The North American Soccer League season is now over, but boy, did it end with a bang. The title match between the New York Cosmos and Ottawa Fury FC had a bit of everything. There were five goals in total, four of them late. Gaston Cellerino had a hat trick. Tom Heinemann had a brace. There were talking points with the referee, including a clear penalty not given, a goal questionably waved off, and a red card decision that infuriated the away fans.
For all of the excitement on the pitch, however, I can't help but feel that the match could have been even better. Ottawa were forced to play without one of their best players, Julian de Guzman, due to some poor planning by the NASL. The league decided to schedule the final during a FIFA international break, a baffling decision that had the potential to leave clubs missing star players for the biggest match of the season. In this case, it did just that, and I'm sure many Fury fans were left wondering 'what if'.
Meanwhile, the Cosmos dodged a bit of a bullet in that regard, as the club and Andres Flores both agreed that the player would remain with his employer during the break, as opposed to joining up with his international teammates in Mexico. One has to wonder if Flores regrets that decision now, however, as he went unused on Sunday evening, and El Salvador were trounced by Mexico, 3-0. I'm certain that Andres would have enjoyed playing at Azteca, and it's easy to wonder if he made the right decision given that he didn't get into the title decider.
When NASL commissioner Bill Peterson compares MLS and the NASL, he loves to point out that his league operates more like the rest of the world than MLS, which often does its own thing, and has very little in common with most of the global soccer world. In this instance, however, Peterson should note that it's the NASL, as opposed to MLS, who are doing things very differently than the rest of the world. The Soccer Bowl didn't have any competition from MLS on Sunday, as Don Garber and MLS took the weekend off, something that leagues around the world also did.
In some ways, this might have worked to the benefit of the NASL. Soccer fans were surely itching for matches to watch, as both MLS and European soccer have had a lengthy break already. What better way to get eyeballs on the most storied name in American soccer than to play the match when people can watch, without deciding between the Cosmos/Fury title decider and an MLS playoff match? Add in the impending retirement of both Raul and Marcos Senna, and there was certainly enough of a story to draw neutral eyeballs, including many that don't care for the league, or just haven't tuned in to watch before.
For myself, however, this potential uptick in eyeballs probably wasn't worth playing through the international break, as it didn't allow both clubs to field their best squads. This late in the calendar year, the NASL ought to be able to schedule around the MLS playoffs should they choose to do so, as there are only two MLS matches per weekend at this point of the season.
Fortunately, there's little reason to believe that the league won't change things going forward, as expansion is probably going to force changes to the NASL schedule anyway. We could see as many as 14 teams playing in the 2016 spring season, and it's certainly possible that this number could increase for the fall, as well. How the league decides to deal with this expansion will be one of the interesting talking points for the winter, but it's likely that we'll see an expanded regular season, which gives Peterson and the league office a perfect opportunity to move the NASL playoffs back a few weeks.
Regardless of how the league sets up the 2016 schedule, however, they really need to avoid scheduling playoff matches during international breaks going forward, even if it simply means a break between the regular season and the playoffs, or even a two week break before the final. Julian de Guzman's absence took away from the spectacle of last night's match, and it's a sad situation that never should have been allowed to happen in the first place. If we're going to be the American soccer league operating more like the rest of the world, we really have to observe the FIFA calendar, and not schedule our biggest matches during World Cup Qualifiers.