The Angle

Poku and the Age of Panic in the NASL

by on 7 July 2016

Kwadwo Poku’s $700k transfer to Miami FC (on the heels of their $750k signing of Richie Ryan) has caused a frenzy of weeping and gnashing of teeth. But is it a sign of NASL growth or the soccer-pocalypse?*

I have a new favorite past-time. Whenever I’m chatting with a player, coach, or anyone else professionally involved with the NASL, I ask a one word question: “Poku?”

Poku is the new Ibarra. Miguel Ibarra’s surprise call-up to the USMNT in 2014 while playing for Minnesota United ignited a firestorm of debate about MLS, NASL, and just where the latter fits in the American soccer landscape. The questions, then, were about player development: about Portland passing on a prospect, MLS not wanting to pay for top NASL talent, and whether NASL is better than it’s given credit for.

If Ibarra inspired debates of NASL’s value, Poku has turned us upon a more existential path. For some, the expensive outlay on a young talent by a second-division side is a sign of health; Miami FC are ushering in an era of real clubs paying good money for talented players. For others, Poku’s signing is one of the seven seals of the apocalypse. The answer, as you might suspect, is likely somewhere in between. But I want to argue that it isn’t the crazy spending over players that is so worrisome in NASL, it’s the profound lack of coordination or coherent plan to succeed.

NASL Signings in the Current Soccer Pyramid

Ryan and Poku, in particular, represent two types of precious commodities in the NASL: the difference-making veteran and the genius-talent.

Take money out of it: Richie Ryan, Michael Lahoud, Gabriel Farfan, and Poku are smart NASL signings (though, we should admit, they fail to address Miami’s anemic forward line and delicate backline). Ryan and Poku, in particular, represent two types of precious commodities in the NASL: the difference-making veteran and the genius-talent. In 2015, Richie Ryan anchored the remarkable Ottawa Fury side that bulldozed their way to the Soccer Bowl Final, eventually losing to the New York Cosmos. Ryan performs his duties like an imperious butler: he cleans up the opposition’s attack and distributes the ball politely.

Poku is quite different. He is an exciting, young talent who counter-balances flashes of brilliance with a lackadaisical aloofness to silly trifles such as “working off the ball” or “defending.” When genius crops up in the NASL, it is always tempered with an Achilles Heel: age, a limited toolbox or a Calvinist predestination for giving up howlers.

That Ryan and Poku are such good signings tells you a lot about the league’s current situation for acquisitions. NASL teams want to get better, not just better than their weekly opposition, but they want to catch up to MLS. Yet as these clubs navigate the transfer market, they sail between MLS’s Scylla and USL’s Charybdis. The former will be obvious: MLS is not only getting better, but paying even its squad players more. A couple years ago clubs in NASL were able to snap up the Hunter Freemans, Matt Pickenses, and Adam Moffetts of this world quite easily. The more recent crop of players to decamp MLS to NASL tend to be much more flawed. Take Rayo OKC’s surprising haul of MLS talent: Michel, Robbie Findley, and Sebastian Velasquez. All of these players have a certain level of talent, but they are much bigger gambles.

The USL has expanded from 13 teams in 2013 to its current crop of 29. This means that around 400 roster spots have opened up in the USL alone.

But the real squeeze on NASL has come from below. The USL has expanded from 13 teams in 2013 to its current crop of 29. This means that around 400 roster spots have opened up in the USL alone. While salaries remain well below the NASL, the third division guarantees players that they are playing in front of MLS scouts. Young players are much more likely to be discovered by MLS teams playing in USL and so of them will choose smaller salaries in hopes of moving up. In addition, MLS teams can take more chances on prospects with the USL. Minnesota United’s Justin Davis, Kevin Venegas, and Miguel Ibarra all came to the team because they were drafted by teams that didn’t have the roster space for development. With MLS retaining more solid squad players and USL acting as the new garden for youth development, spare a sympathetic thought for the poor NASL manager.

NASL, then, has a supply problem and it should surprise no one that the prices are going up, nor that clubs would turn inward. Miami FC are only the latest club to cannibalize its competitors. Since Bill McGuire took over Minnesota United, they have simply printed out the NASL Best XI, scratched out the title and replaced it with “shopping list.” Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale have developed a border so porous that Nigel Farage has called for a Str[ikers’]exit. Whether or not the strategy works (it has rarely worked for the Loons), Miami FC can’t be faulted for looking around at the proven NASL talent. Those solid players who have achieved success have become hot commodities (as evidenced by Tampa Bay throwing money at Tommy Heinemann).

Panic in NASL

The fact remains that Miami FC have splashed almost $2 million on a few midfielders. That sum is more than the entire wage budgets of a few clubs in the league.

But the NASL also has a demand problem. At the same moment that the league is seeing its natural player pool chipped away from above and below, it is also under an increasing, self-imposed pressure to deliver a better product on the field. So, you can’t take the money out of the equation. The fact remains that Miami FC have splashed almost $2 million on a few midfielders. That sum is more than the entire wage budgets of a few clubs in the league. More importantly, $500k a year is a salary previously only seen in the league for the likes of Marcos Senna or Raul. And Poku, Mr. Senator, is no Marcos Senna.

Poku and Ryan are panic buys at panic prices. One can’t help but think of the Rowdies’ owner Bill Edwards words when he fired Farrukh Quraishi and Thomas Rongen despite still being in the playoff places. “I have a one year plan,” he said at the time. A former Rowdies player recently described the period after that comment as the most toxic he had ever seen a locker room. Panic is contagious and the more Miami panics, the more the existing players will become demoralized.

