add Chattanooga FC (a club I bought into) and Detroit City FC (architects of a culture we should all buy into) to the mix, and I’m fully on board.
Chicago enters the league next fall, with NISA co-founder Peter Wilt helping spearhead the effort. Wilt left the organization to do his voodoo in USL League One, but now he’s back where he started. Wilt is a true soccer guy who loves the game and will undoubtedly help the Chicagoland entry become a quick success.
(Currently you can go to chicagonisa.com and make suggestions for names and colors. I didn’t take part in the survey because that’s for Windy City folk to decide, but if you’re asking me I like “Speakeasy FC.”)
Although the situation is fluid, other clubs slated to compete in 2021 include California (Irvine) United Strikers FC, Los Angeles Force, Maryland (Montgomery County) Bobcats, Michigan (Pontiac) Stars, New Amsterdam FC and New Jersey (Bayonne) Teamsters FC.
NISA has no territorial rights so any group who wants to put down roots can put them down anywhere they think they’ll grow. New York, New Amsterdam and New Jersey form a nice little cluster in the Northeast, and Rochester applied for membership on Thursday. One would assume if NISA hangs around long enough, big market metros will provide a big tent for multiple clubs in the future while leaving plenty of room for smaller cities.
And with the addition of NISA Nation – a full-year amateur consortium for clubs eying a transition to pro soccer – there’s an open invitation to the party. Currently the Gulf Coast Premier League, Midwest Premier League, and Eastern Premier Soccer League are affiliates but there are likely more to come. Maryland, for example, parlayed EPSL membership into a spot in NISA and will begin play next spring.
As expected, there have been plenty of fits and starts. It was formed in June of 2017 but co-founder Jack Cummins died eight months later, and in May of 2018 Wilt left to start Forward Madison FC in League One. NISA went mostly radio silent for a while and when it did reemerge it took a hit when Miami FC – a founding member – bolted to the USL Championship. And the Oakland Roots were one and done this year, also jumping to the second division. Both clubs had the opportunity to move up a level, and they took it.
And whether it’s money, the COVID-19 pandemic or other circumstances, some clubs have appeared and disappeared (Atlanta SC), while others have gone on “hiatus” (North Carolina’s Stumptown Athletic and San Diego 1904).
Yet despite such challenges NISA has plans to step up – eventually – and wants to ultimately develop a promotion/relegation system. Meanwhile they’re trying to expand their footprint while maintaining a community-based sensibility.
Finding success – real, long term success – will not be easy, though. The United States Soccer Federation and MLS are joined at the hip, so it’ll be hard for NISA to make friends in high places. And since it’s trying to connect so many amateur leagues, the ruling class might think it’s getting too big for its bridges.
Still, I like its inclusiveness and willingness to provide chances for any soccer dreamers who want to take them. And for whatever reason, it’s revived a spark in my fandom.
I’m pretty sure I won’t see fringe on kits – and I’m way too old to have posters on my bedroom wall – but the National Independent Soccer Association is bringing me full circle. After becoming a fan thanks to a league that overreached, maybe now I need an underdog to help me turn back the clock.