Sources have confirmed to FiftyFive.One that the four markets that have emerged as front-runners for expansion sides are Chicago, Detroit, Orange County, Calif., and San Diego. Each provides a unique opportunity for the NASL, with fresh ownership groups across the board. While interim commissioner Rishi Seghal referred them as “only four of the markets we’re looking at,” sources are confident that the four are at the top of the league’s wishlist.
Seghal did confirm that the Fort Lauderdale Strikers would not participate at any point during the 2017 campaign. While the club wasn’t a part of the eight-team lineup in the league’s recent announcement regarding the coming season, there was lingering hope that the Strikers could still take the field for the NASL’s Fall Season. However, a delay in a PSG Academy-led purchase made fielding a team this year nearly impossible.
Talk of expansion was a staple of previous NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson’s tenure. In repeated public statements, Peterson offered grand projections of the league’s plans for growth. Most notably, he told SI’s Brian Straus the following in response to Ottawa and Tampa Bay’s then-impending exits:
“We’ve never had more serious conversations happening than we do right now, in more cities than we do right now,” Peterson said regarding expansion. “We’ve probably been in a process with maybe 40 groups. These are all people that have the wherewithal to do it. You start down through the process, depending on the group, depending on the city, can take as little as three to four months or as long as 18 months to complete.”
Sehgal has used a much less grandiose tone toward the league’s trajectory of expansion, and has assured assured FiftyFive.One that there is measured vetting and caution being deployed at last. Using these four markets as examples, it is clear that the NASL is starting to turn the corner.
Chicago and Detroit are two of the country’s traditional sports markets. From their strong local support to their gradual timeline for entry, their bids almost go hand in hand.
Chicago’s NASL aspirations have been long publicized. Former Indy Eleven president Peter Wilt joined the bid to launch Chicago’s NASL project in January, 2016. “It’s a big market,” Sehgal attested. However, he was willing to temper the assumption that Chicago is a sure thing for 2018. “Peter’s certainly made his efforts in Chicago very public. There’s another professional team in the market. We won’t make a rash decision about going into any or all of these markets. What we do know is that we’ll grow — we have to.”
Detroit, meanwhile, has been a rumored target since 2015, when a group from the Motor City presented to the NASL Board of Governors alongside groups from San Francisco and Oklahoma City. FiftyFive.One has been able to confirm that the recent bid from Detroit has not come from NPSL side Detroit City FC. “I can’t really comment on who the group would be,” per Sehgal. “I can say that Detroit is a market that we’ve been interested in for a long time.”
“Personally, I have a vested interest in Detroit, having grown up in Toledo. We’re all aware about the excitement that Detroit City FC is bringing. I went to one of their games as a fan two years ago and it was amazing. The success they’ve had building a crowd and a community, and the improvements to their stadium, speaks to the strength of their project. Whether they’re a group that comes in or it’d be a different group isn’t something I can comment on.”
San Francisco will be joining the fold in 2017, looking to be competitive from day one. However, they may have counterparts in the Golden State as soon as next year.
Last week, Demba Ba declared that he and Eden Hazard are part of a San Diego expansion project. In his interview with Eric Wynalda on Sirius XM, Ba remarked, “We are close to finalizing the license. We are working with Club Nine sports and have [correspondence moving forward with the process] from the NASL. We are very close to finalizing the team in San Diego, which will be something big.”
Sehgal was very encouraged by talks with the current and former Chelsea players. “Demba and Eden are definitely part of a prospective group. I’m not in a position to discuss the breakdown of the group, but they’re part of it. I can tell you it’s very exciting for us to have players looking at the league. Their philosophy is to replicate the European experience, and they see NASL as a way to do that.”
As for Orange County, the league would be stepping into a market that already boasts a USL side. Unlike last year’s debacle in Oklahoma City, Orange County Blues is a USL affiliate for the upcoming MLS expansion team Los Angeles FC, whereas OKC Energy FC — which shared a market with Rayo OKC last season — is an unaffiliated USL club. This makes the market easier to navigate for the NASL from Sehgal’s perspective.
“We have not spoken with the Blues,” he affirmed. “They’ve reached out in the past to us, maybe four years ago. They would not be the group. If we go to Orange County, we’d be working with a different group.”
Recent NASL expansions have been very hit and miss. The Rayo Vallecano-led project in Oklahoma City was a disaster, with temporary ownership being installed with two months left in the club’s inaugural season, and the parent club having very little interest in its NASL side. Meanwhile, Jacksonville Armada are close to finalizing new ownership, but the club will remain league operated which would take over in late 2017.
Sehgal pointed to a more cautious approach to growing the league. “With the new process, we won’t make a rash decision on going into any market. We don’t want to be an eight-team league. Fans don’t want to see us at eight teams. US Soccer certainly doesn’t want us to be at eight teams…”
“We want more familiarity between our partners. It’ll be more rigorous than it’s ever been in the past, and it’ll be a little uncomfortable for expansion groups. It’ll be comfortable for everyone on the other side. Once a group comes in, I think they’ll be very thankful that we did the diligence to know their partners are going to be there for the future and not just for the short-term.”