When I pose my one word “Poku?” question to people around the league, some will immediately point to the remarkably disparity it reveals between the haves and the have-nots. I asked a few players from around the league if they think recent events will mean higher wages for mid-level players. They responded by pointing out that most clubs are still on nine-month contracts for salaries and housing. Meaning: in between seasons players are scrambling for short-term jobs and housing. There are also clubs, they point out, where players don’t get health insurance.

Sustainability

But is it sustainable? This question keeps popping up and it is misleading because it overlooks the reality that professional soccer in the U.S. and Canada is almost always a guaranteed losing proposition. Only a handful of clubs throughout the soccer pyramid are in the black. So, on the one hand, of course it is unsustainable since almost all professional soccer is unsustainable. On the other hand, the USSF has put in place rules to make sure its clubs are owned by people who can afford to lose millions of dollars every year.

At best, you’re creating a league without any sense of parity. At worst, every potential owner walks away from the NASL, driven off by the Caligula-esque orgy of spending.

Miami FC’s owner, Riccardo Silva, recently sold a majority of his company MP & Silva company that was valued at $1.4 billion. Losing a little money on Poku and Ryan is completely sustainable for him. He can continue to lose a few million for decades to come. There are just one problem with this notion of “sustainability”: not every club in the NASL is going to be owned by a billionaire who lights money on fire for the pleasure of his miniature giraffes. At best, you’re creating a league without any sense of parity. At worst, every potential owner walks away from the NASL, driven off by the Caligula-esque orgy of spending.

Let’s also pause briefly to dispel the profoundly lazy “Isn’t this how the Cosmos killed the NASL the first time?” comments that have inevitably followed these signings. First, take a brief look at the Colorado Caribous and tell me straight-faced that too much spending in New York caused that team to fail. Second, the current iteration of NASL has gone through ebbs and flows of teams that will “splash cash” and those that serve hardtack and porridge for team meals. Teams that spend one year learn their lesson and often temper their approach the next. Even the Cosmos have been far more strategic and modest compared to their first couple of years.

When people ask if Miami is sustainable, what they are really asking is “when will Silva get bored?” Miami averaged 3,764 fans in the spring season (including a home opener with 10k and a match played in a minor hurricane with hundreds). That, quite simply is not good enough for a team that wants to be the Cosmos of the south (I’m just going to skip the Cosmos attendance joke, too easy). But the question of boredom is a product of the NASL’s recent pivot toward the international market. The league has turned to foreign investors (and to the foreign media, too, while we’re on the subject) with the pitch of “real football”: control your club’s destiny! Promotion and relegation (maybe, we’re not clear on the details)!

This strategy produces far more tenuous relationships between the owners and the cities. Certainly home-town owners can get tired of losing money and walk away, but there is a sense with some of these new clubs that these foreign owners make the clubs far more ephemeral. Their distance from American soccer also results in a group of new owners who don’t seem quite prepared for the realities of the soccer landscape where they set up shop. Perhaps the most telling sign is that high-level discussions continue around the league over the idea of a closed promotion and relegation system, perhaps with NPSL or with 40 NASL clubs. This is the equivalent of a teenager depositing her first Dairy Queen paycheck and asking with which hedge fund manager she should be meeting.

The Future

Silva’s expensive outlay is less lavish and more disproportionate both to their likely revenue and to their competitors. It is not, in and of itself, an outrageous thing. Plenty of MLS teams have spent far beyond what they could possibly be bringing in as a gamble that this will then pay off either in increased ticket or merchandise sales. The entire system of USSF (to say nothing of the debt in La Liga or the EPL) is set up on a similar gamble of “If you spend it, they will come (and spend too).”

The central problem is that the NASL has not provided a vision of the future that includes a gamble outsiders can believe in. Remember David Downs’s vision of the NASL: a second division that takes over markets without regard to the rest of the country. A team in Minnesota, he said, is still the top level of professional soccer around; sell your fans on that. This humble strategy means a lower ceiling of attendance; it means frustrating the mega-billionaires who want more than just a minor-league team. Bill Peterson’s vision (heavily influenced by the Cosmos’s entrance into the league) is one that  is not content to stay “minor league.” It is bullish to the point of periodic delusion; how can you talk about division one standards when you’re struggling at times to meet division two standards?

The path to sustainability is completely tied up in facilities. No team can approach sustainability without controlling its revenue and the only way to do this is to own one’s own stadium.

And this is where I come to my final point. The path to sustainability is completely tied up in facilities. No team can approach sustainability without controlling its revenue and the only way to do this is to own one’s own stadium. How do stadiums get built? Even without public subsidies, teams need to negotiate with local and state governments. And those negotiations can’t get off the ground when they’re run by foreign owners with no local political ties who are selling politicians on a league they’ve never heard of that doesn’t provide a realistic path toward sustainability.

I want to close then in this ambivalent space where most NASL fans live. Miami FC and the Cosmos have decided that the best way toward sustainability is a big gamble up front: spend money, get credibility, and parlay that credibility into a longer-term solution (like a stadium). It’s a big gamble and, in Miami’s case, one that is far more likely to fail, but can you blame them?

This isn’t about Poku or Ryan or any other signing. All this panic over crazy spending comes from the league’s remarkable lack of coherent vision. The league will trumpet it’s laissez-faire utopia of a league without salary caps or anyone telling you how to run your business. Peterson will ruminate over promotion and relegation or Division One status. But 1,800 people showed up for the closest geographic derby in the league: Miami FC v Fort Lauderdale Strikers. A good talent like Poku is not going to fix that problem; Miami FC can fill their team with moneyed stars and that isn’t going to secure their future. And that’s the central problem we’re faced with when we see money scattered about on players like Poku: what’s it all for?

 

* I published an early germ of these ideas on the “New NASL Landscape” after Richie Ryan’s signing, but the article did not survive our move from Northern Pitch to FiftyFive.One.

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